Medieval painting of a woman wearing a regal headdress holding a decapitated head over a barrel of blood, with a sword in her other hand. The body of the man sits behind her. Their robes are matching.

Wives and Wenches, Sinners and Saints: Women in Medieval Europe

What did medieval Christians believe about women’s nature and social roles? How did they express these beliefs in illustrations, poetry, and religious writings?


The medieval period can seem very distant from our own time, and the study of medieval women may appear particularly elusive. But feminist historians have found medieval Europe a rich subject for both its differences from and its legacy for subsequent eras. Medieval means “middle age” in Latin and refers to the division of history into three, broad periods: classical, middle, and modern. The Middle Ages span approximately 400–1500 AD, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and concluding with the start of the Renaissance. As in other periods, women of the Middle Ages were not a uniform or homogenous group. Historians such as Judith M. Bennett have demonstrated that women’s experiences and opportunities varied widely depending on such factors as marital and sexual status (singlewoman, wife, widow, prostitute); religious status (Christian, Muslim, Jew, but also laywoman, nun, mystic); legal status (serf, slave, free); class status (noblewoman, townswoman, peasant); ethnicity; and region.

Married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts.

However, there were some experiences that most, or all, women shared despite these differences. Women, on the whole, were excluded from political structures. Under the legal system known as coverture, married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts and the husband’s decisions stood for both spouses. (Widows and singlewomen received somewhat greater legal recognition and, hence, property rights.) Wives of all classes were expected to be “helpmeets” of their husbands and to assist their husbands in whatever they required, whether it be plowing a field or entertaining members of the king’s court. Finally, women of all classes learned domestic skills, such as spinning thread, sewing, cooking, and caring for children.

The documents included in this collection do not attempt to represent the full range of medieval women’s experiences. Instead, they focus more narrowly on representations of women within the Christian tradition in manuscripts and books produced in Flanders (now a province of Belgium), France, and England. Two of the works excerpted here are devotional texts, which offered prayers and stories from the Bible for contemplation. The two other texts include exchanges about love and marriage, the nature of women, and their roles in medieval society.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • Identify and discuss the beliefs about women that these medieval documents express. What claims do these writers and illustrators make about women’s essential nature?
  • What seem to be women’s and men’s roles in medieval society?
  • How do women in these texts demonstrate their piety, or Christian devotion?
  • All of these medieval texts are vividly decorated and hand painted, two of them with gold. Why are they so lavish? What does this attention to the text’s physical beauty tell us about reading practices, Christian devotional practices, and the identities of readers during the Middle Ages?
  • In each manuscript or book, what are the relationships between the written text and the accompanying illustrations? Do they seem to form a consistent whole, both in their visual effects and in their content, or ideas? Do you find inconsistencies between the texts and the illustrations?

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

Medieval painting of Adam (sleeping man with beard) with Eve (woman) standing from the waist up out of his exposed side. A figure dressed in kingly robes stands over them with a hand extended in blessing (likely meant to be God). The image is mostly pale tan, gray, and green, with a vibrant blue sky and decorated stars and trees accented with gold.
Ludolphus de Saxonia, Eve Formed from Adam’s Rib (1455)

Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation, or “The Mirror of Human Salvation,” is an illuminated manuscript from Flanders that dates to approximately 1455. Illuminated manuscripts are richly decorated texts with illustrations and borders, often in gold, that were written by hand on vellum (thin, durable sheets made from animal skin). Le Miroir is a French translation of Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a religious manuscript written in Latin during the early 1300s, probably by Ludolphus de Saxonia, a German Roman Catholic theologian. The original manuscript was copied many times and translated into vernacular, or spoken, languages. The text exemplifies the medieval theory of typology, according to which the events portrayed in the Old Testament prefigure, or foretell, the events of the New Testament. Le Miroir begins with an account of Lucifer’s fall and God’s creation of Adam and Eve. Forty, two-page chapters follow this introduction, each one comparing a New Testament event to three Old Testament events. Four illustrations accompany each chapter. The pages reproduced here portray the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Ludolphus de Saxonia, Satan Deceives Eve (1455)

  • A manuscript sheet with two panes. The first depicts Adam conversing with God with a tree between them, and Adam talking to Eve. The second shows Adam working and Eve apart from him, talking to a creature in a tree that is a snake from the waist down and a woman from the waist up.
  • Detail of medieval manuscript. Painting depicting Eve talking to a creature in a tree that is a snake from the waist down and a woman from the waist up.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe Adam, Eve, God, and the serpent in these illustrations. How do they appear?
  2. Why do you think the serpent appears with a female face?
  3. Why does Eve choose to eat the apple, according to this rendition of the fall?
  4. What are Eve’s traits? To what extent does the manuscript apply Eve’s traits to women in general?

