An essay answering the question, “Was there a golden age for women in the Middle Ages?”
For some context, the source cited as “???” came from a book I had scanned, but forgot to write down the title and author for. I spend about an hour trying to find it in the Bodleian Library again, but due to the library’s sheer size I was unable to locate it again.
There was not really a Golden Age for women in the Middle Ages. However, there were periods in the span of 500-1500 where conditions for women were slightly less awful than they were before or eventually would become. The quality of life for religious women, in particular, fluctuated over the course of the middle ages. Nuns, in particular, had an unstable golden age before it quickly was destroyed during and after the Viking invasions. After their golden age, the lives of nuns generally deteriorated. However, depending on what region and century of the medieval period they lived in, their lives afterward varied in quality.
When you compare the lives of nuns’ pre-Viking invasion to post Viking invasion, an argument can be made that the golden age for nuns in Europe was before the Viking invasions in the ninth century. From the sixth century up to around the ninth century “all the Anglo-Saxon nunneries in Southern England…were founded by members of a royal house, usually by either a reigning monarch or one of his close female relatives” (Yorke 98-99). Due to this information, one would think this guaranteed that the nunnery would be well taken care of. Or at the very least the nunnery would be taken care of until the member of the royal house who founded it died. However, this was often not the case. Many of the religious communities founded by women for women “survived only a decade or so [and] others only a generation or two” (Schulenburg 221). But this did not necessarily mean the establishments were considered failures. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg makes the observation that in regards to the female religious communities lasting “it seems, the intention [was] that [the female nobility’s] foundations would endure for only the length of their own lifetimes” (221). This is significant because it implies that people were building monasteries for the sake of building them. Founding and throwing money into an institution that will not last could be seen as a status symbol as well.
For royalty across Europe, nunneries/female monasteries/religious houses were an investment. Granted, it might be a short-term investment, but it was an investment nonetheless. The monasteries had multiple different purposes when they were open and operating. They were seen “as a temporary investment in the Church” (Schulenburg 218). Monasteries were also a good way to be sure the founding noble family always had those who had dedicated their lives to God praying for their souls (Schulenburg 219). However, why nunneries and other homes for the femalereligious were so popular amongst nobility was “never explicitly stated” (Yorke 101).
Because these monasteries were “established and endowed by the aristocracy on their own family estates” they were often used by their founders as retirement homes for widows or rejected wives (Schulenburg 218). The queens who founded the nunneries might also use them as a place to retire to or to live at. It should be noted the former queen would often work at her nunnery as an abbess. Working as an abbess was seen as a good thing because the job “would provide [the queen] with a position of power, wealth and independence” (Yorke 101). It seems that a former queen working as an abbess was the modern-day equivalent of a retiree working as a greeter at a superstore or as a substitute teacher: it gave the queens something to do without the job being too stressful. Occasionally, however, married kings would send queens to their nunneries against their will. This would happen when a king either wanted to remarry someone new or to spite the queen’s overbearing male relatives (Yorke 102).
Queens were not the only laywomen who were sent to monasteries. In France, nobility would send their daughters to a monastery so they could receive a proper education (Schulenburg 214). Monasteries would also be used as a place of “refuge for daughters who did not wish to marry” (Schulenburg 218). However, Schulenburg notes that daughters might also be sent to a monastery if their families could not create a “politically or economically” advantageous marriage for them (218). This is important because it implies some families took into consideration their daughter’s wishes for her life while others did not. This evidence of a woman’s lack of agency doestarnish the statement golden age for women was pre-Viking invasion.
However, there were still benefits for being a nun during this time period. One such benefit for the female religious pre-Viking invasion was the double monastery. Many monasteries before the ninth century were double monasteries, meaning both men and women resided there. This type of monastery was beneficial to both monks and nuns. Close living arraignments allowed nuns and monks to interact with one another, thus allowing for the sharing of ideas and knowledge, especially the sharing of the Latin language. In fact, “before the twelfth century [nuns] were usually given the opportunity to be learned” (Hobbs 192). This is significant because it allowed nuns, who might not have had access to learning Latin otherwise, the opportunity to learn the language of the Church.
Another advantage of monks and nuns living either together or close together was the demystification of the other sex. One male monastic leader, Bernard of Clairvaux even said to his monks ‘“To be always with a woman and not have sexual relations with her is more difficult than to raise the dead. You cannot do the less difficult; do you think I will believe that you can do what is more difficult?”’ (Bynum 16). While this seems to be true for Bernard of Clairvaux, for others the best way to come to terms with the fact not every woman is constantly scheming ways “to arouse desire in people, so that they will want to lie with them” (De Meun, The Romance of The Rose16 (9013)), is to just be around women every day. By separating the sexes and not allowing men and women to interact in nonsexual contexts, the Church furthered their misogynistic ideas about women. After all, the nuns who willingly joined their monasteries wanted to live celibate lives just as the monks did.
