top of page

Book Review / Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England

Thank God there are real scholars out there.

As with the fabulous Social History of Women... by Henrietta Leyser, Kim M. Phillips takes the perpetuating myth of some kind of medieval slave-society and turns it on its head. Where many would beg, and on occasion threaten, you believe women were held in all but chains in the Middle Ages, the former and latter works beg to differ.

Phillips' work focuses on the titular period in medieval womanhood, that of the primarily post-pubescent but pre-marital female, those over twelve up until their early twenties, though does touch a little on the women who never married, but they are not focused on. Medieval youth, even for that of boys, is a rather overlooked period (attempt to find exquisite sources for exactly what boys did during their youth and you'll find them rather scant too), partly due to the fact that is more famous primary sources, this period of female life was not recorded. But of course, England of the 14th century was a record-obsessed treasure trove of court and parish rolls, and so the actions and behaviours of maidens, and the people around them--and the actions of local courts which are pleasantly uplifting in many cases--are brought to fascinating light within them.

Maidenhood was seen as the epitome of the female experience and the height of femininity--virginity was power in the Middle Ages, and it was the strongest card a girl could hold. If you don't believe that, look at the men who had to pay hefty compensation to deflowered girls (and we're not even talking about penetrative rape--rape had many meanings in the MA). Maidens were praised and admired, flaunted at court and tugged in every direction as a means to mould their thinking to how their elders, betters or priests would prefer. Still, the boldness of these maidens, who had a very firm view of where they stood in society, both their local community and, for gentry or nobility, the more courtly side, and their worth for not only their family but for themselves. However, it doesn't mean maidens didn't actively go out and end their own virginity, because they did. But it seems the worst you'd really get for having an illegitimate baby (if it came to that) was a fine from your lord, if that.

There were rules in the ME society that seem terribly and sexist and many people desperately want to believe all men were misogynist pigs back then. Ultimately this is crap. Girls were not tied to the natal homes, but encouraged to go out and experience the world. Service (in noble households, or apprenticeships) was an expected duty, rather than exceptional one, and almost every child in England went into some kind of service or another. Maidens got to experience a muted form of independence, earn a little money to ensure their stability for their, very likely, marriage, and give themselves a better chance of partner. Maidens of lower stations (i.e. not nobility or royalty) had a far freer experience in life than the upper echelons, those in towns and cities got married later than those in the rural communities--though rarely before 17/18 in either, and as late as 24. Maidens in parishes formed their own guilds, raised funds for local projects, entertained their villages and towns at the Spring festivals, and formed a solid and essential part of their community. The power of women has generally always been through words, and girls who were particularly fine at this art could pull their families higher in the social circles, and secure prosperous marriages. Security was king in the Middle Ages--if you don't count the real king.

There's a lot to be said for this book (and I gush all over for the bibliographies at the end of each chapter--so much to know!!), and I wish it was longer, because it serves and an inspiring, fascinating, and corrective text on many levels. If you are interested in the genuine tales of women of all social levels--especially the young--and their roles in medieval England, and want to pop the echo chamber bubble of Third Wavers trying to rewrite history and disenfranchise the hard-won place of women back then, you can't do much better than this text, or Henrietta Leyser's above mentioned work. Women have always been better than the lowest common denominator, and it's worth your time finding this out.


bottom of page