Women's Rights in Anglo-Saxon England

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Heather Pinson

Ramsey

Engl. 456-01

05/02/11

Anglo-Saxon England: The shift of women’s rights

“Male protection, of course, is a relative thing, and there must have been Anglo-Saxon families in which the wife was more assertive than her husband, and therefore, less in need of direct control” (Rivers). Widows were the most favorable above married and single women in Anglo-Saxon culture. Widows were basically free from control of men and had more rights than single and married women. “Widows did not lose all of their favored status with the introduction of Norman feudalism in the mid-eleventh century, yet the true flowering of widow’s rights appeared within the context of Anglo-Saxon England” (Rivers). Women were put under the protection of church and state after their husbands deceased. This protection was a distant type for them. Women had to be protected to sustain of life. Men took on the responsibility of protecting women and children to keep them from harm. Women, in some aspects, had to protect males and children by nurturing them. Human existence depends on these survival mechanisms for procreating. Since women carried the gift of life and had nurturing attributes, the male need for a female companion grew.

The “Hali Meiðhad” was used to pursue the women of this time, young and old, to give their lives up indefinitely to stay holy forever (Horner). By staying holy, they would have to forfeit their more traditional lives and give themselves to God completely, including their virginity. Women were looked at as a meaningless body if their virginity had been taken. “The letter of the text, its “female” body, is a useless shell, a mere container for the spirit, which, embedded within its feminized enclosure for the skillful reader to uncover, is male” (Horner). If they compromised their sacredness to their husbands and the husband died, this would be looked upon with respect and was the second greatest level for women under lifelong virginity. The Hali Meiðhad helped convey the more religious message and press these females and families into wanting nunnery for women. They saw this as a very heroic way to live. For the most part, the females who entered the nunnery dressed like men and this was a way to validate their masculinity and control over their bodies and minds. This tradition helped them gain more access into the male world. Females were very interested in having the same worth as their male authoritarians. In Anglo-Saxon history, they placed women on sainthood level if they could restrict their lives to this nunnery. In fact, Anglo-Saxon England was the first society to place women at such a high rank. Some other ways to gain worth as a woman was through chastity, being a widow, or having inherited property as a widow. The “Aureola” was a term used for the golden crown virgins received in Heaven (Treharne). These royal images pertaining to living godly and getting into Heaven really caught the attention of many people in the Anglo-Saxon England society.

These restrictions placed on females were not always evident. Women in Anglo-Saxon society were deemed equal to their male counterparts up to the Norman Conquest of 1066. After, they were considered to be property and sometimes even looked upon as being worthless. This negative opinion of women came about because of the military. Men were coming together to fight for their land and cultures. This congregation exchanged ideas for a better future by taking action of their communities and saw potential for their country’s future. They understood that their country could only prevail through power and gain by their own force as men, this changed women’s value and rights vastly. The place women took in their society was based more on their class than on gender. The contagious diffusion of women being property to their fathers, husbands, or brothers spread from class to class as the religious beliefs...
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