Women Scientists of the Middle Ages and 1600s
By Alana Merritt Mahaffey
Academic Forum, No.18 (2000-2001)
Introduction: Until the women’s movements of the 1800s and 1900s, the limitations set by society for women in the West hardly evolved since the Middle Ages. It is well known that most women in the Middle Ages were restricted in their roles as citizens, limited by social status, by economic constraints, and by a well-established and unquestioned sexism prevalent in church, politics, and family. A woman was defined, especially during the Middle Ages, by how the men with whom she associated defined her. These men were most often her husband or her father. As Christaine Klapisch-Zuber points out in Medieval Callings, “Men of the middle ages long conceived of ‘the woman’ as a category, but only late in the period did they distinguish variations in the behavior expected of women by applying criteria such as professional activities to their model. Before she was seen as a peasant, the lady of a castle, or a saint, ‘the woman’ was defined by her body, her gender, and her relations with family groups. Wife, widow, or maid, her juridical persona and the ethic by which she lived in her daily life were portrayed in relation to a man or group of man”.
By this standard, the average Medieval woman had as much chance of acquiring independent wealth, receiving a well-rounded education, or making significant contributions to society as her husband’s cattle. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that history yields to us several outstanding women of the Middle Ages and 1600s whose accomplishments in the fields of science and writing are still recognized today as valid and significant.
The status of the woman living in the Middle Ages broadened only by necessity. Many men needed the help of their wives to sustain the family, and so men began bringing their wives into the same trade guilds of which the men were already members. Women in these guilds were expected to learn their husbands’ trades and, in many cases, were given “masters status” in these trades. In the event of her husband’s death, the widow was able to take an apprentice herself. The natural evolution of allowing wives into guilds was the emergence of all-female guilds, which usually catered to women in the tapestry and candle trades.