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A Great Deal Like Us

Conventional wisdom tells us that women throughout history have struggled to pull themselves up from second-class status. Whether it be the right to own property, vote or to earn equitable pay, it is a generally expected idea that women have historically been shut out from equal participation in the cultural and economic fabric of society. But is this true?

University of Idaho history professor Ellen Kittell has found that many of the freedoms Western women enjoy today were norms during an era that one would not normally think of as progressive: Medieval Europe.

Documented in her articles “Whether man or woman: Gender inclusivity in the town ordinances of medieval Douai” and “Women, audience and public acts in medieval Flanders,” Kittell found that many urban women of the time identified themselves by their occupation or simply by their name without reference to whether they were single, married or widowed. Medieval Flemish women, unlike most European women in the 19th century, did not depend on status gained by marriage or guardianship. Kittell concludes that this, along with other factors, shows that women participated as persons in their own right in nearly all aspects of public life, as bakers, dyers of cloth, drapers, haberdashers and merchants.

She notes that medieval Flanders — half of modern-day Belgium — has been one of most urban and commercial regions in northern Europe since the 11th century and remains so to this day. The economic opportunities available, combined with the fact that women were legal persons who shared equally in inherited property, created a world where a woman’s identity was not determined by her marital status.

“Historians have long assumed that marriage was the be-all and end-all for pre-modern women. My research indicates that this simply is not true,” she said. “To be sure, medieval Flanders represents neither a golden age nor a female paradise, but it does offer us an opportunity to study women in their own right, without constant reference to the men with whom they may or may not have been associated.”

Kittell also points out this independence eroded over time as French legal norms came to influence the region and women were again relegated to a second-class status within the household structure.

She cautions modern day society to take note and understand the ebb and flow of female independence throughout history.

“We flatter ourselves that we have entered into a period of historically unprecedented female emancipation, partially on account of our commercial, technological and industrial development,” she said. “Medieval Flanders was almost equally urban and commercial, with full female participation, but the independence of women was eventually largely lost....The story of Flanders (like that of Ancient Sparta) refutes the assumption that the process of female emancipation is linear, incremental and, once achieved, essentially irreversible. It behooves us to understand that in order to safeguard, let alone improve upon our present achievements, we must not be blind to our past.”

Along with her articles, Kittell is working on a multi-chapter research project that involves documenting all of the various public activities of women in Medieval Flanders.

“They bought and sold goods and managed businesses, small and large. They got into fights, they took people to court and were taken to court; we even find them testifying on their own and under oath,” she said. “They cursed and swore; they prayed and donated land and goods to local churches and saints. They named their children after their relatives and after the celebrities of their day — the saints, the countesses, the politicians. They were, in fact, a great deal like us.”


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