Women as Workers in Medieval England (a brief overview)

This is an excerpt from a research paper I presented at An Tir’s Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship in March. The full paper is available in the files section, and includes a full bibliography and works cited; this post has been edited from the introduction to that paper and provides a broad overview of women’s roles in medieval English town economies. The original introduction had a large number of footnotes, because I love footnotes, which I have awkwardly inserted as parentheticals.

A woman making a nail and a woman doing laundry, both from a 14th century English picture Bible

The purpose of this research was to uncover evidence for women’s participation in trades, paid work, and commercial/craft guilds (as opposed to parish guilds) in York, England during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III, which covered the years 1272-1377. This was a transitional period in Europe, corresponding with a rise in urbanization and the subsequent boom of the guild movement. In England in particular this was a period of tremendous social upheaval; from the relative stability of the thirteenth century, the early fourteenth century brought a series of famines that significantly weakened both systems and people, and the devastation of the Black Death left chaos in its wake. Yet guilds persisted in spite of significant social upheaval, a phenomenon which has been relatively well-studied. In post-plague England, wages for skilled workers increased, and in general there was an increase in the percentage of the working population involved in trades rather than agriculture. (See Penn and Dyer, “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws” for more analysis of general post-plague patterns.)

My interest was in uncovering, what, if any, patterns could be determined in women’s roles in guilds during this time period characterized by change. There is a longstanding belief among economic historians that women may have enjoyed a “golden age” of economic opportunity following the plague, which typically hinges on the instability of agricultural work and wages in the years immediately after the plague. However, Sandy Bardsley’s (1999) more thorough analysis of agricultural wage data soundly refutes this, supporting instead the proposition that women were part of an established second tier of wage earners. Within the urban trades, evidence from London generally suggests that guild regulations became tighter during times of economic hardship, even specifically excluding women from trade participation. (For a more in-depth analysis of the overall relationship between guilds and women, see The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London [Barbara Hanawalt 2007] and “Crafts, Gilds, and Women in the Middle Ages: Fifty Years After Marian K. Dale” [Kowaleski and Bennett 1989].) It was my aim to examine patterns of female guild participation in York just before, during, and after two significant periods of economic hardship: the famines of the early fourteenth century (the most severe of which lasted roughly from 1315 to 1322) and the Great Mortality (1348-1350); did women’s economic opportunities expand or contract during times of significant hardship?

The earliest references to guilds in Europe appear in the twelfth century, but actually do little to illuminate the precise origin of the medieval guild system. (See Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe for general guild history, including the ties between medieval guilds and labor organization in the classical world.) It is generally accepted that the guild movement was rooted in the period of urbanization and economic growth that began during the twelfth century. Cities and towns brought craftspeople and merchants into close contact, creating opportunities for competition or cooperation. The earliest guilds were most likely merchant companies rather than trade guilds, and the earliest record of a guild activity in York is a deed dated March 25th, 1200, in which King John confirmed to the citizens of York their Merchant Guild (Hawkin 1955). The thirteenth century was a general period of economic growth, although this growth tapered off during the agricultural failures of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

The fourteenth century was a time of significant economic hardship across Europe, and particularly in England. The cost of goods and the overall cost of living fluctuated wildly during the first quarter of the fourteenth century as a series of famines ravaged England. These famines are believed to have weakened the population, in part contributing to the severity of the plague. Wages did vary during this time period, but the 1351 Statute of Laborers and its enforcement (including requiring tradesmen and workers to swear an oath to abide by price rules set by the king and parliament) does seem to have effectively stabilized wages in England following the plague. However, the latter half of the fourteenth century continued to be a time of political and economic unrest. In 1381, just a few years after the end of Edward III’s reign, the English Peasants’ Revolt took place. In York, the revolt was led in part by craftsmen.

Women are often left out of these narratives of guild and trade history, or mentioned as an afterthought. As is often the case, extant written records of women are few and far between. Legally, medieval women were by default the dependents of male relatives or spouses; women were classified by marital status (maidens, wives, and widows) rather than by occupation or rank. (Although it bears noting that in London, married or unmarried women could achieve a special legal status known as femme sole, in contrast to femme coverte — under the legal coverture of a father or husband. This practice appears to have dated to the thirteenth century, but the first actual record was in a custumal from the 1330s or 40s. A London woman who registered with the mayor as femme sole had the right to trade goods, own and sell land, bequeath property, undertake civil suits, and more. Unmarried women who were not of age were not classified as femmes soles, and married women could, under certain circumstances, obtain femme sole status. Even within London, this statute may not have been widely practiced, and it is unknown if this statute was common to other English towns. A copy of London’s statutes on femmes soles appear in the York Memorandum Book from around 1436 onwards.) Because of their legal status, researching women’s history can be difficult. Yet neither is it accurate to assume that women were universally excluded from political, social, and economic spheres. As usual, the reality is more nuanced.

