Religion also played an important role in the changing position of women in this time period. One of contributions to this relates to the sanctification of women which also changed from the Anglo-Saxon to the Anglo-Norman time period. In the latter period it rarely happened while in the Anglo-Saxon this did happen though mostly in the earlier periods of the conversion to Christendom and less so in the 10th century. (Fell 10). The century between 650 and 750 saw a flourishing of female sanctity where in the case of Britain “nearly two out of every five saints were female” (women and power in the Middle Ages 103-4). The fact that the sanctification of female saints had already greatly diminished after the “golden age” means that it cannot be attributed to the Norman influence after the Conquest. However, the reasons for the declining number of newly sanctified women were different in both these periods. There were several reforms during the Anglo-Norman time period which changed the position of women in the church. “the reformers’ encouragement of ritual purity and fear of the female sex served as an excuse for the growing segregation of the sexes . . . the reform councils repeatedly legislated strict enclosure for female religious which necessarily restricted their active involvement in the “public sphere” ( Schulenburg 115). These changes, however, need to be attributed to the Church as a whole and not to the Normans specifically, but they certainly reforms resulted in a major loss of influence for women. This is in complete contrast to the early days of the conversion to Christendom of the Anglo-Saxons.
The coming of Christendom to the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes meant that there were other roles women could fulfil. In the early days of the conversion to Christendom there were double houses (monasteries and nunneries together) that were ruled by an abbess which meant that the men also had to answer to this woman leading this double house. Stafford states that “female monasticism was central to the early English Church. It was built on the enthusiasm of conversion and on female claims to share family inheritance, which it in turn strengthened” (Mercia 41). Men and women in these houses were expected to be around the same level of literacy (chapter 6 Fell). The level of literacy had already taken a steady decline before Alfred’s attempt to improve literacy. However, by the time the Normans conquered England “little tangible evidence remained of the halcyon days of female monasticism under the Anglo-Saxons. . . The renowned monasteries with their royal abbesses ruling over both nuns and monks…had either been abandoned or converted into monasteries for monks alone” (Elkins Holy women 1).
Fell compares the attitude of the Anglo-Saxons who were respectful of women in these houses and saw them as on equal terms to the men to the Middle English attitude as exemplified in Ancrene Wisse with its more condescending attitude towards women. The diminishing role of women is also reflected in the religious sphere as written evidence from nunneries show works with simpler and vernacular language, as can be seen in Ancrene Wisse in which the Latin was translated by the writer (Fell 164-5). This shows that the women it was meant for could possible not read Latin though they were likely able to read in English and possibly French. The decline of learnedness in women was also reflected in secular society as women were not allowed to attend university which was often meant for men with a future in the Church. Evidence also shows that the learnedness of women compared to men in the corresponding rank
was usually lower (Fell 164).
The influence of canon law on marriage and sex had already been growing in Anglo-Saxon England before the conquest but its influence became greater in Anglo-Norman England especially after the Gregorian Reforms. Unlike civil law canon law did not look at rank nor did it differ per region (Fell 152). It gave women some freedom as children under a certain age could not be married off, nor could people be forced under duress to marry. As Fell states “Canon lawyers came to demand as a precondition for a valid marriage full and free consent from both parties (153). However, she adds that
canon law was not a liberalising force. Theology alleged women to be essentially inferior to men and in need of constant tutelage. . . The tighter the grip of canon law grew on secular affairs, the further women’s already limited rights were eroded, always under pretext of affording their weakness as a necessary protection (154).