Women in medieval times
Culture Empowerment Fashion & Style

Women’s Body Ideals Throughout History: The Medieval Times

Let’s travel in time and reach Medieval Europe… the terrible Dark Ages when the world experienced a huge decline. If the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians celebrated the human body, early Christians saw it as a weakness, something not to be praised and prone to sin. It was also prone to diseases and illness and the only ideal was to have a body… an intact body with no signs of plague. Basically, just to be alive. 

Women in medieval times occupied various roles and experienced a range of social and cultural conditions depending on factors such as their social class, geographical location, and marital status. The medieval period, which spanned from the 5th to the 15th century, was characterized by feudalism, chivalry, and the dominance of the Catholic Church, which played a central role in medieval society.

Noblewomen, Peasants & The Early Urban Boss Babes

The role of women was highly influenced by their social class. Women belonging to the noble class had more privileges and opportunities compared to those in lower social strata. They were often well-educated, received training in courtly manners, and had the responsibility of managing the household and overseeing the upbringing of their children. In the absence of their husbands, they could act as regents and wield significant political influence. So, they were pretty empowered for those times. However, these were a very small percentage of the women’s population, as most of them were peasants.

The little Garden of Paradise by Upper Rhenish Master, 1410

The majority of women in medieval society belonged to the peasant class. They worked in the fields alongside their husbands, tended to household chores, and raised children. Their labor was crucial for the survival of the family and the community, but they didn’t have access to education or other opportunities. They were married from a very young age and their sole purpose was to be a housewife… and not get sick. They also didn’t have much of a choice in marrying the man of their dreams, as all marriages were arranged by their parents. A marriage was just an economic and political alliance between families, aimed at consolidating power or acquiring wealth. Women had to be obedient to their husbands – here’s a hint of slavery – and were pretty much taught domestic skills.

On the other hand, in urban areas, women engaged in a variety of professions, such as trade, crafts, and running businesses. Some women became members of guilds and were involved in the production of goods. These were the early boss babes, but unfortunately they often faced restrictions and were excluded from certain trades dominated by men. It took hundreds of years to be where we are today.

The Concept of Chivalry and its Toxicity on Modern Times

The concept of chivalry originated in medieval Europe as a code of conduct for knights. It emphasized virtues such as honor, bravery, loyalty, and courtesy – all the good things, however it didn’t have such a positive impact on women on the long run because it encompassed ideals of protecting the weak, particularly women. If women were seen more powerful in the Ancient times, now this ideal of the ‘weak sex’ was perpetuated. Chivalry assumed that women are weak and in need of protection, while men are strong and should be the protectors. This reinforced the idea of female passivity and dependence on men, which was limiting and restrictive for women and still is today in some parts of the world.

Chivalry also led to patronizing attitudes towards women, suggesting that women always need assistance and cannot make their own decisions, undermining their autonomy and considering that men always know best. This is a role that not only their husbands took, but their fathers as well and it is a very rooted idea that persists today. Many young girls ask their fathers’ advice, while not trusting their mothers as much.

Moreover, it reinforces the idea that women need special treatment and protection, which can hinder efforts towards achieving true gender equality in various aspects of life, such as the workplace or personal relationships. Another aspect was that chivalry focused on the treatment of noblewomen, often neglecting women from lower social classes or marginalized communities. This exclusionary nature reinforces social hierarchies and neglects the diverse experiences and needs of women. This is in fact something that persists today, as women are seen differently based on their looks or social status and let’s face it, women do the same with men. It is probably in our human nature to categorize and look up or down on people depending on their looks, wealth, profession, skills and status.

Weird Fashion Trends in Medieval Times

Now, enough with all the seriousness and let’s move on to the crazy fashion styles of the Medieval Times. In the 15th century, one of the weirdest trends in the history of fashion was born: being pregnant. We can understand that in an Europe not so populated post-plague, being pregnant was a huge thing and fertility was trendy! French women in particular wore a sack under their dresses to look pregnant. That’s for sure a fashion trend that will never ever return. 

In the 14th and 15th centuries, it became fashionable to wear shoes with long, exaggerated pointed toes. The pointed shows were born. These shoes, known as “poulaines” or “crakows,” could be so long that they had to be tied to the wearer’s knees with chains to prevent them from tripping. The length of the toe varied, and it was sometimes seen as a symbol of social status.

In the same period, another weird trend for women appeared. Hennins were high, cone-shaped headdresses worn by noblewomen. These tall hats, often made of fabric and adorned with veils and jewels, could reach extreme heights. Some hennins were so tall that they required support structures, such as wires or frames, to keep them upright. The shape and height of the hennin were seen as a symbol of elegance and nobility.

Chopines were another eccentricity. They were a type of platform shoe worn by women in the 15th and 16th centuries, particularly in Italy. They were made of wood or cork and elevated the wearer’s feet by several inches or even a foot. Now, this is understandable as if you think about the flooded streets of Venice, filled with mud during rainy seasons, you would definitely want to not get wet and to not ruin your long dress, so – although extreme, this might have been a more practical trend.

Chopines were often elaborately decorated and required the wearer to walk with a slow, deliberate gait and use canes or handrails for support due to their instability. They were – again – considered a symbol of wealth and social status.

Hope you enjoyed this time period and make sure to check out all our articles on women’s body ideals throughout history. If you haven’t seen our first episode from this series on YouTube, enjoy it here:

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