It is a stereotype that women in the Middle Ages had two career options: mother or holy woman, with prostitute or chattel filling in the gaps between those two. Whether we like it or not, for the most part this stereotype is accurate and the status and role of women in that era revolved around these categories.
This is one reason that when an author sets fiction in this time, it is difficult to write a self-actualized female character who has any kind of autonomy or authority over her own life. Thus, it is common practice to make fictional characters either healers of some sort (thus opening up a whole array of narrative possibilities for travel and interaction with interesting people) or to focus on high status women. Such women may or may not actually have had more autonomy, but their lives didn’t consist of drudgery and child care from morning until night.
This is not to say that men in the Middle Ages weren’t equally restricted in their ‘careers’. A serf is a serf after all, of whatever gender. Men as a whole, however, did have control of women, of finances, of government, and of the Church, and thus organized and ruled the world. Literally.
There are obvious exceptions—Eleanor of Aquitaine, anyone?—but women such as she were one out of thousands upon thousands who were born, worked, and died within five miles of their home.
At the same time, within Celtic culture, women had the possibility of greater personal autonomy. In Ireland, where the Roman Church had less influence, women had a viable place both within the Druid religion and within the Celtic/Irish Church. Wales, too, was less subject to the restrictions of the Church. There, women had a higher status than in Christendom as a whole, including the right to divorce her husband and societal acceptance of illegitimate children.
The Laws of Women (part of the Laws of Hywel Dda) included rules that governed marriage and the division of property if a married couple should separate. Women usually married through contract, but elopement was allowed, with the provision that if the relationship lasted seven years, a woman had the same entitlements as if she’d been given to her husband by her kin.
My Gareth and Gwen Medieval mysteries—The Good Knight, The Uninvited Guest, and my most recent release, The Fourth Horseman—tell the story a young woman, Gwen, who investigates murders for the Prince of Wales. She’s a bard’s daughter, which gives her mobility, ambiguity in terms of social status, and an autonomy that any good detective needs. Gwen’s sleuthing takes her from Wales to Ireland to England and back again, and earns her the trust and confidence of high and low alike.
Sarah Woodbury, August 26, 2013
Castaways in Time, Woodbury’s most recent book in her After the Cilmeri series, is now available for pre-order in all ebookstores.