Nature or Nurture
'Go to the bed-chamber and stitch a seam'
Woman as ‘domestic goddess’ is probably what many people would think of when considering the medieval period. Medieval women are often defined by the ‘inner’ aspects of their life inside the home, in contrast to men’s concerns in the outside world.
The domestic sphere was often busy, as medieval households could be large and extended. Widowed mothers might come to live with their sons; nephews, nieces or cousins might live with their wealthier relatives for a while as pages or ladies-in-waiting; and the high death rate meant that many people re-married after their husband or wife died, making step-families very common. As nowadays, family relationships could sometimes be fraught, as well as loving and nurturing.
Rich families depended on servants to undertake domestic tasks. Their hard work was occasionally recognised. St Zita of Lucca was a diligent servant to the Fatinelli family during the 13th century. Her piety and hard work endeared her to her employers, and her cult became popular among ordinary women who could relate to her story. She is often depicted with a bunch of keys, indicating how well she was trusted. Items relating to St Zita are shown in the Saints section of this resource.
The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into women’s roles in medieval society.
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