August Bebel. Woman and Socialism
Woman in the Past

Woman in the Mediaeval Age.

1. – The Position of Women among the Germans.

The robust, physically healthy, coarse but unsophisticated peoples that during the first centuries after Christ came from the North and East, flooding like mighty ocean waves the enervated Roman empire in which Christianity had gradually come into power, vehemently resisted the ascetic teachings of the Christian preachers, who were obliged to make allowances for these healthy natures. The Romans were surprised to find that the customs of these peoples differed considerably from their own. Tacitus takes note of this fact in regard to the Germans, of whom he thus expresses his approval: “Their marriage laws are severe and none of their customs are more laudable than this one, for they are practically the only barbarians who content themselves with one wife. Among this numerous people one rarely hears of adultery, and when it does occur, it is promptly punished, the men themselves being permitted to inflict the punishment. Naked, her hair clipped, thus the man drives the adulteress out of the village before the eyes of her relatives, for a sin against virtue is not condoned. There nobody laughs over vice and to seduce and being seduced are not considered a sign of good breeding. The youths marry late; therefore they maintain their strength. The maidens, too, are not married off hastily, and they are of the same stature as the men, and present the same healthful glow of youth. Of equal age, equally strong, they wed, and the strength of the parents is transmitted to the children.”

Evidently Tacitus depicted the matrimonial relations of the ancient Germans in a somewhat too rosy hue, to set them before the Romans as an example. They indeed severely punished the woman who committed adultery, but the punishment was not inflicted upon the man who committed adultery. At the time of Tacitus, the gens still flourished among the Germans. Tacitus, being accustomed to the more advanced Roman conditions that made the old gentile organization and its foundations seem strange and incomprehensible to him, wonderingly, relates that among the Germans a mother’s brother regards his nephew as a son, and that some considered the bond of blood relation between an uncle on the mother’s side and his nephew as being even more sacred than the bond between father and son. For this reason, so he furthermore relates, when hostages were asked for, it was considered a stronger security when a man gave his sister’s son instead of his own. Upon this subject Engels remarks: “When the member of a gens gave his own son as a hostage and he was sacrificed by a breach of the agreement, it was the father’s own concern. But if his sister’s son had been sacrificed a sacred gentile right had been violated. The nearest gentile relation by duty bound to protect the boy or youth, had caused his death. He should either not have pledged him, or should have kept his agreement.”[1] Engels shows that in other respects among the Germans at the time of Tacitus, the matriarchate had already been replaced by the patriarchate. The children inherited from their father. In the absence of children, brothers and uncles on both the father’s and mother’s side were the lawful heirs. That the mother’s brother was admitted to a share in the inheritance, although inheritance was determined by des cent on the father’s side, can be explained by the fact that the old law had but recently disappeared. Memories of the old law also caused that profound respect of the

German for the female sex, which so greatly surprised Tacitus. He also observed that the courage of the men was kindled to the utmost by the women. The thought of seeing their women led into captivity and servitude was most terrible to the ancient Germans and impelled them to the utmost resistance. But the women also were animated by a spirit that greatly impressed the Romans. When Marius would not permit the captured Teuton women to become priestesses of Vesta (the goddess of virgin chastity) they committed suicide.

At the time of Tacitus the Germans possessed fixed abodes. There was an annual division of the soil, which was determined by lot, and the wood, the streams and the pasture-ground were considered common property. Their mode of life was extremely simple; their wealth consisted mainly of cattle; coarse woolen cloaks or the hides of animals constituted their clothing. Women and some men of rank wore linen under-garments. Metal tools and weapons were manufactured only by those tribes who lived in too remote parts for the importation of Roman products of industry. In minor matters decisions were rendered by the council of chiefs; in more important matters by the popular assembly. Originally the chiefs were elected, though usually from one particular family. But the transition to the patriarchal system favored the heredity of the position, and finally led to the formation of a hereditary nobility that later on developed into kingship. As in Greece and Rome, the German gens perished by the rise of private property, the development of. industry and commerce, and intermarriage with members of foreign tribes and nations. The gens was replaced by the mark community, a democratic organization of free peasants that constituted a firm bulwark against the encroachments of church and nobility for many centuries, and did not quite disappear even then when the feudal state had come into power and the free peasants had been forced into a condition of servitude. The mark community was represented by the heads of the families. Wives, daughters and daughters-in-law were excluded from the council. The times had passed in which women conducted the affairs of the tribe – an incident which greatly amazed Tacitus, and which he describes with remarks of scorn. In the fifth century the Salic law repealed the right of inheritance of women to patrimonial estates.

