By Kaisa Pulliainen
Thesis, University of Jyväskylä, 2009
Introduction: Men dominated life in medieval England and the subordination of women was based on economic, legal and political institutions as well as Christian beliefs and the science of the time. Scholars and nobility largely defined the official status of women. Most of the scholars belonged to the clerical order that was, at least in theory if not in practise, celibate and religious. This might have influenced their view of women. Nobility, on the other hand, was the only part of society that could afford to treat women as decorative objects. The considerable differences between social classes meant that, at least on some levels of society, the official status of women was somewhat different than their status in everyday reality.
This thesis addresses the question of female agency in public life in late medieval England, roughly in the 15th century. Therefore, it is placed on the field of medieval history, and in addition on the field of women‘s history that studies not only the submissive status of women, but also their possibilities to influence their own lives. The normal sphere in women‘s lives in the late medieval England was the family and the private life in homes. However, I will study what possibilities, if any, women had to function in public life that was considered exclusively men‘s domain. Furthermore, I will study how women‘s possibilities to function in public life changed with their marital status.
In addition I will attempt to study attitudes of society towards women who functioned in the public sphere of life. Were they well respected or pushed to the margins of society? Even though the status of medieval women is a well-researched subject, most of the research does not directly handle women in the public life. In this study “public life” covers working in a profession, a person of influence in the community or otherwise visible in part of society. It is clear that there are no definite and conclusive answers to questions regarding society‘s opinions and attitudes, but I will try to make some conclusions based on my sources.