Ambivalent Attitudes toward Women in Late Medieval Europe: Misogyny and the Cult of Women
By Hyun Ran Kim
Deviations and Alienations of Marginalized People in Medieval European Communities: The Seventh Korean-Japanese Symposium on Medieval History of Europe (2010)
Introduction: In general medieval Europe has been described as a male dominated hierarchical society in which lords, priests, knights, and serfs were the main characters within the frame of feudalism and Christianity. In this picture, women seem to have existed as invisible and helpless members of the community. However, it is worthy to fathom the real position of women and their goals of life.
Medieval Europe was ruled by men mainly because militaristic power was more valuable after the Germanic invasions in the fourth and fifth centuries. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries the Vikings and Magyars invaded Europe and Europeans continued to conflict with the Muslims through the crusades. The militaristic needs of this unstable period reinforced male dominance-it was a world in which soldiers ruled.
Europe underwent some significant socio-economic changes between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. For example, male population substantially decreased because men engaged in warfare for a long time. As a result, the sex ratio was unbalanced and women became a surplus in the population. Also commercial capitalism was introduced to Europe through the frequent contacts with the Muslims. More importantly, a new inheritance system known as primogeniture substituted the old system that every son and daughter had equal rights for property.
Meanwhile, it was women that were segregated most in the process of this transition. In particular, as Caroline Bynum has pointed out, misogyny was intensified and the climate of opinion against women among the clergymen became harsher. Ironically, however, it is true that the cult of women also rose apart from misogyny.
Then how and why did misogyny and the cult of women ambivalently exist between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries? This study started with a curiosity of this question. Three issues will be discussed in this article. First, what was the real cause of harsher misogyny in this period? Second, why did the cult of women and courtly love appear alongside misogyny? Lastly, how did medieval women respond and react to the ambivalent attitudes toward themselves? With a discussion and analysis of these questions, we can illuminate medieval women’s lives and their world-views from a different perspective.