Becoming a woman in the Middle Ages

The very best woman (who is rarer than the phoenix) cannot be loved without the bitterness of fear, anxiety, and frequent misfortune. Wicked women, however – who swarm so abundantly that no place is free from their wickedness – sting sharply when they are loved; they give their time to tormenting a man until his body is divided from his soul.

Walter Map, The Letter of Valerius to Ruffinus, Against Marriage (1180)

Walter Map was a courtier of the English king Henry II, and became Archdeacon of Oxford. In the Middle Ages, misogamous (opposed to marriage) writing had become a popular vehicle for demonstrating rhetorical flourishes. In other words, intellectuals used arguments against marriage to show off their argumentative skills. The carefully crafted misogyny of these academic texts don’t tell us a great deal about social practice – after all, most people in the medieval world did marry – but they do offer an entrypoint into thinking about gender relations in this period. Walter Map’s diatribe – supposedly from him to a philosopher-friend – warns that marriage will weaken his friend’s intellect, distract him from his studies, and subject him to the whims of a passionate, mercurial, irrational creature: a woman. But if men are naturally superior to women, why would they be at risk from the supposedly weaker sex? The letter demonstrates a lot of medieval anxieties about gender roles, sexual relationships and proper authority.

When I teach students my medieval modules at the University of Northampton, we think a lot about gender (as well as other categories of identity!), because it can give us significant insights into understanding medieval behaviour and values. As scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen said, “Gendered terms demand constant recontextualization back into the cultural moment that produces them”. How do we translate that out of scholar-speak? When we’re thinking about gender in the past, we aren’t just asking questions like “were men and women meant to behave in different ways compared to today?” but also “Was gender expressed in the same way in the past? Did being a man or a woman mean the same things that we understand them to mean today?” Although our terminology about gender tends to be represented in binary terms, under pressure those neat binaries break down pretty quickly. Medieval people had a different understand of the physiology of the body, of the psychology of gender, and of appropriate ways for differently gendered people to behave, and so it’s important to think not just about the experiences of men and women in the Middle Ages but also what medieval people understood men and women to be.

Framed miniature of the Holy Family in the carpenter’s shop, with Joseph planing wood, Mary sewing and Christ playing with a spinning top. British Library Additional 18193 f. 48v
, after 1461.

Medieval conceptions of sexuality and gender often represented as rigid and authoritarian. But medical and philosophical texts make it clear that there was, at least in academic circles, a vibrant level of discourse offering a multiplicity of approaches to questions like: what are male and female roles in reproduction? What distinguishes a male from a female? Is pleasure necessary for conception? These discussions spilled outward into the wider culture, for instance informing the production of medical encylopedias, and shaping discourse in literary texts. The questions posed in them also let us get a sense of medieval preoccupations.

In medieval medical thought, people’s bodies and minds were governed by the four humours. In very simple terms, this theory said that the human body was filled with four substances, called humours, which are balanced when a person is healthy. Disease and disability alike were believed to result from from an excess or deficit of one of these four humours. This relates to gender because it was believed that in human reproduction, all male seed would in perfect conditions result in male offspring, because the ideal is replication. But failures in male seed – for instance, to be sufficiently hot, as women were seen as cold and wet in humoral terms – led to the production of females. Females were in this thinking imperfect males. So we can see how this scientific understanding of reproduction is used to support a theological argument for the superiority of men, and in particular of the role of father as head of the family.

It is the father who ought to be loved more than the mother. For one’s father and mother are loved as principles in our natural origin. But the father, as the active partner, is a principle in a higher way than the mother, who supplies the passive material element.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

The combination of hot and dry humours that were believed to create the male sexed body was also believed to produce superior “masculine” characteristics as physical strength and rationality. Meanwhile, the cool, damp humours that made women were believed to produce more negative qualities like irrationality, changeable emotions and physical weakness.

So, from the moment you were born and sexed as female, you were already at a significant disadvantage. But did that mean women had no hope of being the equals of men in medieval society? What happened to women who didn’t fit the mould society tried to force them into? As part of Women’s History Month, next week I’ll share a few examples of medieval women who showed that it was not as easy in practice as in theory to dismiss women as the “weaker sex”.

Dr Rachel Moss is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton. She leads the modules The Medieval World, Medieval Chivalry and its Afterlives, and The Wars of the Roses.

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