Every male member of the mark community was entitled, upon marriage, to share in the common soil. Usually grandparents, parents and children lived under one roof in a household community, and so it frequently occurred that for the purpose of obtaining an additional share, a son who had not yet attained the marriageable age was joined in wedlock with some maiden of marriageable age by proxy, the father acting as husband in place of the son.[2] Newly married couples were given a cartload of beachwood and wood to build a log cabin. Upon the birth of a daughter, parents also received one cartload of wood; upon the birth of a son they received two. The female sex accordingly was considered worth only half as much as the male sex.

The marriage ceremony was simple. Religious rites were unknown. A mutual agreement was sufficient, and as soon as the couple had entered the nuptial bed, the marriage was contracted. Only in the ninth century that custom arose according to which a religious ceremony was necessary to legalize a marriage, and as late as the sixteenth century, marriage was made a sacrament of the Catholic Church by a decision of the council of Trent.

2. – Feudalism and the Right of the First Night.

With the rise of the feudal state the position of a great many commoners became considerably worse. The victorious leaders of the army abused their power by taking possession of large tracts of land. They considered themselves entitled to the common property, and did not hesitate to distribute it among their followers, slaves, serfs or freed men, either for temporary use or with the right of inheritance. Thereby they created for themselves a court and military nobility, devoted to them in all things. The establishment of a large realm of the Franks destroyed the last traces of gentile organization. The council of the chiefs was replaced by the leaders of the army and the newly created nobility.

Gradually the great mass of the commoners were driven into a condition of exhaustion and pauperism, as a result of the continuous wars of conquest and the disputes of their rulers, for which they had to bear the heaviest burdens. They could no longer serve in the militia. In their place the lords and noblemen recruited vassals, and the peasants placed themselves and their possessions under the protection of a worldly or spiritual lord – for the church had succeeded in becoming a great power within a few centuries – in return for which they paid rent and taxes. Thus the free farms were transformed into leased property, and as time went by new duties were constantly imposed. Having once come into this dependent position, it was not long before the peasants were deprived of their personal liberty as well. Bondage and serfdom expanded more and more. The feudal lord held almost unrestricted sway over his serfs. His was the right to compel any man who had attained the eighteenth and any girl who, had attained the fourteenth year, to become married. He could prescribe to both men and women whom they were to marry, even in the case of widows and widowers. As lord of his subjects, he considered himself entitled to sexual intercourse with his female serfs, and his power was expressed in the “jus primae noctis” (the right of the first night). This right might also be practiced by his representative (major domo) unless the right were waived upon payment of a tax. The terms “bed-tribute,” “virgin’s tribute,” etc., betray the nature of these taxes.

It has frequently been denied that this right of the first night existed. The knowledge of its existence is uncomfortable to some people, because it was still practiced at a time that they like to represent as a model for virtuousness and piety. We have already shown that this right of the first night was a custom which bad its origin in the time of the matriarchate. When the old gentile organization disappeared, the custom of surrendering the bride in the bridal night to the members of her kinship was still maintained. But in the course of time the right was restricted and finally practiced only by the chief or priest. It was transferred upon the feudal lord as a result of his power over the people who lived upon the land owned by him, and he might practice this right if he so chose, or waive it in return for a payment in kind or in money. How real was this right of the first night may be seen by the following passage from a tale by Jacob Grimm: “The groom shall invite the manager of the estate to the wedding and lie shall also invite the manager’s wife. The manager shall bring a cartload of wood to the wedding, and his wife shall bring a quarter of a roasted pig. When the wedding is over, the groom shall let the manager lie with his wife for the first night, or he shall redeem her with five shillings and six pence.”

