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Gender in 15th Century England

Page history last edited by Megan Ingenito 11 years, 3 months ago



Women in War and Business!


In 15th Century England, Women hit a high point that they won't see again for another 400 years. As it is often the case, women began to take over the roles of the men following the Black Plague and the subsequent plagues and illnesses that lasted into the beginning of the 15th century. “Women were able to own property, start and run businesses, divorce their husbands if beaten, ill-treated, or if their husbands even failed to “perform in the marriage bed”. There were notable women writers, scholars, warriors, and business owners” All of these things had been previously unheard of in England. One of the first of these notable women writers was Christine de Pisan, a french poet who made her living from being a writer. Viewed by many as arguably the first feminist, she questions women's social positions in 1404 by saying,


          "No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many occasions…”-The Book of the City of Ladies”(1)


This is Christine de Pisan:

In addition to being property owners, writers, and business owners, women also assisted with war in Switzerland, France, and England:


     “There is plentiful evidence that many women played a vital role in the military machine of the 15th century. The Schilling Chronicles often show women marching with the troops toting canteens and waterskins for thirsty soldiers and being busy about the camp. One woman wears a dress in cantonal colors and obviously holds an officially recognized position. Two women are shown armed with halberds and another is shown as a member of a company of handgonners. She appears to carry her own gun, bullet bag, powder flask and is wearing a red dress and the usual white headcloth and fringe. Indeed in Louis XI’s time, French master gunners freely recruited what helpers they needed, including women. Indeed on several occasions they were known to enlist their own wives.”


The last sentence suggests that women, in most cases, are still viewed as the property of men. But many of these war women seemed to have volunteered. The most famous of these empowered women is the French Joan of Arc. She lead french troops into British occupied Burgundy in 1424. Captured in a battle in 1430, tried in an English court and burned at the stake, she was held as an example afterward of what happened to women who went against the English government. (2)


Still, women were becoming a more active part of a male dominated society. Though still not officially and legally allowed on the stage, women were beginning to be allowed to follow professional performance careers. "Most documentary records of musical activity concern professional, paid performance and refer to male singers at court and in religious establishments, but there is documentary evidence that women participated in late medieval musical culture. Women are known to have learned to read and perform music in convents, and two notated manuscripts survive associated with late medieval English convents. Women could also be professional performers and were able to join the Musicians' Company of London, founded in 1462." (3)


Fashionable Culture


This is an accurate timeline of fashion from the 14th to the 15th century for upper class men and women:


These are some examples of headdresses that were common for the upper class women in France:


This is also the century they created the codpiece, but we didn't think you needed to see a picture of that.


Femme Fatal


Many women who didn't have the luck to become Joan of Arc or a rich husband to inherit property from turned to Convents.


     “The convent represented another option for women. For the most part, the best positions in convents were only open to women of high birth. Poorer women could join as lay sisters, where they did much of the domestic work of running a convent, but the choir was largely for upper class women. Some women exercised vast political and social influence from convents. This was more true in the past than in the sixteenth century, as the trends to enclose women and to encourage them to pray and not study books increased. However, a contemplative nun like St. Theresa of Avila had a big impact on the Counter-Reformation, and St. Vincent de Paul organized an order of women to do gritty social work among the poor. Hospitals were still staffed by nuns, and the idea of such an institution being secular only came about after the Reformation, when the government of Protestant areas had to take over the social of the functions of the church. The closing of convents where the Reform took hold was probably a considerable loss for many women. The Protestants thought they were "liberating" the nuns, but a number of them probably didn't feel that subjecting themselves to a husband and having   a dozen children or so was an improvement in their lot. In Protestant countries, single women with a vocation ended up being spinster aunties and governesses, with considerably less status.”


Women in convents could read, organize, sing, and live in peace without worrying about becoming a spinster or living the life of the poor. (3) Other women turned to a life on the streets. Some places, commonly in cities where there were many of these women, there were communal brothels where women could seek shelter, be provided very basic health care, and mostly be provided safety from abusive customers.


The printing press was established in 1450 and eventually lead to the widespread readership of books. Which in turn lead more women being able to read and educate themselves if they were not educated in the first place. A whole generation of women who could read and write without the power of men was on the rise and that was a dangerous thing. 


The fifteenth century began witch burning as a common practice. “One cannot discuss the history of women during this time without discussing the craze for burning witches. This is a trend which seemed to have been seriously fanned by the printing press. The publication of the witch hunter's guide, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) at the end of the 15th century and its popularity in print probably caused a great deal of harm. Enlightened Renaissance scholars like Jean Bodin wrote seriously on the subject of witches, and few philosophers found any conflict between science and magic.”


Also, witches appear to have been often older women, usually widows, often living alone.


Often after the witch-hunters would leave a town, there would be no elderly women left.


The 15th century gave women the most freedoms they had ever seen and in the same motion it took them away. Women would not see these same rights again for the next three hundred years.


Works Cited:


http://www.whiteoak.org/historical-library/the-late-middle-agesearly-renaissance/women-in-the-15th-century/ (1)




http://archive.joan-of-arc.org/ (2)



(Women & Richard III)



(Medieval Women, with pics)



(Finding a wife in 15th Century England)



(Malleus Maleficarum)



 (Women & the Law)



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