How Sex and Religion Shaped Medieval Gender Roles

Content Warning: Discussions of Misogyny, Sex, and Menstruation, Mentions of Miscarriage

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.


Over the course of the Middle Ages, the roles of men and women in medieval society were greatly shaped by the scientific and philosophical understanding of bodies, sex, and reproduction. The basis of these understandings primarily came from religious texts that eventually transferred over into law and scientific studies. However, due to the length of the Middle Ages as well as the different religions, and cultures, such understandings of gender roles varied. However, this is not to say that there were not several overarching themes, especially ones concerning women and their bodies, in the different cultures and religions during the medieval period. For example, both Christianity and Judaism understood a woman’s role in society in similar ways.



Adam, Eve, and the Snake | Source: Wikipedia Commons


In Jewish communities, religious texts shaped their understandings of gender roles. The biblical story of Adam and Eve “justified…women’s secondary place in human creation” (Baskin 39). Eve was made after Adam, thus women were considered second to men in the social hierarchy. The concept that God had made men physically more powerful (Park 92) furthered the idea that a woman needed to be subordinate to her husband and to men in general. However, rabbis also used “Eve’s responsibility…in all human mortality” as well as “women’s essential otherness from men” as an explanation for why women must be kept “separate” (Baskin 38). These separations included why women were not allowed to participate in their faith in the same way men were. Women were even expected to support their husbands’ and sons’ religious studies instead of being able to gain spiritual knowledge for themselves (Baskin 39).

In Christian society, clergymen also used religion as evidence of women’s inferiority. Like in Judaism, the Christian understanding was that if “God made women physically weaker than men” (Park 84) then women must be the inferior gender. One medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, went even so far as to argue that if God had not made women subordinate, then men would have no choice but to direct their lustful actions elsewhere, including towards other men (Park 84). Same-sex attraction was unacceptable in medieval society, as the church considered any non-potentially reproductive intercourse between any genders as sodomy. For context, the Christian church considered “bestiality…only marginally less serious than homosexual sodomy” (Brundage 43). Thus if a woman was not subordinate to a man’s wants and desires his eternal reward was at stake.

This is not to say that men were considered more lustful than women, as is the thought in modern times. The opposite is true. In medieval society, women were thought to be the lustful gender, not men. The idea that “women [were considered] temptresses [was] one of the defining elements of female sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Salisbury 87) and it was a prominent one. Women may have been thought of as subordinate, but being lustful was simply another way for men to scapegoat women. The scientific understanding at the time was a man’s masculinity was dependent on his semen. If he had too much sex, he would be losing the very essence of what made him a man as well as his “masculine control” (Salisbury 86).

Christian clergymen also used the story of Adam and Eve to explain the different roles men and women had in medieval society. Their explanation focused mainly on sex and sexuality instead of the social status of women. However, it is important to note these religious understandings gradually seeped over into other aspects of medieval life. Due to the first humans’ disobedience against God, sex was regarded as “a consequence of sin” (Brundage 35). This understanding led church leaders to set up a hierarchy of eternal reward based on a person’s past sexual experiences. A virgin would be rewarded the most, “chaste widows” (Elliott 25) came second, and married people came third. For most secular people, this statement was neither threatening nor particularly motivating. In fact, secular society expected people to get married (Karras 75).

The clergy were painfully aware they were fighting a losing battle when it came to controlling their followers’ sexual desires. In an act of reluctant compromise, the clergy told the “less heroic Christians” (Brundage 35) that if they absolutely had to have sexual intercourse, they must be married, the act must be for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and under no circumstances should sex strictly be for pleasure or for fun (Brundage 35). Eventually, in the seventh century, these conditions were fleshed out to include “specific guidelines for acceptable sexual behavior” (Brundage 36). The rules were so specific it was nearly impossible for a married couple to have sex and not sin.



