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

By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai | Go to book overview
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4

Married Women

‘Women who prayed’, including those who did not take the monastic vows yet chose to live ascetic lives in the shadow of one of the monastic orders as lay sisters, members of the Third Order or Beguines, constituted only a minority among women in the Middle Ages. In the labouring class, in particular, there were women who pursued secular lives and did not marry, whether for economic or personal reasons, or because of a shortage of men in a certain location at a certain time. Some widows did not remarry, but most women in medieval society, as in all societies known to us, were married. One of the central concepts associated with the Middle Ages is monasticism, but there can be no question that the psychological, mental and cultural impact of monasticism and the ideal of chastity on medieval society was greater than the size of the monastic population warranted. Since women had no place in the secular clergy, who like monks were bound by the vows of chastity, the proportion of women who renounced marriage a priori was even smaller than the percentage of men who did so. 1


ECCLESIASTICAL THEORIES ABOUT MARRIAGE

Since the early days of Christianity, chastity has been regarded not as an obligation but as a more Christian way of life. Marriage was permitted by St Paul as a concession to the weakness of the flesh: ‘But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn’ (I Corinthians 7:9). Marriage is preferable to adultery and lascivious behaviour, but is not a value in itself, and its

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