Women from the Bible

The Virgin Mary became an important object of veneration during the Middle Ages: ordinary people fervently prayed to her, as did theologians and mystics, who had dedicated themselves to union with God. Mary figures prominently in Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation as the mother of Christ, the intercessor who pleads with Christ to have mercy on sinners, and the protector and defender of human beings. But Mary provided a complicated model to ordinary medieval women. On the one hand, as an example of female virtue, she offered a significant counterweight to Eve and pointed to a larger pattern of female heroism within the Christian tradition. On the other hand, her spiritual purity was inseparable from her virginity and established a model of strict chastity and, more broadly, self-denial that ordinary women were expected to follow. In addition, Mary did not possess her own power. Instead, her power derived from her close relationship to Christ and her ability to appeal to him on behalf of others. The images that follow portray Mary alongside women from the Old Testament who serve as types, foretelling Mary’s role in the New Testament.

A medieval manuscript page with text and two panes. The first pane depicts a woman in blue, sitting reading a large book with crucifixion implements behind her. The second depicts two women in a tent, one of whom is cutting off the head of a man lying in bed.
Ludolphus de Saxonia, Mary and Judith (1455)

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe Mary’s posture and expression in the first image, in which she appears with the objects that were used to torture and kill Jesus. What is Mary’s relationship to these objects, according to the text and as represented in the illustration? Why does Mary appear with them? What book do you think Mary is reading? Why is she portrayed reading?
  2. What are Mary’s virtues, as described in the text? In what ways is she “armed” against the devil?
  3. Examine the image of Queen Thamyris (Regnia thamaire) and the corresponding text describing her actions as well as Judith’s and Jael’s. How do these figures from the Old Testament appear? What is their dress and their demeanor? How would you characterize the representations of their violent actions? How does the text justify the women’s violence?
  4. The text describes Judith, Jael, and Queen Thamyris as Old Testament figures that anticipate Mary’s role in the New Testament. However, while these women demonstrate their virtue through acts of violence, we usually associate Mary—and Jesus—with nonviolence. What parallels does the text draw between the virtue of the Old Testament women and the virtue of Mary? How do these figures complicate the medieval Christian, binary opposition between Eve and Mary? Do they suggest other models of virtue for ordinary women?
  5. Describe Mary’s appearance in relation to the other figures in the “protector and defender” image. What seems to be the setting for this image? How does Mary protect and defend Christians? What does she defend them from?  

A Medieval Prayer Book

Books of Hours are medieval prayer books, made for wealthy lay people, which present prayers to be recited at specific times of day, or hours. This one was created in Bruges (a city now in Belgium) around 1455. It belonged to two aristocratic English families who passed it down through generations and used the first pages to record births, deaths, and marriages. This Book of Hours follows the “use of Salisbury,” that is, the modification of the Roman Catholic rite begun by the Bishop of Salisbury in England in the eleventh century. The prayers are written in Latin. The first image reproduced here portrays Margaret of Antioch, who was widely revered during the Middle Ages as a virgin and martyr. Legend holds that, around 300 AD, a Roman governor demanded that Margaret renounce Christianity and marry him. On her refusal, she was subjected to brutal tortures, including being swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon. She emerged from the dragon alive and intact, though she was eventually executed. While some people, including a fifth-century pope, disputed her existence, others considered her a powerful saint, especially for pregnant women. The second image portrays Adam, Eve, and the serpent in Eden.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the lavish illuminations of these pages from the Book of Hours. Compare this book’s physical form to books that we read today, such as paperbacks and e-readers. How would the experience of reading the Book of Hours differ from your experience of reading books today? Based on its appearance, what can you infer about the significance of this Book of Hours to early readers? What does it suggest about medieval Christian devotional practices?
  2. What appears to be taking place in the representation of Saint Margaret? How do you interpret the dragon’s posture and Margaret’s emergence from him? What is the significance of Christ’s appearance in the upper left corner? Why do you think Margaret was thought to have a special relationship to pregnant women?
  3. Consider the representation of Adam and Eve in Eden. How does the Garden of Eden appear here? What do the postures of Adam and Eve suggest? How does the serpent appear? Why do you think the illustration includes Jesus Christ on the cross? Does the image seem to support or challenge the representation of Eve’s guilt in Le Miroir de Humain Salvation?

The Debate over Women

Le Champion des Dames is a long, allegorical poem that defends the honor and reputation of women. Martin le Franc wrote the poem in Middle French between 1440 and 1442. The Newberry’s edition is an incunable, or early printed book, from Lyons, France, circa 1488, that includes hand-painted, woodcut illustrations. The text consists of a prose prologue followed by five books of verses grouped into eight-verse stanzas or octaves. Le Champion des Dames, literally “The Ladies’ Champion,” contributed to an ongoing debate during the Middle Ages known as the querelle des femmes, or “debate over women.” Le Franc responded to earlier works which portrayed women as cunning, deceitful, and exploitive of men. He personified this slander against women in the allegorical character of Badmouth (Malebouche), whose representatives engage in a dialogue with the Champion, named Free Will (Franc Vouloir). The Champion defends the female sex by referring to individual women from history, legend, and mythology who played important roles in the development of civilization, who were skilled in government and warfare, and who were exceptional scholars and artists. Passages from a recent English edition of Book IV of Le Champion des Dames follow images from the original book below. In the recent edition, Steven Millen Taylor translates the title as The Trial of Womankind to suggest how, in the text, women are placed on trial and are portrayed, alternately, as a trial which men must endure and as bearing trials which men impose on them.

