When, in 1469, Margery Paston, the daughter of a wealthy Norfolk family, became secretly engaged to her family’s estate bailiff Richard Calle, she found herself in the middle of a bitter dispute which pitted her against her own mother and brother because she had challenged the conventions of her gender and class. The family hoped to marry her into a noble family, whereas Richard came from a family of shopkeepers. All the anger and genuine sense of betrayal is revealed in the letter that her mother wrote to her son, Margery’s brother.
On Friday the bishop sent for her and he spoke to her clearly and reminded her of her position in society and who were her family and friends. And that she would have more friends if she followed their advice. And if she did not, what rebuke and shame and loss she would suffer. And she said again what she had promised [to Richard Calle] and she said boldly that if these words did not make it final then she would make it quite clear before she left! These shameless words shocked me and her grandmother . . . I ordered my servants that she should be banned from my house . . . I beg you that you do not take this too badly. For I know well that it goes to your heart and it is the same to me and to others. But remember, as I do, that all we have lost is a worthless person. For if she had been good, this would never have happened. Even if he [Calle] were to die at this very hour, I would not take her back.1
Despite all this, Margery succeeded in marrying Richard and her family were forced to accept this. Furthermore, the family found that they needed Richard’s bookkeeping and organizational skills and were losing money without him. So, he was reinstated to his post – but was never truly accepted by Margery’s relatives. Her story reveals the severe constraints facing medieval women. This was due to a range of factors, not least of which was the medieval understanding of what was the fundamental character of ‘Woman’. This was an understanding which was affected by the Norman Conquest but went much deeper than this event and its social repercussions.
The position of women in society suffered a setback in 1066. While female land ownership occurred to a significant extent in Anglo-Saxon society, the Norman preoccupation with linking land to military obligations reduced the role of women as landowners. Moreover, developments within Canon (Church) law also reduced the status of women. Whether this would have happened if the Conquest had not occurred is a matter of debate.
What is clear is that women had a complex image in the Middle Ages. Eve was a woman; the Virgin Mary was a woman. On the one hand it was a woman who was blamed for the Fall and the origin of the sinful nature of humanity (along with Adam of course). On the other it was a woman whom God had honoured by making the mother of Christ. And in medieval Catholic theology Mary was a woman exalted far beyond the relatively limited information provided by the New Testament. Yet it was this very Church which greatly emphasized the particular responsibility of Woman in the fall and whose male-dominated celibate clergy could sometimes be highly misogynistic in the way they described and related to women.
The medieval legal definition of women, outlined in 1180, was that ‘every married woman is a sort of infant’. As a result even adult married women had few rights since, in most circumstances, the existence of a male (whether father or husband) meant that he was in control. Consequently, when a woman married, her property automatically belonged to her husband for as long as he lived. Furthermore, Canon Law permitted a man to beat his wife if he considered her lazy or disobedient. This was not a licence for unrestrained violence since manorial courts contain plenty of evidence that if violence was thought excessive neighbours might intervene, but this fact does not reduce the significance of this power over women. Within marriage a woman’s infidelity was more likely to be severely judged than that of a man. And the simple facts of biology meant that a woman – via pregnancy – was easily identified as having engaged in sex outside of marriage. In such a society the very fact of being female could at times be considered a reproach, and words such as ‘womanish’, ‘effeminate’ and ‘feminine’ were used against men as terms of abuse. Edward II and his favourites were attacked for their ‘effeminacy’ and this was one of the contributory factors leading to his overthrow and murder at Berkley Castle (Gloucestershire) in 1327.
Women were also frequently regarded as being less rational and intelligent than men and more easily tempted into sexual sin. This latter point owes a great deal to Church writers and probably reflects the projecting of blame on to women for the sexual desire which these men felt, having been forced to adopt celibacy. In such circumstances it was invariably the woman who was blamed for tempting the man, rather than the man being blamed for sexual desire. Despite these so-called characteristics of women there were clearly women who prospered in this male-dominated world and did not conform to the stereotype. The countess Hawisa, wife of the Earl of Essex in 1180, was described by a monastic chronicler as ‘almost a man to whom nothing masculine is lacking save virility’. In exceptional cases such characteristics might even be reluctantly admired, but they were not to be emulated by women as a general rule. It comes as no surprise to discover that women could not normally hold responsible roles within government or in law courts and they could not attend university.
