The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion after the Black Death

The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion after the Black Death

The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion after the Black Death

The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion after the Black Death


There was immense social and economic upheaval between the Black Death and the English Reformation, and contemporary writers often blamed this upheaval on immorality, singling out women's behavior for particular censure. Late medieval moral treatises and sermons increasingly connected good behavior for women with Christianity, and their failure to conform to sin. Katherine L. French argues, however, that medieval laywomen both coped with the chaotic changes following the plague and justified their own changing behavior by participating in local religion. Through active engagement in the parish church, the basic unit of public worship, women promoted and validated their own interests and responsibilities.

Scholarship on medieval women's religious experiences has focused primarily on elite women, nuns, and mystics who either were literate enough to leave written records of their religious ideas and behavior or had access to literate men who did this for them. Most women, however, were not literate, were not members of religious orders, and did not have private confessors. As The Good Women of the Parish shows, the great majority of women practiced their religion in a parish church. By looking at women's contributions to parish maintenance, the ways they shaped the liturgy and church seating arrangements, and their increasing opportunities for collective action in all-women's groups, the book argues that gendered behavior was central to parish life and that women's parish activities gave them increasing visibility and even, on occasion, authority. In the face of demands for silence, modesty, and passivity, women of every social status used religious practices as an important source of self-expression, creativity, and agency.


It is a truism, although maybe not true, that women are more religious than men. in modern South Korea, women make up threequarters of the members of Christian Evangelical churches. Women are similarly drawn in larger numbers than men to Latin American Pentecostal churches. in European churches, men stay away in droves, while old women listen to the liturgy, light the candles, and sweep out the dirt. Even in medieval society where church attendance was mandatory, preachers such as Thomas Bruton and Berthold of Regensburg complained that more women than men attended their sermons. Although medievalists lack the measurement tools available to scholars of modern society, they have noted that medieval women practiced very different styles of piety then men.

For scholars looking at modern societies, one question of interest is what attracts women to religion, especially religions noted for their emphasis on women’s subordination to men. Many argue that women’s interest in so-called conservative or traditionalist religions grows out of attempts to negotiate the tensions and challenges of modern society, such as poverty, dissolving family relations, and changing gender roles. Religious involvement provides women with strategies and values to confront these problems. Through their religious participation, women could reassert the value of the traditional family and their own skills in maintaining it, while at the same time employing a powerful vocabulary with which to negotiate their own marriages and family standing. For many women, religion provides a belief system and institutional structure that they can use to argue for the value of their contributions to the family. Even subordination to a husband could be qualified as a wife learns his physical needs and weaknesses and the influence she has in ameliorating them. She could also employ religious justifications to demand particular treatment and consideration.

The insights of modern scholars of religion have much to offer medievalists who are also interested in why women were drawn to a religion and a religious institution that repeatedly accused them of a proclivity for sin and routinely denounced their connection to Eve. This book looks at what . . .

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