An Examination of Women’s Rights in Medieval England
By Brittany Mae Thaxter
Mount Royal Undergraduate Humanities Review, Vol.1 (2013)
Abstract: This paper explores the rights and perceptions of women within Medieval England. It discusses the laws that limited women personally and then examines the supposed legal freedoms they possessed in comparison to other countries of that time period. Ultimately this paper concluded that even though the intent behind the law code pertaining to women was protection, it ultimately resulted in injustice and supported a system of patriarchy.
Introduction: In medieval England, Lisa Bitel writes, “women rise from medieval documents as shadows marked only by affiliation to individual men.” Before marriage, this affiliation was to fathers and brothers, and after marriage to husbands. As Bitel points out, “men […] generated rules for how women should behave and decided what was to happen when a woman erred”. This was necessary because, as one medieval source claimed, “women are timorous, feeble, needful of many things, busy about many trifles, full of words and like unto a ruinous house that must be underset and upholden with many small props.” It was the role of men to provide safety, care and security for the women in their families and surrounding community. The role of protector came to define a man’s masculinity, while being protected was the definition of a woman’s femininity. Since men were in charge of law making and governing, the laws of medieval England were ostensibly designed to ensure women were suitably “protected.” In fact, as this paper will explore, paternalism was used as a justification and was consequently articulated through the legal system in pre-modern England to reify the subjugation of women within society.
Pre-modern England was completely submersed in Christian thought and structured as a patriarchy. The society was generally collective, meaning that the individual was only seen as a part of the larger community. This idea was represented in the political theory, the body politic that highlighted not only the collective mentality of the society but also the hierarchical properties of the collective. Not only was everyone defined in relation to the whole, they also all had a structured place and specific role to play. For women, these roles were mostly domestic and strictly enforced through religious and secular governing bodies.