Examining the lives of women in the past is a difficult task as their voices are usually well concealed. As we take more and more distance from the present this task becomes even more difficult and in many cases historians still disagree. This short essay will attempt to briefly summarize the context of women’s lives, roles and status from prehistory until the Early Renaissance, in 1500 C.E.
The Prehistory of humans is one period for which little is known. Without written sources to guide us and with few other remnants we can only speculate about the lives of human beings in general and women in particular. Traditionally, women were believed to be gatherers in the Stone Age societies, while men would hunt. The discovery however of a series of female figurines depicting voluptuous women has led historians to suggest that women were closely related to Stone Age religion and therefore enjoyed a high status (Witcombe, 1998). It has been suggested that the earliest religions were based on the worship of a mother goddess and some historians have even proposed that early societies were based on matriarchy, the rule of women (Witcombe, 1998). During the Bronze Age the cult of the mother goddess may have continued in places like Minoan Crete, however the societies which formed around villages and cities seem to have turned to patriarchy and thus the role of women in public life diminished (Witcombe, 1998).
In historical times, it is easier for the historians to have a better view of the lives, roles and status of women. The historical documents that have survived give us a good picture, although this is by no means complete. In Ancient Greece, the status of women was low. They did not have rights as citizens and were famously excluded from the processes of the Athenian democracy (Noble et al, 2002, 88). Women from affluent families could expect to spend most of their lives in the homes of their fathers and husbands, while those belonging to the working classes would often have to work to help support their families (Noble et al, 2002, 88). They would not normally be educated and were not expected to play a significant role in the public sphere. The only domain in which they could be involved was religion. Women could become priestesses and play a significant role in cult festivals and religious activities (Noble et al, 2002, 88). A very small group of women in Athens could have more access to power through the influence they had on leading men. These were the hetaerae, educated women from other cities, which were in effect prostitutes patronized by wealthy and powerful men (Noble et al, 2002, 89). The situation for women remained similar during the Roman times. Women did not have legal or property rights and were dependent on the “paterfamilias”, the leader of their families –first their father and then their husband- for all their lives (Noble et al, 2002, 146-147).
While the position and role of women during the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance often differs in different countries or even different cities, there are some general patterns which apply for the whole of Western Europe during each of these periods. Although the Christian religion emphasized equality for all, medieval religious writers considered women more prone to temptation and unethical living (Holmes, 2001, 48). They considered them therefore morally and mentally inferior to men (Noble et al, 334). Their role was thus very much restricted. The Middle Ages however were characterized by a powerful Catholic church and those that could be part of it enjoyed an intellectual and/ or artistic life that differed radically for that of the vast majority of women (Noble et al, 334). Positions as nuns in prestigious convents were only open to women of the upper classes and the highest positions of abbesses were probably the most powerful and prestigious positions a woman could have access to. The situation for women did not really change with the beginning of the Renaissance and the humanist philosophy and education that accompanied it. Only women of the elite could hope to have some education but even they were not expected to have a role other than domestic or in very specific cases religious in society (Noble et al, 399).
It is interesting to note that throughout the history of humankind and up to 1500 C.E. the only place where women could be active and attain positions of at least some prestige is the religious sphere. Apart from simply participating they could become priestesses, nuns or even the object of devotion as the Stone Age female figurines seem to suggest.
Holmes, G. (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A detailed history of Europe during the Middle Ages from the end of the Roman
Empire in 400 C.E. until the beginning of the Renaissance in 1500 C.E.
Noble, T.F.X., Strauss, B.S., Osheim, D.J., Neuschel, K.B., Cohen, W.B., & Roberts, D.D. (2002). Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment, (Vol. 1). Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
A history of Western civilization until 1715. The authors present a detailed account
for each period with special references to different groups of people, while at the
same time making available to the reader important primary sources.
Witcombe, C. (1998). The Venus of Willendorf in Images of Women in Ancient Art: Issues of Interpretation and Identity. Retrieved from http://arthistoryresources.net/willendorf/
An account of the images of women from Prehistory (with special attention to Venus of Willendorf) and what these may tell us about the lives, roles and status of women in the Stone Age.