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Anglo Saxon Women

Daily Life

What did an Anglo-Saxon woman do all day? This would naturally depend greatly on her social class as well as regional and period differences. The word wif 'wife, woman' might be connected with weaving, which implies that cloth-making was associated with women. In wills, the male line was called wæpnedhealf 'weapon half' or sperehealf 'spear half' and the female line was wifhealf 'wife half' or spinelhealf 'spindle half'. It would then seem that men were traditionally warriors or hunters, while women were cloth-makers and embroiderers.

This view is also supported by other literature from that time and by grave findings. Furthermore, the feminine occupational suffix stere was used to form words such as seamster, spinster and webster, all connected with cloth-making. From wills we know that a wealthy Anglo-Saxon household contained a variety of soft furnishings: bed-clothes, table-linen, seat-covers, wall-hangings and so on, so women would have had plenty of work in this field.

In the Anglo-Saxon household, food was prepared by male slaves alone or men and women equally, but preparing and serving drink was women's job. This is confirmed by surnames such as Brewster, Malster and Tapster, and by heroic poetry, where the lady is always the one to serve the drinks. Female cup-bearers (birele) are also mentioned in Æthelbert's laws:

14. If a man lie with an eorl's birele, let him make bot with twelve shillings.
16. If a man lie with a ceorl's birele, let him make bot with six shillings.

In monastic life, gardening was done by laywomen. Another possible occupation for a woman was that of an entertainer - there are a few examples of this in literature.

Daily life was far from easy for people in Anglo-Saxon England. Women especially had a high mortality rate because of the dangers of pregnancies, miscarriages and childbirth - lack of iron has also been suggested to as one reason. Examination of skeletal remains has revealed that common ailments included earache, toothache, headache, shingles, wounds, burns, and pain in the joints. Another source of information on this subject are manuscripts offering medical advice; some remedies deal specifically with female matters, often mixing common sense and superstition. Here is an example of quite practical advice for women (as cited in Fell):

A pregnant woman ought to be fully warned against eating anything too salt or too sweet, and against drinking strong alcohol: also against pork and fatty foods; also against drinking to the point of drunkenness, also against travelling; also against too much riding on horseback lest the child is born before the right time.

Marriage and Sex

As far as marriage is concerned, Anglo-Saxons generally had clear and sensible legislation for the rights of women. The husband was to pay morgengifu ('morning gift') in money or land to the woman herself, and she would have personal control over it to give away, sell or bequeath as she chose. Places with names such as Morgay Farm and Morgay Wood were probably given as morgengifu, so the amount of land given seems to have been fairly large at least in these cases. Marriage agreements were made between the two families but the girl did have a say in who she married, and her kin seem to have mainly acted as legal and financial advisers. The following is an example of an Anglo-Saxon marriage contract (as cited in Fell):

Here is declared in this document the agreement which Godwine made with Brithric when he wooed his daughter. In the first place he gave her a pound's weight of gold, to induce her to accept his suit, and he granted her the estate at Street with all that belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen and 20 cows and 10 horses and 10 slaves.

Within marriage, finances belonged to both the husband and the wife. This we know from wills and charters. Æthelbert's law number 79 from the seventh century says about divorce:
If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.

This gave women independence and security. On the other hand, Æthelbert 77 shows that deception was not acceptable:
... if there be guile, let him bring her home again, and let his property be restored to him.

For the purpose of protecting married women, there was also a law that a wife shall not be held guilty for any criminal activity of her husband. Widows were protected in the issue of inheritance: Æthelræd's law stated that they should not be forced into second marriages, and Cnut had a law against forcing widows to become nuns.

Attitudes to women were more dominated by class than sex in Anglo-Saxon England. The basic class distinctions for women were slave vs. free, and virgin vs. married vs. widow. For example, in Ælfred's law the penalty for raping a free woman was ten shillings, while the penalty for raping a slave was only five shillings. In addition, a free woman would get the money for herself, but the fine for a slave would be paid to her master. However, heroic literature has several examples of slaves rising from their original class. Beowulf, for instance, mentions a queen called Wealhtheow, which means foreign (or Welsh) slave.

Because people were allowed to choose their spouses, marital relationships could be very rewarding. The word 'friendship' was often used for the relationship between husband and wife. Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence of organised prostitution in Anglo-Saxon England. Ecclesiastical writings from that time speak a great deal about incest, prohibiting it strictly; however, this does not mean that incest as we understand it was common, for their definition of incest covered marriages between wide degrees of kin.

