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Anglo-Saxon women

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Title: Anglo-Saxon women  
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Anglo-Saxon women

The study of the role of women in particular in the society of Anglo-Saxon England has been a topic of academic research in history and gender studies since the 1980s. A seminal study was published by Christine Fell as Women in Anglo-Saxon England in 1984. According to Fell, women were "near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time".[1][2] Despite this sense of equality in some strata of society, Anglo Saxon women were still subject to concubinage. This equal status prevailed until the Norman Conquest of 1066, at which point a military society re-envisioned women as unimportant.[1][2]

Gender was influenced by social status, religion and sexuality.[3] Many women in Anglo-Saxon England were of solid stance in society. They were not only allowed to have private influence, but also a wide liberty of intervention in public affairs.[2]


Women and children were generally involved in tasks that required little physical work. Though, due to climate and weather constraints, women may have done the work that needed attention at the time.[1] While men were ox-herders, labourers, swine-herders, and so forth, women were cheese-makers[4] and dairy-maids.[1] They were also bakers, though not cooks. In Old English the word for cook is coc, and is only found in the masculine form, while baecere and bascestre respectively represent the feminine and masculine forms of baker.[1][4] Female slaves were corn-grinders, serving maids, wet-nurses, weavers, and seamstresses.[4] Common free women may have been found spinning as well as weaving.[1] Women and ladies, including queens, would serve drinks for company and family. This was not only a job for a woman of lower-class,[1] though it would have likely been done by a low-class woman if one were present. Women of this time were also entertainers, comedians, and singers, and may have been employed by households or travelling groups.[1]


Churches in Anglo-Saxon England stressed doctrines that preached about virginity as a virtue and faithful monogamy; this is believed to have limited an individual’s chances of acquiring status, political power and property.[3] Anglo-Saxon England was the first place in history that women had been raised to sainthood, and this was the strongest immediately following the acceptance of Christianity.[1] Within the church women appeared to have been equal as well there are evidences of anti-feminism found in Homilies.[1] Although anti-feminism was found in Homilies, it does not seem to hold true in practice.[1] Women that went into the convent and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were glorified in the eyes of the Church and its Fathers.[5] The convent offered self-development and social responsibility to women, something that women are fighting for today.[1] Uniquely, the Anglo-Saxon church had institutions that consisted of male and female monasteries, located together but segregated, and in these the female abbot had the headship of the institution. Convents were run by abbesses, and this was an opportunity for women to have a position of authority.[4] They were responsible for the finances and managing the property, with some the help of the other nuns.[4] This control that women had did not survive the Viking invasion of 789,[6] although women continued to play a major role in the church in late Anglo-Saxon England.[4] Single gendered convents and monasteries had the chores that were commonly done by the other sex would have been performed by the common sex in that location; examples are men would have worked in the kitchens of monasteries and women would have worked in the gardens of nunneries.[1]

It is clear that there were equal opportunities for men and women in the Christian Church in Anglo-Saxon England, but it is still important to look at the “Patriarchs of the Bible.”[3] Although women were given these opportunities it is crucial that they were given them by men and that the Church's significant positions of authority were held by men. Thus the gender differences and coping with the ideological conflicts that have to due with sexuality and kinship resulted from the introduction of Christianity.[3]

Marriage and divorce

In Anglo-Saxon England, there were many laws related to marriage.[4] Some historians profess that the law that either widow, nor maiden was forced to marry a man that she disliked as being a sign of equality; however, Aethelberht's law contradicts this in as much as a man is legally allowed to steal another man's wife as long as he pays him reparation.[1] Once married, a woman was to situate herself as the object of her husband's subjectivity, she was to become the object of his protection and the property, although she still remained the owner of her property.[3] The Church saw that married women had no authority and were to stand under the lordship of men. Therefore under the church they were not able to teach, witness, take an oath, nor be a judge.[5] In marriage, a male often developed his sphere of influence through his wife.[3] Although women were seen as such under the church, there were laws that protected them in the public sphere when married. Divorce was rare, and the only documented ones were in times of adultery.[4] A woman that commits adultery by sleeping with a man that was not her husband while he was still alive was subject to give what she owned to her husband.[1] Æthelraed's 1008 code states that widows shall remain unmarried for 12 months after the death of her husband, at which point they have the freedom to choose.[1] This was likely the case to allow for the widows have time to think and not make any rash decisions which may have led to relationships or commitments.

A prospective husband paid money or offered land for a woman's hand in marriage. This was paid to her directly and she had the right to do with it as she pleased. It is made clear that the marriage finances were held by both man and woman. A woman was free to leave a marriage, keeping in mind the only times divorce was documented in cases of adultery; and if the woman did leave and take the children, she was entitled to half the property.[1] These gifts were substantial sums and generally property.[1][4] The gifts given by the groom were sometimes viewed as a sale of the bride, when, in actuality, it was to safeguard her interests and add security.[4]