That women should be quiet and docile was a frequent – male – preoccupation in literature. The Ancrene Riwle suggested that the Virgin Mary was the model in this, since she said so little that her words are only recorded four times in the New Testament. It is interesting how often women are fined in manor court records having ‘scolded and quarrelled’ with another woman. The manor court rolls for Yeadon (Yorkshire) for 1449 record Joanna, wife of Richard Couper, fined for doing this to Margaret the wife of Thomas Piper ‘in contravention of a penalty imposed for this’ (suggesting it was not a one-off offence). Sibell, wife of John Watson, was similarly fined for doing this to the same Margaret, but this picture of village bickering is further complicated because Joanna was also fined because she ‘equally has scolded and quarrelled with Sibell’ as well! The court protested that these quarrelling women had disturbed the ‘good order’ of the manor.2
Sex and marriage
There was much debate as to what caused the development of gender. A common assumption was that a child was formed by a man’s seed mixing with matter from the mother. If this occurred on the woman’s left side it produced a girl; if on her right side it led to the birth of a boy. It was also thought that any difference in the size of a woman’s breasts indicated the gender of the child to be born. Other writers suggested that girls were produced by defective semen. This, it was suggested, made women long for sexual union with – more perfect – males. Whilst not all thinkers agreed with this (Aquinas for example), the dominant opinion was that reproduction was the result of an active male force acting on passive female material.
In addition, there was an assumption that women’s reproductive organs were an inverted version of a man’s. This was part of the idea that women were, in some sense, defective males. Furthermore, the popularity of the ancient Greek theory that human bodies were dominated by four ‘humours’ led to the idea that, whereas men were dominated by hot and dry humours, women were dominated by cold and moist humours. The need to remove excess quantities of the latter was understood to be the reason for menstrual bleeding.
Finally, regarding conception, many medieval scholars believed that conception only occurred when both partners were sexually aroused. This idea caused acute problems for women made pregnant by rape, since it was assumed that they were willing partners in an act which they found pleasurable. Male theorizing overrode these abused women’s experiences of reality. As with most matters concerned with medieval women and their nature, it was men who articulated it and who stamped it with their masculine authority. Linked to this idea was the view that it was the semen of the man, not actual penetration, that caused sexual pleasure in a woman. And the expectation was that all legitimate sexual activity should occur within marriage.
Although it would accrue a wide range of rituals, the Church’s definition of marriage was remarkably simple. It rested on consent and on the simple exchange of words indicating agreement to be married. Though not a new definition, this was formally ratified by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215; at the same time marriage was, for the first time, defined as a sacrament. If the promise indicated a future intent this became marriage if the couple later began a sexual relationship. Sex alone, though, did not make a relationship a marriage, since Church law pointed to the valid – though always chaste in Catholic theology – marriage of Joseph to the Virgin Mary. However, the reality was that abduction and rape (or seduction) was used to force some women into marriages and clearly played upon a family’s desire to regularize what had been done without consent. If the woman became pregnant, then consent to the sexual act was assumed to have occurred anyway.
Evidence for the period around 1400 suggests that marriage usually took place when couples were in their mid-twenties (men a little older than women), which allowed a man time to secure an income. This evidence is from the church court at York, and it seems that rural couples married a little earlier, with a slightly bigger age difference between husband and wife. Overall, it appears that common assumptions about an early age for marriage actually conflict with the evidence for this economically prudent approach dictating later marriage. Later marriage also meant a smaller family size, which assisted in keeping together the small estate gathered through parents’ lifetimes.
Parental consent was usually sought but was not essential. Most marriages took place in church, but this was not stipulated in law and often it was sufficient to state marriage vows in front of witnesses. The minimum age for marriage under Church and Common Law was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Nobles operated under a different set of rules, and much younger betrothals were common amongst the elites. Sexual maturity for medieval girls was probably achieved at about 14 years. The minimum age for marriage contrasted with coming of age regarding property rights and inheritance, which, though fixed at 15 for girls, was 21 for aristocratic men (the position for those men lower down the social scale not being so clear).