Sugenheim[3] holds the opinion that the right of the first night was given to the feudal lord because his serfs, in order to marry, needed his consent. In Bearn this practice led to the custom that all first-born children of marriages in which the “jus primae noctis” had been practiced, were regarded as of free estate. Later on this right was generally redeemable by the payment of a tax. According to Sugenheim, the bishops of Amiens stubbornly maintained this tax until the beginning of the fifteenth century. In Scotland the right of the first night was declared redeemable by payment of a tax by King Malcolm III at the close of the eleventh century. In Germany it existed much longer. According to the records of the Swabian monastery Adelberg of the year 1496, the serfs living in the community of Boertlingen, could redeem the right if the groom gave a bag of salt and the bride gave 1 lb 7 shillings in a dish “large enough that she might sit in it.” In other localities the brides might redeem it by giving the feudal lord so much butter or cheese “as was the size of their seat.” Elsewhere they had to give a dainty leather chair “in which they just fitted.” According to a description of the Bavarian judge of the court of appeals, Mr. Welsh, a tax for redeeming the jus primae noctis still existed in Bavaria in the eighteenth century. Engels furthermore reports that among the Scots and Welsh the jus primae noctis was maintained throughout the middle age, but since here the gentile organization continued to exist, it was not the feudal lord or his representative who practiced this right, but the chieftain of the clan, and by him it was practiced as representative of all the husbands unless a tribute was paid.

So there can be no doubt as to the existence of the right of the first night, not only in medieval days, but even down to modern times, and that it held a place in the feudal code of laws. In Poland noblemen arrogated the right to deflour any maiden who chanced to please them, and if someone protested against this usage, they condemned him to receive one hundred blows with a cane. Land-lords and their employees still consider the sacrifice of virginal honor to their lust a matter of course, not only in Germany, but in the entire southern and south eastern portion of Europe, as is asserted by those who are acquainted with the land and the people.

During feudalism it was in the interest of the feudal lord that his serfs should become married, for the children became his serfs also, adding to the number of his workers and increasing his income. Therefore bow, worldly and spiritual masters encouraged marriage among their subjects. The question assumed a different aspect tho as far as the church was concerned, when an unmarried person was likely to will his property to the church. But this only applied to free men of low estate, whose conditions grew steadily worse as a result of the conditions described herein, and who gave over their possessions to the church to seek protection and peace within the walls of the monasteries. Others again placed themselves under the protection of the church by paying a tax or by rendering services. But in this way the fate they had sought to escape frequently befell their descendants; they gradually came into bondage or were made novices for the monasteries.

3. – The Rise of Cities. Monastic Affairs. Prostitution.

The cities which had begun to flourish with the eleventh century, favored the increase of population in their own interest by facilitating residence and marriage. They became places of refuge to the rural population seeking to escape unbearable oppression, and to fugitive serfs. But at a later day these conditions changed again. As soon as the cities had obtained power, and a class of mechanics in comfortable circumstances had come into existence, a feeling of hostility manifested itself against new-comers who tried to settle down as mechanics, since they were regarded as undesirable competitors. Barriers were erected against the new-comers; heavy taxes were levied upon them if they would obtain the right of residence and become qualified as master-workmen. Trades were limited to a certain number of master-workmen and their journeymen, thereby forcing thousands into a condition of servitude, celibacy and vagabondage. When during the sixteenth century the cities began to decline, – owing to conditions that will be discussed later on, – was quite in keeping with the narrow views of the time that residence and the right to independently practice a trade were made still more difficult. The tyranny of the feudal lords constantly increased, until many of their subjects preferred to abandon their miserable lives for the freer life of beggar, tramp or robber, the latter being favored by the large forests and the poor condition of the highways, or, making the most of the numerous warfares of the time, they became mercenary soldiers, selling their services wherever the pay was highest and the booty most promising. Male and female rabble flooded the country, becoming a public nuisance. The church helped to increase the general depravity. The forced celibacy of the clergy alone led to sexual debauchery, and this was still heightened by the constant association with Italy and Rome.

