The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages

By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai | Go to book overview

1

Introduction

There has never been a book about the ‘History of men in the Middle Ages’, nor is it likely that there ever will be one. But apart from the fact that far too many books about the Middle Ages make no mention of the part played by the women, leaving a lacuna in the description of medieval society, is there any justification for a special study to be made of the history of women in the High and Late Middle Ages? In the extremely hierarchical medieval society the social classes differed greatly from each other in their legal rights, economic circumstances and modes of living. Was there any condition that was shared by all women in medieval society? Nowadays, despite the remaining diversity in the status and way of life of women in the different social classes, some sociologists have defined them collectively as a ‘minority group’, although not necessarily a numerical one; others, rather more reasonably, use the term ‘marginal social group’. 1 But let us discard the terminology of modern sociologists and examine the contemporary definitions that were applied in the Middle Ages.

From the beginning of the eleventh century onward, contemporary writers repeatedly describe society as made up of three classes (ordines)—Worshippers, Warriors and Workers (oratores, bellatores, laboratores). This triune society is depicted as horizontal, purposeful and harmonious. Each class fulfils a certain function which the other two need, as it needs theirs. Together they comprise the single, harmonious, Christian society which expresses the divine will. This description does not include a specific reference to women. But from the twelfth century on, with the great social and

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The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations viii
  • Preface xi
  • Foreword xvii
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Public and Legal Rights 11
  • 3 - Nuns 22
  • 4 - Married Women 65
  • 5 - Women in the Nobility 126
  • 6 - Townswomen 174
  • 7 - Women in the Peasantry 220
  • 8 - Witches and the Heretical Movements 251
  • Notes 281
  • Index 344
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