Medieval Women

Medieval Women

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The Middle Ages

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Queen

An illustration of Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431, f. 4r)

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Most people in medieval Europe lived in small rural communities, making their living from the land. Peasant women had many domestic responsibilities, including caring for children, preparing food, and tending livestock. During the busiest times of the year, such as the harvest, women often joined their husbands in the field to bring in the crops. Women often participated in vital cottage industries, such as brewing, baking and manufacturing textiles. The most common symbol of the peasant woman was the distaff &ndash a tool used for spinning flax and wool. Eve is often shown with a distaff, illustrating her duty to perform manual labour after the fall from Paradise. An image often seen in medieval art is a woman waving her distaff at a fox with a goose in its jaws sometimes, in satirical images, women are even shown attacking their husbands with a distaff or some other domestic implement.

Luttrell Psalter

A marginal illustration of a woman attacking her husband with a distaff, from the Luttrell Psalter (Add MS 42130, f. 60r)

Women living in towns had similar responsibilities to those in the countryside. Just as rural women helped with their husbands' work, urban women assisted their fathers and husbands in a wide variety of trades and crafts, including the production of textiles, leather goods, and metal work, as well as running shops and inns.

Original sin

According to the Bible, Eve was created from Adam's rib and, having eaten the forbidden fruit, was responsible for man's expulsion from paradise. In medieval art, the responsibility of women for this 'original sin', is often emphasised by giving a female head to the serpent who tempts Eve to disobey God. The story underlined the belief that women were inferior to men, and that they were morally weaker and likely to tempt men into sin.

John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes

An illustration of the temptation of Adam and Eve, from John Lydgate's The Fall of Princes (Harley MS 1766, f. 11r)

Throughout the Middle Ages, the place of women in society was often dictated by biblical texts. The writings of the apostle Paul, in particular, emphasised men's authority over women, forbidding women from teaching, and instructing them to remain silent. However, the Virgin Mary was a contrast to this negative image: as the mother of Christ, she was the channel through which Christians might be saved. She was sometimes described as the 'second Eve', as she was seen to have made up for Eve's sins. Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary was seen as the most powerful of all saints, as well as a strong (if paradoxical) model of chastity and motherhood.

Shaftesbury Psalter

An illustration of an abbess kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child, from the Shaftesbury Psalter (Lansdowne MS 383, f. 165v)

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Women and power

There were some women who exercised power, providing a challenge to the stereotypical image of medieval women as oppressed and subservient. In the church, women could hold positions of great responsibility as abbesses of convents. In some instances, such as monasteries that housed communities of men and women, the abbess had seniority over monks.

Collection of moral tracts

A representation of nuns at a procession to mass, from a collection of moral tracts (Yates Thompson MS 11, f. 6v)

Outside monastic walls, women could wield political power, especially as queens and regents who exercised royal authority on behalf of absent husbands or underage sons. A number of powerful queens can be noted in English history, of whom one of the most remarkable was Queen Isabella (1295&ndash1358), who (in collaboration with her lover, Sir Robert Mortimer) brought about the end of the reign of her husband, Edward II (1284&ndash1327).

Harley Froissart

An illustration of the procession of Queen Isabella of Bavaria into Paris, from a volume of Jean Froissart's Chronicles (Harley MS 4379, f. 3r)

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Wives and nuns

Yet however powerful some women were in the Middle Ages, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority were not. Most women, even those in privileged circumstances, had little control over the direction their lives took. The marriages of young aristocratic women were usually arranged by their families (but here it is worth noting that their husbands, too, had little choice in their partners). Once widowed, such women had legal independence and, in many instances, autonomy over considerable financial resources.

The two main alternatives for a medieval woman were to marry, or to 'take the veil' and become a nun. Almost all female orders required women to live behind the walls of a monastery or within an individual cell, living a life of contemplation, prayer and work. Though the appeal of this way of life might be difficult to grasp today, for a medieval woman, one of its attractions must have been freedom from the dangers of childbearing.

Most women, however, were married, usually as teenagers. Afterwards, they were responsible for managing the household, whether this was a great castle or a small peasant hovel.

Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine

An illustration of the marriage of Melusine and Raymondin, from a copy of Jean d'Arras' Roman de Melusine (Harley MS 4418, f. 36r)

Wealthy women had servants, who assisted them with cooking, cleaning and childcare, and so were left time to engage in other pursuits. Popular diversions for aristocratic women included religious activities, hunting, dancing and playing games.

Queen Mary Psalter

A marginal illustration of women hunting rabbits, from the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 155v)

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Pregnancy and childbirth

Pregnancy and childbirth were risky in the Middle Ages: complications that would today be considered relatively minor, such as the breech presentation of the baby, could be fatal for mother and child. The Caesarean section, known since antiquity, was normally only performed if the mother was dead or dying as it was inevitably fatal for her.

The Ancient History of the Romans

An illustration of the birth of Caesar, from a compilation of ancient history (Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r)

Labouring women were attended by midwives, whose understanding of childbirth was for the most part attained through practical experience rather than formal training, though by the later Middle Ages the profession began to be formally recognised. Midwives were responsible for performing emergency baptisms in instances where the infant's life was in danger, as well as caring for the mother.

Guide to women's health

Drawings of foetal positions in the womb, from an illustrated gynaecological treatise (Sloane MS 249, f. 197r)

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.


Although historical sources about medieval women are not as numerous as those relating to men, they are much richer than is often supposed. Through surviving documents, literary and other texts and images, it is clear that medieval women were resilient, resourceful and skilled. Moreover, in exceptional instances they were capable of exercising political power, learning and creativity outside the domestic sphere.

