Women in the Year 1000 C.E.


What was the world like for women around the time of the first millennium? In Christian Europe, it was hardly a golden age. It was a violent time when nobles and their knights were preoccupied with holding onto their land, and peasants suffered periodic invasions of armies bent on destruction and pillage. All classes lived uncomfortably in rude, unsanitary houses. All faced recurrent famine, often caused by poorly tilled lands, and disease, often caused by polluted water, tainted foods and unsanitary living.

In this disruptive time the idea of chivalry toward women didn't exist. The killing of innocent women, as well as children and the elderly, commonly occurred in any town or castle that dared to resist an attack. In war or peace, anyone could be maimed or killed at the whim of those in power.

In general women were not held in high esteem and had few rights. Women were felt to be untrustworthy and more easily seduced by the devil than were men. "No woman is good, unless she be a saint," was a common saying. As potential sinners, women were expected to watch themselves, and be ashamed of their clothes and beauty. In France, women were compelled to cover their heads; hiding the hair was a symbol of a woman's dependence upon a man's will, as well as a way to protect her from male advances.

In some parts of Germany, a husband still had the right to sell his wife. The physical punishment of wives was common, even encouraged, to keep the "nagging" woman from talking back or being disobedient. Since women's intelligence was questioned, their education was limited to learning the skills needed at home. An exception was Trotula, a doctor educated in Europe's first university at Salerno, Italy.

Aristocratic women had more rights than other women. In the absence of sons, daughters could inherit land and were valued for their property. As long as she was obedient, she would be protected by male family members, as was Sweden's Sigrid the Haughty. One route of power for noble women to marry an influential lord. As wife, her first duty was to bear a male heir. Otherwise she was to be her husband's helpmate, perhaps tending his wounds, overseeing his large household, and, in his absence, taking care of his land, house and family. In this warrior culture, she might also be called upon to fight to defend her lands and privileges.

A noble woman also could be installed as abbess in a well endowed convent. In convents women had a chance to develop an intellectual life, as did Hroswitha of the Abbey of Gandersheim. Sometimes, rarely, a woman managed to achieve the political authority normally granted to powerful males. One was Adelaide, empress of the Ottonian empire.

In 1000, The World of Islam was wide and dispersed, spreading from the palaces of Spain across North Africa, and from the Middle East to the Arabian Sea and Indus Valley. In contrast to Europe, it was a world where math, medicine, philosophy and the arts were encouraged and flourished. The status and privileges accorded to women in this vast world varied greatly, reflecting the enormous differences in cultures. The picture of women in this period is incomplete because of the tendency in some cultures to exclude women from public life, but it seems that extreme restrictions on women were rare. Women of wealth, for example, had access to education, as required by the Quran. In Spain, where the Caliph at Cordoba had created a sophisticated relaxed society, female poets, such as Walladah bint Mustakfi, produced surprisingly personal poems. There are mentions of female students, too, in the early madrasas (theological schools), and of women who became advanced enough to become renowned scholars. During the Fatimid reign in Egypt, the institution of higher learning, the "House of Wisdom," had rooms set aside for women. Since one of the philosophies of the Fatimids was that boys and girls should be raised as equals, it is not surprising that Queen Asma, the wife of the first Fatimid ruler of Yemen, was granted extraordinary political power.

Below the elite, women were economically active as shopkeepers, artisans, and workers in the manufacture of textiles. Female singers, musicians, and dancers, mostly trained slaves, were sought to enliven the courts of the Muslim world. By the eleventh century, women followers of Sufism, (mystical Islam) were creating some new forms of mystical poetry and music, while women of wealth became lavish patrons of architecture such as mosques, teaching institutions (madrasas), and tombs.

The Byzantium Empire was also far more wealthy and splendid than any in Europe. Constantinople, the capital, was at the first millennium the largest, most populous, and indisputable commercial capital of the Christian world. Goods flowed into it from the East, from the North via the famous route of the Rus traders, and, of course, from the Christian West. Still at the height of its greatest power, its government was weakened by an excessive love of pomp and ritual, a top heavy bureaucracy, and the frequent use of brides and family connection for favors.

Peasant women usually worked alongside their husbands. Some families were freeholders, but the taxes they owed often tied them to their land, in effect turning them into serfs. Both slaves men and women, too, were used extensively on the land and in the cities.

Elite women generally lived in the seclusion of the women's quarters, covering their face when they ventured out in public. From their homes they controlled the affairs of the household, or engaged in activities such as weaving or detailed embroidery. The production of fine woolen fabrics and linen formed an important part of Byzantium's textile industry, and women working at home produced much of this vital resource. Women's embroidery work was also a sought-after export.

Even when secluded from men, women of the royal families took part in many aspects of public life. Time and again empresses influenced public events and were the dominating members of their family circle. Some became powerful autocrats, like Empress Zoe who ruled in her own right.

Whenever possible German rulers married Byzantine princesses to gain influence and access to the wealth of the East. Since Byzantium needed peace in the West, its rulers sometimes let their noble women marry European royalty, even though they thought Europeans uncouth and much beneath them. Empress Theophano was one princess who was allowed to marry Saxon royalty.

In the Far East, China entered the millennium in the early years of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). At this time women remained free of the severe practices of the later Sung period when the strict moral code imposed by the Neo-Confucianists (re-interpreters of ancient Confucian beliefs) created negative beliefs about women that resulted in female infanticide, footbinding, denial of widow remarry, and the seclusion of women.

With the Sung period's increased wealth and trade, new possibilities opened for women, especially in the cities. Women worked in weaving and silk-making industries; they owned tea shops, seafood stores, and drug and candy stores. The Sung also produced some of the strongest heroines China has ever known - military warriors who led small armies into battle and writers who became well known in spite of the widely held belief that "a woman without learning has virtue." One writer, Li Ch'ing-Chao, became the most famous female poet in Chinese history.

The Heian era in Japan, (950-1050) in contrast to China's Sung, was a peaceful time during which the arts and the cult of beauty flourished. We know little of the daily life of the average woman; most were peasants whom the aristocracy considered to be less than animals. Women of privilege, however, were a highly educated lot who from their dark, protected rooms wrote stories, diaries, poems, and letters which revealed their innermost thoughts and the refinement of their lives. They wrote in Japanese since they were forbidden to use Chinese, the official language. Thus their writings, more than those of men, were widely circulated and could be read out loud to groups of listeners.

Ritual was important in the refined world of the elite, including the wearing of correct clothing. Of equal importance was the ability of men and women to converse in a learned manner. Often they communicated by exchanging poems. Both were judged on the depth of their knowledge, the speed in which they could respond in animated conversation, and their skill in calligraphy. One of the Heian period's most famous writers is Murasaki Shikibu, author of what is considered the world's first novel.

Some things to think about:
In the Christian year 1,000 C.E., were there things about the lives of women that could be found in all four regions?
What kinds of work could women in cities engage in?
What did it take for a woman to become a person of influence in her society?


A.D. 1000: Europe on the Brink of the Millennium, Richard Erdoes, Harper & Row, 1988.
Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Touchtone, 1995.
Women in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives from the Past, Lyn Reese, 1998.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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