The Changing Position of Women


What Evidence is there for a Change in Ideas about Women between the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods?

            Ideas about women in the Medieval period were very different to ideas about women in the Early Modern period with this change largely being due to the religious upheavals that were taking place all over Europe, known as the Reformation. This essay will look at the era of 1100 – 1800 and how ideas about women changed and evolved in this period. The key themes that will be explored are women’s education and writing, looking at writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Christine de Pizan (1363 – 1430) to try and understand why ideas about them changed and how much. Other themes are marriage, looking at the influence of the Church in them, and an early developing form of feminism which many of these writers could be considered as being a part of. This essay will argue that ideas about women did change, but it can be debated as to whether or not things actually improved or declined, as marriage laws got harsher rather than better. There is one main problem with this broad debate – the changes definitely were not universal and affected different parts of Europe in different ways with a divide between north and south.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler's Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.

The differences between Medieval and Early Modern marriage look to be minimal at first sight, but they are actually very different. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the Church began to take responsibility for marriage which may have been because the Church was gaining more power and becoming more important in European affairs.[1] So, at least in the very early Medieval period, marriage was not sanctioned by the Church, but by the middle of the twelfth century, Church courts settled marriages, the consequences and the validity of such whereas in earlier centuries the Church attempted to influence courts who had the final say on marriages.[2] By the Early Modern period, the Church had control over most areas of everyday life, at least in Catholic countries. Continue reading “The Changing Position of Women”

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