Cocharelli, Treatise on the Seven Vices

Women in a counting house in a scene of usury, from an illustrated Treatise on the Seven Vices (Add MS 27695, f. 8r)

It is, however, dangerous to generalise about the status and experience of medieval women, whose lives were shaped by as many different considerations as they are today. Interpretations of women's place in medieval society have to strike a balance between exceptional individuals, who by dint of their wealth, status and achievements are often relatively well documented, and the experience of ordinary women, whose lives tended to leave few traces on the historical record.

  • Written by Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

The Status of Women in Medieval Europe

Castle Eltz, one of the most famous and beautiful medieval castles in Germany.
(Image: Julia700702/Shutterstock)

Civil Law and Marriage in Medieval Europe

Women in Medieval Europe were legally dependent on their husbands. In the scope of civil law, women were restricted from signing contracts, being witnesses in court, or borrowing money in their names. All of these had to be carried out under the legal authority of their husbands. In short, married women were considerably dependent on their spouses. Interestingly, these restrictions existed in many European countries until very recently.

Perhaps, you’ll be surprised to know that these laws did not apply to unmarried adult females, who were allowed to sign contracts, borrow money, and do the things that one would expect of a legally responsible adult. This was quite a significant advantage compared to the Roman Empire. In that era, all women, regardless of their marital status and age, needed a male guardian.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Businesswomen in medieval Europe were able to protect their assets if they were in a trade that was different from that of their husbands. As an example, if a woman was working as a tailor and her husband was a brewer, their assets were completely separate from each other. Therefore, if the husband faced bankruptcy, his wife had no legal responsibility to pay his creditors. The term femme sole (literally “woman alone”) was coined to describe these women.

Criminal Law and the Capital Punishment

As opposed to civil law, a woman’s marital status never mattered to criminal law. In other words, when a married woman committed a crime, she was subject to the same penalties as an unmarried one. The only exception was in the case of pregnancy: pregnant women were exempt from execution or any kind of torture. In addition, regardless of their marital status, all women were exempted from certain forms of torture by medieval courts. For example, women could not be broken on the wheel.

Place of execution of criminals in medieval Europe—chopping block and gallows on a wooden platform. (Image: Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock)

In some cases, the judicial system in the High Medieval Ages treated female offenders more leniently. For example, same-sex relationships, which carried the death penalty for men, were no crime at all for women because such a relationship did not affect human reproduction.

Women who were found guilty of a capital offense were not so lucky though. In fact, they had to suffer the most brutal and painful type of executions in that era: burning at the stake. Unlike men who were sentenced to different kinds of execution depending on the severity of their crimes, female execution took only one form.

Contemporaries claimed this was necessary for the preservation of female modesty, because other forms of execution were deemed unbecoming of women. Although there may be some truth to this justification, modern historians have identified misogyny, as well as a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of women on the part of males, as the root cause of this practice.

Politics and Women in Medieval Europe

Politically, women were able to rise to the highest levels of sovereignty. They could become queens and rule over kingdoms, or become regents and rule in the name of a minor child. Whether a woman was a queen or a regent, ruling either temporarily or permanently, her powers were not different from those of a male ruler.

This equality of powers was only because medieval politics were dynastic. In other words, offices passed down from fathers to sons. Therefore, in the absence of a legitimate male heir, an office could fall into the hands of a woman. This applied to both kingdoms and smaller political units. Counties passed among family members, duchies, and even castellanies – areas controlled by a single castellan, 15 or 20 miles in radius. In rare cases, these areas were ruled by women.

However, women in Medieval Europe were completely absent in public political roles. This was mainly because medieval towns followed a more republican form of government in which officials were elected and served for a set term. Therefore, a woman could not inherit a political office. The situation only changed in recent times. Ironically, democracy has been very unfriendly to female participation throughout history.

Economics and (Almost) Equal Opportunities

In Medieval Europe, women were relatively active in the marketplace. A survey of 100 guilds in Paris in 1300 showed that 86 percent were willing to admit female workers. Although some companies required permission from the woman’s husband, getting a job was not impossible.

There was also some sense of equality in terms of training. Female professionals were able to train apprentices regardless of their gender. No one seemed to think that a woman training a man was odd.

Sculpture of a nun on the facade of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. (Image: Roman Belogorodov/Shutterstock)

Religion and Nunneries in Medieval Europe

It is reasonable to expect similar trends in religious settings, where women were absent in some areas and yet actively involved in others. For example, monasticism was prevalent among women. Woman could easily choose to become nuns and live in a nunnery. They could even rise through the ranks and one day command a nunnery. Back in the Middle Ages, convents were large organizations with various affairs and housed dozens of people. So, being the head of a nunnery allowed women to exert power over others. This power was especially appealing to high-born women who could not reach a status of authority in any other way.

However, women could never enter the realms of the priesthood. In other words, they were not allowed to take the position of a ‘secular clergy’ as they were non-ordained members of a church who did not live in a religious institute and did not follow specific religious rules.

Common Questions About the Status of Women in Medieval Europe

There was a large extent of inequality between men and women in Medieval Europe . Women did not have the right to vote or to choose whether they wanted to marry, have children, or even work in some instances.

Women in the Middle Ages were able to work as a craftswoman, own a guild, and earn money in their own ways. They could also divorce their husbands under certain conditions. Many outstanding female authors, scientists, and business owners lived during that age.

Women in medieval Europe were able to work in the majority of guilds. Other than being wives or mothers, they often chose to become artisans or nuns.

