Women and Religion

Nunneries    Beguines    Cathars    Jews    Moslems

According to St. Augustine, every person was born guilty of original sin.

This is the sin committed when Eve tempted Adam in the story of the Garden of Eden from the Christian religion. Eve, therefore, was responsible for the inherent sinfulness of mankind, the sufferings of the human race, and the death of Christ on the cross. The Virgin Mary on the other hand was considered responsible for the salvation of humankind because she gave birth to the Son of God. 

The early Middle Ages gave birth to the view of the woman as the instrument of evil. Women rose in men's esteem in the later Middle Ages, due to the spreading of the cult of the Virgin. The Virgin Mary was the ideal woman. Mary worship translated into another phase of medieval life, the so-called "courtly love" in which a man preserved a (supposedly) chaste devotion to a lady of higher rank.

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The Nunneries 

Many women chose to dedicate themselves to the Church, for any of many reasons. Some nuns were dedicated at young ages by their families, who wished to do good for the Church. However, nuns could enter convent at any stage in life from young childhood to old age. Why did they? In many cases, it was a question of true piety, and God became these women's lives. In other cases, monasticism was an escape from a life of shadows and insecurity, childbearing and degradation, and seeing a potential they were taught they did not have go unfulfilled forever. Prior to the 12th Century, religious houses were independent of one another. During the 12th Century, orders arose which set a standard of life and behaviour for groups of houses.

In denying marriage and dedicating their lives to the Church, women were able to preserve both their minds and their bodies. It gave ordinary women a chance to examine the makeup of the soul, and in its own silent way encouraged them to make choices for themselves. The Church became an asylum where men had access to education -- and if men, why not women? Many women realized that as long as they remained uneducated, they would be regarded as inferior. Armed with intelligence and knowledge, women could outwit the witty. Literacy was a privilege that many took advantage of. 

However, in many cases, it was not to be. Few women who devoted their lives to the Church ever learned how to write. Priests did not see the need for nuns to write. What little writing we have today are endeavours stemming from the desire of certain individuals to have their messages transcend time.

Another advantage to joining the church was celibacy, which, like literacy, elevated women in medieval society to a point of high regard. Remaining chaste supposedly saved a woman from becoming as sinful as Eve.

Nunnery Life 

The life of a nun was based on routine and regularity. The most austere orders of nuns spared themselves no hardship observed in male religious houses. At 2 a.m., the nuns would rise for Mass. At 6 a.m. they would rise for the day and say Prime. Tierce, sext, none, vespers, and Compline followed throughout the day. In winter, when it got dark earlier, nuns retired to bed at 7 p.m.; in the summer, at 8 p.m.

Nuns had a degree of freedom when they were allowed to choose their own abbesses and prioresses. Many times they petitioned a local male church official to have their choice supplant his. However, many abbesses, whoever appointed them, were poor businesswomen. Nunneries often suffered from excessive poverty (i.e., greater poverty than the nuns' vows intended). Demands made by locals often drained their resources.

As time went on, educational and moral standards declined. Many male Church officials were vexed because nuns could no longer read Latin, only French -- and then, horror of horrors -- English. Nuns became more careless about keeping the services. They also enjoyed such forbidden luxuries as dancing, pretty dresses, and lapdogs.

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The Beguines 

In the 13th Century a female religious movement swept across northern Europe. The Beguines were not nuns, and they were not under the command of a male abbot or priest. They were lay women who adopted a nun-like lifestyle voluntarily. Less expensive than the dowry paid for a nun, a true bride of Christ, the Beguine houses were able to accommodate women from the middle and lower classes of society. Beguines supported themselves by weaving, doing housework, and the like. Members of the order were free to leave -- their vows could be rescinded -- and even to marry.

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The Cathars 

Catharism was a dualist sect that originated in Bulgaria. They believed in a balance of good (all things spiritual and, therefore, pure) and evil (all things of the earth and, therefore, materialistic). After death, souls were placed in new bodies (reincarnation). Reincarnation continued, increasing in spirituality, until the highest level was reached -- a European nirvana. Cathars denied the standard Christian miracles of Christ's Resurrection and humankind's redemption.

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The Jews 

Jews were scattered throughout Europe, and they tended to form close communities and keep to themselves in the hope of avoiding dangerous attention. They were regarded with suspicion not only because of their religion, but also because Jewish moneylenders charged interest and Jews as a whole kept clean. Though neither of these activities sounds particularly suspicious to modern people, the medieval Christian majority thought both were highly questionable. 

Charging interest was called usury and was forbidden by Christian law. Jews, exempt, saw nothing sinful in turning a profit. The Jewish religion requires its members to observe personal cleanliness, which helped many Jews avoid the plague. Consequently, Christians thought that the Jews practiced witchcraft to avoid sickness or actually caused it. Sometimes whole countries would exile Jews. England did it in the fourteenth century and Portugal did it some centuries later.

In terms of persecution, for the Jews the Middle Ages was much like any other time. In Germany alone, hundreds of years before the Holocaust, there were pogroms in Speyer, Worms, Trier, and Mainz. The massacres were brought on by singular narrow-mindedness, religious zeal, and xenophobia resulting in similar atrocities in the Crusaders' Holy Land. Jews could be persuaded or forced to apostatise (i.e., convert to Christianity), but rather than allow this, many Jewesses killed their relatives.

The Jewish government in most regions meshed with the religion, creating a legal system based on laws set down by the Torah. For example, the provisions for marriage were set down by religious documents which state exactly what each spouse can expect and demand from the other. Jewish women could exercise greater freedom in marriage Christian women. A woman is entitled to ten things in marriage: food, clothing, conjugal rights, treatment if she is ill, ransom if she is kidnapped, burial if she dies, financial support if she is widowed, shelter if she is widowed, dower for her daughters, and a legacy for her sons. A man can expect only four things: the wife's earnings, anything she finds, the interests from her estate, and the inheritance of her estate if she dies. Each spouse could restrict the distance the other travelled and who he or she allowed to live in the house -- including in-laws.

If a woman grew to hate her husband, she could divorce him. This, too, is a freedom few Christian women enjoyed.

Jews had their own sumptuary (clothes-restricting) laws as well. Any clothing that seemed arrogant or ostentatious was forbidden, except on holidays. This included silk-lined sleeves, fur-lined jackets, and girdles and belts weighing more than ten ounces.

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The Moslems

Moslems, though not as widespread in medieval Europe as Jews, not to mention Christians. They were the "infidels" in the Holy Land, the target of the Crusades. Some of them settled in southern Europe, especially in the countries of the Iberian peninsula.

If Jewish women had some more freedoms than Christian women, Moslem women had decidedly less and often still do. Medieval Moslem documents were therefore not addressed to women but to men, instructing the men how they may and may not treat women and how women may and may not act. A husband could visit a variety of punishments on a truculent wife, including beating. However, if the wife was obedient, her husband was forbidden to abuse her.

Polygamy was permitted to Moslem men. A man could marry any woman he wished -- any woman, that is, except his mother, aunts, sister, cousin, mother-in-law, any woman nursed by the same wet-nurse, and stepdaughters if his marriage to their mother had been consummated. Married women were also forbidden, unless they were married to non-Moslem enemies -- i.e., the wives of Christian Crusaders.


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Adapted with permission of Dominion and Domination


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