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The Medieval approach to the subject of marriage was entirely distinct and unlike our own. It is difficult to understand their view on married life, as it appears to us, in the modern day to be much more of a contract for the consolidation of estates and monetary gain rather than the love of two people. However the view of women in general was very unlike the outlook of our contemporary society and to understand their view of marriage we must first understand the outlook of women in the Middle Ages. Women are first mentioned in The Bible in Genesis 2:21-3. It is described how woman is created from the rib of man and how the man said ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man’1.
The following passages in The Bible describe the fall of Eve and the temptation of Adam. From the very first literature, women are depicted with less moral standing than men and are seen as the downfall of all good, honest Christians. Apostles such as St Paul and St Augustine are also seen to have a grave role in the shaping of the view of women in the Middle Ages. However condemnation of females was not only confined to the Christian Church, as we know it today. Constantine, who established the progressive ‘Christainisation’ of the empire, discovered small yet troubled heresies among which was one called Gnostics.
They believed that the created world was inferior to the spiritual one and as women are the creators in our world they were therefore automatically lesser in the eyes of the lord. Many Gnostic sets wished to discard the reproducing purposes of women and also believed that marriage was sent from the Devil. They are quoted as declaring “Marrying and reproducing are said to be instigated by Satan” However they did not just believe in this without any cause. Gnostics thought that if women abandoned their duty to procreate they would be worthy to preach, baptise and prophesy alongside men. There were already many prior instances of women taking on such roles within The Bible. However, most surprisingly was the vision of the female Christ. This was maintained by Montanist liturgies that had great worship for Eve as her first sin brought about the miracle of incarnation.
So it is easy to see that women’s role within this society was a perplexed and confused issue. There were so many different views from many different sects of Christianity, however what I am going to concentrate on is the view of the laywomen in the Middle Ages by the Christian church. All women were expected to be married, even Nuns were the brides of Christ. Although it was expected, marriage was not the ideal state for a woman. The perfect form was virginity. Those women who preserved their virginity were exalted among others as they had not given in to temptation and from the stories of Eve its in the female nature to be tempted.
Puritans wrote Per mulierem culpa successit, Per virginem salus evenit Sin came from women, But salvation through a virgin2 However even virginity could not bring a woman to the higher state that a man holds within the Christian Church of the early Middle Ages. Cyprian, a third century writer made virginity the distinguishing and unique mark of Christianity, which in turn made virginity a public affair as opposed to a private virtue.
Cyprian’s later contemporary; Ambrose conceived the idea that there were only two types of women in the world. Those who led normal married lives which were tarnished by sexual intercourse and those who stood out from the rest, exceptional women who remained virgins. St Augustine held up the celibate marriage of the Virgin Mary as an ideal for all. Unfortunately pureness would be impossible for the masses. Interestingly, it was only female virginity that held such high esteem. Origen a second century monk castrated himself out of dedication to sexual purity and was punished by the church and excluded from priesthood as he was no longer ‘whole’.
Female virginity was held in high reverence throughout the Middle Ages however this did change somewhat towards the latter part of this era. With the emergence of characters such as Alysoun in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales there was born a women who could play men at their own game. She could quote the Holy Scriptures, making them state that her way of life was viable. She in effect could turn around any criticism of her manner by means reserved only for men of the cloth. There was also an ideal of mutual freedom in marriage, which was conceived, in the late Middle Ages that would not have been imagined any earlier.
Women were seen to take control of the household and hold an equal share of the responsibility within the home. Although their aging husbands may have to show them how to run their household, it was down to the lady to see that everything gets done. The man would provide his young bride with a conduct book explaining what she should do if he were to die suddenly, whether he thought it appropriate for her to re-marry. In addition to house rules and his preferences in the way his household was run.