Most women in the Middle Ages wore kirtles, ankle-to-floor length dresses that were made of dyed linen. Among the peasant women, wool was a more favorable and affordable option. Women’s clothing also consisted of an undertunic called smock or chemise.

The History of Medieval Swords (And the Women Who Wielded Them)

Does any one know how much a typical medieval sword really weighed? Less than 4 pounds. Of course, you wouldn’t know this from popular media, where swords are portrayed as nothing more than big, lumbering clubs with edges.

It’s understandable that people have began to picture medieval swords as hefty, crude implements. After all, there are a variety of legends of weapons that only heroes could lift (Excalibur, Mjölnir), plus all sorts of fanciful tales about historical figures who swung blades no normal man could lift. Tales like those cemented the idea of heavy, massive swords in the public consciousness.

But the reality is that a typical medieval sword was the same weight as a carton of soy milk, a Macbook Pro, a young chihuahua, or a bunch of bananas. Even the ginormous “great swords” famous in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons only weighed between 5-6 pounds, which is considerably less than a gallon of milk.

In other words, medieval swords were lightweights.

This is because swords intended for combat needed to be nimble, balanced, and easy to handle. A heavy sword would have been a liability more than an advantage. A heavy sword would make a wielder slow, ponderous, and add to fatigue, making them easy prey for someone with a faster weapon.

In addition – and contrary to popular opinion – a heavier sword doesn’t hold a significant damage advantage. Instead, the amount of damage a sword causes is mainly a product of the angle, sharpness, and speed when striking. And most swords meant to penetrate armor would do so by thrusting, since if your intention is to bash your opponent with a giant, heavy weapon then you are much better off with a mace or war hammer. But if you want to cut ’em, cut ’em quick.

So why does nerd media portray swords as giant weapons that only a brute could lift? Well, the afore-mentioned legends played a role, but the reality is that massive swords are a power fantasy in genre fiction that have been made popular in video games. Why have a avatar with a nimble weapon that cuts so quick that the graphics barely render, when your character can wield a big, massive weapon that cuts epic swaths through the enemy? I want the big sword, bro.

And this finally brings me to my point. Realism in fantasy literature and media is selective at best. I mean, obviously. Orcs and elves aren’t real, so why are we getting a PhD in medieval sword history here?

7th century – Khawla Bint al-Kindiyyah was a woman warrior, who with the help from her female captains, led an Arab army and stopped a Greek invasion of their homeland. When a Greek soldier knocked Khawlah to the ground, she sliced his head off with a sword, and held it high to inspire her soldiers to victory. When later captured andngered by the confiscation of their weapons, the women led a charge against their Greek captors by using tent poles as weapons and successfully escaped.

783 CE – Fastrada, an East Frankish noblewoman who, along with other Saxon women, entered into battle against Charlemagne’s forces bare breasted. Fastrada then went onto become Charlemagne’s third wife.

918 CE – Ethelfleda, also known as our ‘Lady of the Mercians’, was considered to be a chief military strategist and the most brilliant tactician of her time. She led armies, built castles, united Mercia, and also fought back an invasion from the Vikings, forcing them to surrender their stronghold at York and even conquered Wales, making them to pay tribute to her.

1149 CE – The Order of the Hatchet was a military order of knighthood for women.

1247 CE – Tomoe Gozen was a Japanese samurai warrior known for her bravery and strength. She fought alongside men in the Genpei War.

P. Christian : Histoire des pirates et corsaires de l’Océan et de la Méditerranée depuis leur origine jusqu’à nos jours, Paris, Cavaillès, 1846.

1409 CE – Han E was orphaned and went to live with her uncle Han Li, proving an excellent scholar in both literature and sword fighting. Disguised as a boy, Han served for over 12 years taking part in military campaigns and was noted for her intelligence, bravery and diligence in her duties. She forbade herself to fraternise with other soldiers in banter or drink in victory celebrations so that nobody would ever guess she was a woman.

1400 CE – Urduja was a legendary warrior princess and heroine in the Philippines. She commanded a army made up of men and women, and she is said to have fought and engaged in duels with other warriors, although many avoided her for the fear of being disgraced by her abilities.

1378 CE – Agnes Hotot Dudley took up arms in place of her ailing father and beat her opponent in a mounted duel. Disguising her sex, she put on a helmet, mounted a horse, and proceeded to the tourney grounds. After what was said to be a ‘stubborn encounter,’ Agnes dismounted her opponent. As he lay on the ground she removed her helmet, let down her hair, and presented her bosom to prove she was a woman and shame her foe. The coat of arms of the House of Dudley shows a woman wearing a military helmet with loosened hair and her breasts exposed, commemorating a female champion.

Medieval women and the sources of medieval history

Medieval women in French sigillographic sources / Brigitte Bedow- Rezak -- Exempla / Jacques Berlioz and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu -- Sexual equality in medieval canon law / James A. Brundage -- German source collections : the Archdiocese of Salzburg as a case study / John B. Freed -- The charters of Le Ronceray d'Angers / Penny S. Gold -- Women and the sources of medieval history / David Herlihy -- Old Norse sources on women / Jenny Jochens -- Women and the literature of obstetrics and gynecology / Helen Lemay -- "Legal history and the medieval Englishwoman" / Janet Senderowitz Loengard

(Cont) De quibusdam mulieribus : reading women's history from hostile sources / Jo Ann McNamara -- Anglo-Saxon attitudes / Joel T. Rosenthal -- Saints' lives as a source for the history of women, 500-1100 / Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg -- Coinage in the name of medieval women / Alan M. Stahl -- Sources on medieval women in Mediterranean archives / Susan Mosher Stuard

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Just history.

