Throughout Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” the role of women is quite limited, both in terms of presence in the actual history as well as in their daily lives. Although the history in “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by Bede covers a rather broad epoch in English history, there are few detectable changes in how women are represented. Overall, women’s roles were extremely limited when they stepped outside of their traditional role as mother and caretaker and there are even instances when it is questioned whether or not they should be allowed to enter church at certain times.
It is remarkable that women of the medieval period seem to bear the burden of biblical history, especially when it comes to issues of a private or sexual nature. Men, on the other hand, are free to rule society and the Church (which are almost synonymous during the time period represented) and it is up to them to regulate the impulses, actions, and daily lives of women. Although it is never directly stated in “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by Bede, there is an implicit sense of fear that if left unchecked, women would run rampant and indulge in sin without a thought. It is for this reason that there are numerous examples in “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” of debates about how best to control women as well as incidents where women who at first seem like independent players in history are only in such a position because of male influence. In sum, women’s roles in this society were limited by the desires and fears of men and thus they were confined to lead narrow lives either in austere prayer or as mothers, wives, and caretakers.
One of the most interesting general commentaries on the role of women in medieval society comes from Book I of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the letters and questions between Augustine and Pope Gregory. In the Eighth Letter, Augustine wonders how to reconcile the impurity of women with the sanctity of the Church. It is clear from this exchange in “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” that women are seen as dirty and corrupt creatures but that they are not completely at fault for their state since they are only the products of original sin. Even still, one cannot help but consider that this is a still a question for medieval thinkers of a time and it demonstrates that men and women were viewed as entirely different species, especially when it came to matters of the Church. Strangely, the leader of the Church, Gregory, seems far more enlightened than the man he is answering and although he does women as being a potential threat to the sanctity of the institution, he recognizes that the flaws of women are “inherent” and the results of his conception of biblical truth.
For instance, when Augustine asks whether a woman with child should be baptized. Gregory answers, “Why should not a woman with child be baptized, since the fruitfulness of the flesh is no difference in the eyes of Almighty God? For when our first parents sinned in Paradise, they forfeited the immortality which they had received” (I.xxvii). By stating this, Gregory is not implying that women are filthy or that should be outcast from the Church, but rather that they are simply the products of sin and should not be punished for what they are. Gregory produces a similar response when asked whether or not a woman should be allowed to enter the Church when she is menstruating by stating in one of the important quotes from “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, “Yet the woman, nevertheless, must not be forbidden to come into church whilst she has monthly courses; because the superfluidity of nature cannot be imputed to her as a crime; and it is not just that she should be refused admittance into the church, for that which she suffers against her will” (I.xxvii). Although Pope Gregory recognizes that women carry the potential to spread “uncleanliness” throughout the Church (and especially onto men, thus the discussion about how a man must wash after being with a woman) he also senses that they are helpless against the biblical weight that they must carry. Even more striking about these questions and answers on the role of women in Church and society, it is clear that is seems up to the men to regulate and dictate women’s lives.
Women are represented in Bede’s history “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” as needing guidance, especially from males and particularly those with religious authority. Clearly Pope Gregory had given a great deal of thought about women within the Church but this theme recurs throughout other sections of the text as well. While women are not the central characters in many of the short chapters, it is revealing to see how they are treated as secondary characters. Consider, for instance, the occurrence in “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which the King of the Franks is being discussed before his meeting with Augustine. He is described by his belief system and by the fact that he had, “a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith” (I.xxv). It is interesting to note that not only did he “receive her from her parents” which indicates that she was traded or given over as a commodity, but that by the act of receiving her she becomes his property. Not only does she have his hand controlling her life, but that of the Bishop Luidhard as well.
The implication with this small detail is that a woman needs a man from the Church to “preserve her faith” because on her own, without the steady patriarchal guidance of the Church, she would degenerate into sin. It is difficult not to take notice of the fact that women are never seen as independent creatures but are always being influenced, usually for the good, by a man’s hand. For instance, the reader is introduced to Ethelberga whose brother has recently taken over part of East Saxony. He sets his sister, Ethelberga, up as the head of a monastery for women where she “might be a mother and nurse of devout women. Being put into the government of that monastery, she behaved herself in all respects as became the sister of such a brother, living herself regularly, and piously, and orderly, providing for those under her, as was also manifested by heavenly miracles” (IV.vii). Not only is obvious that she will take on the traditional female role of a “mother” but she gained her position through a male and instead of living because of her own virtue (even though it is supposed to be assumed) she is behaving only as “the sister of such a brother” than a person who is worthy of remarking upon because her personal dutiful nature. This pattern continues throughout the text—the reader is introduced to a strong female but there are always men supporting her deeds and she is not free to take the glory in history. In general, women are seen as being incapable of doing anything without men and thus it is apparent that this society did not place much emphasis on women and their individuality or free will.
Although it may seem that even an Abbess would enjoy some degree of autonomy, this is not the case. In Book 4 of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by Bede the reader is introduced to one of the most remarkable religious women, Hilda, who wanders for some time before finding her own way of worshipping. At first this seems like a noble and deeply personal quest but she is not alone. She must submit when Bishop Aidan calls her home and after that point her personal search is no longer something of her own but belongs to the men of the Church. Bede, in “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” describes how, “Hilda, the servant of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to reduce all things to a regular system, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan and other religious men knew her and loved her, frequently visited and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and inclination to serve God” (IV.xxiii). In her case, it seems that she wished to live a life of solitude in order to better worship God, yet when she is in the company of men she is never free to worship in a way that suits her. Although there is never a moment in which she appears to revolt against this company and instruction, the reader (especially a modern reader) is acutely aware of just how little freedom a woman, even one in a position of relative power, would have in the Church or in society. Instead of being able to create her own identity through her worship and unique understanding, the men strangely recognize her for her “wisdom” yet still feel the need to instruct her. Through such an example, one must wonder how any woman could expect any autonomy if even a blessed and sought-after woman could not.
In sum, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a text about the history of men in the church and in medieval society. Although there are women who make brief appearances it is impossible to recognize as separate entities from the world of men. To these men, women must be guided and controlled and it is for this reason that an overarching theme of anti-feminism in the work by Bede that is in line with ideas from the time it was written.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include: Representations of Women in Medieval Literature • The Book of Margery Kempe and The Role of Women in Medieval Society • The Narrow Role of Women The Odyssey by Homer • Women and Power in Agamemnon and Lysistrata