The Spindle Half: Women in Anglo-Saxon England

When I tell people about my re-enactment activities, a common response is “That can’t be a good period to re-enact as a woman - you would have had a pretty crap life.” To which I respond “Not at all!” and proceed to inform the hapless questioner about women in Anglo-Saxon England at great length. What follows is an extended and formalised(ish) version of my understanding of women’s lives and status in Dark Age England. I would like to stress at this point that this article is an overview of my own interpretations of what I have read: if you would like to read a more scholarly review of this topic, some references are listed at the end of this document. If you have any comments on this essay, please come and have a heated debate on the forum.

Trying to assess how society viewed women during the Dark Ages is difficult for several reasons. The first is the difficulty in interpreting the evidence that survives from this period, given the relatively small amount of written primary sources and the inherent problems in interpreting the meaning of contemporary fiction, artefacts, grave goods etcetera. The second is the large amount of history that has elapsed between this period and the present day - over a thousand years of a changing society interpreting, passing on and teaching history based on contemporary ideas will to some extent distort how we view distant periods. In other words, what the Victorians thought about Dark Age society probably influences how we think of it today. This idea ties in with a more general problem of cultural relativism: how we view historical evidence is dependent on our own culture and upbringing. In short, how can we objectively assess historical gender roles that may be very different from those in modern society, given the influence of current and more recent historical ideas about gender? These are all important general caveats to bear in mind.

Three more specific problems arise with respect to studying this question. The first is the common assumption that different gender roles must equate to inequality, with women seen as inferior to men. This to me seems illogical: like it or not, there are differences between women and men and the average man is likely to have a different set of skills, weaknesses and ambitions than the average woman. In this essay, I will argue that while Anglo-Saxon women generally performed different roles from their menfolk, this did not necessarily mean that they were valued less in society. The second problem is the highly stratified nature of Anglo-Saxon society, which means that when we compare the sexes we must compare like with like, i.e. within a given social class. The third problem seems to be almost never addressed, and it is a linguistic one. The Old English word man translates as ‘person,’ with wer and wif meaning ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ respectively. It is interesting to speculate how often, in the absence of names or other gendered language, man in Anglo-Saxon documents has been mis-translated as ‘man,’ leading to a false impression that women were overlooked or unimportant.

One final note before I begin looking at Anglo-Saxon women: the Dark Ages cover a long period of history, and society changed considerably between the arrival of Hengest and Horsa and the Battle of Hastings. I will not attempt to address how these changes affected women, specifically, but instead try to give a general overview of what we know about women’s lives in this period.


Women’s work
The most common women’s work was connected with cloth - weaving, spinning and the making of clothes and other textile products were all traditionally female occupations. When examples of Anglo-Saxon businesswomen appear, they generally fall into one of these trades. In the early 9th century, for example, a woman called Eanswith was given 200 acres of land by the Bishop of Worcester for making and maintaining the cathedral’s vestments; it seems logical to assume that, for such a large remit, Eanswith would have had a number of employees and/or slaves at her service. Cloth was one of England’s most important exports, probably accounting for a good proportion of the continental gold and silver that came into the country during the middle and late Saxon periods. The most highly-skilled sector of textile work was embroidery, for which English women were famed throughout Europe.

Most women probably worked with textiles in various ways as part of their more general duties in running a household - loom weights are one of the most common archaeological finds in dwellings of this period. It is important to realise that even the most noble of women would work in some way, usually making or overseeing the making of clothing for herself, her husband and family. The concept of an idle aristocracy would not be invented for several hundred years.

There is also linguistic evidence for women pursuing other work, including trades: feminised words for bards, bakers, brewers and others occur in contemporary records. While women did not seem to carry out hard physical labour, some women - particularly peasants and slaves - would have worked at a number of more arduous tasks: grinding grain, sowing fields, washing clothes etc are all likely to have fallen to them. Also, the tending of the gardens of nunneries is thought to have been the task of laywomen. Some jobs were shared between the sexes. For example, while the serving of drink appears to have been a traditionally female role, both men and women cooked and served food.

Women, then, were economically active during the Dark Ages - in terms of producing goods and services if not actually trading in them. Women produced many of the things needed by people in their day-to-day lives, and numerous high-status objects. It is then unsurprising to conclude that women’s work was valued. There are records of women being paid to pass on their knowledge in aufrisium, or gold-thread embroidery, and when St Boniface wanted a luxurious illuminated copy of the St Peter’s Epistles, he commissioned it from Abbess Eadburga of Thanet.