Scene from the Lutrell Psalter showing a 14th century English woman dressing her hair Photo Credit- Google Images

The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crowning glory. Because of this, it was considered a very private thing. It was fine for young girls to have unbound hair, and a maiden wore her hair completely unbound on her wedding day as a symbol of her virginity. Once a lady was married however, it was a different story. A married woman was to only show her unbound hair to her husband. Any other time, ladies of quality made sure to cover it with veils, nets, hoods or hats. Some women in warmer climates abandoned veils for comfort sake, but still adorned their hair with elaborate braids, beads and ribbon. Even peasant women, attempted to make sure their hair was neat and tidy. Only a woman of poor breeding or a prostitute did nothing with her hair and left it unconcealed.

Necessity gave way to fashion and hair coverings became very elaborate, with many braids, jewels and ribbons. They style of hoods changed as quickly as dress styles. One thing people noticed about the younger, more fashionable Anne Boleyn was she wore a smaller, lighter French hood. Catherine of Aragon wore the heavier, older style gable hood, which while considered modest was also dowdy. Earlier, ladies wore hennins, which look very much like the traditional picture of a princess. These were a tall conical hat with a veil attached to the peak. The higher the better. Ladies also wore a cornette of wire or wicker framing with a wimple, a veil worn around the neck and chin and covering the hair, over it. In Italy, the fashion was to wear a translucent wimple to show off the elaborate braids underneath. All of this was condemned by the Church as vanity, but did not stop the parade of fashion.

Because such emphasis was put on covering the hair, the medieval ideal was of a high, round forehead. Women who were not blessed with this, aided nature by plucking their hairline towards the crown of the head. To make the forehead even more prominent, eyebrows were plucked to a barely there line. Again, this was condemned as vanity by the Church. Instructions to clergymen told them to tell ladies in confession:

If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men… This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.”

This did not stop the fashion, and ladies still plucked their hairlines to astonishing heights. Tweezers made from copper alloy or silver were a common part of a medieval toiletry set.

Despite the fact hair was hidden, there was still an emphasis on color. Blonde hair was the most desirable and preferred, and for those not naturally blessed there were ways to aid Dame Nature. Olive oil, white wine, alum and sitting in the sun were proscribed for blonding. Another recipe called for saffron, stale sheep’s urine and onion skins. The “Roman de la Rose,” a 13th-century French poem, advises: “ If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces. ” As distasteful as that sounds, hairpieces and wigs were both worn by medieval women. A hair piece made of silk was found in London dating to the 14th century. Better than the hair of a corpse.

How did women take care of all this beautifully colored hair? There were no hair brushes, but there were combs of ivory, bone and boxwood. Some of these found are beautifully carved and elaborate. For tangled hair, a conditioner of bacon fat and lizards was recommended. To take out the scent of bacon, which would be insanely popular now, ladies were instructed to dip a comb in rose water, cloves and nutmeg.

A gravor was a long, slender instrument used for parting the hair and for partitioning the hair for braids. Gravors were a must for the lady who wanted elaborate plaits. Despite all this care, washing was not recommended. The upper classes did wash their hair by stripping to the waist and leaning over a basin, but no shampoo was used. Hair was cleaned with a mixture of ashes, vine stalks and egg whites. Tonics and balms out of broom and vinegar were made to relieve “itch mites”. Recipes for popular tonics of the day are found in “De Ornatu Mulierum / On Women’s Cosmetics” in The Trotula : A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine . edited and translated by Monica H. Green.

“For itch-mites eating away at the hair. Take myrtleberry , broom, [and] clary , and cook them in vinegar until the vinegar has been consumed, and with this rub the ends of the hair vigorously. This same thing removes fissures of the head if the head is washed well with it.

Medieval pins Photo Credit- Google Images

Likewise, pulverize bitter lupins and you should boil them in vinegar, and then rub the hair between the hands. This expels itch-mites and kills them.”

Ladies also carried a long pin made of bone or metal between their cleavage. These pins were very thin and had pointed tips so that an itchy scalp could be relieved though wigs and headdresses. Also good for stabbing anyone who got fresh, I imagine.

So, dear readers, stay away from itch mites and get some bacon fat for your tangles!

Medieval Women - History

While women have traditionally served as the caregivers of the health of their families and communities, it isn't until comparatively recent times that women were admitted to the ranks of formal medical practitioners. Historical records of the Western world indicate that the first named female physician was Metrodora, a Greek doctor sometime around 200-400 CE. She penned the oldest medical book known to have been written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.

Ancient Egypt had several examples of women working as doctors perhaps the best known was Meit Ptah who lived around 2700 BCE, living and practicing around the same time as Imhotep. Peseshet was another female physician, hailing from the Fourth Dynasty (around 2600 BCE). She enjoyed the title of "Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians."

During the Medieval era in Western Europe, women were permitted limited roles as healers, primarily as nuns. Celibate women were allowed to study and acquire skills in the healing arts. The best known of these healers was Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Rheinhesse in 1098, the tenth child of noble parents, she developed a reputation for spirituality as a child and thus it seemed a natural progression for her to become a nun. In addition to writing about her religious visions and composing religious hymns and poems, Hildegard also penned Subtililates Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum (The Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Created Things), in which she laid out suggested medical remedies for common ailments.