A Flowchart Regarding When Medieval Couples Were Allowed to Engage in Sexual Behavior | Source:


It should be noted that the majority of ecclesiastical court cases were because of these sins, thus “greatly increase[ing]…the church’s income” (Brundage 39). This observation makes one wonder if the church’s main reason for creating such specific guidelines was simply an excuse to make money by exploiting the sexual desires of both men and women. However, Christian ecclesiastical courts considered “extramarital sex…as sinful for a man as for a woman” (Brundage 42). When compared to fornication, the crime of adultery was viewed “primarily as a female offense and [the courts] only occasionally punished men” (Brundage 42).

Adultery was not the only guideline that focused on women. Marital intercourse was forbidden if a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding (Brundage 36). Jewish communities put a tremendous amount of pressure on women and their bodies as well. Female menstruation was considered “regular” while male “discharges and states of ritual impurity” (Baskin 43) were not. Menstruation was thought of as impure. Thus, it was a Jewish woman’s responsibility to know her cycle extremely well, so she would know when to take her “ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual relations could resume” (Baskin 44) between her and her husband.

The scientific understanding of the human body was what led these faiths to believe menstrual blood was toxic, thus further shaping the roles women were expected to keep in society. Because women were considered cold and men were considered hot, menstruation was what burned off the impurities in a woman’s body (Salisbury 89). This lead to the belief menstruation was good for the health of a woman but toxic for a man who came into contact with a woman’s menstrual blood (Salisbury 89). It was considered dangerous not only to men but to anything that came into contact with it. Isidore of Seville wrote menstrual blood would kill crops, make wine turn sour, damage metal, and give dogs rabies (Park 87).

In Judaism, laws were made specifying that men were not only not allowed to touch a menstruating woman; he was also to avoid making “eye contact and [staying out of her] physical proximity” (Park 92). In the central Middle Ages, this law eventually escalated into something even stricter than before (Baskin 44). Menstruating women were “forbidden to enter a synagogue…to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin 44). The following of this law was isolating for women and it further emphasized the role of women as lesser than in the social hierarchy.



Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision | Source: Wikipedia Commons


Not everyone agreed with this. One woman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, argued that it was men who produced toxic discharges and not women (Salisbury 93). According to John M. Riddle, Saint Hildegard “is a good indication of popular culture during the Middle Ages”. While other writers received their information from classical texts, she received her knowledge “from her culture” (Riddle 269). Such information concerned reproductive health, including what plants a woman should consume should she wish to have an abortion. Riddle explains that understanding what plants could induce a miscarriage was commonly shared information amongst medieval women. Knowing how to make “contraception and early-term abortifacients” (Riddle 269) was vital information for medieval women, especially when it is taken into consideration how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was. After all, “women at all social levels [died] in childbirth” (Green 357).

Regardless of the dangers of reproduction, men and women had sexual intercourse anyway. Not every Jewish man followed the guidelines set forth by his religious leaders. There must have been many cases of men touching or going near menstruating women because in the thirteenth century, the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote down the typical punishment for a man who disobeyed the law (Baskin 44). These punishments “included extensive fasting, lashing, immersion in icy water” and they were “applied only to men” (Baskin 44). Unlike in Christian society, Jewish women were not considered “self-conscious entities” (Baskin 44). Christian clergymen also wrote down acceptable punishments for those who disobeyed religious rules. Confessors were given “pastoral manuals and handbooks…[that went into] such great length and in such detail with sexual sins that…the conclusion [is] these behaviors must have flourished…among medieval people” (Brundage 41).