The golden age of nuns came to a startling halt during the Viking invasions. During this time, the willingness of either parents sending their daughters to nunneries or of women going there willingly themselves decreased dramatically (??? 62). This is due to the fact when Vikings raided female monasteries they would destroy the monastery, rape, then murder the nuns who resided there. The Vikings did this so often, nearly all of the female monasteries in England alone were completely distroyed (Schulenburg 222-223). Needless to say, if you had a daughter you were thinking of sending to a nunnery, and you heard reports these attacks, you would be a lot less likely to send her off to a place where these horrible things are happening. It was only sometime after the invasions stopped were women slightlymore willing to join monasteries.
However, after the Viking invasions female monasteries were in devastating states of poverty. This was another reason women were not exactly keen to become nuns (Schulenburg 225). Because Christianity was then flourishing in Europe, the Church no longer depended on contributions from anyone who was willing to donate (Schulenburg 233). This meant the Church was no longer obligated to treat women with respect, thus they figured they could treat women anyway they saw fit. And they most certainly did. It did not help that during “the tenth and early eleventh centuries…religious leaders showed little concern for encouraging women’s religiosity” (Bynum 14).
In Normandy during the eleventh century, Bishop Eudes Rigaud essentially ran his female monasteries into the ground by leaving the nuns to live in extreme poverty (???). Bishop Eudes Rigaud refused to supply the nuns with resources. When the nuns resorted to selling “silk purses, lace and lace collars, [and] other silk accessories” as well as ‘“needle cases”’ and even ‘“bonnets [and] firewood’” (??? 64) the bishop forbid them from doing so. However, it seems that the nuns ignored him and kept trying to support themselves without the Church’s support because throughout the years, Bishop Eudes Rigaud was recorded several more times telling the nuns to stop (??? 64). However, Bishop Eudes Rigaud must have realized he was both fighting a losing battle and making himself look bad to the people the nuns were selling to because he finally relented and ordered the nuns ‘“a sufficient supply of things needful to them”’ (??? 64).
Besides forcing nuns to live in terrible poverty, clergymen used their new freedom to shut down female monasteries and replace them with male only monasteries. The ways they shut down female monasteries varied from mildly terrible to a plan worthy of a comic book super villain. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg explains that sometimes bishops would simply evict the nuns. There is also a story where an Earl Godwine sent his nephew to a convent in Berkeley to impregnate as many nuns as he could so they had a valid reason to shut it down (Schulenburg 231). While, the authenticity of this story is debated by historians, “other sources verify…a flourishing community of nuns at Berkeley and that the house was suppressed in the reign of Edward the Confessor” (Schulenburg 231). If we assume the story istrue and not just propaganda or a medieval urban legend, it can be safely said that by the time these events occurred the golden age for nuns had long passed. The mere fact men were willing to go so far as to impregnate nuns, thus defiling them in the eyes of medieval society just to get their monastery speaks volumes about how little men regarded women during this time period. It also says a lot regarding how much time and effort a man was willing to put in just to get a building and some land.
Over all, medieval nuns did not exactly have a golden age, especially when it came to terms of stability. Even when queens founded their monasteries, they were not maintainable, nor did their founders seem to care if they were. After all, a queen’s nunnery was expected to be solely a place for her benefit with little regard for the nuns who lived there. While nuns were able to learn Latin and become educated, they were only given this opportunity due to the men they lived with or nearby. Once the men were gone, nuns had that opportunity snatched from them. The fact that the clergy did not care about religious women and the way they treated them further emphasizes how the golden age for nuns was long over as well as not exactly a golden age at all.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California Press. 1987.
Hobbs, Kathleen M.. “Blood and Rosaries: Virginity, Violence, and Desire in Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’”. Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, edited by Cindy L. Carlson and Angela Jane Weisl, MacMillan Press. 1999, pp. 181-198.
De Meun, Jean. “The Romance of the Rose”. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended, edited by Alcuin Blamires, Karen Pratt and C.W. Marx, Clarendon Press. 1992, pp. 148-166.
Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. “Women’s Monastic Communities, 500-1100: Patterns of Expansion and Decline”. Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages, edited by Judith M. Bennett, University of Chicago Press. 1989, pp. 208-239.
Yorke, Barbara. ‘“Sisters Under the Skin’? Anglo-Saxon Nuns and Nunneries in Southern England.” Reading Medieval Studies, vol. 15, 1989, pp. 95-117