American medical history hails Elizabeth Blackwell as a trailblazer: the first woman to receive a medical degree from a United States university. Universally discouraged by male physicians from pursuing her dream of a medical education, Elizabeth earned a living as a schoolteacher while training informally in a physician's household. After failing to gain admission to any of the established medical schools, she applied to a number of smaller, less prestigious institutions, and received a single acceptance letter - from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, NY.

She arrived in Geneva on November 6, 1847, several weeks after the beginning of the term. She was later to learn that the faculty had opposed her admission to the school, but felt unable to reject a candidate who was otherwise well qualified for admission. They referred the decision to the students, who believed the request was a joke and voted unanimously to admit her. Elizabeth had no notion of the furor that her presence in the medical school would cause. Reflecting on her experience, she wrote, "I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor's wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent."

Believing Elizabeth Blackwell's female sensibilities would be offended by some of the subject matter, the instructors of the medical school requested her absence during a discussion of the male reproductive system. Blackwell refused politely, and the other students, who had been impressed with her dedication and determination, supported her refusal. She received her M.D. in 1849, and later launched a clinic that became the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This institution gave other aspiring female physicians and nurses training in the practical skills they needed - an opportunity denied them by the traditionally male medical establishment.

A contemporary of Elizabeth Blackwell, Harriot Hunt, also attempted to gain admittance to medical school at Harvard - or even to simply attend the lectures. When her application to Harvard Medical School was advanced by Oliver Wendell Holmes, then dean of the school, the students vociferously objected to her admittance. Their resolutions of rejection read:

Resolved, that no woman of true delicacy would be willing in the presence of men to listen to the discussion of subjects that necessarily come under consideration of the students of medicine.

Resolved, that we object to having the company of any female forced upon us, who is disposed to unsex herself, and to sacrifice her modesty by appearing with men in the lecture room.

Ultimately, Harriot Hunt was able, despite opposition, to obtain a medical degree in Syracuse as a homeopathic physician.

While women were slowly being accepted into medical schools, and separate medical colleges for women were being established, the move toward equality in medical education in the 19th century was glacially slow. Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke opined in 1874 that women seeking advanced education would develop "monstrous brains and puny bodies" and "abnormally weak digestion."

Forging the path to a career as a physician was exponentially more difficult for women of color. In many parts of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, even registering to vote was dangerous and fraught with problems applying to medical school must have seemed like an impossible dream.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged both the prevailing prejudice against the place of women and systemic prejudice against African Americans by becoming the first African American woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. Born in 1831 in Delaware, she worked as a nurse for eight years before being admitted to the New England Female Medical College (pictured left) in 1860. Her graduation in 1864 made her the first black woman to earn a formal degree as a physician.

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia at the conclusion of the Civil War. She joined other black physicians in caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have been denied access to medical care, and became passionately involved in the care of the indigent. Although Crumpler and her colleagues encountered ferocious racism in the postwar South, she persisted in her work in Virginia for several years before returning to Boston. In 1883, she penned a book about her experiences in medical practice, titled Book of Medical Discourses.

In spite of the fact that she grew up in the Jim Crow South in Pittsburg, Texas, Mildred Jefferson was determined to achieve a medical degree. In 1947, she was admitted to Harvard Medical School, and in 1951 became the first black woman to graduate from that institution.

Jefferson pursued a career as a surgeon at Boston University Medical Center and a professor of surgery at the university's medical school. She was famously quoted as saying, "I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live."

These female medical pioneers blazed a difficult path perhaps they sensed that the future of the female gender was on their shoulders, and that their successes (or failures) would either open or close doors for other women. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 7,000 women physiciains in the United States, comprising roughly 5.5% of the total number of doctors in the country.

Unfortunately, the 20th century witnessed a decline in the number of women in the medical field. In 1949, 100 years after Elizabeth Blackwell made her historic entrance into medical school, still only 5.5% of students entering medical school were women. As the feminist movement gained a foothold in American culture, and the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act (which prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender), the number of women pursuing medical education increased significantly. In 1974, 22.4% of new medical school entrants were women by the close of the 20th century, that number had risen to 45.6%.

Women are increasingly being represented at the highest levels of medicine Antonia Novello shattered a political glass ceiling when she was named the first female Surgeon General of the United States under George H.W. Bush. Since Novello's tenure, two other women - Joycelyn Elders and Regina Benjamin - have filled this prestigious office.

Although women have made significant gains in the medical field, a substantial gender gap persists. 48% of all medical school graduates are women however, they comprise only 34.3% of all physicians and surgeons, and a shockingly low 15.9% of medical school deans. The numbers are even more grim for women of color. In addition, women in academic medicine experience a wage gap - they are paid substantially less than their male colleagues for performing the same jobs.

The paucity of women at the highest levels of academic medicine necessarily constrains medical fields from attaining levels of excellence that would otherwise be possible. The pursuit of excellence requires a pursuit of gender egalitarianism.

Bickel, Janet, and Valarie Clark. Women in U.S. Academic Medicine: Statistics 1999-2000. Washington, D.C.: Division of Institutional Planning and Development, Association of American Medical Colleges, 1999. Print.

Chin, Eliza Lo. "Historical Perspective." This Side of Doctoring: Reflections from Women in Medicine. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2002. Print.

Medieval Women - History

From a specifically female point of view, marriage and childbirth were an important aspect in the life of a medieval girl or woman. The risks associated with childbirth, however, were quite high at the time due to a number of factors: age health and illness birthing complications and death.

