Anglo-Saxon women were expected to be submissive to their husbands or fathers and were only able to obtain a certain amount of freedom in the workforce through marriage or wealth; the only way a woman could work was through her husband or father, at least until they died. Despite these setbacks, there were some opportunities for women to be involved in other activities or lifestyles beyond domestic responsibilities.

This is a brief overview of some of the possible nontraditional roles Anglo-Saxon women could have participated in. Though this is not an exhaustive description of each, it gives some idea as to how many women were able to retain some autonomy from the men in their lives. From religion to war, and somewhere in between, we will see how some women gave up, or added to, their domestic lifestyles with these nontraditional "professional" roles.

Women and the Church:

One alternative for women who did not marry would be to join a convent. There was a small minority of women who were actively religious because they could not become priests or perform holy ordinances. However, for many women, joining a convent wasn't necessarily about the religious aspect. Being a nun gave them some measure of autonomy and even authority. Carolyn Larrington states, "…[F]or many women the convent life was a way of overcoming the disadvantages inherent in their sex: avoiding the tyranny of marriage and the dangers of childbirth, and achieving person autonomy…" (115). This was also a way for women to "…transcend their inherently flawed female natures to win salvation, in a way which men, made in the image of God, did not" (Larrington 113). As taught from the Bible, Eve was the first to partake of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, which makes her (and all women) the "weaker" of the two sexes for having caused the Fall. Therefore, devoting one's life to God was an attempt to elevate themselves in the eyes of God.

There were some difficulties that may have prevented many from becoming nuns. The price of admission for becoming a nun could cost as much or more than a dowry. Women who were poor and could not afford the price of admission could become lay sisters where they would perform manual labor such as clean, cook and serve meals, etc. It was, for many, a better option than marriage as they retained some autonomy, even as a servant.

Convents were also a place for women to gain an education. Young girls were frequently educated in convents, which led to some becoming nuns because it was the only life they had known and may have been easier than getting married.

Because of the higher education and learning, professional medical practice was often performed in convents. It was against the Catholic Church to allow men to view women's bodies, which often resulted in a higher mortality rate among women. Therefore, it became very important for women to learn how to heal and take care of sick women, especially pregnant women.

Complications in childbirth and a lack of understanding and the right skills resulted in many fatalities among women; this is why Midwifery became very important during this time-period and even expanded outside of the convents. Women in the town could perform private medical practices of midwifery and became very valued by those who realized their worth.


After the 12th century, women were given a little more freedom to participate in Urban life, such as entertaining. However, because women were rarely able to be involved in work outside of the home without her husband or father, there were very few female entertainers. Entertainers during the Anglo-Saxon period were not looked upon favorably by society, especially women. They were considered to be a moral threat to society and could often face persecution.

Dancing was especially looked upon unfavorably because of its pagan origins. It was believed that dancing distracted one from Christian worship.

However, other forms of art were looked upon favorably, even in the church. Nuns, in their leisure time in between worship could embroider, write hymns, and compose music so long as their purpose was to praise God. It is through convents that we receive some of the best evidence of women's involvement in music during this time. There was also involvement in visual arts, as nuns were also known to be painters and sculptors.

Art outside of the church was not as common. Secular women who wished to participate in the arts often followed the convent traditions by working as illuminators. Although writing was not as common, women could also become writers. Certain courts allowed women to participate in creative writing.

However, many women, even when able to read, were not able to write. Reading and writing were not taught together because they were considered separate. Therefore, in order to "write" they needed a scribe to assist them. Unfortunately, having a scribe wasn’t always the best solution. One of the great problems and worries women faced, because they often had male scribes, was that the scribes would claim their work as their own. There is even some speculation over whether some texts from this time-period were written by a woman but claimed to be the scribe's work. It's possible that some works, believed to have been written by a man, are actually a woman's work.

One unfortunate result of the Norman Conquest was that English was no longer the primary language; all nobility and church officials wrote and spoke in either Latin or French. French was most often spoken by noblemen, and Latin was spoken by Church officials and lawgivers. This made women more dependent upon men, or the wealthy (those who could be educated) and less independent (one of the great advantages of being a nun). This, in turn, limited the amount of texts we have written by women. Women in the church had greater access to someone who could act as a scribe for them than outside of the church. That is why convents, or women with wealth who could hire a scribe (usually a man), provide us with the greatest evidence of women's involvement in writing.

Toward the later half of the middle ages, English became the primarily language and women were able to participate more in writing. Before this time (the 15th century) it was more common for stories to be told vocally, through a song, or with pictures. It also became more common because the repercussions of the Norman Conquest, and the limitations it brought upon all who didn't speak Latin or French (especially women who rarely received an education), ended.


Women, though inherently weaker than men physically, surprisingly carried a great advantage in battle; they were greatly feared because they seemed to have lost their natural maternal instincts. This made them valued warriors and there were armies solely made of women.

This also gave women the power to defend their homes, lands, and families when the men were away fighting. Their primary purpose of learning how to fight was to defend their land from invaders. They were also expected to assist the men in fighting off invaders if their town or castle was attacked.

There is also evidence that some women disguised themselves as male warriors and went to battle with the men. "There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers' skills" (Reference Link).

There have been several other examples throughout this period that show women's involvement in battle. One example of an Anglo-Saxon female, who formally participated as a warrior, is a Queen of Denmark named Thrya. She ruled in her husband's absence and led an army into battle against the Germans.

Additionally, some women were allowed to participate in seeking revenge for the death of a family member: "There was a formal mechanism whereby a woman could be treated as a male heir in the earliest Icelandic legal codex, Gragas, with respect to the paying and receiving of wergild…It only applied to unmarried women who had no brothers. This may also have extended to a responsibility for taking part in retaliation and blood feuds between families in cases where there was no agreement on the weregild" (Reference Link).

Works Consulted:

"Anglo Saxon Women." Hullwebs History of Hull. March 24, 2007.

"The Arts" The Traveler's Guide to Medieval Brittain. April 16, 2007

Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe.
       London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

"The Marketplace." Think Quest. March 24, 2007.

Saunders, Nicky. Lothene Experimental Archaeology. April 16, 2007.

Women and the Church

Women and the Arts

Women and War