Women were valued in the middle Ages, but only as an economic commodity. They served two main functions within medieval society: child bearer and manual laborer. Because women represented a large source of cheap labor, they quickly became the mainstay of the medieval economy. In many cases they would work along side men in the fields. However, women were paid less than children's wages for their work. The Church would not allow women to hold jobs that required literacy. In fact, aside from hard labor the only occupation open to women was midwifery. "In hospital work women were almost as important as men" . The textile industry was dominated by women, especially the woolen and silk industries. Though women enjoyed virtual domination in these crafts, they were still paid next to nothing. In addition to the intense labor, women had household duties to fulfill, especially if a woman was married. The invention of the flour mill brought women a time and labor saving device. With the flour mills, however, came taxes.
As the guilds began to assert their control over the bulk of skilled labor, wealthy aristocrats started hiring individual women and paying them in advance. The textile industry provided the largest amount of individual patronage. High skill was thus rewarded with economic improvement.
Aside from laboring, a women's main responsibility was to bear children. This was of extreme importance in rural communities. Children meant more workers for the farm. Women were simply baby machines. Trial marriages were set up in most rural communities to pair up the most fertile couples. Both mother and child were in serious jeopardy during the birth and the following crucial years. Infant mortality rate is known to be appallingly high throughout the middle Ages. The physical strain of childbearing, coupled with the intense labor and poor sanitary conditions made life harsh, cruel, and short for most women. Where most men during this time died between the ages of forty and sixty, most women died between the ages of twenty and forty.
Among the gentry women were not necessarily chosen for their child bearing abilities. Rather, women were valued for their dowries which usually consisted of land or monetary wealth. These women tended to live slightly longer because they were not constantly subjected to the rigors of childbearing or hard labor. These women were faced with the distinct possibility of widowhood, because most noblemen waited until their mid-forties to marry. Widowhood would provide women with a tool to help re-evaluate and change their role in society.
Arranged marriages, though not particularly popular in general, were seen simply as economic ventures. Women were valued for their dowries, which sent many aristocrats scrambling to strike a deal with wealthy men with daughters. Among the peasants, women had to have their feudal lord's permission in order to marry. A woman, once her dowry was gained, became an almost useless commodity for most men. Wives often toiled in the fields and the kitchen simply to earn their keep. Wife beating was common and even socially accepted. The Church supported this barbaric practice. In a theological dictionary of the time Nicholas Byard states, "A man may chastise his wife and beat her for her own correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the lord may...