Strict rules established the family boundaries within which marriage could be contracted in order to avoid technical and actual incest. Restrictions based on blood ties, or consanguinity, were added to by restrictions concerning sexual proximity, or affinity (such as marrying the sister of a woman with whom one had had sexual relations, or someone for whom one acted as a godparent [spiritual affinity]). A growing trend, seen by the fifteenth century, was for common rituals – such as a pre-contract or engagement (which might be made before witnesses such as a priest) – to mark out the significance of marriage, then a public formal contract made within the home of the parents of one of the parties, followed by exchange of vows at the church door (solemnization). This was sometimes followed by a marriage meal and later by the blessing of the marriage bed and sometimes viewing the married couple getting into bed! Sex, though, frequently occurred between the pre-contract and the solemnization. This was not regarded as fornication since the declared intention to marry counted as a key stage in the process of getting married. By 1500, however, this practice was increasingly being frowned on by Church authorities and the emphasis was shifting towards marriage solemnization itself as the only legitimate start for sexual relations. From the 1520s a women made pregnant by her husband before solemnization was regarded as soiled by sin and in need of penitence and purification.
Divorce was not an option for medieval people unless they could prove that the marriage should not have occurred in the first place. In such cases it was necessary to prove that the original ‘marriage’ had involved people whose family ties were such that they broke Church rules on consanguinity, affinity or spiritual affinity. This was often not a straightforward matter, as even Henry VIII found when trying to divorce Katherine of Aragon (claiming she had been a sexual partner with his brother and therefore his brother’s wife, not just ‘his brother’s intended’). Such matters might be complicated by politics, as in the above case where the pope was unwilling to anger Katherine’s relative the Holy Roman Emperor. It was also complicated by the hypocrisy of powerful people, as when Henry married Anne Boleyn, with whose sister he had definitely had the same level of sexual relationship which he claimed made it unlawful for Katherine to have married him. Other complications existed where claims could be made that a pre-contract between two individuals meant they were not technically free to later marry someone else. This occurred following the death of Edward IV in 1483, when Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, disclosed to the dead king’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and the royal council the existence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and a woman named Eleanor Butler. This pre-contract (if real) made Edward’s later marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and his children, by her, illegitimate. As a result of this ‘evidence’ Parliament declared Richard to be England’s legal king, since the two sons of Edward were in effect bastards. But for ordinary people such manipulation of the law was out of the question and marriage was for life. Impotence was also a ground for separation but it had to be proven, and examples exist of authorities testing the husband’s ability to get an erection by exposing him to other women. Similarly, proving a woman to have been unchaste at marriage could also cause a marriage to be annulled but was difficult to prove and open to abuse.
Many Church writers described marriage as an acceptable state for those not able to achieve the higher calling of chastity. For these writers marriage was a concession to human weakness and clearly a second-class form of life. However, not all writers expressed such a negative view. Thomas of Cobham, in 1215, suggested a wife had the power to persuade her husband to act morally, and Robert Mannyng reminded his readers that God had ordained marriage in the Garden of Eden.
As the earlier evidence from the 1520s reminds us, sex outside marriage – fornication –was considered very sinful. However, much evidence exists regarding its frequency. Lords of the manor could even make a profit from it, with fines imposed on village women for fornication and for bearing illegitimate children. At Wakefield Manor in 1316, seven female villeins were fined for ‘lechery’. In the manor court rolls for Walsham-le-Willows (Suffolk) in 1340, Agnes Fitte was fined 2 shillings and 8 pence because she ‘gave birth outside wedlock’. This was the fine known as childwyte. A similar attempt to enforce sexual morality in a manor court can be found at Downham (Cambridgeshire) in 1311, when ‘Twelve jurors present that Alice, the daughter of Amicia committed adultery and is therefore in mercy’.3 The phrase in mercy found in legal documents is a common abbreviation of amercement and means that she was fined. That the jurors accused Alice may be as much explained by the fact that they would be fined it they did not do so as by their own sense of moral disapproval. In 1316 the community at Osset, near Wakefield, was fined 40 pence because they concealed the existence of the sisters Eva, Alice and Annabel who had apparently all been ‘deflowered’ and were accused of beinglecherwytes, that is, sexually promiscuous.4
The Catholic Church taught that within marriage the main purpose of sex was to reproduce, although the liturgical calendar was full of feast days and fast days (plus Sunday) on which marital intercourse was forbidden. In addition, couples were also not supposed to have sex during the woman’s menstrual period.
