In this series on Anglo-Saxon society, I have covered various parts of Anglo-Saxon society during the Early Middle Ages in England, including Kings (and Queens), The Upper Crust, The Church, Weregild, and Coerls.
In this post I’m tackling another group of people: the women. What were the roles and status of women in Anglo-Saxon England?
As it turns out, our female Anglo-Saxon counterparts had much more power and status than you might think. We tend to think of medieval women in general as being dominated by men, with little rights and power. That is certainly true of the women after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but before that, women had more rights and status than they would until the modern age.
However, Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th to 10th centuries was definitely a patriarchal society. It was a culture of warriors and kings, strong men who had a huge influence on their society on both the local and larger levels. But that doesn’t mean that the women of the day were stripped of all rights and responsibilities.
Once again, a small caveat is needed before we go any further. As with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is some debate about all this. It’s tricky to determine exactly what the roles of women are from the existing literature, as it mainly is about aristocratic men (kings and warriors, or priests and bishops) and the women are more often than not shadowy figures, mentioned here and there without much substance. One exception, of course, is the poem, The Wife’s Lament, covered here on the blog earlier this month. If you missed that post I would urge you to read it, as you will get the opportunity to hear one woman’s voice speaking to you from long ago.
Women’s roles in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England included the making and repairing of clothing, along with related tasks such as spinning wool, weaving, and embroidery. Baking or cooking did not seem to be a particularly female task, as there are records of both women and men involved in the preparing of food. It is possible that there were some women who were involved in entertainment such as singing or otherwise participating in travelling groups of entertainers.
One role of women that is quite clear from the ballads and heroic poetry from the time is that of cup-bearer. In these you see women, including queens and other female relatives of kings or other high-status men, serving mead at the mead-hall to the victorious men at their victory feasts. In other words, it wasn’t just the female slaves or lower-class women who served the mead, although they would have done this, too.
Women were also known as “peace weavers”, perhaps a reference to marriages that often brought peace to warring tribes or kingdoms. Perhaps it is also a nod to the diplomatic skills women brought to her marriage and family, a balance to her warrior husband.
Another place where the roles and rights of women are specifically mentioned are in the law charters and the surviving wills from the time. Here we can see that the weregild for a woman was the same as that for a man in the same social class, whether coerl or aetheling. Gender did not determine your worth in a legal sense, class did. The Old English word mann referred to “adult human being”, with no reference to sex. Men were called weras and women, wif, Both had equal legal status in the community.*
We can see from these wills and charters that women could inherit land from their
fathers or their husbands, if he died. Women could also run the estates that they owned. Property was distributed equally among sons and daughters, according to age rather than sex. This is an important distinction from the medieval women who lived after the Norman invasion, where they lost all property rights and in a sense became the property of her husband herself.
There are hints that a woman’s wishes were taken into consideration in choosing a husband. In other words, she did not necessarily have to marry someone of whom she disapproved. When she married, the groom was obliged to pay her the morgengifu, or “morning-gift”. This was given directly to the woman, and was could consist of a considerable amount of money, and/or land. The woman had complete control over this and could use it or bequeath it as she saw fit. A famous example of this was the fortress (and land around it) of Bebbanburg. In 600 AD, Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, gave the fortress to his wife, Bebba, and it subsequently was known as Bebbanburg. This replaced the original Celtic Britonic name of Din Guarie.
Divorce was allowed in Anglo-Saxon society, particularly in the case of adultery or abuse. And in a divorce the household goods were divided equally among the partners, with the children being put in the care of their mother. Any goods the woman brought to the marriage she was allowed to keep.
Certainly the Anglo-Saxon Christian church, under the influence of its Celtic Christian roots, held women in high esteem and gave them much more power and authority than later church women were to enjoy. I have previously mentioned the double monasteries, which housed both women and men in separate living quarters but who came together for worship. These were run by strong and capable women such as Hild of Whitby, the famous saint of early Medieval Britain. Nuns were educated in these monasteries just as the men were, and also participated in the creation of manuscripts.
There is even an intriguing hint that women, like their Viking counterparts to come, could also take part in battles. King Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd, became Queen of the
Mercians in 911 AD, and it is reported that she led her army in battle against the Vikings and was a great military strategist. She is quite an unusual woman of the times, however, in that she is the only female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that we know of, and she also passed the throne down to her daughter. But that’s not to say she was the only woman of the times who participated in battles. She’s just the only one we know about!
Anglo-Saxon women had a considerable amount of status and rights in their society. It’s just one more way in which the so-called “Dark Ages” are not as dark as one might think.
*The word wif is of course where our word wife comes from, denoting a married woman. The Old English word wif is related to words that connote weaving, referring perhaps to the women’s role of making cloth.
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