Rome was not only the capital of Christianity, being the residence of the popes, it was also, true to its traditions under the heathen emperors, a new Babel, the European high-school of immorality, and the papal court was its most distinguished center. The Roman empire its dissolution had left to Christian Europe all its vices. These were cultivated in Rome and from there penetrated into Germany, favored by association of the clergy with Rome. The numerous clergy, consisting to a great extent of men whose sexual desires were increased to the utmost by a lazy and luxurious life, and whom enforced celibacy drove to illegitimate or unnatural satisfaction of their desires, transmitted this immorality to all strata of society. The clergy became a pestilential danger to the virtue of women in cities and villages. Monasteries and nunneries, – and there were countless numbers of them, – frequently differed from public brothels only inasmuch as life within them was still more licentious and dissolute. Crimes, especially infanticide, were frequently committed there with impunity, because only those were permitted to pass judgment who were more often than not connected with the crimes. Sometimes peasants tried to protect their wives and daughters from being seduced by clergymen, by refusing to accept as pastor any one who would not consent to keeping a concubine. This circumstance led a bishop of Constance to impose a concubine tax upon the clergy of his diocese. Such conditions explain the historically authenticated fact, that during the mediaeval age described by one writer of romance as a pious and virtuous age, for instance in 1414, at the council of Constance, no less than 1500 prostitutes were present.

But these conditions by no means made their appearance only at the decline of the middle age. They appeared at an early date and gave cause for constant complaints and ordinances. Thus Charlemagne issued an ordinance in the year 802, in which it says: “the nunneries shall be closely guarded. The nuns shall not roam about but shall be carefully watched, neither shall they live in discord and quarrels with one another, and under no circumstances shall they disobey their mothers superior. Where they have monastic rules they shall absolutely abide by them. They shall not be given to covetousness, drunkenness and prostitution, but shall lead a just and temperate life. Neither shall any man enter their convent except to attend mass, and then he shall immediately depart again.” Another ordinance of the year 869 declared: “if priests keep several wives or shed the blood of Christians or heathens, or break the canonical law, they shall be divested of their priesthood because they are worse than the laity.” The fact that in those days the priests were forbidden to have several wives, shows that in the ninth century polygamy was not rare. Indeed there were no laws forbidding it. Even later, at the time of the minnesingers, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was not considered objectionable to have several wives.[4]

Particularly detrimental to the moral condition of the age were the crusades, that kept tens of thousands of men away from their homes for years, and led them to become acquainted with customs in the Eastern Roman empire that had until then been unknown in Western Europe. The position of women became especially unfavorable, not only as a result of the many hindrances to marriage and permanent residence, but also because their numbers by far exceeded the male population. The chief cause of this was the numerous wars and the fact that commercial traveling in those days was a dangerous undertaking. Moreover the death rate among men was higher than among women, as a result of their intemperate living, which was especially manifested during the plague that frequently ravaged the population in the middle age. Thus there were 32 plague years in the period from 1326 to 1400; 41 from 1400 to 1500, and 30 from 1500 to 1600.[5]

Hosts of women roamed about on the highways as musicians, dancers, magicians, in the company of wandering scholastics and priests, and flooded the markets and fairs. They formed special divisions in the troops of foot-soldiers where they were organized in guilds according to the spirit of the age, and were assigned to the different ranks according to age and beauty. By severe penalty they were forbidden to yield to any man outside of the prescribed circle. In the camp they had to help the baggage-carriers to gather in hay, straw and wood, to fill up holes and ditches and to clean the camp. During sieges it was their task to fill up the ditches with brushwood, branches and tufts of grass to facilitate the attack; they helped to place the guns in position and to drag them along when they became stuck in the muddy roads.[6] To give some relief to these numerous helpless women, so called beguinages, that were maintained by the municipality, were erected in many cities from the middle of the thirteenth century on. Here the women were given homes and were encouraged to lead decent lives. But neither their institutions nor the nunneries could shelter all those who sought help and protection.

