'A worthy womman al hir lyve’

'A worthy womman al hir lyve’

Chaucer’s description of the Wife of Bath could be applied to many women in medieval times. Elizabeth Norton brings them out of the shadows of their husbands

Elizabeth Norton, Historian specialising in the medieval and Tudor periods

Elizabeth Norton

Historian specialising in the medieval and Tudor periods

Medieval society recognised three stages in the life of a woman: maiden, wife and widow. Women of any social class make few appearances in historical sources of the period and society was dominated by men. It can be difficult to identify female ancestors, but some were able to subvert the limits placed on their lives to do remarkable things. Other women flourished in a domestic setting and, while historically they left little mark, were remembered fondly by their kin and helped shape their family’s actions.

This 1498 illustration shows women rushing to the aid of another who has fallen on ice

The medieval period was a long one, beginning with the fall of Rome in 476 and ending at the close of the 15th century with the discovery of America and, in England, with the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty in 1485. Apart from the very highest ranks of society, there are few sources surviving for the lives of women before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Ecgwyna, a beautiful shepherdess who captured the heart of King Edward the Elder, is the exception rather than the rule.

Anglo-Saxon society was highly stratified, with slaves at the bottom and the royal family at the top. Surviving wills, some of which were written by high status women, show that they could live comfortable lives, with rich items of clothing, jewellery and a household of slaves to attend them. Women could also have a voice in pre-Conquest society. The 10th century queen, Elfrida, for example, gave testimony in a legal case in support of a kinswoman who faced losing her land.

It is post-1066 that the lives of women truly fascinate. Women had limited status in society compared to men, something which means that they can be less visible. In the later medieval period, after the adoption of surnames, women took their husband’s name on marriage, something which can make their own families difficult to identify. This can be more easily achieved for higher status women, where pride in their lineage often led to it being identified on tomb memorials and in other documents. Isabel Cheyne, for example, who died in 1485, is commemorated in a memorial brass at Blicking Church in Norfolk, although her husband, Sir William Cheyne, was a gentleman of the Isle of Sheppey. She was buried at Blickling due to the fact that she was the daughter of the lord of the manor there, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn.

Isabel Cheyne
A memorial brass in Blickling, Norfolk, depicting Isabel Cheyne

There were also some exceptions to the convention that a woman took her husband’s name. A lady of royal blood maintained her royal status, regardless of whom she married, something which benefited Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, who remained a queen even after she took a lowly member of her household as her second husband. In the early 12th century, Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, who was the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, continued to use the title of Empress after her marriage to the Count of Anjou.

This rule also applied lower down the social scale, where women married men of inferior rank. Isabel Stanley of Pipe, who married Sir Hugh Peshall of Knightley in the late 15th century, continued to call herself Dame Isabel Peshall when she married a merchant, John Russhe – a man socially below her first husband. She changed her name to Dame Isabel Grey on marriage to a third husband, who was a knight like her first husband, before reverting to her prominent first husband’s surname when she was widowed for a third time. Such a convention worked to women’s advantage.

Lower born women attained the same status as their husbands on marriage, such as the lowly Katherine Swynford becoming Duchess of Lancaster in 1396 when she married a Duke. Such a rule did not apply for men: for example, Sir Richard Woodville did not rise in rank when he married the widowed Duchess of Bedford in the 15th century.

Unless they were intended for the church, medieval girls of all social classes were raised for marriage. As such, they would be taught traditional feminine skills, such as weaving and needlework by their mothers. Some women were also taught to read or write, with the local priest often tutoring higher status girls along with their brothers.

women helping with the harvest
This scene from the early 15th century book of hours Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry shows women helping with the harvest

In the 15th century, a number of manuals were published to assist parents in raising well-bred daughters. One such, the Red Book of Bath, considered that a model maiden should be beautiful, yet soberly dressed, not affected by worldly vanities such as dancing; intelligent, yet reserved and demure .

In the 1370s a French knight, Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, also composed The Book of the Knight of the Tower, which was a collection of tales designed to assist his daughters in growing up to be virtuous young women. It included a caution that girls should ensure that they pray before bed and on rising in the morning, and that they should dress modestly. In another story in the work, the girls were cautioned against gluttony, detailing the tale of a greedy wife who would rise in the night to empty the larder. She eventually lost an eye when, on being discovered, her husband beat a servant who assisted her and a splinter flew from the stick. The work was aimed towards his daughters gaining good husbands, with the caution that many have lost their chances through too much readiness .

Medieval women were defined by their marriages and, in fact, lost their legal personhood when they married. By the late middle ages it had become established law that a married woman could not hold property. Instead, everything that she owned passed to her husband on marriage, a position that was not overturned until the 19th century. As a result, a woman’s husband could bequeath away all the couple’s property on his death, something which accounts for William Shakespeare famously bequeathing his wife their second best bed.

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There were some exceptions to this. Custom had emerged by the late medieval period whereby a widow could expect a life interest in a certain portion of the marital property on her husband’s death. In addition to this, some items were so personal to the woman that, for all intents and purposes, they were considered to be hers – although, as some reports of early cases make clear, this was often limited just to clothes. She had no control over items that she inherited from her own parents or other similarly personal items.

