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

By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai | Go to book overview

6

Townswomen

Urban society was new in several senses and woman’s role in it can be understood only against the background of its unique economic, social and cultural structure. But it is important to emphasize at the outset that women’s rights continued to be restricted within the new structure of urban life, although this was no longer a warrior society like the nobility, or a partially unfree society like the peasantry. The town was a place of peace (locus pacificus). Peace was essential to its development and its economic activity, which was based on artisanship, commerce and money affairs. It evolved its own ethos, which differed from that of the feudal nobility. Though urban society was a class society from the outset, it abolished the distinctions between freemen and serfs and, legally speaking (in contrast to rural areas), all townspeople were free.

The town arose as a secular corporation, like the guilds which grew up within it and were also secular corporations (excluding the universities), and a stratum of lay officials, notaries and judges developed. A lay society which was not a society of warriors and whose members enjoyed free competition might have been expected to expand women’s political rights, but this did not occur. This appears to substantiate the evaluation (based on comparative study of the history of women and their status in society) that woman’s status in general and political status in particular in a specific society cannot always be explained on the basis of the economic structure of that society or the degree to which it is democratic. One need only recall democratic Athens in its heyday, where women’s rights were restricted even according to the criteria of ancient Greece.

-174-

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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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