For many noble-born or royal women, marriage could and often did take place at a young age. There are many instances or very young girls being betrothed and married under the age of 10 years old. This did not necessarily mean that the marriage was consummated. However, there was a perception that once a girl began her period that she was considered to be of marriageable age. And so the male could begin his almighty pursuit for an heir.

So, typically, when did a young medieval girl embark on the road to “womanhood”:

Now, marriages of noble and royal women were usually for political and dynastic consideration. So, at what age did a young noblewoman enter into marriage.

It is more common for a young woman to have been married early, though not to have had her first child until she was much older. It is agreed that the most common age for a young woman to have given birth to her first child is from 16yo.

However, the following examples are exceptions:

But what of young women who were not noble or royal - at what age did they marry and have children.

The consensus is that young women of middle or low status married and gave birth at a much later age for a number of reasons:

So, the most common age for a young woman of middle or low status to marry was from the age of 22 years old. Thus we can conclude that this young woman would have given birth to her first child before she was 25 years old.


The statement you made about girls often being betrothed and married before the age of 10, could you please send me the reference(s) for this statement? I'm trying to settle an argument with a chauvanistic friend of a friend who believes no man would marry a girl he could not copulate with/impregnate immediately. He knows marriages are by alliances but refuses to believe child marriages were a common practise.

Hey I was wondereing if you could give me a reference for your statment at the end of this piece. The one about women not getting married until they were c.22. I'm trying to write an essay on early medieval female lifecycles and this will help me argue against this historian who believes its unrealistic to expect that medieval women waited until after their late teens. Thanks!

It might be worth saying that the age of puberty has declined over the last few hundred years. About two hundred years ago, most girls got their first period at the age of 15-18, while girls nowadays get theirs when they're about 13 years old. That might explain why they got their first child "so late".

I enjoyed your entries on Toxic Words - such great thoughts and a wonderful reminder to watch the words I use - to be positive and kind and use words to build up rather than tear down. :)

Regarding the idea that Medieval peasant women did not marry until they were 22, that only applies to most of Northwestern Europe from about 1350-1800. Peter Laslett's book "The World We Have Lost" details a thousand marriage certificates issued in Canterbury from 1619 to 1660 according to the documents, about 85 percent of English brides in this period were at least nineteen years of age when they married and only one in a thousand was thirteen (or younger). The most common ages at marriage for women was 22 years, for men 24 years the median ages were 22.75 for women, 25.5 for men the average ages at first marriage were 24 years for women and 27.75 years for men. Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, plus Finland, Ireland, and much of Scotland looked more like non-European societies where virtually all women are married by age twenty.

What about marriage among the common and poor people in the middle ages?

You seem to focus on upper classes

Award wining book on Peter the Great shows that because woman needed to have 16 children on average common women started around 12. Huge number of children was because only one in four lived to adult hood true then and earlier in history. All ancient cultures and primitive tribes I have read about start around 12 or earlier because of the huge number of children needed (12 to 16 from sources depending on conditions at that time) Most common people did not get married in church in middle ages, common law (moving in together) was the rule till later.
This does not mean we should do the same but we have to remember the urge to fall in love/ have sex with anyone who has reached puberty is buried down in the instincts needed for a more primitive time.

I have a sincere question. the reason I came to this site was to find out when girls from the middle ages get their periods. See I've been told animal hormones effect our cycles now and even our weight . but back then those would not be an issue. So I ask is there any documentation on such an issue?

Anonymous interested in average age of puberty-- no stats from before the 1800s, but pretty good evidence after then. Wiki has a round-up here:

The assumed reason for the difference is a change in diet (more protein), better nutrition generally (more food, fewer periods of startvation, etc.

Here's the list of BS myths about medieval times:
1. "they married as soon as woman would have menstruation". WRONG. Wealthy people did. You'd be shocked to know how big social construct it is today and how influential hollywood is. but rich folks married as soon as possible to make the most children. And they arranged marriages before hitting puberty as well. Various civilizations married at various age. Middle Ages had a first marriage age into 20s, on average, depending on circumstances. Some towns had women entering first marriages well into their 30s.

2. "women had 15 children on average and half of the children would die in first few years". WRONG. Average folks had 5-7 children on average and only 1-2 would die in infancy. Contraception methods existed at any age and people had various ways to avoid pregnancy even then.

3. "Population couldn't explode because only 1/4 of children would reach puberty due to illnesses to start reproducing, usually just to replace their parents". WRONG. Population didn't explode although more than two children of each sex would survive, but an extra number of male children/young adults would get killed or maimed due to harsh living/working conditions. You might think that it doesn't depend on male population because you might see woman as the reproductive bottleneck, but you're wrong again, read number 3.

3. "There were no women to marry for young men because rulers had their harems". WRONG. Given the occasional harems among the wealthiest folks, a significant number of women would stay unmarried, or widowed, because women heavily outnumbered men at any age group. Main issue for medieval population wasn't number of women, but resources (food and water) and housing. Many clans in Europe required dowry. Clans with male members often concluded that the bride doesn't give enough dowry thus they won't pick her. Society's success thus depended upon males in those limited resources, especially due to wars and constant shortage of male population.

4. "It was important to know the number of women to know determine the society's future growth". WRONG. There is a reason why population would generally count males only, and it's not simply because of military. In fact, obligatory draft for peasants was next to useless at the time. Number of male peasants was important because of working capacity to produce food and generally build stuff. We go back to square one, population growth depended on other things, bottleneck was providing food and housing, and then comes protecting the area.

