Women's rights in the medieval years were nonexistent. Women were virtually their husbands' properties. They were identified by their husbands' names and could not legally own anything. Their husbands controlled their lives.

Before marriage, a woman's possessions were property of her father. An arranged marriage was the norm, not the exception. Girls were married young, often given to much older men. Marriage wasn't romantic; it was a means to form a close relationship between two families. In Beowulf, for example, Freawaru is given to Ingeld as a pledge of peace. Usually the father of the bride gave part of his wealth (land, houses or jewelry) to the new family, but it was the groom who acquired all rights to own that wealth. The husband was also the sole representative of the family in the community where all laws and court decisions were made by men.

Life in the marriage wasn't easy either. Beating wives was accepted in the society. The Wife of Bath, who becomes deaf in one ear after her husband Janekin hits her, can not go anywhere to complain. Her only options are to accept it or to do what she does -- punch him back.

Married women had the double duty of running the household and helping their husbands in their trade. Women who ran their own trades -- femmes soles -- still had to do all the home chores, in addition to their business duties. As Eileen Power writes, "the wife of a craftsman almost always worked as her husband's assistant in his trade, or if not, she often eked out the family income by some such bye industry as brewing and spinning..." (Power, 53). Women were helping their husbands in almost all industries, and girls, like boys, were often given by their parents to masters for learning, as apprentices. However, as Power points out, women, then as now, were often paid less than men for the same work.

If a husband died and the widow had grown male children, the oldest son usually inherited the right to all the property in the family. The only way a woman could be more or less independent, then, was to be a widow without sons. Only in this case she had the right to manage her family's property. However, society deemed it to be unacceptable for a woman to be without a husband for too long, and so she had to find somebody else to marry only two or three years after her previous husband's death.

This is what happened to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. However, her many marriages posed another problem in the society where it would have been seen as a sign of active sexual life, something that was supposed to be hidden. Thus women could sometimes be put in an inescapable situation by a heavily biased community.

Southern Illinois University's Chaucer site provides a good list of the most important events in 14th-century England.