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

By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai | Go to book overview

2

Public and Legal Rights

PUBLIC RIGHTS

Distinctions were made in the rights of women on the basis of both marital status and class. However, there were also restrictions imposed by law on all women qua women, which is one of the justifications offered for treating them as a distinct class in the literature of the estates. By law, a woman had no share whatsoever in the government of the kingdom and of the society. A woman could not hold political office, or serve as a military commander, judge or lawyer. The law barred her from filling any public office and from participating in any institutions of government, from manorial courts to municipal institutions, royal councils and representative assemblies in the various countries. The literature of the estates declares explicitly: ‘Women must be kept out of all public office. They must devote themselves to their feminine and domestic occupations. 1 Or, as the English jurist Glanville put it: ‘They are not able, have no need to, and are not accustomed to serving their lord the king, either in the army or in any other royal service. 2

It goes without saying that legislation always reflects the psychological, sociological and moral assumptions of the legislator, these assumptions being sometimes implied in the law and sometimes offered explicitly in defence of it. The attitude evinced by medieval civilization towards women was not determined by an unconscious ideology (although, as in every society, there were also unconscious factors which influenced the relations between the sexes), 3 and so the denial of rights to women by both state and Church was supported by plain and direct justifications. Ecclesiastical law

-11-

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