Women could own and administer their own land and wealth. Legal documents and placenames provide ample evidence for female landowners, and more than a quarter of the wills that survive from this period were written by women (a significant number of the remainder were joint wills from husband and wife). Some women owned considerable amounts of land. For example, in the 9th century a woman named Aethelfryth sold land equal to five peasant holdings. Besides bequeathing wealth, women could inherit it: the system of primogeniture was not introduced to England until after the Norman conquest.

The question is, then, did all this translate into social status? I would argue that it did. First I will look at the status of women in marriage and in the law, before going on to look at women in politics.


The status of women in the home, in marriage and in the law

In the 2nd Century, Tacitus wrote of Germanic women

“These are each man’s most sacred witnesses, these are his greatest supporters: it is to their mothers and to their wives that they bring their wounds, and the women do not quake to count or examine their gashes, and they furnish sustenance and encouragement to their fighters.”

He goes on to say that men “neither reject their advice nor scorn their forecasts.” While the culture in Anglo-Saxon England was rather different from that observed by Tacitus, this nevertheless gives us some idea of the cultural background of the Anglo-Saxons. This background also includes a history of women occupying mystic or spiritual roles that conferred on them status and respect, as shown by archaeological and written evidence of “wise women” or seeresses. Further, there seems to have been a strong matriarchal thread in Germanic society: the mistress of the house was in charge of its day-to-day running. The Anglo-Saxons were a people whose past did not seem to include endemic misogyny, as is often assumed of “the olden days.” This history and the activities of women probably contributed to their perceived status in Anglo-Saxon England.

Understanding the nature of relationships between the sexes is important when we try to determine how women fitted into Anglo-Saxon society. There are numerous wills and letters that show friendships between men and women (an example of this will be mentioned later in the context of women in the Church). But perhaps the most important type of relationship to look at is marriage. Marriage was often a political contract, especially for the nobility, and it is here that we see the “peaceweaver” wives. But in other cases we see marriage described as “friendship.” Betrothals and marriage contracts were negotiated by the family of the couple concerned, but this seems more likely to have been a way of ensuring the best legal and financial deal for both parties, rather than an arrangement in which the couple had no say. Late in this period, Cnut passed a law forbidding forced marriages; more specifically, he says that a woman cannot be forced to marry a man she dislikes, suggesting that forced marriages went on but were not approved of.

It would be very interesting to discuss Anglo-Saxon attitudes to sex at this point, but sadly this is something about which we have very few sources. We can look at the numerous riddles in the Exeter Book that describe everyday objects and processes in a very sexual, almost Carry On-esque manner. The playful attitude to sex, and the suggestion that both men and women enjoy it, in these riddles has been taken by some modern historians to suggest a contemporary idea of sex as an enjoyable pastime for both sexes (although we should not forget that this would apply to sex within marriage, given the high value placed on chastity and fidelity). Certainly women were seen as having the right to decide with whom they had sex. As we will see later there were strict penalties for rape, and even a sliding scale of fines for varying degrees of sexual assault against women. Some peaceweaver wives remained virgins throughout their marriages. Aethelthryth, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, wished for a monastic life and stayed a virgin throughout two political marriages, before being released by her husband to join a convent.

Married women were not, in law, financially dependent on their husbands. On their marriage, a man would give a morgengifu or morning-gift to his wife; this would comprise money, goods or land and became the legal property of the woman to use, sell or bequeath as she wished. It has been suggested that this tradition was partly to safeguard the interests of the wife not only if she should become widowed or divorced, but also if she should leave her husband and return to her family. The ties of kinship do not seem to have been broken on marriage: husband and wife could each call on their family for help in times of need if they so desired. The marriage contract also included a contractual agreement by the husband stating what his wife would inherit on his death. Within marriage, finances seem to have been seen as joint property. In the 6th century Aethlbert’s laws included a ruling that a woman should receive half of the couple’s property after a divorce if she kept the children. This law in its entirety seems rather modern: whoever kept the children got the greater part of the couple’s assets (excluding the morgengifu), but in the case of “deception” (e.g. if a woman gets married while pregnant by another man) the guilty party would receive nothing. From day to day, in many families it was probably the wife who had practical control over finances, as she carried the keys to the family coffer. This is noted in several laws of the period, stating that if stolen property was found in a house, the mistress was not to be blamed unless the property was discovered in a place to where she carried the key.

