In medieval popular literature, men are often browbeaten by their sinful, shrewish, wandering wives.
The most common symbol of the peasant woman was the distaff – a tool used for spinning flax and wool.
Even Eve is often shown with a distaff.
When medieval women aren’t waving a distaff at goose-stealing fox, they’re attacking their husbands with it!
Women, guilty “of sin and temptation, of forbidden pleasures and lusts, of needful fears and repressions” seemed to deserve punishment for their trespasses,including within marriage.
In a 15th century carol, a young man warns against older women. The husband complains that:
If I aske our dame bred,
Che tayk a staf and brekit myn hed
And doth me rennyn under the led;
Another 15th-century man complains of the maltreatment that he receives from his wife. Not only does she eat all the food and drink all the good ale but she is quick to strike him when displeased:
If I sey ovght of hyr but good,
She loke on me as she war wod
And wyll me clovght abovght about the hod;
Carfull [ys my hart therfor]
While from the point of view of the Chuch, matrimony helped keep the weaknesses of the flesh in check, men believed it was a harrowing experience imposed on them by women!
Jokes against women were popular in Medieval Latin writing.
Which women couldn’t read so couldn’t respond to!
Some corkers from the Facetiae by Poggio Bracciolini :
The father of a friend of ours had an intimacy with the wife of a downright fool, who, besides, had the advantage of stuttering. One night he went to her house, believing the husband to be away, knocked on the door, and claimed admittance, imitating the cuckold’s voice. The blockhead, who was at home, had no sooner heard him, than he called to his wife, “Giovanna, open the door, Giovanna, let him in; for it does seems to be me.”
An inhabitant of Gobbio, named Giovanni, an exceedingly jealous man, racked his brains for a way of ascertaining, without a shadow of a doubt, whether his wife had an intimacy with any other man. By a deeply matured contrivance, well worthy of a jealous mind, he emasculated himself with his own hands. “Now,” he thought, “if my wife becomes pregnant, she will not be able to deny her adultery.”
Medieval Girls Night Out
Women would have met regularly at domestic locations, such as market places, rivers and ditches. shops, churches, streets, fields and fair grounds, as they went about their daily business.
One surviving anonymous poem from the late fifteenth century describes a Medieval girls night out.
The women of the poem come together as friends, calling each other “gossip”. The anonymous narrator promises us “full good sport” by relating how women meet “in a lane or street” to “comfort their sick bodies.”
However, he dares only tell “half the substance” for fear of their “displeasure.”
One woman tells another that she knows the best place to find a draught of “merry-go-down” (a drink or a euphemism?) but would give her “gown” that her husband did not know about it.
In the tavern, they begin to drink, with little thought for the bill, “for we will spend, till God more send.”
Their talk revolves mainly around the appreciation of their food; food which they have brought from home, otherwise intended to feed their husbands: flesh, fish, wine and junkets.
The drink does them good: “sweet wines keep my body in heal (health),” implying that they need to be fortified before returning to their homes and duties.
One woman, who looks miserable confesses that her husband “beateth (her) like the devil of hell,” becoming more violent as she begs for mercy.
Alice curses him, saying that any man who beats a woman, especially his wife: “God give him short life!”
Meek Margaret then adds that any man who beats he, receives five blows in return, even though she is a weak woman. She is not afraid but gives as good as she gets “though I have no beard!”
We don’t know what happens to the women after the tavern or if their husbands find out.
Medieval social life
— Áine Foley (@AineMedievalDub) 12 November 2015
Medieval nightlife likely ended much earlier than we’re used to.
The term “curfew” originates from to the suppression of fire at night for fear of, well, uncontrollable fires starting.
Public religious events like sermons, Mass, feasts, vigils and processions involved alcohol-drenched celebrations that were often organized and dominated by women.
Even pilgrimages were often made with friends as well as or instead of family and took on an air of fun and adventure.
In fact, the “wandering” wife is a staple of misogynist literature and satire.
Women were no strangers to taverns. In 1340 York, Alice Edern invited her female neighbors over for an evening of ale-tasting!
While Medieval women no doubt made the best of things, we should remember that there was no concept of women’s rights.
Married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts and the husband’s decisions stood for both spouses.
Wives of all classes were expected to be “helpmeets” of their husbands and to assist their husbands in whatever they required, whether it be plowing a field or entertaining members of the king’s court.
English peasant women generally could not hold lands for long, rarely learned any craft occupation and rarely advanced past the position of assistants, and could not become officials.
If a woman was pregnant, and not married, or had sex outside of marriage, her feudal lord was entitled to compensation!
Even without a feudal lord to worry about, a woman was still supervised by her father, brother or other male members of the family.
Women were not belittled, downtrodden and despised from conscious cruelty – it was just not generally imagined that they could play any other role.
The poem “Wives at the Tavern”, from an anonymous fifteenth-century manuscript was published in the Victorian T.Wright’s “Songs and Carols.”
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.