Marriage for aristocratic women was frequently a business deal. Love between the partners was not seen as important. Instead, marriages were made to create territorial alliances or to increase the wealth of the families involved. The evidence of Magna Carta reminds us that the king had the right to sell off widowed noble women to the highest bidder, and female wards were particularly prone to being manipulated as financial assets. Lower-class unfree women could similarly be forced to marry by their lord. Agnes Seynpel in Cambridgeshire, in 1289, had to pay a fine of 12 shillings to be allowed a few months to find a husband of her own choosing.
Women could inherit if there was no male heir, and as long as she remained single a woman could hold property like a man. But this right was lost on marriage. Remaining single was a virtual impossibility for a woman who inherited substantial property. About 93 per cent of all daughters of the most powerful landowning families between 1330 and 1479 were married by the time they were 35 years old. And such women remained as wards of their overlord, who had final say on whom they could marry. However, Magna Carta insisted that no widow should be forced to remarry. The Common Law decreed that any items which a woman owned on marriage became the outright property of her husband. This was even more severe than a husband’s guardianship of his wife’s landed property. As a result, some fathers without sons disinherited their daughters in order to keep their lands within their family.
Given both the importance of marriage (as a context for sexual activity and the organization of inheritance) and the church’s exaltation of virginity, it comes as no surprise to discover two very different views of sex in medieval written sources. This duality has been explored by the historian Ruth Mazo Karras.5 The first is a very negative view which is often found in theological and medical books and which described sex as sinful and a threat to the soul. The other view is earthier and found in evidence such as chroniclers, manor records and the courtly love literature, and describes sexually active priests, aristocratic mistresses and lower-class sex between peasants. It still reflects medieval ideas about sex but suggests that many people did not share the horror of it found in the writings of many celibate clergy. So, the medieval attitude towards sex was complicated and the practice was often very different from the theory. Karras has also shown how many medieval people saw love and friendship differently from the modern ideal, which sees sexual intimacy as principally concerned with relationships. Medieval people, however, appear to have more commonly considered sex as an act of lesser importance, something somebody did to somebody else, and not part of a mutual relationship. This was strongly linked to both the passive view of women’s role within sex and the subservient view of women in general, which reduced the emphasis on them as friends and partners with men. Karras even subtitled her book ‘Doing Unto Others’ to emphasize this point. It shows an interesting contrast between the medieval and the modern outlook on sexual relationships. But it has to be borne in mind that the twenty-first century sex industry and pornography reveal that this attitude towards women as sexual objects cannot be solely regarded as a medieval characteristic.
The complex medieval attitude towards sex is seen in the view of virginity. As we have seen, for medieval Church writers and opinion formers virginity was highly prized. Although for the first thousand years of Church history it was possible to be a priest and be married, this became increasingly frowned upon. For those who chose the ‘religious life’ in a monastery, chastity was one of the essential characteristics of their calling and discipline. From the 1070s onwards in England the campaign against married parish priests intensified. All of this created a mindset in which marriage and sexual activity was regarded as being for those who were not able to meet the higher calling of celibacy.