According to James A. Brundage, the majority of the laity did not believe that having sex, particularly sex outside of marriage, was a sin. This idea is emphasized by the fact the previously mentioned handbooks actually warned priests that when they questioned their parishioners about their sexual digressions, they needed to be careful lest they give their parishioners any ideas (Brundage 42). However, priests were not so innocent themselves. Starting in the fourth century, celibacy was encouraged amongst priests, but not required. It was only when the church reformed in the second half of the eleventh-century celibacy became required for priests (Brundage 36). The priests did not take this new requirement well. Many priests already had wives and children. It did not help the reformers that the requirement was a blatant “attack on women” (Elliott 27). One argument for required celibacy was “priestly hands…must not be sullied by…the genitals of whores (i.e., the wives of priests)” (Elliott 27). Priests’ reactions to the announcement included attacking and running a bishop out of town as well as burning “a supporter of clerical celibacy” alive (Brundage 36-37).

Obviously, this hypocrisy was not unknown to the laity. Several tropes in medieval literature called out the church concerning their opinions on sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras writes that stories would include “lusty priests [who would] seduce the women who confess to them [as well as] monks and nuns [who would] engage in secret liaisons”. There was even an entire genre of literature, the French fabliaux, dedicated to stories where “both men and women [found] joy in sexual intercourse” (Karras 2). Some of the characters in these works were members of the clergy.

Overall, the roles for men and women in medieval society were heavily dependent on religious understandings of the body, sex, and reproduction. These religious understandings in all faiths were used as a way to control people, women especially. Religion not only shaped people’s ideas about themselves, but it was also used as a tool to shape the scientific and legal understanding of gender roles. By shaping these aspects of society, the clergy could to some extent have control over people’s lives in almost every manner.




Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49. SOLO.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33–47.

Elliott, Dyan. “Gender and The Christian Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–35. SOLO.

Green, Monica. “Caring for Gendered Bodies.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 345–358. SOLO.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:” Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

Park, Katharine. “Medicine and Natural Philosophy: Naturalistic Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 84–98. SOLO.

Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 261–275.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.


Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison

A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog


As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).


Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading

Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library


Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.


Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning

A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library


Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.




Barry, Jonathan. “Introduction: Keith Thomas and the Problem of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, edited by Jonathan Barry et al., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1–45.

Broedel, Hans Peter. “Fifteenth-Century Witch Beliefs.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 32–49.

Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, 2003.

Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 13–31.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rider, Catherine. “Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages.” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2006, pp. 31–52.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology , vol. 36, no. 2, Apr. 1995, pp. 333–337.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. “The Devil in the Convent.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, Dec. 2002, pp. 1379–1411., doi:10.1086/532851.

Smallwood, T.M. “The Transmission of Charms in English, Medieval and Modern.” Charms and Charming in Europe, edited by Jonathan Roper, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Williams, Gerhild Scholz. “Demonologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 69–82.


Gender, Crime, and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Content Warning: Mentions of Sexual Assault

This is something I wrote while studying abroad at Oxford. It’s an older essay, written in May 2018.


Studying medieval crime allows us to see into the world of the average person living during this time period. It also allows us to study people who otherwise would have been lost to history if it had not been for the records detailing the wrongs people had either done or had done to them. These records give us a deeper insight into the gendered world of the Middle Ages. Because exactly like in modern times, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered. Certain crimes were more likely to be committed by men than women and vise versa. The gender of the person committing the crime could affect the punishment the criminal would receive. Reactions to crimes, including slander, were gendered as well.



An illuminated manuscript of the Court of Common Pleas in session | Source: Wikipedia Commons


Defamation lawsuits were common occurrences in the Middle Ages. While “men and women tended to take different slanders to court” (Neal 186), these types of lawsuits were socially acceptable and legal ways for people to react against insults that might have had or did have an effect on the person’s everyday life. Now, while the majority of men’s lawsuits regarded “accusations or insinuations of dishonesty, especially of theft” (Neal 186), a defamation lawsuit was also an excellent way to react to an insult concerning a man’s masculinity without punching someone or resorting to other acts of physical violence. Another advantage of the defamation lawsuit was if the man won, not only did he have a court legally prove the insult was wrong and the insulter was lying, he would also get monetary compensation. However, not all of these lawsuits were brought forth by men. Some men were sued by the woman they sexually slandered and her witnesses included men the defendant had also slandered.

