expressions of gender and power in the european middle ages

It is nearly impossible, if not impossible altogether, to find a period of time or a place where gender and power have not been linked. Whether examining matrilineal tribal systems of the Neolithic or the Latin idea of paterfamilias or the inheritance of a surname through to the modern day, the two are inextricable. In terms of keeping this analysis succinct and clear, I will limit my field to gender as defined in two different contexts throughout the late first and the early second millenniums CE, with only brief notes outside of those parameters. The relationship between power and gender throughout time and space can be categorized and analyzed in various expressions of each other. For the purpose of this analysis, I will define power as an expression of gender (P→G) as the idea of actions establishing individual and collective gender, whereas gender as an expression of power (G→P) may be viewed as gendered symbols (phalluses, sexual metaphors, gendered virtue) justifying the right to power— or lack thereof. While the expression of the relationship between power and gender shift and switch depending on context and location, the general rule applies: historically, the two are linked. 

Expressions of power in a religious context are a little bit tricky to analyze, given the two-pronged secular and spiritual influence of the papacy, and the conflicting ideals of both. The secular power of the Church constantly pushed an agenda supporting the general idea of power as an expression of gender. The papacy was (and still is) notorious for involving itself in secular affairs, whether they be legal, cultural, or political. This manifested itself in a number of incredibly corrupt popes promoting the ideas of the highest royal bidder and convincing the world that to go along with it might earn them favor with God. As such men were elevated with the capability to be spiritual protectors, fighting off infidels Jewish and Muslim and women silenced as incapable of such things and, furthermore, inherently sinful (which I will discuss later in the following paragraph). In the case of Guibert of Nogent’s On the Uprising of the Laon Commune and the Murder of Bishop Gaudry, the Bishop Gaudry of the Angevin town of Laon exemplified the corrupt connections between the church and the state (so to speak), “…plotting with the king’s vassals to have the king break the oath he had sworn and to bring the laws of the city back to their former state”. One might argue this as an anomaly but no- it was the common law of the papacy. Since the time of Charlemagne (to say naught of previous situations) secular monarchs shared an uncomfortably close relationship with the sitting pope and other members of the clergy, and though it was never as explicitly defined as it is in the Unam Sanctam bull of Boniface VIII until its publication in 1302, the law simply went unsaid. No one dared oppose God’s direct messenger to Earth, thus the pope remained mostly unquestioned- no matter what he did. The pope could do whatever he- or, more importantly, his staunchest supporters- wished, so agendas such as that of Innocent III could be pushed with minimum interference. Crusades were justified in a number of ways, but the most effective was that the Church said so. If the Church said so, God must have said so and whether or not people understood why the material and spiritual swords were in the hands of the Church and to question them was to question God and risk eternal damnation. Continuing the words of Boniface VIII, “…the [spiritual sword is exercised] by the hand of the priest, the [material sword] by the hand of kings and soldiers, though at the will and suffrance [sic] of the priest”. If God- or rather, the Church- called for violence (a universal expression of masculine power) in the form of Crusade or otherwise, the brawny souls of those who responded would surely be absolved of any previous guilt in exchange for their defense of the faith. 

However, in a spiritual context (and particularly with the rise of the cult of the Blessed Virgin), gender, or rather the virtues that supposedly came with it, ruled supreme. This unattainable ideal set for women forced the large majority of them into the spiritual archetype of Eve, the wayward and oblivious deceiver of the Abrahamic creation story. Those who came sufficiently closer to Mary’s piety were respected and cared for, not as equals but as objects of near-pity- and even then, it was a quiet piety that was required. Women like Margery Kempe, who expressed their spirituality through loud weeping and grief, or the members of the convent of Hildegard of Bingen were too vocal, and thus failed to fit the narrow parameters. Of course the opposing archetype- that of Eve- was far more prevalent among medieval people. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales displays a great deal of this sentiment, telling tale after bawdy tale. “The Pardoner’s Tale”, while one of the tamer stories, provides a handful of quotes demonstrating the carelessness of the perception: 

‘Good men and women, here’s a word of warning; 

If there is anyone in church this morning

Guilty of sin, so far beyond expression 

Horrible, that he dare not make confession, 

Or any woman, whether young or old,

That’s cuckolded her husband, be she told

That such as she shall have no power or grace 

To offer to my relics in this place’

Additionally, Chaucer provides us with a ‘tavern scene’:

Will laugh, and presently the dancing-girls, 

Small pretty ones come in and shake their curls, 

With youngsters selling fruit and ancient bawds,

And girls with cake and music, devil’s gauds, 

To kindle and blow the fires of lechery 

That are so close annexed to gluttony”

Women, it seems, can either be paragons of virtue or whores and Chaucer is but one example of the stark binary of that sentiment. Whatever sexual power men might be able to exercise, it is abundantly obvious that women lack the same freedom. 

For the majority of our chronological parameters, legislation and the judicial systems of the western world were reserved for men. Power- in this case, legal power- was frequently what defined the masculinity of those who took up less-violent careers. There is an exception to the legal P→G  rule which can be seen outside the chronological parameters of this analysis: archaically the phallus of Hammurabi’s Code and the beard of Hatshepsut, and artistically the jewel worn around the waist in portraits of ruling women such as Queen Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, often interpreted as mimicking a codpiece. However, this does fall outside of the set guidelines so I will not analyze it further here. Rather, I would like to discuss the unique idea of a non-sexual gender expression maintained in medieval Scandinavia— particularly Iceland. Here, gender was viewed as fluid and dependant on the actions (and of course the biological sex) of an individual person. While men were born inherently hvatr, or ‘hard’, and women inherently blauðr, or ‘soft’, prowess in battle— violent or legal— or inability to participate in traditional masculine activity could affect the perception of your gender. Unn, also known as Aud or Auðr the Deep-Minded, was one such woman who garnered a great deal of respect from those around her. After the death of her husband, she undertook a journey from Dublin through the Orkney islands up to the recently-settled Iceland, marrying off her numerous grandchildren and claiming vast tracks of land as she went. Though she is most spoken of in the Laxdaela Saga or The Saga of the People of Laxardal, she is mentioned in numerous other sagas, a great feat for a woman- not to mention that she was relatively advanced in years by the time any of this happened, and not involved in fighting at all, for all historians know. She should have been the epitome of blauðr and yet her fortitude and legal prowess ensured that her legacy lived on. 

While I have really only touched on a handful of places over the course of a five-hundred-year span, the connections between expressions of gender and expressions of power are not limited to this. While these expressions vary throughout space and time, they are there and should not be glossed over for a less-complicated view of historic gender politics. Further research might include the involvement of women in warfare, the perception of men in a monastic setting, or the religious power of women globally, but traced from the beginning of time. As one can see, this topic is a goldmine of information for analysis, and this brief paper has barely scratched the surface.


Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales, Edited by Neville Coghill, Fourth Edition (New York: Penguin Books,  1977), 197-214.
Cole, Joshua and Carol Symes, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Volume 1, Brief Fourth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 223-311.
Guibert of Nogent, Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, Volume 1, Edited by Brophy et al, Sixth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 295-299.
Pope Boniface VIII, Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, Volume 1, Edited by Brophy et al, Sixth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 335-336.