Modern historians, such as Sarah Salih, who have studied the way in which virginity was regarded in the Middle Ages, have revealed that for medieval writers there was more to virginity than sexual inexperience, and that virginity could almost be considered as a gendered identity; a role which was performed rather than biologically determined. By exploring versions of virginity as they appear in medieval saints’ lives, in the regulated chastity of nuns, and as shown in the book of Margery Kempe, she has demonstrated that it was an active role, much debated, considered clearly vulnerable but also recoverable.6 This last point is particularly interesting because it reminds us that in the mindset of the Middle Ages repenting of sexual activity – particularly if accompanied by vows of chastity from that point – was tantamount to becoming a virgin again. And this explains the outlook of those married people who made the decision to enter the ‘religious life’ after years of marriage and those who sought – often successfully – to encourage prostitutes to repent and ‘retire’ into specialist nunneries. The complex idea of virginity – both holy and yet requiring great effort to maintain . . . elusive yet appealing . . . seductively presented in some literature and yet removed from earthly desire – embodies much of the complex attitude towards sex in the Middle Ages.7 The value placed on virginity is seen in the fact that in the design of religious houses access to a female dormitory was as difficult as that to a sacristy (where sacred vessels were stored) in a male religious house.8
Women’s role in society
Sexuality could define women in economic terms too. Ploughing, hedging and ditching were seen as typically male occupations, whereas planting, winnowing, weeding and looking after the chickens and cows was seen as female. Where women did comparable jobs to men they seem to have been paid the same rate, but women traditionally did less well-paid jobs. However, women were clearly experienced workers and organizers, and in many surviving wills husbands name their wives as their executors.
Single women had greater freedom if they were below the rank of major landowner, and this was particularly so in the developing towns. In some towns – such as Exeter, Lincoln, London, Torksey and Worcester – even married women could trade freely as if they were single. This was particularly so if a wife’s trade was different from the trade of her husband. Such women could also take on apprentices and this is specified in ordinances from London. Girl apprentices were not at all unusual in trades such as the silk industry, but Agnes Hecche’s apprenticeship to her armour-making father, in early-fifteenth-century York, is unusual to say the least. Widows were particularly prominent in town trade and in some towns in the later Middle Ages they constituted up to 20 per cent of those classed as heads of households. Mostly they traded in food, drink and clothing. About 50 per cent of the women workers in late-fourteenth-century Exeter were engaged in such trades. In many towns it was the textile trades in which female labour was dominant, though they were usually as employees, not as owners of the business. Others were employed in laundries. Nevertheless, their economic activities in towns did not extend to government, from which they were totally excluded. In London in 1422 it was decided that women would not even be allowed to oversee the trading in oysters at Queenhithe. In short, as in the countryside, women might find greater economic opportunities after the Black Death but this was not allowed to develop into political power. And, despite the evidence for some women prospering within marriage and continuing to do so on being widowed, it should also be remembered that many widows lived in terrible poverty.
Despite this, widowhood could sometimes give women an opportunity to escape the marriage market, which especially dominated aristocratic life. This was achieved by entering a religious house as a nun. This same opportunity was sometimes taken up by older married women. Since nuns were the best-educated women in the country this did allow some women the right to exercise considerable power. A woman – often a widow, or an unmarried woman – who was not attracted by the regulations of convent life might become an anchoress, following a hermit lifestyle of prayer and contemplation. However, for most medieval women the context for most of their activities lay within the family.
Throughout the Middle Ages the prime time for child bearing was the early to mid-twenties. A woman close to the time of giving birth was ideally confined in a warm, dark room and attended by a midwife and female helpers. Males were excluded. Newborn babies were baptized within two or three days, for fear they die unbaptized and be thus excluded from salvation. In an emergency a lay person could baptize a dying baby rather than risk waiting for a priest. Children – certainly of elite parents for whom we have more information – were often given three godparents, two of the same gender and one of the opposite.
Contrary to many assumptions it seems that extended families of three generations were relatively rare across much of the Middle Ages. Fourteenth-century poll tax records indicate few families contained members beyond parents and their children. The resulting picture is largely of nuclear families. However, there are some complexities which the available evidence does not allow us to disentangle. The poll tax groupings of couples with the same surnames in the same small settlement probably indicates separate households of married brothers, but it may represent a system known as frérèche, in which two or more married couples lived under the same roof. The married ‘units’ in such a situation were usually organized around brothers. Suggestions have been made that this can be demonstrated in a number of cases using court roll evidence from Halesowen (Worcestershire) prior to the 1350s.9 Similar conclusions have been drawn for Leicestershire in 1379 from poll tax returns, but not for Essex, which appears more consistently ‘nuclear’.10 What these studies may indicate is that there was no consistent family form across England, with East Anglia characterized by nuclear families while other structures (extended and frérèche) were found in the Midlands and West Midlands up until the 1380s. This same pattern of nuclear families appears in towns in the Middle Ages.