The hindrances to marriage, the journeys of noblemen and other worldly and spiritual lords who came into the cities with their hosts of knights and attendants, the young men within the cities and, last but not least, the married men who were not troubled much by moral scruples but believed that variety was the spice of life, all these created a demand for prostitutes in the medieval towns. As every trade in those days was organized into guilds and submitted to definite regulations. so also was prostitution. In all the larger cities brothels were maintained that were municipal, state or church property and whose profits went to fill these respective treasuries. The women in these houses had a senior-mistress elected by themselves, whose duty it was to maintain order and who was especially charged with the task of seeing to it that no competitors outside of the guild harmed the legitimate trade. If such competitors were caught, they had to pay a legal fine. Thus the inhabitants of a brothel in Nuremberg complained to the magistrate about the competition of women who were not members of their guild: “that other keepers also maintain women who go upon the streets at night and harbour married men and others, and who ply their trade in a much coarser way, and that such were a disgrace and should not be permitted in this praisworthy town.”[7] The brothels enjoyed special protection; breach of the peace in their vicinity was punished more severely than elsewhere. This female guild was also entitled to appear at festivals and in processions in which it was customary for all the guilds to participate. They were even sometimes invited as guests to princely and official banquets. The brothels were considered desirable “for the protection of married women and the honor of virgins.” This was the same argument which was resorted to in order to justify the maintenance of brothels by the state in Athens. Nevertheless barbarous persecutions of the prostitutes were met with, that came from the same men whose demand and whose money maintained the prostitutes. Thus Charlemagne decreed that a prostitute should be brought nude upon the market place and be flogged there. He himself, the “most Christian” king and emperor had no less than six wives simultaneously. His daughters, evidently following their father’s example, were not models of virtue either. Their mode of life gave him many unpleasant hours, and they brought several illegitimate children into his house. Alkuin, a friend and advisor to Charlemagne, warned his pupils of “the crowned doves who fly thru the Palatinate at night,” meaning the emperor’s daughters.

The same communities that officially organized anti protected the brothels and granted all sorts of privileges to the prostitutes inflicted the hardest and most cruel punishments upon a poor forsaken girl who had gone wrong. The infanticide who, driven to despair, had killed her own offspring was subjected to cruel death, while no one bothered about the unscrupulous seducer. Perhaps he sat among the judges who pronounced the death sentence on the unfortunate victim. The same is possible still.[8] Adultery of wives was also severely punished; to be put in the pillory was the least she might expect. But adultery of husbands was concealed by the cloak of Christian forbearance.

In Wuerzburg it was customary for the brothel-keeper to take an oath before the magistrate, pledging faith and allegiance to the city and that he would diligently enlist women. Similar oaths were taken in Nuremberg, Ulm, Leipsic, Cologne, Frankfort, and others. In Ulm the brothels were abolished in 1537; but in 1551, the guilds moved to reinstate them “to avoid a worse state of affairs.” When strangers of note visited a city, prostitutes were placed at their disposal at the city’s expense. When King Ladislaus entered Vienna in 1452, the magistrate sent a committee of public prostitutes to meet him, clad in transparent gauze that disclosed their beautiful shapes. Emperor Charles V, upon entering Antwerp, was also received by a committee of nude girls, a historic scene that Hans Makart depicted in a large painting which is now on exhibition in the museum at Hamburg. Such occurrences created no scandal in those days.

4. – Knighthood and the Veneration of Women.

Phantastic writers of romance and scheming persons have endeavored to depict the mediaeval age as an especially virtuous one, and as one imbued with a profound veneration of women. The time of the minnesingers, from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, is dwelt upon to furnish proof to this assertion. The poetic courtship of the knights, that was first introduced by the Moriscos in Spain, is supposed to prove that women were highly honored at that time. But let a few facts be remembered. Firstly, the knights only constituted a very small portion of the population, and in the same way their ladies constituted a small portion of the women. Secondly, only a very limited number of the knights practiced this knightly courtship; and thirdly, the true nature of this custom has been considerably misunderstood or distorted. The time when knighthood was in flower, was the age of the rule of brute force in Germany; it was the age in which all bonds of law and order were broken, and the knights practiced extortion, plundering and highway-robbery without restraint. Such an age of brute force is not one in which mild and poetic sentiments predominate. On the contrary. This age was destined to shatter the respect for the female sex that might still have remained. The knights, in the country as well as in the towns, were mostly coarse, brutal fellows, whose chief passion, besides warfare and excessive drinking, was the unrestricted satisfaction of their sexual desires. The chroniclers of that time tell of incessant acts of violence and ravishment committed by the nobility of town and country, who controlled the municipal governments throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries. Because the knights conducted the courts in the towns, and the feudal lords passed judgment in the rural districts, the injured persons rarely obtained redress of their grievances. It is a great exaggeration then to assume that their customs of courtship caused the ancient nobility to treat women with special respect and to regard them as superior beings.