5. "Women didn't do any work, they sat home while their husbands traveled to work". WRONG. This era starts with industrialization of societies. Some societies still didn't go through this phase. Before industrialization we had a feudal era, vast majority of European population stayed within the same place. Marco Polo is an exception, just like other merchants and occasional soldiers. Most folks were obliged to stay on their landlord's property. And both men and women either ran household chore, farm works or private businesses. Currency for most population were natural resources. Taxes were generally paid this way as well. Due to physical and biological differences, jobs were differentiated accordingly.

6. "Main job for a wife was cooking". WRONG. Not the cooking you fools. You know why they didn't invent microwave or the fridge before those lame devices you see in museums? Because sewing and knitting were very lucrative jobs and there were various artworks done with those. Aristocracy often taught their daughters how to sew and knit with various techniques and materials, just in case they become poor. Knitting and sewing could earn you more than a blacksmith could earn, thus even men held such professions. But an average woman would usually not have expensive materials, she'd generally make clothes for herself and whole family. You had several women in the house making clothes. Try making a shirt, pants or a sweater and then you'll see that it's a full-time job for any medieval woman.

7. "Women were generally dying due to excessive childbirth". WRONG. First pregnancy was generally the most dangerous pregnancy and other pregnancies had less than 1% of chance of dying. Given the widespread diseases and unhealthy conditions of living, pregnancy would be considered in the realm of today's season flu. In fact, season flu epidemic in Medieval Age would cause far more deaths than pregnancies would in years to come. Dying due to childbirth was more common among royalty due to genetic diseases AND excessive childbirth. Other women were breastfeeding their children by themselves, which would generally lower the chances to get pregnant, increase gap between pregnancies to give mother's body time for recovery, and heavily affect the number of total babies being born.

8. "People were dying young, into their 20s on average". WRONG. This includes number of folks who would die in infancy, wars, diseases, pregnancy, living and working conditions or simply due to general mistreatment, that was an age of savageness and slavery institution was very present around the world. But people who would bypass those hardships could live past their 50s easily, well into their 60s on average.

9. "Abortion and contraception didn't exist until modern era". WRONG. We simply have much more reliable methods for contraception and abortion existed even in our ancient history. It's just that it would cause indifference or would be frowned upon, depending on historical circumstances. So-called witch hunt is generally believed to mostly consist out of chasing people who made "witchcraft to kill unborn or poison the adult". Yet, due to sensational few hundreds of most controversial trials, modern society decided to give an alternative version how medieval folks believed that they killed millions of broom-flying witches during the times of inquisition.

10. "People believed that the Earth was flat until Columbus discovered America and spanish church tried to stop him". WRONG. Not only that the church financed his journey, but Columbus knew that the earth is round. Just like many societies before him. He almost failed because he miscalculated the distance, or it's rather that he misunderstood the maps and calculations done by Arabs and Romans. It is also believed that Romans probably discovered America before Vikings and that some settlers came even before them.

I studied the medieval and Tudor time periods and it was quite common for a girl to be very young when married.So they would wait until she was older and could produce heirs and hopefully sons to her husband's family. During this time it was very common for the young man or boy to have a mistress. and yes peasants for the common people did usually wait to get married till their late teens or early adulthood to get married and have children.

I have studied the medieval times as well as Tudor and yes girls were married off that young usually to a man twice their age of some years older. however the marriage wouldn't be consummated until she had reached the age when she could give him a heir. during this time it was very common for a man to take on a mistress. The commoners married during their late teens or during early adult hood most likely since the wouldn't be in such a rush to have children as people with titles.

To Anonymous June 8, 2013: Thank you for posting ACCURATE information. I'm so tired of seeing misinformation being passed off in attempts to excuse an attraction for minors (and you'd be amazed how often it's done).

I'm currently reading "A Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England". It says that girls married around age 12 but didn't co-habitate until age 14. They were expected to have 6 children by age 25. 21 was considered middle age. People seldom lived beyond 40.

I drew on a heavily referenced way more than one source Pulitzer Prize winning book "Peter the Great his life and world" by Robert K Massie that shows the need for 16 average in depth and covers the age of sexual activity, most peasants did not officially marry with multiple references. The Roman census records are not disputable with a age of 12 and health conditions got worse not better later. Any claim it was higher based with the Gauls based on one roman's statement ignores how little the Romans knew about the Gauls and assumes a much better infant survival rate.
Consensus age of Mary mother of Jesus is approximately 14 meaning she was roughly 12 to 14 when she got pregnant.

I recall reading several sources on the people involved in raising the age once the mortality rate of children went down. Why this need to rewrite history with poorly sourced articles throwing under the bus all the people in the past few centuries who made the efforts to move the age up once sanitation and medicine improved.

Yes, please provide references and evidence.
@Kai, perhaps you should remind your friend that people thought about life way differently back then and there may well have been superstitious, religeous, social, or even physical reasons for marrying but waiting to consummate it until later. Maybe many people thought that trying to have kids too young would kill the woman (and maybe they were right), or maybe menstruation happened at a later age back then. Either way, there are many different reasons and good things about marriage besides sex, and we can't argue that people would not have been able to wait just because that's how we are.

Sorry, but Jewish girls were usually married around 15-17, so that's a lie.
Also, it said that two years have passed since the angel's visit, so that makes Mary around 14-16 when she got pregnant.

I read about that too. I mean most girls don't ovulate on their
period. Matter of fact tend to occur a few years after puberty.

I forgot to post this along woth my relpy.