The development of such an apparently ‘modern’ family structure may have been encouraged by living in regions which were less conservative and were characterized by the active buying and selling of land, division of peasant land units, greater geographical mobility and a more varied and active economy – in which smaller family units could be economically viable without having to inherit land. In areas associated with arable agriculture, villeinage and the demands of lords, the need of assistance from close family members (accompanied by the landlord’s desire to avoid splitting peasant land units) may have encouraged extended family patterns. If this is the case it may explain why the nuclear pattern seems to increase from the later fourteenth century, as villeinage declined. By the sixteenth century it was the dominant family structure across much of England (and north-western Europe). This trend was accompanied by the placing of adolescent children as servants in nearby households: a practice more pronounced in towns than in the countryside, though it was also found there. This was known as life-cycle service, since it was not a permanent career choice but one lasting until the individuals married and set up their own households. It gave access to training in craft skills and increased as the wages of day labourers mounted in the late fourteenth century – live-in servants offering a cheaper alternative to hired hands.
When it comes to relationships within such families, it is tempting to assume that the high rate of infant mortality meant that people in the Middle Ages had looser emotional attachments to their children than modern parents. Indeed, in the 1960s the French historian Philippe Ariès argued that ‘childhood’ was invented after the Middle Ages and that medieval children were considered as little adults.11 Ariès pointed out that most medieval young people were apprenticed like adults, or worked in agriculture like adults. In short, they entered into adult society at a very early age. As evidence he cited art. In medieval art there are few recognizable children, or babies. The physical build of those painted, their clothing, expressions, and mannerisms all reflect adult norms. In the medieval world a young person of seven years old was already considered an adult. In medieval church writings this was the age of reason – the age when it was considered that a child could begin to commit sin. As a result, Ariès argued, ‘there was no place for childhood in the medieval world.’12
This view has not gone unchallenged. Following more recent examinations of the evidence, historical sociologists have countered Ariès’ view by claiming that, in fact, it convincingly demonstrates the extent to which the relationship between parents and children was a fundamental element in medieval European society.13 The contemporary ‘accounts’ of the so-called martyr William of Norwich seem to challenge the idea that what little childhood there was ended early. Despite being 12 years old at the time of his death, it is clear that (although he was already a tanner’s apprentice and living away from home) he was clearly considered a child. It was his apparent youth and innocence which made him such a useful figure to anti-Semites seeking to blame Jews for ritually murdering him. In the Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, written by Thomas of Monmouth between about 1150 and 1173, the handling of the death of William only makes sense against a background of adult fears concerning the vulnerability and innocence of children.14
With regard to relationships between parents and children, the medieval ideal was for men to hold authority over their wives and children. In the poem Piers Plowman, William Langland puts these instructions into the mouth of ‘Reason’:
He warned Walter that his wife was much to be blamed for wearing a headdress worth five guineas, while his ragged old hood would hardly fetch threepence. And he bade Mr Bett cut himself some birch-rods, and beat his daughter Betty till she was willing to work.15
Women by the end of the Middle Ages
There is evidence that during the fifteenth century there occurred a hardening of male attitudes towards women and what we would now call gender roles, and that some economic and social freedoms, which had been increasing before this, were reduced. For example, it seemed that men and women were increasingly segregated in church.16 This shows itself in churches where the provision of pews were primarily for the use of women; men presumably standing as before. By 1500 there had also been an increase in the number of separate maidens’ and young men’s guilds, which may reflect the same trend in segregation of men and women.17 In the same way, clues suggest that women no longer played female parts in the Mystery Plays from the 1450s onwards. That men (in drag) came to play these parts is clear from accounts such as those from Coventry in 1499 detailing payments ‘to pylatts wyffe [Pilate’s wife] for his wages’. The fact that the plays with most female parts are associated with female crafts suggests that, at an earlier time, these parts were once played by women. In addition, many of the female characters which emerge by 1500 appear based on negative stereotypes of women.18 This downplaying of female roles, in addition to the propagation of anti-female humour, is striking.