Sexual mores

According to the church sexual desires were evil and sinful, thus appeared as so; therefore women were not to orgasm or enjoy sex.[5] Many times sex was not gentle, because it was a sense of security for the man and not meant to please the woman.[5] When it came to paying for sex with a woman belonging to the King she would have cost roughly 30 shillings, while a commoner only 6 shillings.[7] The transfer of money for sex shows that there was the presence of prostitution, although it is not clearly stated whether the women were forced into the act or not, and this issue is still up for debate, although there still was the sex trade.[1][7] The fact that rape of a slave was more expensive than seduction of a free woman shows how rape was viewed so negatively in society, although the law protected women against both actions.[1] Laws of Ælfred go into great detail regarding laws about sexual assaults.[1] An example of the law committed by a man was King Æthebald of Mercia who was punished for numerous reasons, including violating holy nuns that were virgins consecrated to God.[3] When compensation was paid a free woman, ceorl or ranked above, she collected the money directly, and the money for slaves went to their owner. It is also unclear as to whether the wife or husband received the money for their servants.[1][4] Rape as a topic is important because it relates to gender relations, class status, property rights, judicial, female agency, religious virtues of integrity of the body and representation in of all of these in a society.[7] Sexual assaults were greatly penalized whether it was a slave or free woman.[4] Burials suggest that a raped body was unceremonious.[8] Even some men of this era applauded other men who beat their wives and some men even thought that a wife should be beat regularly, unfortunately this was encouraged by the clergy.[5] Even though there were law protecting women that had been raped many times the acts went unpunished, for lack of information or time, the women herself would not tell anyone until many years after, or no one really took an interest in the crime; a wash woman is an example of a typical victim of unnoticed rape.[5]

Sex and rape were also found in literature.[7][8] There are actual and threatened acts of violent sexual assaults presence in the literature and legal texts;[7][8] an example is the homily of Wulfstan, a text in which he wrote about women being raped in the hands of the Viking.[7]


The written law only represents a portion of the laws that impacted the lives of women; therefore they only reflect partial views of what actually happened.[9] Despite what the churches doctrines taught, women were considered to be a member of the state and their rights were protected, regardless of their status as maiden, widow or wife.[1] Women were classed as oath worthy and could appear as grantors, grantees and witnesses of charters.[4] Women were held responsible and accountable under the law for their activity, although were not held accountable for any criminal activity that her husband did, unless she was a willing accessory to the crime.[1][4] Along with being law abiding, they received appropriate compensation for crimes that were committed against them, and the compensation was paid directly to them.[1]


Women had property rights and many landowners were women.[4] They were able to bequeath land, as shown in numerous wills. Leaving property by means of a will was not restricted to kin; it could also be left to servants, religious figures, and churches.[2] Documents of wills and charters show that women owned estates, by virtue of grant, will, or inheritance, and that they were seen roughly equal in the common life of the countryside.[2][4] Evidence in these documents shows no preference to daughters or sons as heirs.[4] Ceorl women and others of high rank were responsible for their homes.[10] Some of the items that women would commonly receive via trust or inheritance were real property estates, slaves, livestock, household furnishings, clothing, jewels, and books.[4] Items such as table clothes, bed sheets, and wall hangings were considered women's property because women made them.[1]


Anglo-Saxons had warnings for pregnant women, including avoiding foods that were too salty or sweet, pork, and other fatty foods. They were also told to abstain from strong alcohol and too much drink and to avoid travel on horseback.[1] If a woman were to stop menstruating supposedly due to a lack of nutrients and was not pregnant, she was to take hot baths, drink hot herb teas, and dress warmly.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Christine Fell (1987)
  2. ^ a b c d e Frank M. Stenton (1990)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Carol Braun Pasternack (2003)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Carol Hough (1999)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Arthuer Fredrick Ide (1983)
  6. ^ John Blair (1984)
  7. ^ a b c d e f Shari Horner (2004)
  8. ^ a b c Dawn Hadley (2004)
  9. ^ Mary P Richards and B. Jane Stanfield. (1990)
  10. ^ Hough, Carol. “Women.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Lapidge et al. 1999. 485-487.


  • Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1984.
  • Frederick Ide, Aruther. Special Sisters: Women in the European Middle Ages. Mesquite, United States of America: Ide House, 1983.
  • Hadley, Dawn. “Negotiating gender, family and status in Anglo-Saxon burial practices, c. 600-950.” Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900. Ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia M.H. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 301-323.
  • Horner, Shari. “The Languages of Rape in Old English Literature and Law: Views from the Anglo-Saxon(ist)s.” Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Carol Pasternack and Lisa M.C. Weston. Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 2004.149-181.
  • Hough, Carol. “Women.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Lapidge et al. 1999. 485-487.
  • Hough, Carol. “Marriage and Divorce.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Lapidge et al. 1999. 302-303.
  • Jewell, Helen. “The Background: women in England before 1100.” Women in Medieval England. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. 26-52.
  • Pasternack, Carol Braun. “Negoitating Gender in Anglo-Saxon England.” Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. Ed. Sharon Farmer and Carol Braun Pasternack. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 2003. 107-142.
  • Richards, Mary P. and Stanfield, B. Jane. “Concepts of Anglo-Saxon Women in the Laws.” New Reading on Women in Old. Ed. Damico and Olsen. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990. 89-99.
  • Stenton, Frank M.. “The Historical Bearing of Place-Name Studies: The Place of Women in Anglo-Saxon Society.” New Reading on Women in Old. Ed. Damico and Olsen. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990. 79-88.
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