Medieval Writings on Secular Women

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If your blood pressure is too low, you might try reading this book. I knew was I was getting into, but forged ahead anyway, always curious to see how terrible and obvious the patriarchy has been throughout history. So many laws to govern the bodies of women, the minds of women, because they were not to be treated as real people. Fascinating to peel back the layers to see what women were up to that necessitated the laying down of these laws. A lot of attempts to control births, handle abandoned babies, etc. This book could be a great source for anyone looking for some killer wedding vows.

In one excerpt, written in Normandy in 1150, a dialog between a philosopher and an aristocrat trying to understand the mystery of reproduction (they believed women had sperm that had to interact with male sperm, and that women only spermed when pleased), specifically why women who are raped can get pregnant: “Although the act of rape displeases at the start, in the end as a result of carnal weakness, it pleases.”

This one was quite hilarious, a poet of the late 11th century in Italy describes the ideal wife. The target of his text was Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115), who threw over two husbands and commanded armies during the papal-imperial conflict in Italy:

If a woman is married, let her love her husband and tremble under his authority; she should bring up their children, and take care of her house; she should be terrified of wars, dread soldiers and love peace. Let her carry in her hands loom weights and a comb, spindles and threads, linen and wool and silk. And she should not trouble herself greatly with leading military expeditions.

From a Welsh law for women on provision for mother and baby, early 13th century:

“If a man accepts a woman as his wife and gives her a marriage gift and then makes her pregnant, and if she is dismissed [ed: WTF!] before she gives birth, the period from when she was dismissed will be owed to her for the bringing up of the child. She shall bring up the child, willingly or not, for one year and a half. He shall give her for the bringing up a fat sheep with fleece and lamb; and also an iron pan or four pence; and a unit of grain for making pottage or rynnyon for the baby; and three loads of wood; then two ells of white cloth for swaddling the child, or four pence; then two ells of striped cloth or twelve pence; then a fat cow with calf; then three loads, namely one of grain, one of barley and one of oats.

If any pregnant woman shall be made to miscarry between the fourth day and the full month, the person through whose fault this happened shall give her a fourth of the child’s price, according to its status; and this shall be called gwayth kyndelwaut, because it is not yet formed. If it happens in the second, third, or fourth month, a third part of its price according to its status shall be given,. If someone does it in the fifth month or after the foetus has quickened, half its price shall be given.”

Spanish religious texts from 9th to 11th centuries laid out specific penances for crimes women may commit, again, this is intriguing to see what was going on that needed to be so specifically accounted for:

  • “If a woman kill a child in the womb by a potion or by other means, let her do penance for 15 years. Similarly for children already born.
  • But if a poor woman rushes to do this, let her do penance for 7 years.
  • If anyone causes an abortion, let them do 3 years penance.
  • If a woman should kill her child in the womb before it quickens [lit: ‘before it has a soul’], let her do 3 years penance.
  • Women who fornicate and kill their children should do 15 years penance.
  • If a woman takes her husband’s semen in her mouth or mixes it will food, she must do 3 years penance.”

Catholic popes had a particular abhorrence to menstruation. This was written by Innocent III in the 1190s:

What Type of Food the Foetus is Nourished With in the Womb

But listen to what type of food the foetus is nourished with in the womb: it is menstrual blood which comes forth, but ceases to come out of the woman after conception, so that the foetus might be nourished within the woman [ed: WRONG!].

This blood is said to be so abominable and foul that contact with it causes seeds not to germinate and vineyards to dry up, grass to die, trees to drop their fruit, and if dogs eat it they become rabid. In the conception of a foetus, the strength of the seed is restricted by contact with the blood so that lepers and those with elephantiasis are born from such corruption. Whence, according to the law of Moses, a woman who is menstruating is held to be unclean, and anyone who lies with her is ordered to be put to death. On account of this uncleanness of menstruation it is ruled that if a woman brings forth a male child she should stop coming to church for forty days, but if her child is female, eighty days.

Sweet– a reprieve from church for 80 days for having daughters!