The status of women in England diminished after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. They were allowed to own land but because the Normans tied land ownership to military service women were left out in the cold – so to speak. Attitudes soon changed to reduce the rights and value placed upon women. And legal definition outlined in 1180 AD stated ‘every married woman is a sort of infant’ as a result they had very few rights and were either under the control of a father or husband.
The views of the church only made things worse. As I mentioned last week, females were expected to be more lusty and base, because they were impure and drawn to the pure male. (I still have trouble with the idea of a pure man). Added to that, the church’s views on women were often conflicting. They were seen as both descendant of Eve – the sinner, and the embodiment of The Virgin Mary – the pure.
They were expected to aspire to be like the Virgin Mother – Chaste – while providing a man with children. Wow! I don’t know what idiot came up with that one, but that’s impossible to achieve for us lesser mortals.
I suspect that this was just an ideal and then as today ideals are not necessarily the norm, especially when you consider the lack of stigma attached to premarital sex (for more see last week’s blog).
Whatever the realities, the establishment’s attitudes towards women as a whole were deplorable. They were considered quarrelsome, irrational, unintelligent and as I said before more likely to be tempted by sexual indiscretion. They were barred from government, the law courts, and any kind of formal education.
Is it any wonder that the laws of the time were absolutely outrageous when it came to the treatment of women. Cannon Law, which is church law, stated a man was allowed to beat his wife if she was lazy or disobedient. Rape was virtually impossible to prosecute if the victim found herself pregnant after the attack, because they believed that a child would only be conceived when a woman enjoyed intercourse. (I seem to remember a certain U.S. presidential candidate voicing the same sentiment a few years back – which is extremely scary)
Of course this only accentuates the fact that these people had no idea how children were conceived. They knew that a man’s semen was required but had very little understanding of how a woman’s body worked. This led to some interesting ideas regarding contraception. One method calls for a suppository of equal measures of cardamom seeds, wallflower, myrrh and wormwood to be inserted while taking a warm bath and drinking a bottle of pennyroyal wine. Personally, I don’t mind the idea of the bath and the wine but I can definitely do without the rest of it.
Another called for smoke from burning prunes to curl around the hoof of a mule before wafting into the girl’s underparts. (OMG)
It’s also interesting to note that it seems both men and women were equally intent on preventing pregnancy, especially the peasants or as they were called serfs or villeins. This poor, unfree class of people; probably struggled to feed the children they had, and suffered the most from the lack of reliable information.
For me what is truly horrifying is that some of these laws regarding property, ownership, and rape were still considered relevant until very recently. We can only hope that those who still hold these medieval viewpoints decide to join us in the age of enlightenment.