The clerical crisis (using the term clerical as a convenient designation for both priests and religious) is very familiar in general outline, and this familiarity has tended to obscure a complete understanding. Church professionals, before the Council was barely over, began to show themselves restive under the kinds of discipline they were made to endure – anachronistic and confining clothing, petty and outmoded rules of conduct, pious practices left over from another age, authoritarian and frequently arbitrary superiors. Finally this restiveness reached the heart of the matter – the vow of chastity or the promise of celibacy and the very notion of lifelong, unbreakable commitment.

For a time the priesthood seemed almost fated to disappear, as thousands of men who had supposedly committed themselves for life gave up their offices and, usually, took wives. Nuns, who were if anything popularly regarded as even more exalted and sacrosanct than priests, appropriately went through an even more dramatic crisis, one which shows no sign of resolving itself short of the eventual disappearance of many existing communities of women.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)


Such, then, was the daily existence of some typical medieval women. If medieval civilization is to be judged by it, it must be admitted that it comes well out of the test. It is true that the prevalent dogma of the subjection of women, becoming embedded in the common law and in the marriage laws, left to future generations a legacy which was an unconscionable time in dying. It is true that woman was not legally ‘a free and lawful person’, that she had no lot or share then, or indeed until the twentieth century, in what may be called public as distinct from private rights and duties, and that the higher grades of education were closed to her.

On the other hand, she had a full share in the private rights and duties arising out of the possession of land and played a considerable part in industry, in spite of the handicap of low wages and sometimes of masculine exclusiveness. The education of the average laywoman compared very favourably with that of her husband, and some ladies of rank were leaders of culture, like the royal patronesses of the troubadours, and occasionally blue-stockings, like Christine de Pisan. Although there was small place in the society of the upper classes for the independent unmarried woman, she found an honourable occupation for her activities in monasticism. In every class of the community the life of the married woman gave her a great deal of scope, since, as has already been indicated, the home of this period was a very wide sphere; social and economic conditions demanded that a wife should always be ready to perform her husband’s duties as well as her own, and that a large range of activities should be carried on inside the home under her direction.

Finally, while the Middle Ages inherited the doctrine of the subjection of women, in some degree at least, from the past, in evolved for itself and handed down to the modern world a conception of chivalry which has had its share in the inspiration of poets, the softening of manners, and the advance of civilization. Taking the rough with the smooth and balancing theory against practice, the medieval woman played an active and dignified part in the society of her age.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

The country housewife, too, was expected to look after the bodies of her household in sickness as well as in health, and it was necessary for her to have a certain skill in physic and surgery. Life was far less professionalized in the Middle Ages; a doctor was not to be found round every corner, and though the great lady in her town house or the wealthy bourgeoise might find a physician from Oxford or Paris or Salerno within reach, some one had to be ready to deal with emergencies on the lonely manors. […]

If, however, a woman set up practice as a physician outside the limits of her home and pretended to something more than the skill of an amateur or a witch, there forthwith arose an outcry which seems to foreshadow the opposition of the medical profession to the entrance of women in the nineteenth century. The case of the doctors was a respectable one; the women had no medical degrees and therefore no knowledge or training. Nevertheless there were women here and there who acquired considerable fame as physicians. The most interesting of them is the well-born lady Jacoba Felicie, who in 1322, being then about thirty years of age, was prosecuted by the Medical Faculty at Paris on a charge of contravening the statute which forbade any one to practise medicine in the city and suburbs without the Faculty’s degree and the Chancellor’s licence…Her skill seems to have been undoubted, one witness stating that ‘he had heard it said by several that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than the greatest master doctor or surgeon in Paris’.

Nevertheless she was inhibited; but as she had already disregarded a previous inhibition and a heavy fine, she probably continued as before to practice her healing profession.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

No more striking witness to the confidence reposed by husbands in the business capacity of their wives is to be found than the wills and letters of the later Middle Ages. It is impossible to read through any great collection of medieval wills, such as the Testamenta Eboracensia, published by the Surtees Society, without observing the number of cases in which a wife is made the executrix of her husband’s will, sometimes alone and sometimes as principal in conjunction with other persons. More than once a touch of feeling enlivens the legal phraseology, as when John Sothill of Dewsbury bids his executors, ‘I pray you, pray Thomas my son in my name and for ye lufe of God, yat he never strife with his moder, as he will have my blissyng, for he sall fynd his curtos to del withall’.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

Throughout the Middle Ages, too, the social and physical conditions of life, the constant wars, and above all the slow communications, inevitably threw a great deal of responsibility upon wives as the representatives of their absent husbands. It has been asserted in all ages that the sphere of woman is the home, but it has not always been acknowledged that that sphere may vary greatly in circumference, and that in some periods and circumstances it has given a much wider scope to women than in others. In the Middle Ages it was, for a variety of reasons, a very wide sphere, partly because of this constantly recurring necessity for the wife to take the husband’s place. While her lord was away on military expeditions, on pilgrimages, at court, or on business, it was she who became the natural guardian of the fief or manager of the manor, and Europe was full of competent ladies, not spending all their time in hawking and flirting, spinning and playing chess, but running estates, fighting lawsuits, and even standing sieges for their absent lords. When the nobility of Europe went forth upon a crusade it was their wives who managed their affairs at home, superintended the farming, interviewed the tenants, and saved up money for the next assault.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