Laws against adultery became increasingly punitive to women as the Anglo-Saxon period progressed (despite the numerous cases of concubinage among the royal houses). The laws of Aethelbert simply state that a man who sleeps with another man’s wife must pay the cuckolded husband compensation and provide him with a new wife (presumably the cheating wife would be divorced and disgraced). Later, Alfred ruled that a man who discovers that another man has slept with his wife may fight the adulterer with no fear of legal reprisals. However, Cnut’s laws say that a woman who commits adultery should have her ears and nose cut off. It seems that men were only ever punished by a fine (and by the unchecked vengeful husband during Alfred’s rule).

When we come to look at women as victims of crime, they were treated as the legal equals of men. If we look within any given social class, the wergild for men and women was equal. (Unless the victim was a pregnant woman, in which case the wergild due was increased by 50%). Specific laws stated punishments for rape. This was usually a fine payable to the victim (if she was free) or her owner (if she was a slave), though Christine Fell notes that rapists could be castrated and there is at least one instance of the abduction and implied rape of an abbess being punished by exile. Various degrees of sexual assault were also defined in Alfred’s laws (e.g. groping a woman’s breast or throwing her to the floor) and were punishable by a sliding scale of fines.

Laws also forbade the forcible sending of women to nunneries, forced marriage and even marriage too soon after a woman was widowed (presumably to safeguard a new widow from suitors eager to get their hands on her inheritance). These laws are very interesting because while they show that women were given special protection under the law (no analogous laws seem to have existed for men), they also suggest that women needed this protection, i.e. they were more vulnerable than men to enforced nunhood or marriage.


Women and the Church
Early Christianity was far kinder to women than it would become with the Gregorian Reforms and canon law in later centuries and the Anglo-Saxons venerated a number of female saints (including St Hilda, shown on the left, as patron saint of learning). The most visible aspect of women’s involvement with religion, however, is as nuns.

Nunneries were not, by and large, a place for shutting women away (though it seems that Edward the Elder got rid of his niece Aelfwyn, a possible rival for control of Mercia and focus for feelings of Mercian independence, in this manner). The impression one gets of religious houses in this period - both male and female - is of places for education and debate as well as for spiritual welfare. Of course, some could also be dens of iniquity, as shown by records detailing the antics of certain kings and bishops. But I digress. Nuns were, in the main, educated women, often able to read and write in both English and Latin. Many were of noble birth, used to receiving respect and having their views listened to. Like their brothers in religion, they occupied their time in teaching, writing, copying or translating religious or classical texts, and producing the beautiful illuminated manuscripts typical of the period. This is a particularly interesting point: it is very rare for museums or history books to mention nuns in the context of manuscript work, stating instead that this work was done by monks. Here we have a good example of more modern biases affecting our view of the Dark Ages.

Nuns who rose to the position of Abbess commanded respect. While women could not become priests, abbesses could be involved in the training of both priests and bishops. Furthermore, dual houses (where both monks and nuns lived) were generally headed by abbesses, not abbots. (To introduce a slight tangent, it has been suggested that this is in part linked to the historical tradition of “cunning” women who worked charms, cured illnesses or told the future). Correspondence between abbesses and bishops (such as that between Ss. Boniface and Leoba) often shows mutual warmth, friendship and respect. In fact, when Boniface left his bishopric of Tauferbischofsheim for a trip to Frisia, he nominated Leoba as his deputy. Also worthy of special mention here is St Hilda, the 7th century Abbess of Whitby. Her advice was sought by any number of churchmen and northern nobles, and she presided over the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Warfare and Politics
The evidence for Anglo-Saxon women playing a direct role in warfare is sparse and questionable. There is a small but significant number of female graves which contain weapons, and this has sometimes been taken as evidence that these women used weapons during their lives. However, it is important to note that weapons have also been found in the graves of men with congenital disabilities that would have made combat impossible, and in infant burials. Weapons were also more commonly placed in graves during peacetime as opposed to periods of war. The placement of weapons in a grave may not, therefore, reflect their use by the inhabitant during his or her life. Weapons might be placed as status symbols, for use in the next world, or a tokens from bereaved relatives. There is however, evidence for Scandinavian women of this period taking up arms (for instance, in accounts of the Battle of Bravellir, in Danish histories and in a couple of the Icelandic sagas). So how likely would it have been for a woman to fight? I would tentatively suggest “not very, but it’s possible.” I know that some might be offended by the following, but women are less likely than men to want to take up arms and fight - especially once they have children to care for (biased sampling among reenactors excepted, of course…) However, if a woman could fight - and if, as a free woman, she carried a seax - would she not at least defend herself if attacked?