Martin le Franc, Le Champion des Dames, pg 4-5 and 132-133 (1488)

  • Two page spread of medieval manuscript. One pane depicts women in armor, fighting with swords on horseback. A second pane depicts four women in medieval dresses, holding various items meant for ruling or defense.

Questions to Consider

  1. The full-page illustration, which appears early in the book, shows women literally engaged in defense as they use weapons to protect a castle under siege. Smaller illustrations which appear throughout the book portray women as scholars, knights, queens, and goddesses. Examine closely these illustrations. How do they support the text’s argument?
  2. Based on the translated excerpts, describe the main ideas included in the medieval “debate over women.” What does Badmouth accuse women of? On what grounds does he criticize them? Alternatively, on what grounds does the Champion defend women?
  3. What is the significance of the names that Le Franc has chosen for the allegorical figures? Why are the critics of women named Badmouth and Slow Wit, while women’s defender is named Free Will?
  4. Why does Le Franc present the dialogue as occurring between two men? Why is the debate between Badmouth and the male Champion instead of between Badmouth and a woman? What does Le Franc’s use of these allegorical devices tell us about medieval gender roles?

A Medieval Romance

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise offer the most celebrated account of a medieval romance and include some of the richest passages of medieval women’s writing. Peter Abelard was an admired, if controversial, young philosopher in twelfth-century Paris when he met and fell in love with Heloise d’Argenteuil, herself a renowned scholar who was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Abelard moved into the house where Heloise lived with her uncle and guardian, Fulbert, and arranged for her to study with him, so they could spend time alone together. According to the letters they later exchanged, Abelard and Heloise fell passionately in love. She became pregnant and he sent her to live with his sister in Brittany. Heloise’s seclusion from the public as well as Abelard’s widely circulated love poems raised Fulbert’s suspicions. Fulbert demanded that Abelard marry Heloise, which the couple did in secret in order to avoid damaging Abelard’s reputation and career. Still, sometime later, Fulbert hired men to attack Abelard in his sleep and castrate him. Following this attack, Abelard retired to a monastery and persuaded Heloise to join a convent. He refused to communicate with her, a decision which he later attributed to his sense of shame and sorrow.

Some years later, Abelard wrote a lengthy, repentant account of their relationship and sufferings to a friend. The letter came into Heloise’s hands and she initiated a correspondence with him. The letters they then exchanged were initially published in Latin, after Heloise’s death, as part of a collection of Abelard’s works. No original editions survive—the earliest date to 1350—and, over the years, some scholars have questioned the letters’ authenticity, suggesting that perhaps Abelard wrote the entire correspondence himself or that all of the letters could be fictitious. However, most current scholars accept the letters as genuine. The Newberry’s edition was published in 1743 in London. It is an English translation of a 1693 French translation of the earlier Latin text. The following excerpts are taken from a history of the lovers, which appears at the beginning of this edition, and from Heloise’s letters to Abelard.

Peter Abelard, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, pg 28-31, 122-125, 180-181 (1743)

  • Title page of an 18th century printed book. On the left-hand side is a picture of a man and woman seated at a table, apparently in a library. The woman has a number of books, one of which she is referencing while looking at him. He is gesturing and looking at her.
  • Page of printed text
  • A page of printed text
  • Page of printed text
  • Page of printed text
  • A page of printed text
  • Page of printed text

Questions to Consider

  1. Why does Heloise resist marrying Abelard and assert that she prefers the name “mistress” to that of “wife”? What arguments does she offer against their marriage, in particular, and, more broadly, against the institution of marriage? What do these arguments suggest about the expectations placed on men and women in medieval French society?
  2. What are Heloise’s own ideals of love and virtue? What does she mean by the term liberty? Does she embrace the prevailing medieval expectations that women submit to their fathers and husbands?
  3. Consider Heloise’s discussion of woman as a temptress, who, following Eve, “was created in order to partake of his Happiness, was the sole Cause of his Ruin” (181). Does Heloise accept this characterization of women as being naturally evil or born evil? What does she regret about her relationship with Abelard and about the choices she has made?  

Selected Sources

Judith Bennett. “Medieval Women in Modern Perspective.” In B. Smith, ed., Women’s History in Global Perspective. 2005.

Margaret Wade Labarge. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. 1986.

“Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. Typescript, 1965–1975.

Steven Millen Taylor. Introduction. In Martin Le Franc. The Trial of Womankind: A Rhyming Translation of Book IV of the Fifteenth-Century Le Champion Des Dames. 2005.