The status of women was mostly based on how much control they had over their body. The extent of their legal, economic, political power, and access to education were the criteria by which they were assessed upon. Lay women were divided into different stages of life: unmarried, married, or widowed. As they went through these different stages, their statuses and rights would change drastically although there were a few recorded exceptions. In general, Europe in the late Middle Ages was based on a patriarchal society, with the men being in control of the household and guilds.
Women being financially dependent, without property and having been denied political and legal status can only be considered a fair judgement to a certain extent depending on whether they were peasants, aristocrats and prosperous women in cities. Peasant women had a lot of limitations in aspects of life. They had no access to education, which affected their legal status when it came to court with the women having no political voice at all, while the husband talked. Interestingly, peasant women did have more freedom than aristocratic women in the sense that they had a wider choice of marriage due to the lack of dowry land.
Thus, they could choose their own sexual partner. However, once they got married, they gained relative financial power. Not only did peasant women work on the fields alongside their husbands, but also they produced milk, cheese, and beer in the household. This would then be sold in the local market by the women, while the men would relax with friends or spend time with the children. In a larger scale, for all the work on the fields, household, and marketplace, women were being paid only 70% of the men’s wages.
This is why even with all the extra chores and work away from the fields, they would still be financially indebted to men due to their restricted salary. Matters were worse for peasant widows. They were only given one third of their dead husband’s income, which mean they would have to live a financially unstable life without a husband. Consequently, widowed peasants would re-marry, live with other widows, or beg as an alternative solution to their financial tribulations. This implies that they are financially dependent to men. Aristocratic women had a different story from that of peasant women in terms of their financial and political power.
Marriage would mark a stage of financial dependence for aristocrats, according to Antwerp poet, Anna Bijns. “But one who earns her board and clothes/ shouldn’t scurry to suffer a man’s rod” implies that an economically self-sufficient woman would turn into a financially dependent woman when she gets married. The husband would take control over the household and the finance, which leaves the woman financially dependent, without property. On the other hand, the stage of being widowed, was when aristocratic women were considered most powerful with procurement of land, income, and political power.
For instance, dowry land would be returned to her. In addition, the widowed woman would acquire income from one third of the dead husband’s estate. This would give her more financial independence than when she was married. This was a true case for Christine de Pisan who was widowed at the age of 25 during late 14th century. She paid for her children from proceeds. Not only in terms of the financial aspect, but also in terms of political power, she gained more as there is no man to speak for her in court or make political decisions.
She voiced her opinion in lawsuits and was successful in protecting her lands. To further support the statement that aristocratic women gained financial power when their husbands died, there is a case study of Mahaut of Artois. She inherited a country from her father in 1302, after her husband and brother were both killed. Recorded bailiffs show her organized and effective management of finance. She determined her own legal procedure and constructed a method of electing municipal magistrates. She managed to protect her land against the Church in a court in Paris.
She even judges internal disputes in town. The elevation in her legal status is undoubtedly clear with her political stabilisation being clearly visible. She sets up her own cultural centre of manuscripts as well as religious institutions and hospitals. Although this is an extreme case of an aristocratic widowed woman rising drastically to unmeasured power in so many different aspects, this implies that widowed women in the aristocratic class had the potential to gain their social status in society when they became widows.
In urban areas, where farming and domestic work were not the norm for women, “being financially dependent, without property” doesn’t necessarily hold true. Women were involved in occupations such as moneychangers or lenders. In 1368, six out of eleven moneychangers were women according to Williams and Echols’ Between Pit and Pedestal Women In The Middle Ages. Many prosperous women were into direct investments in shipping enterprises and trading careers. One of many was Alice Horsford who owned half of the vessel, Saynte Mariebot.
Even when they were widowed and had to close business deals that their husbands had started, they did not call into financial instability nor were they denied their legal status. In the case of Margery Russell, widow from Coventry, she lost one of her ships from pirates. However, her legal status was maintained or even elevated as she received letters of marque against Santander. This would allow her to capture goods from pirate’s city-licensed ships around the same amount in value to what she had loss.
Businesswomen were allowed to make legal transactions; however, were not allowed to participate in “town governments or security systems”. It can be disclosed that the legal status of prosperous women in urban areas was restrained to a certain extent with some of these cases being extreme and rare. On the other hand, the story was different for unskilled women works who had arrived into the cities. They weren’t able to form guilds due to their low paid jobs.
Some guilds permitted men to discriminating women such as in the guild of Parisian chandlers where Guillemette Olivier barred a female worker from practicing the specific craft due to her lack of aptitude. The level of discrimination and treatment of women varied between guilds but the court eventually “curtailed her business”, which highlights her restricted political and legal status. Even on the financial side of female crafts, men frequently exploited them. The middlemen would cut off supplies or significantly raise prices, which would hit the women’s finance significantly.
In France, women were traditionally paid less than men, mostly half of men’s wages. The poorest members of cities were the single or widowed unskilled women worker, which links back to the women being financially dependent. In 1410 Frankfurt, 33. 6% of women were below the poverty line, which clearly shows that many unskilled women workers were living completely different lives from the prosperous widowed women in the city centres. In conclusion, women of different social statuses had different standards of life in terms of their financial, political, and legal status.
It also had a lot of relevance to the woman’s current marital status. Except for peasant women and unskilled women workers in the cities, women of other social classes seemed to show financial independence, and obtained more political and legal power when they became widows. They became more independent and could voice their opinion in public and actively became involved in the financial sector of society. Although there are a few cases of women becoming very successful as they turned into a widow, most lay women were restrained financially, politically, and legally to a certain degree.