It is a little bit difficult to simply write about "medieval women" because the period we would consider medieval actually ranges over centuries! So, the roles, work and adventures of people varied considerably over this period of time. But, I will give you a representative sampling of the rolesand lives of two different women in the medieval period.
These two women are from the time after the Black Plague and before the Renaissance. This is a time where culture and society started to form into its precursors of what we know today. And by examing the lives of these two women you can clearly see the groundwork for much of the lives we live today
If you want to research the role of regular people throughout the middle ages you might want to consider a book called "Medieval People" by Eileen Power. It was first published in 1924 and is based on some solid research. You can still find paperback copies and it is also available for free on the Gutenberg.org site right here: Medieval People
Medieval People by EileenPower Fascinating book about a variety of people in the Middle Ages and how they lived including the Prioress of a nunnery (Madame Eglentyne) and (The Menagiers Wife) who is an anonymous upper class Parisian housewife.
Madame Eglentyne - (The Prioress of a Nunnery in 15th Century England)
She was brought to the nunnery when she was very young and probably because her father didn't want the trouble to try to marry her off! This was a common practice in the 15th century but it was only done by aristocracy and people of means. There was a dowry involved with bringing a woman into the service of the nunnery.
And Madame Eglentyne spent rougly ten to twelve years as a nun before she was chosen as the Prioress. And there are some excellent records about her and the nunnery because the local bishop would make regular stops and record all of the various issues and complaints both from Eglentyne and the nuns. In many cases these records of visits span hundreds of years, all carefully recorded.
A nunnery at this period of time was not the same as it was in centuries before and the bishops records tell us a lot about Eglentyne and how the nunneries were run. Eglentyne was praised for her courtly manner but was distinctly criticized for her difficulty in running the business!
Her responsibilities were many and included all the things we can today consider such as discipline of the residents, repair and upkeep of the buildings and grounds and interacting with vendors, sales people, farmers and all sorts of people. It was a big job and the bishop eventually decided to take these decisions out of her hands solely and place the financial decisions in the hands of three of them. She would work with two other nuns to make these decisions.
Convent Life was not what we expected
It is very interesting how we consider the life of a nun to be very chaste and disciplined and to some extent this was true. But it was more true in the early centuries of monastic order. By the time of Eglentyne the Bishop's records well document how the nuns were very fond of beautiful and colorful clothing, they kept many pets and were particularly fond of little dogs. And the nuns would very often travel out of the convent for weddings, funerals, functions, events and all sorts of other reasons. The church, for centuries tried to suppress and even stop all of this, but to no avail.
And one of the biggest influences on this were the frequent stays at the convent by wealthy women. It wa common practice for a woman and her servants to stay at a convent for a period of time, usually a month but could be as long as a year, while her husband was at war, or traveling, or for any other number of reasons.
These women from the outside world could be a burden on the nuns but they were also an influence in manners, clothing, pets and all sorts of other things.
So, as a medieval woman in the 15th century living in a convent Eglentyne had a very diverse experience of life!
The Menagier's Wife - ( An anonymous well to do housewife in 14th century Paris) This is partially drawn from Eileen Power's "Medieval People". But if you want a stunning rendition of the duties of the average housewife in 14th century Paris you should check out the book "The Goodman of Paris". It was written by a wealthy aristocrat in his 60's as a guide to train his new bride (40 years his junior) in the art of running a household. Just that previous sentence says a lot about the role of women in the 14th century.
The book itself is an exhaustive accounting of the various duties of a wife and of running a household and it is broken down into three distinct parts. The first part of the book deals with religious and moral duties. But it is in the second and third parts that we get a real insight into the life of a woman of a wealthy household in the 14th century. The second part is all about how to manage a household and this includes a whole series of things ranging from how to manage servants, hire workers, care for horses and more. And a very extensive part of this section is all about cooking and recipes. The third part of the book is about various leisure pursuits such as games, riddles, stories and even pursuits such as hawking.
So from these sections we get a good look at three very broad components of this womans life: Religious and moral duties( which include the rules of how to properly deport herself), the art and business of running a household and leisure activities.
An average day for the woman of the house
We get from this book a good look at what the average day was for a wealthy married woman in paris and I will list this for you.
The lady of the house rises early in the morning washes her hands and face, dresses and is accompanied by another lady, or ladies, to daily mass. When she returns she sees that the servants are doing their work which would include things like sweeping the halls and beating the cushions. She would order the morning meal which they called "dinner" to be served at 10am, and send one of the servants to care for the pet dogs and birds.
After dinner she would set the servants to dine and she would then have some leisure time during which she could go hawking, join a party with neighbors, sit around a fire with other ladies and exchange stories and riddles or go to her garden to sit and enjoy or to gather fruits and berries. After this leisure time she would engage in some activity like spinning or embroidering.
After her husband came home from his day of work they would have supper and to end the day they would make their rounds about the house to insure the doors were locked and the servants were in bed. Then she and her husband would retire to their bed chambers.