For a long period during the Dark Ages, borders within England were shifting and fighting between the English kingdoms, the Welsh, Scots, Picts and incoming Norsemen was rife. Many settlements found themselves caught up in these troubles - perhaps in the absence of a good proportion of men of fighting age, who had been killed in previous skirmishes or called to another battle front. If a village were under attack from marauding Danes, I find it hard to believe that not one of its women would pick up a seax or spear and help the men to defend it. How probable is it that the women of Chester sat around doing nothing while their menfolk were busy pouring boiling beer and angry bees onto the Norsemen besieging the city?

We do know that female monarchs could take on the role of military commander and tactician, though they almost certainly did not take up arms themselves. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 722 Queen Aethburgh destroyed Taunton, and Aethelflaed of Mercia was instrumental in consolidating and pushing back the borders of her lands via a system of burh-building and a number of decisive military victories. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed was married to Ethelred, the ealdorman of Mercia whom her father had installed. Instructed by Alfred in politics and leadership, she was the effective power in the land during her husband’s long years of illness and after his death. Aethflaed and her brother Edward the Elder (who succeeded Alfred to the throne of Wessex) essentially laid the foundations of a secure and united English kingdom: without their intelligence and hard work, their father’s victories against the Vikings would probably have come to nothing.

Perceptions of women
The last question I would like to address is how women were perceived during this period. How did men see them, and how did they see themselves? If we look at how “great” women were written about by their contemporaries, two patterns emerge. First, these women were complimented on their mental or moral attributes just as often - if not more so - than on any aspects of physical beauty. Thus we see Bede talking about St Hilda’s “great prudence” and “grace,” and descriptions of St Leoba as abstemious, good natured, generous and sharp minded. In fiction, we see the queenly Wealtheow offering “wise words” to God before speaking her mind to her husband and reminding him of his duties in Beowulf, and also the portrayal of Judith as pure and intelligent. The second pattern is that women who achieved great things were not written about in any special way. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records military victories led by Aethelflaed in the same detached tones as for any other entries in this time. This might suggest that the Anglo-Saxons were not surprised by a woman who was able to lead her people, lead an army, negotiate treaties, supervise defensive building projects etc.

One interesting work to bring in at this point is Huneberc’s Life of St Willibald, one of the few works from this period known to have been written by a woman. In its introduction, she basically apologises for her feminine weaknesses, perhaps in an attempt to defuse any criticism of a woman writer. This suggests that there were people who saw women as less intellectually able than men, but the fact remains that she did write this Life and others and that we know of her now as a hagiographer.

In conclusion, I would argue that while the average woman in Anglo-Saxon England had a different set of responsibilities from the average man, she had a comparable social status to a man of the same class. Any extra vulnerabilities that she might have were probably due to biological differences in male and female willingness to assert themselves, or to differences in physical ability to dominate others. Further, contemporary laws often attempted to redress the problems that might stem from these vulnerabilities. Of course there were men who thought of women as inferior, leading to Huneberc’s self-deprecation, for example. Unfortunately there will always be men who dislike women and women who dislike men, and when we look at this period the former will seem to predominate as they left more written accounts of their views. However, the existence of these people does not necessarily imply a misogynistic or unequal society. When I look at Anglo-Saxon England, there does not seem to be any evidence that the society as a whole was misogynistic. A gendered division of labour did not seem to translate into inequality.

Further reading
Geoffrey Hindley (2006) A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons
Christine Fell (1986) Women in Anglo-Saxon England
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Available from Project Gutenberg)
Articles on the Web
Lothene Experimental Archaeology Women as Warriors: Viking & Saxon
The Ravens Warband Weapon burials and the social context
Hullwebs History of Hull Anglo-Saxon Women
Wikipedia entries on Leoba, Hilda of Whitby and Aethelflaed
Misty Urban (2003) MA Thesis: The Figure of Judith in Anglo-Saxon England (Chapters 2 & 3).
Keri Elizabeth Sanburn (2003) MA Thesis The Indexing Of Medieval Women: The Feminine Tradition Of Medical Wisdom In Anglo-Saxon England And The Metrical Charms

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