That would be impossible. Why? Because as I said before, most girls don't ovulate on their first period. It happen until a few years later (Funfacts:Less then 10% of girls start their period before 11. Fact#2: 14 and 12 was the age of menarche). Some girls can get pregnant before their period, but they if give birth too young (like under 15, 16 ot 17. Idk) then it cause them to not bare anymore childern. I'm not for sure if people of the antiquity and the middle ages know that giving birth at 12,13 and 14 can cause infertility. Luckily sex mostly occurs a few years after puberty.

Thank you. Your comment should be number one.

Another thing is mothers under 14 are very rare. I read it from Teen motherhood on cross-culture perspective.

Another thing is mothers under 14 are very rare. I read it from Teen motherhood on cross-culture perspective. Also, will you show me those books that claim such a thing. Thank you and sorry for the double post.

I'm sorry, but it's over 12 (more like 14), not under. I could not found any source that claims that tribal women gave birth 12 and under. I did found something like this> and this and this

Sorry, but you need to re-read that sources again. It did not say that Mary was 12-14 when she conceived, but was 14-16.

Sorry, but puberty is a phase that takes several years to finish. Why do think that sources will be saying that girls finish puberty around x or y or z? Because puberty is a slow transation. Also most girls don't ovulate until 1-3 years after first menarche. It takes about 2-5 years for a girl reproductive organs to mature after first period.

Isabelle of Aragon, queen of Germany 1315-1330 seemt to be only 11 when she had her first child if Wikipedia is correct:,_Queen_of_Germany

Puberty ends around 25 years old, but there are records of Women whom did not even finish puberty "stage 5" by 25 years old because they come from the lower class and have insufficient nutrients during their youth.

Nowadays, the average age for a girls first period is around 12.

A man may not willingly be celibate, but might wait to consummate the marriage. That doesn't mean he wasn't having sex with other women whilst waiting. Adultery has been common across the ages.

On July 10, 1040, Lady Godiva is supposed to have ridden naked on horseback to force her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes.

Digging Deeper

Before and since Lady Godiva’s legendary ride, many other women have made great impressions on culture, society and history mainly because they were in the buff. This article lists Medieval women (those who lived from about 476-1517) famous for being naked or who, at one point in their lives, had famously been naked. The order they will be presented in is not a ranking, but merely a chronological listing. Please let us know in the comments below if these women’s nakedness was a sign of them being powerful or powerless.

For the other articles in the History and Headlines series on naked ladies, please click here.

1. Lady Godiva – 1040

Although her nude ride is stuff of legends, Lady Godiva did in fact exist and was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in what is present-day England. Since the couple were generous benefactors to religious houses, there are many records of them. The legend of the nude ride was first recorded in the 13 th century, two hundred years after it was supposed to have taken place. Feeling sympathy for the people of Coventry who were suffering greatly because of the high taxes imposed by her husband, she begged him to lift the taxation. When he laughed and told her he would only do it if she rode on horseback through the streets without clothes, she took him at his word and mounted a horse clothed in only her long hair. Her husband probably fearing that other men would see his wife naked issued a proclamation that everyone was to stay indoors with the blinds shut. One man by the name of Tom, however, disobeyed that order and spied on Lady Godiva as she rode past his shop. To this day, such voyeurs are called “Peeping Toms.” In the end, the Earl of Mercia is said to have been impressed by his wife’s courage, and lowered the taxes.

2. Agnès Sorel as the Virgin Mary (1422-1450)

The favorite mistress of Charles VII, the French king for whom Joan of Arc fought, Agnès Sorel is considered to be the first officially-recognized royal mistress and filled a role later known as “maȋtresse en titre,” the chief mistress of the King of France. She bore the king three daughters, and her strong hold over him and the subsequent power she exercised earned her many enemies at court. Her death at 28 was widely suspected to be a result of murder, and forensic tests conducted in 2005 on her exhumed bones determined the cause of death to be mercury poisoning. The high levels of mercury in her system, however, especially in the skin and hair, could have accumulated from the excessive use of metal-containing cosmetics. She also seemed to have been suffering from parasites, and mercury was often used to purge these from the body. Whatever the reason why she was exposed to such toxic concentrations of mercury, one thing is sure and that is that her beautiful and semi-nude image was recorded for posterity by the contemporary painter Jean Fouquet in his work of art Virgin and Child surrounded by Angels. In this painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as a young, sexy, pale-skinned woman in tight, figure-defining clothes and with gravity-defying breasts that strangely resemble the silicone-enhanced breasts of today. It is a display of innocence combined with sexiness and motherhood, and Agnès Sorel appears in it as the Queen of Heaven, sitting on her throne. Maybe that is how the king wished to remember her. It also seems that her amazing and unnatural-looking breasts are one of first representations of what plastic surgeons would later strive to recreate.

3. Simonetta Vespucci (Botticelli’s Venus) – late 15 th century

Simonetta Vespucci was an Italian woman of the Renaissance who was renowned for being the greatest beauty in Florence where she attracted the attention of the famous painter Sandro Bottecelli and became his muse. Though she died young, her image continued to inspire Bottecelli and he used her likeness for his some of his most famous works, including his Birth of Venus nine years after her death. In this famous painting, Simonetta is depicted as Venus, rising from the foamy sea and standing on a scallop shell, her strawberry blonde hair flowing about her. As a result of Bottecelli’s devotion, Simonetta is since known as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.

Remember, for more ladies famous for being naked, please also refer to our other articles in the series by clicking here.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite Medieval woman? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 1972.

Watch the video: Πώς τους μεγαλώνουν οι μανάδες τους; Το θέμα αρχίζει απ τις γυναίκες και καταλήγει στις γυναίκες! (August 2022).