Inequality of Women in the Middle Ages

The three works of literature, Beowulf, King Arthur Legends, and Canterbury Tales, all take place during an era in which women were facing inequality in all aspects of life. In the era being the middle ages often referred to as the ‘’Dark Ages’’, women were looked down upon, seen as inferior, silenced, and always controlled by men regardless of their social status. Their most important role was to be a mother or a bearer, unable to build any other kind of life for themselves. Along with the church’s extreme pressure on people, women were painted as evil creatures. Women were thought to be the source of sin therefore their opinions didn’t matter and they weren’t allowed to have a voice of their own. Their fathers, brothers, and the men in their life would use them to build relationships with their rivals. These women were called ‘’peace weavers’’. They would marry them off to men who didn’t matter if the women in question agreed to marry so, and they would gain whatever there was to gain from that connection while the women were set to live a life they didn’t choose.

We can see how the lives of women in the middle ages play out in literary works. We can see the reflection of the world’s view of them. We can witness the opinions, misconceptions, ideas, and creations about women and how it sort of develops and changes through literature. We can analyze, compare, and contrast between the three literary works of that time in which women are present, starting from Beowulf.

Women in Beowulf:

Beowulf is the longest and one of the most eminent works of Old English Literature. It is an epic poem that values heroism, chivalry, and loyalty. It centers around the male hero and his bravery. The main plot revolves around men (the lord &his warriors). Although it can be argued that women hold a prominent role in Beowulf due to their subtle or sometimes bigger influence on the events, but men are still the most vital, and women don’t hold much power while being very much limited given the circumstances. There are six women characters that we can clearly see in this story; Wealtheow, Hygd, Hildeburh, Freawaru, Thryth, and Grendel’s mother. Whealtheow and Hygd are queens, Hildeburh and Freawaru are the failed peace weavers, Thryth, and Grendel’s mother are the evil and monstrous women in the story.

The queens in Anglo-Saxon society were hostesses, they helped to host celebrations and gatherings in the hall and made sure everybody was content and happy to be there. Wealtheow’s and Hygd job was to hand out the mead cup, helping to indicate the ranking system in the halls. The peace weavers Hildeburh and Frewau are expected to stay in their marriages to maintain relationships between rival groups although they fail to do so further in the story. The villainous women characters in the story, Thryth and Grendel’s mother, are seen as aggressive and brutal. Grendel’s mother confronts Beowulf to get vengeance for killing her son and Thryth is a wicked queen that would kill anybody who would visit her hall.

Compared to King Arthur Legends and The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf stands out by its indication of women. Women in Beowulf are not very recognized as complete characters and focused on as much as the male characters. They can have a range of roles but they are limited and lack power. That somewhat changes in King Arthur Legends but women still can be seen to face the same problems. In The Canterbury Tales, which I will discuss later on, society’s view of women is criticized.

Women in King Arthur’s Legends:

The Arthurian legend, the series of stories and medieval romances, also known as The Matter of Britain, centers around the legendary King Arthur. In its world of chivalry, quests, castles, knights, lords, and heroes, the legend is still pretty much focused on the men in it. Although we see women in their power more than we see them in Beowulf, women are still limited with their assumed roles and are often overshadowed by men in King Arthur’s Legends.

Women in these legends can influence the story widely by sometimes manipulating the men and pulling the strings behind the scenes by being cunning. Some of the most significant female characters in the Legends are Lady Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, The Lady of the Lake, and so on.

Lady Guinevere, the most famous female character of the legends, is the queen of Britain, the wife of King Arthur, and the lover of Lancelot. She is known for her interactions with the men around her and her unfaithfulness to her husband. She is depicted as a desirable and beautiful yet manipulative woman. Morgan le Fay is one of the sisters of King Arthur, she can help or hinder Arthur in his rise to power and she’s often described to be a witch. The Lady of the Lake is the one who chooses Arthur as the King of Britain and gifts him Excalibur in many Arthurian stories.

Women in The Canterbury Tales:

This collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer involves a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury with 30 pilgrims who decide to engage in a storytelling contest on their journey. These people are from all different parts of society. This allowed the stories to be told through a variety of literary genres like courtly romance, religious legend, racy fabliau, beast fable, etc. This work reflects and criticizes the problems that belong to the society of its time including issues about gender equality while bringing people together from all social classes. In the Tales The Wife Of Bath, The Clerk, Merchant, and The Franklin, we can see the matters surrounding women are being talked about.

Three women are primarily introduced in the General Prologue, The Prioress, The Second Nun, and The Wife of Bath. The Prioress and The Second Nun represent the image of the church while The Wife of Bath represents the earthly, and female autonomy .

The Prioress conforms to the idea of how a high-ranking nun should be. The Second Nun indeed displays a woman who stays true to religion with her preaches about Christianity and Christian values. The Wife of Bath, however, is the opposite of that. She is controversial and very open about her opinions on topics like marriage while discussing biblical explanations. She is not afraid to speak her mind although she contradicts herself because she also takes advantage of the stereotypes attached to women and isn’t afraid to lie and manipulate men.

Although Chaucer gave women recognition more than Beowulf and The Arthurian Legends, and drew attention to social issues in this story, he too contradicted himself by representing women from a male’s perspective. He emphasized masculine power and put them on a spectrum. While the silent and obedient women in the tales like Griselda are praised, women like Alison who are outspoken and disobedient are criticized.


Overall, we see how women in the medieval ages were treated and seen as and can recognize the reflections of faulty ideas behind the dark ages regarding women in medieval literature. As observed in Beowulf, women are not fully involved or vital in the story although that slightly changes in King Arthur’s Legends since they have a greater impact on the events. Finally, in The Canterbury Tales, women’s issues are recognized and they’re given a chance to speak but still under the shadow of masculine power and view. 

07 July 2022
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