Chattels - Or What Medieval Women were NOT
OK. I admit it, this entry is not only part of the Rave Review Book Club Book and Blog Party, it's also a bit of a rant. I’m sick and tired of hearing that women were “mere chattels” in the Middle Ages because that was NOT true. It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (800 – 1500 AD) “chattels.”
Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.
I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
The Christianization of Europe led to the gradual elimination of slavery across Western Europe. Former slaves were transformed into “serfs,” whose mobility and freedom was greatly inhibited, but who also enjoyed rights. Most simply and importantly, serfs could not be bought or sold—not even female serfs. Female serfs were not chattels—of their lords or their husbands.
Furthermore, nothing — absolutely nothing — gives women more power and status than wealth. In societies where women cannot own property (e.g. ancient Athens) they are not only powerless to take their fate into their own hands in an emergency, they are also generally viewed by men as worthless. Where women can possess, pass-on, and control wealth they are viewed with respect and coveted not only as sexual objects but as contributors to a man’s status and fortune (e.g. ancient Sparta.)
Medieval women across Europe could inherit, own and dispose of property. The laws obviously varied from realm to realm and over time, but the fundamental right of women to inherit was widespread and reached from the top of society (women could bequeath kingdoms) to the bottom, where peasant women could also inherit and transmit the hereditary rights to their father’s lands, mill or shop. Middle class women such as guildsman’s wives could inherit whole businesses. This made them very valuable as wives.
Widows were particularly well protected. Beyond what they personally inherited they had a right to a share of their deceased husband’s property. For noblewomen that could be vast estates, for poor women maybe little more than some furnishings and bedclothes, but the point is that their situation reflected their husband’s estate not their sex.
Women could learn and engage in trades and business. Skills even more than property foster economic independence and empowerment because property can be lost — in a fire, an invasion, from imprudence and debt — but skills are mobile and enduring, as long as one remains healthy enough to pursue one’s profession. Women in the Middle Ages could learn a variety of trades from brewer and baker to silk-maker, weaver, dyer and more.
4 Medieval society was hierarchical. A woman’s status was dictated by her class more than her sex. A woman of the nobility had more respect and power than a man of the middle classes, and a middle class woman had more respect and power than a peasant man. Women of higher social class could command, control, and indeed oppress men of lower status.
Women who ruled kingdoms — whether Eleanor of Aquitaine or Melusinde of Jerusalem — and wielded power over noblemen, knights and bishops were not “chattels.” Women who wrote theology and corresponded with popes and emperors and controlled the wealth and inhabitants of religious communities like Hildegard von Bingen were not “chattels.” Women who pursued trades and ran businesses, amassing fortunes while holding authority over journeymen and apprentices were not “chattels.”
Another factor in the increased status of women in the Middle Ages was the spread of Christianity. In fact it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe.
I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” ordaining women, or any other issue that agitates modern women, but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.
Divorce is pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelming by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply failed to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost. The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal.
The Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual partner to life-time partner. Yes, I know a bad marriage can be hell, but a woman in the 6th, 7th or 8th century couldn’t just move to a new city, get a new job and start a new life. Her only option was going back to her own family (if they’d have her) and generally becoming the resented and humiliated “reject,” kicked around and abused by her sisters, sisters-in-law etc. And, yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world.
3Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not always and unremittingly misogynous. Yes, I know, you can find all sorts of quotes to prove the contrary. But “the Church” is not in fact monolithic or static. An 11th century French bishop went on record saying: “Of all the things that God has given for human use, nothing is more beautiful or better than a good woman.” The 13th Century Master-General of the Dominican Order noted that at Christ’s resurrection it was a woman to whom He first appeared — a hugely important theological point, by the way.
Most important, the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to a women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom.
So, in conclusion, were medieval women equal to men? No. Did they have the same rights and privileges? No. Could they do everything that men did? No. Were they often victims of violence and injustice? Certainly. But the world is not made up of black and white, pure good and pure evil, perfect equality or pure oppression. European women in the Middle Ages enjoyed far more status, freedom and economic empowerment than hundreds of millions of women living in the world today. Please don’t refer to them as “chattels.”