Modern life is taxing and difficult at the best of times, and for many women the existence of certain stereotypes and ‘glass ceilings’ which have survived despite their best efforts often means that for women it can be particularly stressful. Then there are the household chores, inevitably still left to the female portion of a relationship, and being a Mother, all of which place a lot of strain on a woman. However if you think it is tough now then you should have a lot of sympathy for women alive in Medieval times for whom life was more difficult still.
There were some ways in which a woman could gain some independence and freedom but this was rare and mostly women would be very much under the control of the man. In Medieval times a woman could not even speak or give her opinion without permission from the man in her life be it her Father or her husband. Obviously while this was regarded as the general etiquette, it could in some cases differ where the husband or Father were more fair or forgiving in their role.
Medieval women would also have done different jobs. Here the poorer women would need to work jobs as secondary breadwinners often when their husband was unable to support them on their own. These jobs might include collecting hay, ploughing, working for a farmer etc and would often have no shoes. The lack of contraception and knowledge about reproduction would also mean that most women had to deal with many more children than today, and sometimes would have to bring these children along with them too. Often this would mean carrying a baby while sweeping someone’s floor or stacking hay, regularly in the freezing cold.
At the same time, regardless of having gone to work, the woman would then be expected to perform all of the household chores when she returned home. This would include sweeping, cooking, polishing and dusting among other things. This was much worse than today too – with their being fewer tools and no electronic appliances. Washing machines for example simply dig not exist so a Medieval woman would have had to wash each item by hand, and as their were no irons she’d then have had to press them using a large roller requiring a lot of strength.
Another downside of living in Medieval times was the lack of hygiene, healthcare and general knowledge which resulted in most women struggling through all these tasks while in ill health and looking forwards to a much shorter lifespan. Due to a lack of civil rights and laws, many women were also subjected to brutal and regular beatings by their husbands. Life would be worse still for widows when they would often take over their dead husband’s job while running the household themselves. If the job was something like a stone mason, then they would need to be very strong and would be over-exerted most of the time.
Of course there were always ways out, and ways that a woman could improve her life. By marrying into a rich family for example, a woman could drastically improve her lot. Here should would not be forced to work a job as the man’s wages would be enough to support them. In a very upper class household (though these were in the minority) they also would not need to do the household chores as there would be likely to be a chef and/or maid to do those jobs for them. Here, though the woman would not have many rights, she would enjoy a comfortable existence and would have relative autonomy while her husband was at work. Other ‘noble women’ born into rich families, would have a semblance of power and attend tournaments and theatre and choose their husbands. At the same time they might eventually inherit their father’s fortune. A widow of a wealthy man similarly might not have to work to maintain her household and could achieve freedom this way. Most famously the Queen was born into a life of power and complete autonomy. She would be able to command men and set laws, and would set the ‘fashion’ trends for other women. At the same time however she would still experience some prejudice for being a woman.
Other women might also choose to escape their fates other ways. For example a woman could choose to become a nun, and in this case she would have more freedom and would have the right to her own possessions, though she would have to live a life dictated by the church. Other women chose to become a midwife, as no males were allowed into the ward where a woman was giving birth, meaning they had these hours of freedom. Yet others managed to find success and expression in other ways, as writers or composers, though often using male pen names.