We do not have much information about Anglo-Saxon sex life, but a few riddles depicting this aspect have survived. This is Riddle 54 from The Exeter Book of Riddles (as cited in Hunt-Anschütz):

A young man made for the corner where he knew she was standing; this strapping youth had come some way - with his own hands he whipped up her dress, and under her girdle (as she stood there) thrust something stiff, worked his will; they both shook. This fellow quickened: one moment he was forceful, a first rate servant, so strenuous that the next he was knocked up, quite blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle a thing began to grow that upstanding men often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

Answer: churning butter

Family and Kinship

In Anglo-Saxon England, sons and daughters were considered equally important. The wergild (the fine paid for killing somebody) of men and women was identical, but for pregnant women it was 1.5 times the usual. This passage from "The Fates of Men" (as cited in Fell) illustrates attitudes to children:

It happens very often through the power of God that a man and woman bring a child into the world and clothe it in colours. They encourage it and amuse it until the time comes, as the years pass, that the young limbs full of life are grown. Father and mother thus support it and nourish it, make gifts to it and clothe it. God only knows what the years will bring to the growing child.

From wills we know that foster-relationships were common: well-born children were brought up away from home. Perhaps it was thought that this was good for their education. As far as inheritance issues are concerned, no preference was given to men as heirs but women were in a slightly more vulnerable position, at least if they did not have somebody to defend their rights. Brothers and sisters could inherit from each other, and brothers took care of their unmarried or widowed sisters after the father.

Friendships could also be formed between men and women more remotely related, as proven by numerous wills, charters, chronicles and letters. Anglo-Saxon literature frequently describes how people's loyalty could shift from their own kin to their spouse's kin, which could cause problems if the relationships between the families grew tense. Heroic poetry often depicts the woman as a peace-weaver between the families.

Manor and Court

Well-born women were very powerful and did not need anyone else's consent to own and give estates and rings. The Mercian Register 914 describes the independence of the Lady of the Mercians as follows (as cited in Fell): "In this year by the grace of God, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the fortress there in early summer, and before the beginning of August, the one at Stafford." Over a quarter of the wills we have from Anglo-Saxon England were made by women, and there are several more by husbands and wives jointly. Some place names, too, such as Eadburg (Aberford), suggest that women could own and even manage their estates.

Many women from wealthy families were well-educated and literate; wills even mention small private libraries owned by women, although books were rare those days. Letters show women as advocates and protectors, and people would praise women's wisdom rather than their exterior features. As to appearance, grave findings and manuscript illustrations suggest that a high-born woman would have had her head covered with a veil and worn rings, necklaces, pendants and brooches.

After 1066

The Norman Conquest brought with it the customs and laws of the Normans. This had a negative impact on the position of women. Now they had a very limited share in the feudal land-owning and politics; their role was 'to marry and to serve'. The wife was given in marriage as a token of land-transfer, and the husband owned everything. Children were married off young; women were sold to whoever offered the most to the lord. Only peasants could marry out of love. The only women with relative freedom to do what they wanted were rich widows who paid the fee for self-determination to their lord.

The canon law and Gregorian Reform led to anti-feminism; women were to be silent in public and submit to the will of their husbands or fathers, as Eve was inferior to Adam. The law said that spiritual love should exist between spouses, so consent was needed from both parties and only them. However, the age of valid consent was 12 for girls, so they were probably easily intimidated into marrying.

The law also put priests' wives in an insecure position, as clerical celibacy was now demanded. Furthermore, the canon law stated that no married woman could make a valid will without her husband's consent. Still, marriage was a means to social promotion for a woman; it was her job to be the mistress of her own household. Ladies were not totally helpless, and would play their part even in war if necessary.

Secular literature, too, was Frenchified; the heroic epic was replaced by the chivalric romance, which depicted woman as a remote, unattainable idea of beauty and virtue. In real life, of course, this was impossible; husband was the wife's head, for better or for worse. "The Owl and the Nightingale" (as cited in Fell) shows us a glimpse of a neglected housewife:

When her husband comes home she dares not utter a word. He rants and raves like a madman, and that is all he brings home. She can do nothing, say nothing that pleases him and often, when she has done nothing wrong, she gets his fist in her teeth.

Urban life from the twelfth century onwards opened up more opportunities for women as shopkeepers, cloth-makers, entertainers, etc. - only when married, of course. The only alternative to marriage were cloisters, but nunneries had fewer patrons than monasteries and thus had to struggle with a constant lack of resources. Women's access to schooling was very limited. Illness and early death were common; women's ailments were not considered worth studying and treating so they had to retreat to private traditions of healing.


For many women, Anglo-Saxon England was a golden age of power and wealth, culture and education; women's role in marriage had (for the free-born) immense potential. Unfortunately, the Norman Conquest and the Gregorian Reform caused literature to lose touch with reality and women to lose their status in reality.

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