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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Did women really constitute a 'fourth estate' in medieval society and, if so, in what sense? In this wide-ranging study Shulamith Shahar considers this and the wider question of varying attitudes to women and their status in Western Europe between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. She draws a cohesive picture of women in a range of situations: nuns and married women, peasants and noblewomen, townswomen and women involved in heretical movements and witchcraft. The Fourth Estate has become a classic in the study of women in the Middle Ages. In her new introduction, Shahar looks at new developments in medieval women's history since the first edition.

Excerpt

This book was first published in English in 1983. It is difficult to overestimate subsequent development in the research of its subject: medieval women (eleventh—fifteenth centuries). The history of women and gender as a category of analysis have become a mainstream in medieval research. Thus on the subject of every single chapter of this book, from chapter 2 (‘Public and Legal Rights’) to chapter 8 (‘Witches and the Heretical Movements’), tens of articles have appeared as well as many books. Some of the studies are linked to the historiographical questions that have emerged in the study of medieval social and cultural history in general. Many others bear the fruitful impact of both feminist and literary theory. Collections of women’s writings have been published in modern critical editions and in translations. More sources about women or that include women have appeared in print and have been studied. New interpretations of well-known texts have been advanced, and studies based on new archival research have appeared. In this preface it is impossible either to survey the content of all the work that has been done since the publication of this book, or to do justice to the new understandings that have evolved. What follows is a presentation of only some of the new trends in research, and reference to a restricted number of studies by way of example on the topics of some of the chapters of the book.

An important issue that has been addressed in some studies and is still open to further research is that of regional differences. Regional studies as such are not new. Through them we know that there were differences in household structure, inheritance law, economic systems . . .

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