In response to yet another pitch for a paper on ‘medieval oppression of women in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue’

Remember the Middle Ages covers a LOT of ground. We’re talking about Europe, but not only Europe, from roughly the fall of the Roman Empire to roughly the appearance of Protestantism or the invention of the Printing Press or Columbus landing in America or whatever you like, but it’s about 1000 years of stuff over a VERY wide geographic range. The status of women in that whole place is going to be vary a lot.

Furthermore, where the status of women is bad, there’s often not much that particularly medieval about it. Why? Because, say, in England, women had a lot of trouble inheriting property until the 19th or even early 20th centuries; women were barred from most professions until the 20th century, and really, in practice, until the later part of the previous century; women were barred from most government positions, military roles, and you name it, until very recently. The sad condition of women is not particularly medieval but rather, it seems, the norm, and our own era, here in America for example, may be the actual divergence. We didn’t naturally escape the era of gender oppression just by getting out of the Middle Ages: not even close. Knowing how rare women’s rights have been historically, and how recent they are, means that anyone who believes in women’s rights has to fight hard to defend them.

Also, women in fourteenth-century England were better off than they were, say, in fourteenth-century Italy. See Richard Firth Green, “Griselda in Siena,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33.1 (2011): 3-38 for one example of how this works. The condition of women in England in fact worsened significantly in the 16th century, about 200 years after Chaucer, though some women—say, the Queens Mary and Elizabeth – did quite well for themselves. So, again, you’ll want to pay attention to what’s PARTICULAR to women in fourteenth-century ENGLAND.

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