It appears that laws concerning the lives of Anglo-Saxon women were far more progressive and enlightened than those of the medieval period. This is particularly pertinent regarding marital laws as many job roles were still sharply defined between the sexes – nonetheless, it was possible to satisfy an employment role as a woman.
The approach to marriage gave the bride substantially more control than her medieval counterpart. The intended husband would have to pay a considerable sum of both money and land to his future wife. This was known as a ‘morning gift’ and would go straight to her rather than to her father or brother. The bride then had complete control over what to do with this; share it, spend it, save it or bequeath it. Once married finances were jointly owned.
A wife had the right to walk away from a marriage complete with the entitlement to take the children and even claim half the value of the property. If however the wife had been unfaithful she had to return to her family and pay back the morning gift.
Inheritance laws were also much more favourable at this stage than they would be for many centuries afterwards. A widow would receive the estate rather than it all passing to her son, leaving her dependent upon him – or even another close male relative.
Even more surprisingly at this time, the law offered women protection from both rape and seduction. A seducer would be officially fined. A certain inequality is visible here, in that the amount the guilty party could be fined was dependent on the rank of the woman seduced.
The employment that most women found were roles connected to cloth production such as spinning, weaving and embroidery. Rich garments both for the Church and the nobility were always needed and decorative items like seat covers and table covers were also sought after.
In the home it was usually women who did the cooking but those employed as cooks for the nobility were always men. It was the duty of the lady of the house to serve drinks and this appears to even have applied to a queen.
Very few estate workers were women but in a contemporary text that outlines the rights and responsibilities of such employees, known as ‘Rectitudines’ one woman is listed in amongst the herdsmen and foresters and she holds the role of ‘cheesemaker’. Apparently she was entitled and committed to, ‘…a hundred cheeses and is to make butter for the lord’s table from the whey; and she is to have all the buttermilk except for the herdsman’s share.’ In Aelfric’s ‘Colloquy’ the role of cook appears described only using the masculine version of the noun, ‘coc’ but both the masculine and feminine variations of the noun for baker are recorded.
Thanks to the Normans, women lost much of the above. They became the property of their male relatives and husbands, born to marry and serve, receiving very little in legislative protection or indeed personal autonomy.