Women's Status in Anglo-Saxon England

Topics: Anglo-Saxons, Woman, Gender role Pages: 6 (2192 words) Published: May 22, 2013
Assessing the status of women during the Anglo-Saxon period is difficult. First, it is necessary to clarify which women are we talking about. Narrative sources such as Anglo-Saxon Chronicle present the idealized women who actively participated in political and religious affairs, and some literary sources like Beowulf and wife’s lamentation show the limitation of noble women’s role as “peace-weaver” for political purposes. The role of secular noble women varies from individual cases and it was hard to generalize their status in Anglo-Saxon society. Religious sources tell that religious women gained a favored position in church hierarchy and was regarded relatively equal with men in the early period, but their influence declined. Law codes offer a relatively complete picture of the status of women, and they indicate a gradual rise of women’s legal status throughout Anglo-Saxon period. Therefore, while it is hard to say that the Anglo-Saxon period of English history was a golden age for women in the Middle Ages, it is safe to say that the status of secular woman reaches a high point at the end of this period. Narrative sources are valuable since it

One important sources that reveals the role of women is narrative sources. Most of these texts emphases on “great women” who had some impacts on Anglo-Saxon history, and thus do not cover all the women. However, it is valuable to examine the status of women, especially the noble, because it reveals the extant of activities that are available to women in public, political as well as religious field. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle reveals that the Anglo-Saxon society gives noble women the widest liberty to participate in warfare and politics. For example, in 672, “Cenwealh, and his queen Seaxburg reigned on year after him.” In the seventh century, Cynethryth, the wife of Offa, was an influential queen who had issued coins in her name. In the tenth century, the daughter of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed married to Ethelred, the ealdorman of Merica. She was the effective power in the land during her husband’s illness and after his death in 911. Aethelfaed carried out a series of military campaigns that pushing back the borders or her land taken by Dane, and laid the foundations of a united English kingdom. At her death in 918, she left a daughter, Aelfwyn, to succeed her. The Chronicle records Aethelflaed’s military victories in such a detached tone that it might suggest that the Anglo-Saxon society was not surprised by the role of women as to lead the nation.

Another important narrative accounts that reveal the status of Anglo-Saxon women is Tacitus’s Germania. This text is valuable because it presents a broader view of Germania women instead of some “representative” as in most other narrative resources, and even though the Anglo-Saxon culture might be different from that observed by Tacitus, his account nevertheless gives us some inspirations about the role of Anglo-Saxon women. Tacitus reveals the high status of women in domestic field. For example, he says “These are each man’s most sacred witnesses, these are his greatest supporters; It is to their mothers and to their wives that they bring their wounds, and the women do not quake to count or examine their gashes, and they furnish sustenance and encouragement to their fighters.” Moreover, men “neither reject their advice nor scorn their forecasts.” Germanic women offered the greatest comforts to their sons and husbands and inspired their valour in wars, and they won respect at home and could influence their husbands’ thoughts.

Religious sources reveals that women such as Hild, Leoba and countless other nuns and abbesses played important roles in the early church. In Anglo-Saxon period, Nunnery is a place of education and debate, and nuns, many of them of noble birth, are educated women. They received respect and worked with their male colleagues in teaching, writing and translating religious texts. For example, the...
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