Medieval records are, indeed, full of these independent women. A glance at any manorial ‘extent’ will show women villeins and cotters living upon their little holdings and rendering the same services for them as men; some of these are widows, but many of them are obviously unmarried. The unmarried daughters of villeins could always find work to do upon their father’s acres, and could hire out their strong arms for a wage to weed and hoe and help with the harvest. Women performed almost every kind of agricultural labour, with the exception of the heavy business of ploughing. They often acted as thatcher’s assistants, and on many manors they did the greater part of the sheep-shearing, while the care of the dairy and of the small poultry was always in their hands. Similarly, in the towns women carried on a great variety of trades. Of the five hundred crafts scheduled in Etienne Boileau’s Livres des Metiers in medieval Paris, at least five were their monopoly, and in a large number of others women were employed as well as men. Two industries in particular were mainly in their hands, because they could with ease be carried on as by-industries in the home. The ale, drunk by every one who could not afford wine, in those days when only the most poverty-stricken fell back on water, was almost invariably prepared by women, and every student of English manorial court rolls will remember the regular appearance at the leet of most of the village alewives, to be fined for breaking the Assize of Ale. Similarly, in all the great clothworking districts, Florence, the Netherlands, England, women are to be found carrying out the preliminary processes of the manufacture. Spinning was, indeed, the regular occupation of all women and the ‘spinster’s’ habitual means of support; God, as the Wife of Bath observes, has given three weapons to women, deceit, weeping, and spinning! Other food-producing and textile industries were also largely practiced by them, and domestic service provided a career for many.

It must, of course, be remembered that married as well as single women practiced all these occupations, but it is clear that they offered a solution to the problem of the ‘superfluous’ women of the lower classes.

Nevertheless, this equality of men and women in the labour market was a limited one. Many craft regulations exclude female labour, some because the work was considered too heavy, but most for the reason, with which we are familiar, that the competition of women undercut the men. Then, as now, women’s wages were lower than those of men, even for the same work, and the author of a treatise on Husbandry was enunciating a general principle when, after describing the duties of the daye or dairywoman, he added: ‘If this is a manor where there is no dairy, it is always good to have a woman there at a much less cost than a man’.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

The benefits provided an attractive reward for the hard labor involved in being a laundress. Although pay scales and benefits varied over time and from post to post, the women often earned more than the average enlisted man. As a company laundress, a woman made a contribution to the family both through income and food. Elizabeth Bacon Custer summed it up by saying marrying a laundress was a good investment for an enlisted man. Income earned for washing, along with the extra rations allotted by the military, plus other benefits, allowed the family of a soldier with a laundress for a wife to live in relative comfort.

Jennifer J. Lawrence, Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876 (2016)

Chances are that a single woman hired as a laundress married quickly after taking the job. In the general population, men outnumbered women, particularly in the frontier west, and, of course, in military camps, the shortage of women was extreme. Soldiers also saw a laundress-wife as a good investment, as she made more in one month than did an unmarried private. Not until a man earned the rank of First Sergeant did the pay become almost equal. The food a wife cooked was most likely better than that served in the barracks dining room. Marriage included the traditional benefit of female companionship and the associated bonuses.

Jennifer J. Lawrence, Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876 (2016)

Life and death were harsh realities in army camps and isolated frontier forts, and laundresses participated in the full range. In spite of lacking formal education, many laundresses acquired the knowledge and resources they needed to face the challenges that came their way – whether it be doing laundry, birthing and raising children in primitive conditions, handling first-aid emergencies, providing companionship and sex to soldiers, or preparing bodies for burial and consoling the bereaved. Laundresses were often the only women available to take on roles that have traditionally fallen to the feminine gender, and they did what they could.

Jennifer J. Lawrence, Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876 (2016)

It is impossible to enumerate all the forms assumed by Christian charity, or the institutions to which it gave rise. Some of the most curious were devoted to the recovery of prostitutes. This social sore existed throughout the Middle Ages, but increased during the thirteenth century with the growth of towns and universities. Prostitutes were found everywhere, even in the crusading armies! St Louis took steps to regulate their trade, and an encyclical of Innocent III in 1198 promised total remission of his sins to any pious man who married a harlot with a view to her rehabilitation.

In 1204, Fulk, parish priest of Neuilly who was afterwards celebrated as Peter the Hermit of the fourth crusade, began, with his curate Peter of Rossiac, haranguing fallen women in the public squares and in the streets. Later, he founded a congregation for the purpose of reclaiming them; and his devoted efforts soon brought into being an abbey which adopted the Cistercian Rule. Fulk was not alone in this work; in 1272, Bertrand, a citizen of Marseilles, established a similar community which was recognized as a monastic Order by Nicholas III. Their example was imitated at Rome, Bologna, Messina, Bourges, Bijon, and even at St Jean d’Acre in Palestine. But the most interesting and most successful of these undertakings was that of Canon Rudolph of Hildesheim, who was asked by the Archbishop of Mayence to reclaim the fahrende Weiber (street-walkers). He founded the Order of Penitent Sisters of St Magdalen, under whose austere rule these ladies might walk the road to heaven.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350)