LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Tim Lambert
In Saxon Times life for women was hard, rough and usually short. Upper class Saxon women had considerable freedom. However at the other end of society some women were slaves. Saxon women were allowed to own and inherit property and to make contracts. However most Saxon women had to work as hard as the men spinning and weaving, preparing food and drink and performing other tasks.
In the Middle Ages women worked as hard as men. They were needed on the farms. Women hoed and weeded, helped with ploughing (by driving oxen) and tied the sheaves at harvest time.
They also spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer and collected firewood! Some women became nuns but they too had to work hard. At least they did if they were from poor families. Class distinctions still applied in nunneries. Nuns from rich families were given the easiest work such as spinning wool and embroidery.
Childhood ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper class families girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool.
Saxon women wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.
In the 12th and 13th centuries clothes were still quite basic. Women wore a nightie-like linen garment. However they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.
In the Middle Ages both sexes wore clothes made of wool but it varied in quality. Wool could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes dressing 'above themselves'. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth anyway!). However most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.
In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats.
Life in The Middle Ages
Life for women in the 16th Century
Life for women in the Ancient World
Life for women in the 19th Century