The medieval woman was allowed a larger measure of freedom and status than the usual image we have of the Middle Ages. Women were allowed to own property and inherit from their family. Some women were employed and some were in charge of businesses. Among the upper class, women were as educated as their male counterparts.
In Europe, women were allowed to inherit property from both their fathers and their husbands. In most cases, whatever the woman brought into a marriage in the form of a dowery was hers, even if her husband divorced her. If a woman was childless or her children were to young to inherit, she would control her husband’s property after his death. This was common because of the trend of women in their teens marrying men 10-20 years older.
Some women gained control of their husband’s property because they left for the crusades and the wife ran the business in the husband’s absence. Some men were gone for years and some never returned.
Women had control of certain areas of commerce of their own volition. Silk spinning was almost exclusively “women’s work” Women manufactured purses and ladies hats, too. And in some parts of Europe, such as Paris, they were allowed to run brothels and taverns.
In the Hollister Sourcebook, there is a picture from a French manuscript depicting a woman as an artist painting a woman. The caption states women of the Middle Ages participated in the business world in a way that only men would be allowed to in later times, which included “trade, banking, the direction of business enterprises, textile manufacturing, brewing, tax collecting, money lending, illuminating and copying books,... and a variety of other activities.”
Women could even belong to guilds and some taught their knowledge, not only in artisan occupations, but also reading, writing and arithmetic. A woman could be as educated as her male counterpart. Women also were midwives and often served as a sort of doctor giving medical advice and dispensed medications.
The town of Sardinia provides an interesting look into the life of the medieval woman. In Sardinia, a woman could own property and retain a separate title to her own property she brought into a marriage. It was the custom of the Sardinians, that all the children, even females, got equal inheritance.
Women didn’t have to marry and even made a point to being single. A single woman who joined the church still brought a dowery to the church. In the church, the women couldn’t hold office, but they could still wield power. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess in the Benedictine order was much admired by the other leaders in the church. Women had previously been blamed for the original sin, and although that stigma stuck with them, many church clergy saw women as equals in Christ....