Anglo-Saxon Women in England
May 13, 2016 19 Comments
Susan Abernethy is one of my favorite history bloggers, at The Freelance History Writer. Here’s why, she sometimes takes a subject that not too much is known about, finds most of it and pulls it together in a blog post that is informative, interesting (sometimes fascinating) and mostly noncontroversial. To me it seems, she is simply portraying facts, while not pushing a narrative, and I’m grateful. Here’s a taste of her, on AngloSaxon women.
On the topic of ordinary Anglo-Saxon women in England there are some limited sources of historical information. These are mostly in the form of wills and charters, literature and poetry and law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings. More information exists regarding aristocratic and religious women. From the evidence we have we can glean some small details on what life was like for Anglo-Saxon women. Surprisingly these women enjoyed some economic and marital rights.
Bede, in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, says Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the sea from the continent in a mass migration to England and settled and colonized there in the fifth century. In general, these people were Germanic, pagan, uneducated and illiterate. We do know a little about the political events of this era and how they fought with the native Britons for power. It can only be inferred that women came with them. There are Anglo-Saxon cemeteries where women were buried with Anglo-Saxon grave goods. Very early sources are littered with female Anglo-Saxon names and place names. No doubt there was intermarriage between these people and the native Britons but there is not much evidence this took place in the upper echelons of society. There is little evidence the Anglo-Saxons settled in Romano settlements or adopted their culture.
Ordinary Anglo-Saxon Women
Interesting evidence has been discovered in Anglo-Saxon graves. These have included single beads, perforated boars tusks worn as pendants, crystal balls and cowrie shells. These objects are sometimes called amulets. They were seen as having healing or protective power. They have been found in the graves of men and children but appear more frequently in women’s graves. This could symbolize that women were the protectors of their family’s health. It could also signify they were healers, prophets or wise women.
The commonplace word for woman in Old English is “wif” meaning wife or woman. The origin of the word is obscure but it regularly occurs in the phrase “weras and wifas” meaning men and women. This word could be etymologically associated with the words for weaving. Evidence does suggest that women were most often associated with cloth-making and producing clothing. Perhaps early in the culture, men were associated with fighting and hunting and women were linked to weaving, spinning and embroidery.
Grave goods have been unearthed which are linked to cloth production. Thread boxes have been found containing thread, needles and small bits of cloth. Spindle-whorls and weaving batons have also appeared. Regular households and those of free born families may have made cloth and clothing for themselves with an emphasis on warmth and durability. In large, wealthy households, women may have woven cloth with their own hand and there may have been slaves trained in weaving. In these households, there would have been time and money available to clothe the household and to produce church vestments to give as gifts to churches and churchmen.
A text survives that explains the duties of the administrative officer called the reeve. It has lists of necessary equipment for a household. One list gives equipment needed for producing cloth and another list has the type of chests needed to store the clothing and other soft furnishings such as bed-clothes, table-linen, seat-covers and wall coverings. These items and chests have been listed in wills as being bequeathed to heirs along with clothing.
Keep going, it’s fascinating when she gets into the rights that Anglo-Saxon women had, far better for them that it was under the Normans. Enjoy!