Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 6: Wives as Chattels

I conclude my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that women, particularly wives, were mere "chattels" in the Middle Ages.  It is a topic I have taken on before and revisit here.

"Tree of Affinity" Manuscript Illustration from Fitzwilliam Museum MS262
It is still common today to find people (even novelists writing about the Middle Ages!) claim that "women were mere chattels in the Middle Ages." The persistence of this notion is incomprehensible to me as it was very patently NOT true. Indeed, as the noted French historian Regine Pernoud makes exquisitely clear in her comprehensive book on the subject, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1969) women in the Middle Ages enjoyed substantially more status and legal rights than women in the so-called Renaissance and Early Modern periods -- indeed until the 20th century.

It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st-century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (400 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”

Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.

These women -- sold at auction by ISIS -- are "chattels." This was unimaginable in the Christian Middle Ages!

I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
Nothing increased the status of women in any period and anywhere in the world so much as the spread of Christianity. In fact, it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe and around the world to this day.

I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.

Divorce in pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard-won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelmingly by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply fail to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 

Thus the Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual object to life-time partner. 

Yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not unremittingly misogynous.

Let's start with the fact that the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 

Christ holds his arm around his mother's shoulders in this lovely mosaic from Santa Maria de Trastevere, Rome
On a more mundane level, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer, and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.

Over the next weeks, I will examine the status and opportunities for women in medieval society in more detail.  Meanwhile, the women in my novels are medieval women in all their complexity, power, and independence without ever stepping outside the roles and societal norms of the period.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!


  1. Sooo . . . women's suffrage didn't begin with Susan B. Anthony? :-)

    The issue began as Christianity versus all others and eventually became West versus East. But the differences have always been rather "stark," for anyone who ever really cared to compare them.

    The problem most have today is that they automatically contrast 21st century versus all other centuries. Which is rather stupid.

    But that's just me.

  2. Are these blog posts re publishable on other blogs?

    1. You are welcome to "share" or cite the blog, but not steal it. In short, provide proper attribution when quoting from or referring to it as with other works under copyright. In short, respect the standard rules for the protection of intellectual property. If you do that, I'm delighted to have you share.

  3. I like your nuanced views of history. The one on Wives as Chattels was good.

  4. Growing up and learning about medieval times, particularly in Europe it seemed that women were always subject to domestic violence, but you're saying it actually started to become more widespread during later periods?

    1. I have no idea what you heard or where so I can't really evaluate it. Domestic violence has always occurred and is still happening today. The point is that it was not based on law. Women were NOT the property of their husbands in the Middle Ages anymore than they are the property of their husbands today in Europe. Legal rights do not always protect women from harm, but having those rights is vitally important nevertheless. The legal situation of women in the Middle Ages was far superior to the legal situation of women in Ancient Rome, Athens (but not Sparta) and to women in the so-called "Renaissance" in Europe. Renaissance law was actually regressive with respect to women's rights and status.

  5. This is great! Thank you!
    My question, if i may, is about coverture which is often cited in support for the idea as women as chattel - so I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this?

    1. I'm going to quote Wikipedia simply because it the most concise source I have and it conforms with my understanding based on other, more diverse and specialized readings:

      "While it was once assumed that married women had little or no access to legal recourse, as a result of coverture, historians have more recently complicated our knowledge of coverture in the Middle Ages through various studies of married women's legal status across different courts and jurisdictions.[5] Collectively, many of these studies have argued that 'there has been a tendency to overplay the extent to which coverture applied', as legal records reveal that married women could possess rights over property, could take part in business transactions, and interact with the courts.[6]

      In medieval post-conquest Wales, it has been suggested that coverture only applied in certain situations. Married women were responsible for their own actions in criminal presentments and defamation, but their husbands represented them in litigation for abduction and in interpersonal pleas.[7]

      The extent of coverture in medieval England has also been qualified by the existence of femme sole customs that existed in some medieval English towns. This granted them independent commercial and legal rights as if they were single. This practice is outlined in Darcy's London custumal of the 1340s, allowing married women working independently of their husband to act as a single woman in all matters concerning her craft, such as renting a shop and suing and being sued for debt.[8]

      The custom is known to have been adopted in a number of other towns, including Bristol, Lincoln, York, Sandwich, Rye, Carlisle, Chester and Exeter.[9] " END QUOTE

      French, Frankish (Holy Land) and at least some parts of the Holy Roman Empire were more liberal still, while -- I've heard but have not studied -- Italian law was much more conservative (i.e. misogynous) because more heavily influenced by Roman Law.

  6. Thank you for adding this! I was told this by an Imam I greatly respected in Nigeria. Unfortunately, there are a lot of powerful men with multiple wives who are reluctant to acknowledge this, particularly in the Middle East.