The changing role of women in the Kingdom of León

Indumentaria-medieval4One of the problems which arise when speaking of mediaeval women is the lack of documentation, making it difficult to evaluate their daily life, their real position and above all, the thoughts of a woman from that period. The majority of documents from the Middle Ages were written by men, often members of the clergy, and their version is perhaps not the best reflection of the thoughts and concerns of women.

Legislation in the Kingdom of León concerning women’s rights was advanced for the time and historical context. It should not be forgotten that this was a feudal society where relationships of dependence predominated, and women held a secondary role in a society where the protagonists were men. Nevertheless, certain privileges referred to the rights of women.

Indumentaria-medieval3The Charter of León of 1017 contains the bases of some of these rights. For example, with reference to matrimony, the Charter established laws concerning possessions held by women - whether or not they were women who already enjoyed legal recognition as hereditary tenants - or the inviolability of the home and the immunity of women in the absence of their husbands. It also decreed that where the possessions of a family were to be confiscated in consequence of some offense committed by the husband, half of these possessions were legally protected for the upkeep of the wife and children.

The Charter of León was an innovation, and differed widely from the various precepts governing other kingdoms. For the first time, the rights of women were taken into consideration, and although women continued to be subject to the will of their husbands, it nevertheless represented a first step, and a very advanced one given the time and historical context. According to the provisions established by the Charter of León, León women could not be obliged to knead dough for the king, nor could a woman be taken prisoner, detained or judged in the absence of her husband.

The Cortes of 1188 served to consolidate the decrees contained in the Charter of 1017, in addition to establishing a series of new measures aimed at regulating daily life in the Kingdom of León. One of the provisions gave common-law wives the right to oblige a father to recognise his illegitimate children and accept them as his own. This provision was specifically applied in the Constitution of 1194 to the illegitimate children of the nobility.

The Charter of León spawned various offspring throughout the Kingdom of León, all based on the first but incorporating their own laws. For example, one of the singular articles of the 1192 Charter of Villafranca del Bierzo exempted widows from the tax known as the Foro for a year.

Peine-huso-y-dedales.-Museo-de-Len.-LenThe absence or loss of her husband endowed a woman with the legal right to administer her home. Those women acting as the head of the family attended the councils and held the same rights to participate and be heard as any man.

Within the family, women enjoyed a similar legal status and standing as a man, and women’s rights to buy, sell and make a donation or will were virtually the same as those of men. Women formed the real core of the family, and were responsible for running the house, keeping a vegetable plot and looking after poultry. In addition, women helped men with farming tasks such as harvesting, grape-picking, reaping cereal crops and hay and cattle-raising. This active, central role is in contrast to the wife’s subjection to her husband in matters of morality and sexuality. These were controlled by the man, and he would police her behaviour and defend her honour.

Conditions in urban centres were similar. The woman was responsible for domestic tasks concerning the home and family. Where a family held a business, women were expected to participate in the work. Women who worked outside the home or family business worked as domestic servants, spinners, washer-women or cooks, or in the country, as farmhands and farm labourers, earning significantly less than men.

Doa-UrracaWomen belonging to the upper classes led a totally different life, with much lighter working loads. They were responsible for the care and education of their children, for managing the domestic economy and organising domestic tasks and staff. Where the husband was absent or dead, the woman assumed responsibility for making decisions relating to the family. Some of these women proved to be expert heads of the family, achieving great power and social standing.

Women who dedicated their lives to God, whether in consequence of sins committed, to escape an arranged marriage or because of being the second-born daughter in a noble family, had access to culture and learnt to read and write, Latin and Greek.

In conclusion, women’s lives in the Middle Ages were clearly limited and undervalued by men, a stance fostered by the Church. The apparent liberty enjoyed by women should be seen in terms of the men who enacted the laws and who tried to restrict their freedom, above all as regards sexuality. Within this context, it can be said that women in the Kingdom of León enjoyed rights which were advanced for the times.


  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8

Photo Gallery

Las Cabezadas. León Planta Primera San Isidoro. León Bermudo II Palacio del Conde Luna. León Doña Urraca. San Marcelo. Burgos Mº de Sto. Domingo de Silos. Burgos Fernando III. San Marcelo. León Monasterio de San Facundo y San Primitivo. Sahagún Palacio Conde Luna. Tormenteria - Alfonso VII. León