‘History that Stands Still’: Women’s Work in the European Past

‘History that Stands Still’: Women’s Work in the European Past

By Judith M. Bennett

Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, no. 2 (1988)

Introduction: The tempting specter of a “golden age” has haunted the study of preindustrial women since the earliest decades of this century. Writing at a time when middle-class women were slowly moving into many sectors of public life, the fist medievalists to study women eagerly supported the notion of a medieval ‘bon vieux temps’. Asserting through their own academic careers the public rights of women, these scholars were pleased to report that medieval women had also been active and competent members of their communities. They acknowledged the many disabilities of medieval women-exclusion from public office, limited rights of inheritance, second-rank status in guilds-but they emphasized women’s public contributions to medieval civilization. Their essays describe women’s vital work in agriculture and crafts, women’s success as both local traders and long-distance merchants, women’s power as wives and widows. As Eileen Power phrased it, “medieval society was neither one of superiority nor of inferiority, but one of rough and ready equality.”

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