This trend was accompanied by attempts to restrict women’s working opportunities in order to protect the jobs of men in the economically troubled years of the fifteenth century. In 1453 regulations in Coventry barred women from working at the broad-looms of the city. A similar ordinance was passed in Bristol in 1461. Other laws against women weavers occur from Hull in 1490 and Norwich in 1511. Similar fear of the ‘ungoverned woman’ shows itself in stricter town ordinances concerning prostitution in Nottingham in 1463, Leicester in 1467 and York in 1482. The same trend made it increasingly difficult for women to keep alehouses (a common occupation for centuries prior to the late fifteenth century). Such women were now accused of being sexually lax, of receiving stolen goods and of corrupting young men. This move to drive women out of the marketplace is seen across northern Europe at this time and is by no means confined to England. The new emphasis was on women as economically dependent homemakers and men as financially independent breadwinners. These economic changes were accompanied by increased regulation of sexual behaviour, as attitudes towards sex changed during the later Middle Ages. In short, there was far more regulation in the later Middle Ages than in the earlier period.
This increased attempt to control women, both socially and economically, coincided with an increased interest in the role of alleged female sexuality in witchcraft. For most of the medieval period there was virtually no punishment of men and women for witchcraft. The ‘Great Witch Hunt’ is a feature of the end of the Middle Ages and the start of what historians call the Early Modern period (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). At this time anxieties about economic problems and schisms in the Church coincided with an increased fear of women’s sexuality. This latter issue became one of the strangest factors in the development of the concept of witchcraft, which occurred only at the very end of the Middle Ages, and led to a widespread belief that witchcraft came from uncontrolled sexual desire on the part of women. As such it was part of a trend which blamed marginal members of the community, and those least able to defend themselves, for problems in society. The story of the Great Witch Hunt lies outside the scope of this book but its roots lay in the increasingly tough later-medieval attitudes towards women, particularly unmarried ones or widows. In this way, the focus on supposed female sexual promiscuity and the fact that most of those accused of witchcraft were female, poor and old came to be combined in a process of deadly scapegoating.
In many other ways, however, the late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century expectations of women remain consistent with those of earlier centuries. The Sarum Missal taught that at marriage a wife should be ‘bonair [courteous] and buxom [obliging] in bed and at board.’ Other conduct books taught the virtues of meekness, modesty, fertility and subservience to her husband. That not all women accepted these characteristics is clear from evidence across the Middle Ages, but there is an increase in their prevalence from 1500. In 1531 the Venetian ambassador noted that a crowd of up to 8,000 women had attempted to lynch Anne Boleyn at a Thameside residence. His report suggested that the women were not severely punished because they were female, and this clearly made the attack feel less of a threat to those in authority (though probably not to Anne). The action of these women is a curious mixture of ‘medieval feminine characteristics’. On the one hand the women were conservative and traditional. They were pro-Catholic and antagonistic to Anne’s disruption of the relationship between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Their light treatment by the authorities shows that they were still regarded, condescendingly, as the weaker sex. On the other hand they were aggressive and subversive and made the most of their social position to attempt actions which would have seen a man hanged. In fact, the ambassador claims that some of the ‘women’ were in fact men in female clothing!
The fact is that many women resisted the trend to control them more closely. As literacy increased it was reflected in a growing number of women who could read. Even the religiously conservative Thomas More ensured his daughters received a full humanist education. Such attitudes were most likely to be found amongst a small group of the elite families and this had, to some extent, been true throughout the Middle Ages. Diane Watt has recently argued that women in the period 1100 to 1500 contributed (as patrons, readers, audiences and subjects) both to the production of texts and their meanings, whether these were written by men or by women.19 But women’s involvement in radical trends and challenges to social norms was not restricted to female aristocrats and families of courtiers; it is also evident in those women who appear amongst the early Protestant martyrs under Henry VIII. When Anne Askew was burnt for heresy in 1546, she was not unique in her female membership of the emerging Protestant community. Clearly, she did not consider it her role to sit submissively under an authority she believed wrong – in this case the Catholic hierarchy.20Her assertiveness reminds us that not all women accepted a role of passivity.