While married women were subject to their husbands, widows enjoyed a good deal of freedom. The 12th century noblewoman Isabella of Gloucester, for example, went so far as to issue charters with the words in my free widowhood .

Widows could own property and make wills, disposing of that property as they saw fit on their deaths. Wills survive that were written by fairly humble people in the medieval period, allowing an insight into the lives of both men and women. Some, such as Anne Heydon, a gentlewoman who died aged around 70 in 1510 left a highly detailed will showing the luxury in which she was able to live as a widow. She left gifts of goblets of silver and gilt, jewellery and fine clothes to members of her family. Other widows, with less to leave, still bequeathed their property. Dame Isabel Peshall, for example, left six bundles of flax to one of her daughters.

Widows were not entirely free to act as they pleased. Wealthy women could often find that they were under considerable pressure to remarry. Isabella of Gloucester, who had so revelled in the freedom of widowhood, was forced to marry a powerful man who coveted her property, for example. Minor children who had inherited land were placed under the wardship of the crown, giving the person to whom the king granted the wardship the right to collect the revenues of their lands and arrange their marriages. This often meant that widows were not able to retain custody of their own children, or that they had to buy back the wardship themselves.

The birthing chamber
The birthing chamber was an exclusively female domain

Medieval women were not confined to their home at any stage of their lives and could be employed or run their own businesses. A medieval woman who married could expect to give birth to a number of children during her teenage years, twenties and thirties. The birth of children was, of course, a female preserve, with the birthing chamber occupied by the mother, female members of her family and the midwives (see the feature on childbirth, page 58, for more on this subject).

Midwifery was an occupation only open to women and a key one in the medieval period. Given the high rate of infant mortality, midwives were permitted by the church to baptise a child if it was considered to be on the point of death – a very significant grant by the church given that women were not permitted to serve any other religious role. As a result of this, it was considered essential that midwives, who required no actual medical training, should be of good character. Any woman hoping to practice had to first obtain a licence from her local bishop.

medieval woman teaching geometry
A rare depiction of a medieval woman teaching geometry with a set square and dividers – she may be a personification of Geometry, one of the seven liberal arts

Midwifery was not the only occupation open to a medieval woman. The vast majority of people in the period were peasants, who raised their own livestock and cultivated their crops on a manor belonging to a lord. All members of a peasant household would have been expected to contribute, with an old saying declaring that seldom doth the husband thrive, without the leave of his wife .

Peasant women were required to tend to the animals by milking the cows, feeding the pigs and chickens and collecting eggs. It was the woman’s responsibility to send corn to the mill to be made into flour, as well as dealing with the domestic duties of baking, brewing, making cheese and butter and keeping the house.

Women who became nuns entered a self-sufficient, all-female world

While her husband tended the fields, a peasant wife was responsible for the kitchen garden, growing herbs and vegetables to help feed the family. They made their own cloth with home-grown flax and hemp, which they would then use to make sheets, towels and garments. If the family kept sheep, the woman would spin wool. A peasant woman was as busy as her male counterpart, with one contemporary manual, The Book of Husbandry, admitting that it may fortune sometime, that thou shalt have so many things to do, that thou shalt not well know where best to begin. The labour was daily and year round. Women also contributed to the household economy, going to market to sell eggs, butter and other wares, as well as preparing the household accounts.

Higher up the social scale, women could also find themselves in charge of running the manor itself, either after their husband’s death or when they were widowed. Margaret Paston, for example, the wife of the lawyer Sir John Paston was left to run the family estates in Norfolk in the 1440s. As lady of the manor, she was active in managing the family estates, including renting out properties, insuring that tenants’ houses were kept in a good state of repair and defending the estate from attack.

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Middle class women could also have an occupation. To learn a trade, it was common for a young person to be apprenticed to a craftsman, something that could be arranged for both men and women. In 1392, for example, John Nougle, a haberdasher of London, arranged for his sister Katherine to be apprenticed to Avice Wodeford, a ‘silkthrowster’ in the same city. The girl was to serve her mistress for seven years, learning her mistress’s trade which, in this case, involved producing spun silk.

Women could also learn less traditionally feminine trades, with some wives acting as apprentices for their husbands. When they were widowed, such women often took over the business, something permitted by many of the trade guilds. There were, however, limits on the activities that a woman tradesperson could carry out. Some guilds placed limits on the activities that women were permitted to carry out. Marriage could also abruptly bring a girl’s apprenticeship to an end. Katherine Nougle’s apprenticeship agreement, for example, stated that she could not withdraw from her service, save by reason as such matrimony as is aforesaid during the said term .


Another activity open to women was to become a nun. Convents were staffed by women, with an abbess at the head, followed by officers such as a prioress and a treasuress. A nunnery was largely self-sufficient, with its own estates to produce rents and food for the community. The nuns would therefore carry out menial jobs in the convent as well as the higher offices. Nunneries, such as Syon on the banks of the Thames near Sheen, could be renowned as centres of learning, allowing the nuns to gain access to a higher level of education than was usually granted to their worldly peers.

Medieval women were raised to think of themselves as socially inferior to men and they have left comparatively little trace on the historical record. However, they were able to live varied and interesting lives at all social levels, both in the activities that they carried out in the home and the occupations and other roles that they were able to undertake.

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