Autonomy in Medieval Women as Depicted by Chaucer

Personal Autonomy in Medieval Women as Depicted by Chaucer

Initially, I wanted to locate any information on the capabilities of medieval women to find any sort of personal autonomy without being subjected to widowhood. I found some interesting information in Margaret Hallissy's book Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Women .

According to Hallissy, a medieval woman's estate depended solely on her father's estate and was adjusted accordingly to the class of the man she marries, therefore circumventing any opportunity for a woman to gain any type of personal autonomy (6). When a medieval woman is widowed, she can achieve the greatest measure of independence possible to a woman in her society. However, contingent upon her circumstances, she may have to return to the custody of her father, and revert back to the class she belonged to prior to marriage, thereby eliminating opportunity for autonomy.

These social boundaries could be effaced if a medieval virginal woman focused her attentions solely on God (8). This decision allowed young virgins to define themselves as individuals before God, not just as daughters or widows. By rejecting such familial roles, the woman allowed herself to develop individual potential, or, gain a sense of personal autonomy.

Hallissy, Margaret. Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer's Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.


Return to Domestic Life