Women in the Middle Ages occupied a number of different social roles. Women held the positions of wife, mother, peasant, artisan, and nun, as well as some important leadership roles, such as abbess or queen regnant. The very concept of woman changed in a number of ways during the Middle Ages and several forces influenced women’s roles during their period.
With the establishment of Christian monasticism, other roles within the Church became available to women. From the 5th century onward, Christian convents provided an alternative to path of marriage and child-rearing, to play a more active religious role.
Abbesses could become important figures in their own right, often ruling over monasteries of both men and women, and holding significant lands and power. Figures such as Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680), became influential on a national and even international scale.
Spinning was one of a number of traditionally women’s crafts at this time, initially performed using the spindle and distaff; the spinning wheel was introduced towards the end of the High Middle Ages.
For most of the Middle Ages, until the introduction of beer made with hops, brewing was done largely by women; this was a form of work which could take place at home. In addition, married women were generally expected to assist their husbands in business. Such partnerships were facilitated by the fact that much work occurred in or near the home. However, there are recorded examples from the High Middle Ages of women engaged in a business other than that of their husband.
Midwifery was practised informally, gradually becoming a specialized occupation in the Late Middle Ages. Women often died in childbirth, although if they survived the child-bearing years, they could live as long as men, even into their 70s. Life expectancy for women rose during the High Middle Ages, due to improved nutrition.