Women in the Middle Ages

The medieval woman is caught between two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, she is Eve, the temptress and corrupter of men; a position that sometimes disempowers her and places her as the victim of men’s power struggles, and other times gives her a dark power over her male counterparts. On the other side, she is Mary, the pure redeemer of womankind, embodying virtue, but this position is also an avenue for female disempowerment, objectifying her and making her little more than a prize to be won.

The changing role of women during the Middle Ages was largely brought about by the rise of the Church’s power. Pat Belanoff describes the woman of earlier Anglo-Saxon literature: “Within the resources available to Anglo-Saxon poets was a traditional image of the female: an intelligent, strong-minded, usually glowing or shining, verbally adept woman whose actions are resolute and self-initiated— unless and until, the wars and feuds of men victimize her” (Belanoff). She goes on to say that “the full impact of the Church’s antifeminist attitudes was not felt until after the Norman Conquest” and that soon after “women began to lose their importance in the political and religious hierarchy” (Belanoff).

This loss of female power can partly be blamed on one of the most influential themes from the Bible upon Medieval thinking: The Fall of Man. Because “the Garden of Eden myth undercuts femaleness,” it is not long before women are seen as bringers of evil (Belanoff). Belanoff describes the danger of women and the source of the fear surrounding them:

Eve’s submission to the devil strongly implies that it is her weak mind that makes her unable to see through the devil’s disguise and deception… [however] in considering Eve’s strength in relation to Adam’s, whatever the cause, it is she who will finally prevails: Adam eats the apple. He can resist the devil but not Eve (Belanoff).

It is this image of the seductress that leads to a good deal of misogyny during the Middle Ages; however, women seemed to be a necessary evil, one that led to a number of double standards, in marital, legal, and religious matters. Ruth Mazo Karras speaks of the presence of brothels: “The philosophy behind the official establishment and regulation of brothels in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy followed church doctrine in treating prostitutes as degraded and defiled but tolerated their activity because of male demand” (Karras). It seems horribly unfair for the women to be condemned for their sins of the flesh and the men’s sin to be sort of swept under the rug, particularly considering that many women became prostitutes out of desperation and being unable to provide for themselves any other way, a desperate situation that stems directly from their disempowered status within society.

On the opposite side, women were objectified and adored for their purity and semblance to the Virgin Mary. It is this image of women that fueled courtly love, however, this only created a new set of problems for women of the time. R. Howard Bloch says that “love, identified with woman and the senses, is also synonymous with illusion, which makes it the cornerstone of the discourse of misogyny,” which leads to an objectification of women because “if man’s desire for ornament, or for that which is secondary, is analogous to man’s desire for woman, it is because woman is conceived as ornament. She is, by her secondary nature, automatically associated with artifice, decoration” (Bloch).

It is this illusion of women that leads to great inequality in matters of love and marriage. Bloch further comments on the problem of men’s false perceptions of women:

before marriage the senses are seduced and distorted by desire, yet after marriage they are distorted by abuse, or by the tears of lamentation that distort vision. There is, then, no moment at which woman does not trouble vision, distort and destroy the senses. This is because the seducing sophistication of woman is that of illusion itself (Bloch).

One of the most famous literary portrayals of this problem is found in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. She is a woman who desires “mastrie” over her husbands, who has seduced many men with her beauty and wealth. Daniel Murtagh points out the problems that the Wife of Bath faces:

This imperious creature is simply a male fantasy. Alison, who embodies the fantasy, is finally the fool of time and “age, allas! that al wole enveyme” (D 474). But when a fantasy that nourished hope is [a] lie, men often turn, not to the truth, but to a negative version of the fantasy, which will explain their disappointment without impugning their clarity of vision. Thus the courtly lover becomes the Jealous Husband (Murtagh).

Thus, not only is the Wife of Bath a victim of time, which robs her of the only real power she has (her beauty and sexuality), she has also “been wounded by men, who invented her and who made her most vital qualities the servants of a futile drive for power” (Murtagh). The Wife of Bath embodies many of the fears and desires of men, while also becoming a victim of them, making her a both a frightening and pitiable entity, one that becomes the “patron saint of slandered womanhood” (Murtagh).

Throughout the Middle Ages “we are forced to incorporate conflicting images of woman- Eve and Mary, woman as seducer and redeemer- within the essentially negative field of antifeminism and to deal with a paradox of history: that the periods of greatest misogynistic activity can also be periods of intense woman worship” (Bloch). Regardless of whether women find themselves at one end of the spectrum or the other, one thing remains clear: their inherent femaleness puts them at the center of masculine power struggles, either in the form of those struggles’ cause or prize. Women have become so entangled in the ideals of male society, they are veiled in illusion to the point of being helpless to form an independent identity.

Works Cited

Belanoff, Pat. “The Fall of the Old English Female Poetic Image.” PMLA 104.5 (1989). Web. 1 Nov 2010. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/462574].

Bloch, R. Howard. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations 20. (1987). Web. 1 Nov 2010.
[http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928500].

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England.” Signs 14.2 (1989). Web. 1 Nov 2010. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174556].

Murtagh, Daniel M. “Women and Geoffrey Chaucer.” ELH 38.4 (1971). Web. 1 Nov 2010. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/2872261].

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