27 March 2014
What initially comes to mind when one is asked about their perception of medieval society? More often than not, people of the 20th century tend to associate the Middle Ages with knights fighting to maintain their royalty, peasants slaving on the lord’s land, and monks meditating in the monasteries. What one notices after looking at the medieval lifestyle, is that it seems to be centered on the man. However, what about the women, how did they contribute to society? By looking at credible texts such as “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise”, historians have been able to uncover the societal ideals of medieval women. Seen throughout medieval society in one of two ways—good or evil, women were considered to be a flaw compared to their male counterparts.
Throughout the middle ages there were many perspectives on women. A number of scientists and philosophers, priests, and poets all tried to understand women through their specific field of study. Women were taught about from a scientific perspective, a Christian perspective, and through a new idea known as courtly love. Each of these perspectives defined the medieval woman in their own way, however, what they all shared in common was that they never understood a woman for who they were as an individual, but rather stereotyped all women under a single view of the female sex.
The Christian perspective of women during the middle ages was quite interesting. The Church perceived women in two distinctive views. They taught that women were either good or evil. While achieving the status of a “good medieval woman” was often impossible to do, it was pretty easy to be considered evil during medieval society if you were a woman. This was because women were said to be temptresses. Even teachers supported the ideas that women were evil. One Christian author, Tertullian 160 A.D. even argued that women were the devils gateway, and that the devil used women to send men to hell. His argument focused on Eve’s ever-changing decision at the Garden of Eden, where she tempted Adam and led him to hell. It is said that Eve’s guilt lives on in every woman. Other notable figures had similar views of medieval women. St. Bernard 1125 A.D. said that it would be easier to raise the dead, than to be with a woman and not sleep with her. This view of women as temptresses became customary throughout medieval society. One can see this through Tertullian’s view of women and St. Bernard’s view of women and how similar they were even though these two men lived hundreds of years apart. Men were not the only ones to consider women evil, but women also tended to think of themselves in this way. A great example of a misogynistic woman can be seen in “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise”. In her letters to Abelard, Heloise makes herself inferior to him. On several accounts Heloise tells Abelard, that men are superior to women. She does not hesitate to put women down. For example she tells Abelard that “you alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort…at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and my will alike” (p.51). Heloise demotes herself here, letting Abelard have complete control over her. From reading her letters, one can see the character of Heloise as a wretched woman to which she refers herself the most wretched of all (p. 65). Strong-minded and not afraid to voice her opinion, it is women like Heloise that help propagate this view of women as inferior to men that allow it to continue throughout medieval society. Heloise does not only consider women to be inferior to men, but she also considers women to be wicked. She believes that women brought men to ruin.
For example she brings up the tale of Adam and Eve, proving that women were the reason behind the wreckage of men. “It was the first woman in the beginning who lured man from