One such lawsuit took place in Sturrey in 1415. A woman named Alice Yarewell sued a man named John Maldon who had “declared…she was a common whore” (Neal 193) after both of her marriage prospects believed the rumor. In the process of telling men Alice Yarewell was a whore, John Maldon also claimed that another man who slept with Alice, Richard Bokeland, was not good at sex. While “John Maldon scored a few points by bragging about a sexual conquest” and “using the same story to belittle Richard Bokeland, he scored a few more” (Neal 193), things ended up backfiring for John when Alice sued him with Richard testifying as her witness.

This entire court case is extremely gendered. It involves a man ruining a woman’s reputation and her future solely based on her sexuality, while “at first…[there was] no shame or perceived danger…for these mature men in frankly discussing illicit sexual conduct” (Neal 194). It was only when Alice Yarewell could not get married and John Maldon spent the entire summer telling the story of his sexual conquest over and over again (Neal 194) did he face some consequences of his actions. Another aspect of the lawsuit being gendered is the fact Richard Bokeland probably did not testify to help Alice out of the goodness of his heart. The fact that we only know that Richard Bokeland exists, a man who would have otherwise been lost to history, is because he wanted to make sure his entire community knew he was not bad in bed as John Maldon claimed. This is significant because it implies that medieval men could freely talk about their sex lives without being considered less than. In contrast, women in medieval society could not testify that they were good at having sex, particularly unmarried sex, without being considered dirty and defiled.



The Stocks at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK | Source: Viktor Athelstan


Women who were commonly known to have what was considered deviant sex (fornication) and like it were considered whores. This was emphasized by the medieval view of prostitutes. According to Ruth Mazo Karras “in the Middle Ages…a woman was a prostitute (meretrix) because she was a lustful woman, not because of the specific behavior of accepting money for sex” (Karras 162). The fear and disgust of prostitutes, thus unmarried but sexually active women, led to laws being created to physically distinguish these women through marked items of clothing (Karras 164). However, by making prostitutes wear clothes distinguishing them as prostitutes it not only shamed them but had an unintended effect: now potential customers knew who to go to when they wanted to buy sex.

Now, female prostitutes were not the only ones who were considered deviant. Men who had sex with other men were also thought to be practicing deviant sexual behavior (Karras 161). However, unlike prostitutes, the behavior of men who had sex with other men was considered just that: behavior. The idea “that sexual acts between men were the markers of a certain type of person” (Karras 162) did not exist. Compare that concept to the idea it was a prostitute’s “sinfulness [that] made her behave badly, her behavior did not classify her as a sinner” (Karras 162). The medieval belief was that being lustful and sinful was inherently part of a woman’s nature verses for men the same lustfulness was merely behavior one could control. This certainly relates to the idea that to be masculine meant that a man had lots of “self-restraint” (Neal 198).

But not all men had the self-restraint needed to be masculine. In late medieval Bologna, theft was mostly a crime committed by men. Trevor Dean found that “in the period 1450-69, 261 named individuals were tried, and mostly convicted, of theft [and] of these, 251 were male, and 10 (4 per cent) were female” (403). This implies that thefts were an extremely masculine crime, or at the very least, male thieves in Bologna were terrible at thieving without getting caught. And contrary to popular belief, when women in Bologna stole, they did not just steal items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) such as food and other “household goods” (Dean 404). In fact, “it is the men, not the women who steal food for immediate consumption” (Dean 405). When you disregard the cases of men stealing food, both Bologna men and women stole the same sorts of items. These items include “coins, jewels, cloth and clothing” (Dean 405-406).

