What was life like for women in medieval times? “Terrible” is the vague if definitive answer that springs to mind—but it’s a notion, and writers are tackling it with renewed vigor.

Once and future sex: Going Medieval on the Role of Women in Society by Eleanor Janega, and The Wife of Bath: A Biography Marian Turner both argues that women were not only more boudoir than we think, but also busier: they were brewers, blacksmiths, court poets, teachers, merchants, and master craftsmen, and they also owned land. A woman’s dowry, Zenega writes, was often accompanied by a firm directive that the property remain with her regardless of her husband’s wishes.

This sounds like a new discovery. It certainly isn’t. Chaucer depicted many such happily domineering women. The vellum letter-books of the City of London, in which the works of the capital were written from 1275 to 1509, certainly include female barbers, apothecaries, armourers, shipwrights and tailors. While it’s true that aristocratic women were considered far less than their male counterparts—traded as property and kept as jewelry—lower-class women lived relatively, harshly and willingly empowered.

It was the Renaissance that swept back women’s rights in a big way. As economic power shifted, the emerging middle classes began to do their best. They confined their women to the home, leaving them at the financial mercy of men. Women’s religious power also decreased. In the 13th century, seeing visions and hearing voices could make a woman a saint; After a hundred years, he is likely to be burned at the stake.

Why does this sound like new information? Much of what we know about the Middle Ages was invented by the Victorians, who had an artistic obsession with the period, and somehow managed to permanently inject their own sexual politics into it through endless repetitions of poetry and the myth of King Arthur. (Victorian women were in many respects more socially repressed than their 12th-century forebears.)

But modern storytellers are also guilty of sexist revisionism. We endlessly rehash the lives of oppressed aristocratic women, and ignore their secretly empowered lower-order sisters. Where poor women are looked at, they are seen as prostitutes or rape victims. Writers who seem desperate for a “feminist take” on this period also ignore the angle of the face. In his 2022 movie, Catherine is called Birdie, for example, Lena Dunham puts Sylvia Pankhurst-esque speeches into the mouth of her 13th-century protagonist, while depicting her impending marriage – at 14 – as typical for the period. (Actually the average 13th century woman got married Somewhere between 22 and 25.)

But we stand by these ideas. Those accused of “historical revisionism” often push back against them. This applies especially to the fantasy genre, which tends to portray the period as a misogynistic fantasy, aside from the odd preternaturally “fisty” female character. The Game of Thrones Author George RR Martin once defended the TV series’ burlesque abuse of women on the grounds of realism. “I want my books to be firmly grounded in history and show what medieval society was like.” Oddly enough, this did not apply to female body hair (or dragons).

It’s interesting. Most of our historical biases run in the other direction: we assume the past was like the present. But when it comes to the history of gender relations, the opposite is true: narrators insist on portraying women as more oppressed than they actually are.

A casual reader of history is left with the faint impression that women suffered a dark age of oppression between the Paleolithic Age and the 19th century. It supposedly ended sometime around the invention of the lightbulb, when the idea of ​​”gender equality” popped into our heads and right-thinking societies set about “discovering” female competencies: women could – amazingly – do things men could do. !

Indeed the history of gender relations can be more accurately portrayed as a battle between the sexes, in which women sometimes gain and sometimes lose power – and the stronger sex opportunistically seizes control.

In Minoan Crete, for example, women had the same rights and freedoms as men, participating equally in hunting, competitions and festivals.

But that era ushered in the most patriarchal society this planet has ever known – classical Greece, where women had no political rights and were considered “minors”.

Or take hunter-gatherer societies, the source of endless co-evolutionary theories about female inferiority. search for Female skeleton with hunting tools has disproved the idea that only men hunted and only women gathered—and more recently anthropologists have challenged the idea that men had superior status, too: women, studies argue, had equal authority over group decisions.

This common bias has had two unfortunate consequences. One is to influence the perception that inequality is “natural.” Another is to give us a certain complacency about our own age: that feminist progress is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. “She was ahead of her time,” we say, when a woman seems unusually empowered. Not necessarily.

Two years ago, remember, the worst patriarchy in history emerged – women were kicked out of their schools and workplaces and caned at home and in hijabs. And last year many women in America lost their fundamental right: abortion. (It turns out that it was pro-lifers, not feminists, who were ahead of their time there.)

Both of these events were greeted with shock from liberal circles: how can women’s rights go backwards? But this only shows that we must brush up on our history. Another look at medieval women is a good place to start anyway.

Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobbying correspondent

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