Women in Europe

Women in the Middle Ages in Europe, China, and the Islamic World.

The idea that laws and customs affecting women today encourage or discourage a nation's ability to develop and grow was still true during the middle ages. This is because a nation's ability to grow and develop is highly reliant on the role and status of its women. Women played a variety of roles and contributed to the economic and social life of their nations in various ways and at different levels in Europe, China, and the Islamic world. Women took part in professions, positions of leadership, and other social and economic endeavors that improved the standing of their various nations. However, with the difference in laws and customs, the number of women in Europe occupying elite positions (for example, philosophers, writers, scientists, and scholars) increased while the number of such women in China and Islamic Worlds decreased.

Women in Medieval Europe

In Europe, it was a common occurrence for women to rule in the event of their husbands dying at war (Daly, Jonathan, 46). They would take charge of the castle and assume the responsibilities of their husbands. They notably participated in the decision making processes in castles, battles, and politics. For example, Eleanor of Aquitaine (112-1204) fully took part in the governed politics, (acting as the Duchess of Aquitaine), actively participated in the Second Crusade, and served as a regent during his son’s –Richard the Lionheart – participation in the Third Crusade (Daly, Jonathan, 46). Similarly, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, Blanche of Castile (1188-1252) offered assistance to Louis VIII of France in the 1216’s invasion of England. After Louis death in 1226, Blanche ruled as regent for 8 years. With a favorable custom and the ideal of courtly love, the women in Medieval Europe enjoyed relatively elite positions and statuses in the society.

Moreover, women in European societies enjoyed extensive legal rights by the historical standards of the time (Ward, Jennifer, 70). The laws put in place were favorable for their place in the society, preventing oppression and supporting their sprout and development. For example, the canon law ensured that before any marriage, both the woman and the man give consent (Daly, Jonathan, 46). Women could not marry against their will; though pressure from their relatives often interfered with the decision. After the death of her husband, the women could freely remarry. In addition to that, they lived in a monogamous marriage, which was ideal for them to voice their opinions to their husbands whenever they saw the need (Hambly, Gavin, 71). They could voice their opinions in matters and actively participate in issues of the marriage and cohabitation. Although their social status was not remotely equal to those enjoyed by men, the laws gave the European women and extent of equality in the society that was non-existent in other parts of the world.

With freedom and less oppression from cultures and laws, European women were able to participate fully in professions that were dear to them. In the middle ages, it was common to find writers, poets, philosophers, and religious leaders that were women (Daly, Jonathan, 47). Women such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) enjoyed a successful life as a German prioress, an author, and a natural philosopher. There were other women such as Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-1285) (an author and visionary), St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) (a writer), Marguerite Porete (1310) (a Christian spiritual writer), and Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) (a devoted Christian writer). The women enjoyed relatively high social positions in the society, and the customs never deterred them from exploring their fields of interests and excellence.

Women in Chinese and Islamic Worlds

Different from women in Europe, Chinese and Islamic women were tied down by traditions and customs (Lindsay, James, 12). While women in Europe were thriving in various careers and enjoyed a liberal culture, the elite women in the Chinese societies were participating and encouraging cultures such as food binding (Daly, Jonathan, 46). Women were regularly sold as commodities, and men were allowed to have numerous wives and concubines. In the same manner, although women in the Islamic World participated in different professions – from law, medicine, teaching, to midwifery, nursing, and teaching – they were considered inferior to men in the same fields. The customs of the Islamic world segregated the women by sex, discouraging them from presenting or participating in a gathering where men were present (Daly, Jonathan, 47). With the oppressive culture, women could not enjoy the authority that their European counterparts seemingly enjoyed.

During several instances –before, during, and after the Middle Ages – women in China and Muslim worlds enjoyed relative success due to supportive regimes and laws; however, the rise of new customs, regimes, and laws continued toning down their success (Daly, Jonathan, 47). The Tang Dynasty (618-907) encouraged gender equality through the Chinese societies. During the period, women participated and excelled in poetry and cultural arts. Similarly, there were earlier Muslim writers like Rabi’s al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801) who excelled in mystic poetry and religious life. Others such as Sitt al-Mulk (970-1023) and Fatimids and Shajar Al-Durr (1257) served in powerful positions in their respective societies (Daly, Jonathan, 47). However, the extent in cultural bounds and unfavorable customs and laws bestowed upon the women in Medieval China and Islamic World derailed the personal and professional success of the women in both worlds.

The decline of the status of the women in the Chinese and Muslim societies was imperative to the decrease in their participation and professional progress. During the Confucius rule, women were given equal opportunities in the society and could serve in any role. While there was a clear separation between the women (Yin) and men (Yang), they were considered equal and opposite forces (Hambly, Gavin, 60). However, the Han rule (202-220) presented an ending to the equal status, rendering male dominant over women, and even female writers like Ban Zhao wrote on the ideology that women were inferior and men superior. By the Song’s times (960-1279), women could participate in different professions (Hambly, Gavin, 58). However, they cultures were not favorable for female scholars and writers or poets, since they were participating mostly on the cultural backgrounds rather than the professional backgrounds. This was similar to the Islamic world: The introduction of Islamic laws gave the women consent of marriages but took away some of their rights such as schooling (Lindsay, James, 25). The Islamic poets such as Lala Arifa become rare to find, as women participated more on family matters than professional matters; in turn reducing the numbers of poets, writers, philosophers over the years.


While women in medieval European societies enjoyed favorable cultures and customs, women in China and Islamic worlds were subjected to oppressive cultures. With a favorable culture, the women in Europe were able to hold positions of power, participate in trade, pursue their areas of interest both in the academic and literal world (Ward, Jennifer, 88). With this support and freedom, the number of women scholars, writers, philosophers soared over the period. On the contrary, women in China and Islamic worlds were subjected customs that did not favor their professional growths. Women were subordinate to men, and could not participate fully in public affairs or even air their thoughts in public. Moreover, while the women in Europe were enjoying relative success in poetry, leadership, and religious matters, those in China and Islamic worlds were holding on to new traditions such as food binding (in China) and being their husband's subordinates (in Islamic World) (Hambly, Gavin, 102). The difference between the two cultures, therefore, led to the increase in professional women in middle ages in Europe while decreasing their number in China and the Islamic worlds.


In conclusion, the Middle Ages presented mixed fortunes in the women’s success stories. While cultures, customs, laws, and regimes encouraged the increase of female scholars, philosophers, scientist, and poets, it discourages the numbers of these professions in China and the Islamic worlds. In Europe, the culture encouraged the participation of women in leadership and professional fronts and did not hinder women from succeeding in either. However, in China and Islamic worlds, the rise of new dynasties, religion, and customs hindered women from participating in scholar matters, leadership, or any professional progress. Thus, the number of women in the scientific, philosophical, poetry, and other intellectual profession declined after the ninth and the tenth centuries.

Works Cited

Daly, Jonathan. The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization. A&C Black. London 2014.

Hambly, Gavin RG. "Women in the Medieval Islamic World." Power, Patronage, and Piety. London (1998).

Lindsay, James E. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Ward, Jennifer. Women in Medieval Europe: 1200-1500. Routledge, 2016.


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