Medieval English women were documented to have stolen similar items as their Italian counterparts as well. Court documents from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show that women stole coins, cloth, and wool pelts (Goldberg 243-246). However, quite a few English women were caught stealing items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) as well as “household goods” (Dean 404). Fourteenth-century peace rolls from Lincoln recorded that a woman named Margaret de Staynrop stole a brass pot and that she will be hanged for doing so (Goldberg 243). English documents from other towns recorded women being tried for stealing malt, “18 geese,” “spoons…a platter, a pewter salt” (Goldberg 244), “a bushel of beans,” another “brass pot and a plate…a cloak,” “one blanket…and other necessaries,” chickens (Goldberg 245) and other types of livestock (Goldberg 246) as well as “a brazen pan, three pecks of wheat, and a loaf of bread” (Goldberg 246). It appears that English medieval women were more likely to steal things related to the domestic sphere than Italian women in Bologna. The implication is that these women did not have access to goods that they needed.



Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r woman being abducted by wild man

A Woman Being Abducted by a Wild Man | Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r | Source: The British Library


Physical items were not the only things that could be stolen in the Middle Ages. The gendered crime of ravishment included the theft of people. Ravishment did not just happen to wives. Heirs of both genders who were still in their minority could be ravished too. Now, the definition of ravishment in the medieval period did not mean rape, however, on occasion rape happened while a woman was being ravished (Walker 237). However, sometimes ravishment, especially in the case of women who were of age, was consensual. In fact, “women allowed themselves to be abducted in order to affirm their own choice of a husband and force their families to accept the relationship” (Walker 237). Women also “allowed themselves to be abducted in order to leave their husbands” (Walker 237-238). Due to the fact married women were considered property of their husbands, these records show that the only way for a medieval woman to chose who to marry or to leave an abusive situation was to plan and commit what society and the law considered a crime. It is interesting to note that whenever one of these “consensual abductions” (Walker 239) occurred, the woman trying to leave her husband was not forced to go back to him. Instead the woman’s husband “had to be satisfied with damages that were usually close in the amount to the value of the chattels” (Walker 246). In contrast, underage heirs who had been ravished “could be recovered as well as damages” (Walker 246).

In conclusion, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered in different ways depending on the century and the location of the crime. Who committed crimes, what kinds of crimes they committed and the punishment of such crimes depended on what the negative effect of a person’s actions was (perceived or otherwise). Defamation lawsuits were an excellent way to remind people, men in particular, that their speech had consequences, even if they did not feel those consequences themselves. Persecution of sexual deviancy kept people in check, even if sexuality was thought of as mere behavior for men or something that was part of your morality for women. Which sex committed crimes further enforced the idea of medieval masculinity and femininity, even if these ideas seemed to be reversed in certain European locations. Finally, the fact that women were considered property was further emphasized by the punishment of ravishment: paying the man the property damage of the woman you “stole”.




Dean, Trevor. “Theft and Gender in Late Medieval Bologna.” Gender & History, vol.20, No.2 August 2008, pp. 399–415.

Goldberg, P. J. P., editor. “Law and Custom”. Women in England, c. 1275-1525: Documentary Sources. Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 223-260.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Prostitution and the Question of Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe”. Journal of Women’s History 11. 1999, pp. 159-171.

Neal, Derek. “Husbands and Priests: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Defamation in Late Medieval England”. The Hands of the Tongue: Essays on Deviant Speech. edited by E. Craun. Kalamazoo. 2007, pp. 185-208.

Walker, Sue Sheridan. “Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practices in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England”. Journal of Medieval History. 13. 1987, pp. 237-250.


Further Reading:

Cannon, Christopher. “The Rights of Medieval English Women: Crime and the Issue of Representation”. Medieval Crime and Social Control. edited by B.A. Hanawalt and D. Wallace. University of Minnesota Press. 1998. pp. 156-185.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England. Oxford University Press. 1998.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. “Violence in the Domestic Milieu of Late Medieval England”. Violence in Medieval Society. edited by Richard W. Kaeuper. Boydell Press. 2000, pp. 197-214.