Castle Learning Center Medieval Women
Castles of Britain

Medieval Women

© 2001-2016 by Marvin Hull
The attitude toward women in medieval times, particularly held by the Church, was that they were inferior to men. Generally, women were taught that they should be meek and obedient to their fathers and husbands.

In reality, medieval women had a lot of responsibility and were not at all inferior to men in terms of daily effort. Most worked and did not stay at home. Many toiled alongside their families in the fields, and some were employed in workshops or were trades-women. Women sometimes had the responsibility of running large estates, due to the death of a husband. They settled local disputes and arranged estate finances. They even took charge of defending castles or manors from attackers. It was also not unknown for the medieval woman to lead troops into battle.

Unmarried women holding lands were powerful and had the same rights as men. However, when a woman married, she forfeited her lands and rights to her husband. Upon his death, she was entitled to a third of the lands so that she might support herself. Some unmarried women entered convents or nunneries where they lived a life similar to a monk's. This afforded them the chance to obtain an education or lead a devout life. Many nuns cared for the sick and also became important figures in the community.

Occupations held by medieval women included shopkeepers, bakers, spinners, alewives (those that brewed the ales), farmers, and silk weavers. There were even some women writers. It was common for a woman to hold more than one job because they were paid much less than men, and in order to make an adequate income they took on extra work. Being a spinner was the most common occupation. Women spent much of their time spinning wool into coarse thread, then weaving it into cloth and making garments.

Young single women often wore their hair loose, but once married almost all medieval women wore a linen wimple (wrapup) to cover the hair. This was a sign of modesty. Other items worn by medieval women included hair pins, prayer beads, leather purses, woolen knee stockings, and leather shoes.