A small minority of the knights seem to have been enthusiastic over feminine beauty, but their enthusiasm was by no means platonic but pursued very material aims. Even that clown among the romantic admirers “of lovely women,” Ulrick of Lichtenstein of ridiculous memory, was a platonic lover only so long as he was compelled to be. In the main, this romantic worship of woman was nothing but deification of the mistress at the expense of the legitimate wife; it was nothing but courtesanship, as it has existed in Greece at the time of Pericles, transplanted into medieval Christianity. The mutual seduction of wives was frequently practiced among the knights also, as it is still practiced in certain circles of our bourgeoisie.

The open manifestation of sensuality, characteristic of that age, constituted a frank recognition of the fact that the natural desires implanted in every healthy, adult human being rightfully seek satisfaction. In that respect it expressed a victory of healthy nature over the ascetic teachings of Christianity. But on the other hand it must again be emphasized, that this recognition came into consideration for the one sex only, while the other sex was treated on the assumption that it could not and dare not have the same impulses. The slightest transgression by women of the moral laws laid down for them by men, was punished with unmerciful severity. Women, as a result of constant oppression and a singular education, have become so accustomed to the conception of their rulers that they still consider this condition quite natural. Were there not also millions of slaves who considered slavery a natural condition and who would never have liberated themselves had not the liberators sprung from the slave owning class? When Prussian peasants were to be emancipated from serfdom, they petitioned the government not to emancipate them, “for who should provide for them when they were aged or ill?” And do we not meet with the same situation in the modern labor movement? How many workingmen still permit their exploiters to influence them and lead them at will!

The oppressed needs some one to animate and inspire him, because he lacks the initiative for independence. It was thus in the present day movement of the proletariat, and it is the same in the struggle for the emancipation of women. Even the bourgeoisie, that enjoyed a relatively more favorable position in its struggle for independence, found its leaders and spokesmen among the nobility and clergy.

Whatever the shortcomings of the middle ages may have been, it possessed a healthy sensuality which sprang from the strong, buoyant nature of the people, and which Christianity could not suppress. The hypocritical prudery and concealed lasciviousness of our day, that fears to call a spade a spade and to speak of natural things in a natural way, was foreign to that age. Neither was it familiar with that piquant ambiguity to which we resort in speaking of what we dare not name, because to be prudish and unnatural has become customary with us, and which is all the more dangerous because such language allures, but does not satisfy, allows us to surmise but does not express clearly. Our social conversations, our novels and our theaters abound with these piquant ambiguities, and their effect is manifested. This spiritualism of the roué, concealed by religious spiritualism, has a powerful influence.


1. Engels: “Origin of the Family.”

2. The same custom was met with in Russia during the rule of Mir.

3. History of the abolition of serfdom in Europe until the middle of the nineteenth century.

4.In a poem by Albrecht of Johansdorf in the collection “Love-songs’ Springtime,” we find the following stanza:

Would he not be fickle
Who would choose to have a second wife
Beside his virtuous one?
Speak, Sir, would you?
Let it to men be granted but to women not!

5. Dr. Charles Buecher: “The Woman Question in Mediaeval Times.”

6. Dr. Charles Buecher: “The Woman Question in Medieval Times.”

7. Joh. Scherr, “History of the German Woman,” 4th ed. Leipsic, 1879

8. Leon Richter in “La femme libre” reports a case where a servant girl was convicted of infanticide by the father of her child, a pious lawyer, who was a member of the court. After the girl’s conviction it became known that the lawyer himself was the murderer and that she was innocent.