We know that women worked, and that the type of labor they performed varied by social class. Peasant women (both married and unmarried) worked alongside men (and children) doing agricultural labor, and also contributed to their household economy by selling eggs, butter, and other products. Teenagers of both genders worked as servants in relatives’ homes, a practice that was prevalent in lower-status contexts in both rural and urban environments and can be closely tied to patterns of fosterage and fealty or service in high-status contexts. Noble women managed their households, and even queens had duties to perform. While women’s work across these categories likely changed in response to famine and the plague, the growth of craft guilds overall was a defining feature of the fourteenth century. For the purposes of this study, therefore, I chose to focus on a narrow definition of work, examining the activities of what we would call the “middle” class: wage-labor, crafting, and selling wares.

Within this category, there is evidence for women as workers, however, in general women were limited in what types of work they could pursue. Work was highly gendered, both in terms of categories and specific tasks. Examples of typical “women’s work” include huckster, laundress, and brewster, while occupations largely closed to women include tanners and butchers. Trades available to women were typically low-status and low-paying. Women may also have worked as wage workers in a variety of trades, doing work that did not require any formal guild involvement.

Taxation records tend to classify women by marital status rather than occupation, and in cases where women are taxed by occupation a very large percentage of women are listed as spinners. Beattie (2007) argues that spinster may have been a catch-all minimum tax category for women engaged in any number or combination of low-wage trades. If this were the case, it would be evidence that women (especially single women) were active participants in the economies of towns and cities, but their specific activities were not clarified by medieval record keepers and thus they tend to be omitted from our modern conception of medieval work.

When women did pursue skilled trades, their opportunities were limited. While there is scattered evidence for women as apprentices and journeywomen, there is little to no evidence of individual women ever achieving mastery status within English urban guilds. (Apprentices lived with a master, working in a kind of specialized servant arrangement where their labor was exchanged for food, lodging, and training for a set period of time. Journeymen and -women did not live with a master and had formal guild membership, and typically retained some relationship with a master. Apprentices were not considered citizens, while journeymen were. For both men and women, the journeyman-master line was the dividing line of labor; only a minority of men made the leap to being independent masters, while for women this was an extremely rare achievement. Masters, as the only full members of guilds, directed all guild activities and policies. In the York records, it is possible that some masters permitted more female guild members than others; while I have not specifically looked for this information, and I suspect the sample size of women is too small to see meaningful patterns, this would be a potential avenue for future research.) London court records include about forty cases relating to female apprentices and over 200 dealing with male apprentices (Hanawalt 2007). Additionally, a London register of freemen from 1309-1312 lists 253 people who gained the freedom of the city (that is, the right to sell goods) through apprenticeship, none of whom were female (ibid). Taken together, these data provide evidence for an overall pattern of female exclusion from guilds: fewer female apprentices than male apprentices suggests it was harder for women to obtain apprenticeship, and the (admittedly limited) data from the single London register would seem to suggest that even if women were able to be apprentices, they faced further challenges in obtaining the trading rights of citizenship.

Women may have worked alongside their husbands and fathers in a variety of trades (to the point that this appears to have been the default arrangement), but we do not know what types of tasks such women did. While a husband’s trade may have been recorded, typically records do not specify his wife’s duties. Perhaps such arrangements were simply so normal that medieval chroniclers saw no reason to record them. Interestingly, in London a woman could achieve the freedom of the city by marrying a citizen, which may suggest that such women entered into business with their husbands or worked in related trades (Hanawalt 2007). (And may be an explanation for the lack of women obtaining citizenship through apprenticeship in the London record described above.)

In some cases, married women could gain partial admittance to their husbands’ guilds; they paid a lower admission fee and did not have the same rights as male members (Kowaleski and Bennett 1989). Married couples and the legal and social institutions they interacted with conceptualized a couples’ finances as inherently intertwined, and women and children in a male guild member’s household did not count toward his quota of apprentices or laborers. If daughters received training from their fathers and went on to marry men in the same trade, this would have consolidated skills and wealth within families, and bolstered cooperative networks.

It is not difficult to find examples of widows taking over their husbands’ trades, which provides further support for the notion that men and women worked as a team. Records of widows in trades tend to be concentrated in victualing (innkeepers, taverners, cooks, fishwives, brewsters, etc.) and textile- and apparel-related trades (weaving, spinning, embroidery, dressmaking, silk making, etc.); in general, this corresponds with trades which seem to have been more open to women, and work which was not restricted to guild members. However, it is far too easy to overstate the economic and legal status of widows. Widows represented an extremely small percentage of total guild membership, they typically did not have full voting rights within the guild, and they lost all membership privileges if they remarried outside of the guild.

A study of tanners’ wills in early 14th century London (Keene 1994) showed that widows were typically left property that could be used to provide income (in the form of rents or from activities such as brewing), but that it was rare for widows to be given the business itself. The only examples of widows taking over a husband’s business in the tanners’ wills were cases in which the widow’s position was a temporary guardianship until male children came of age. Furthermore, most guild ordinances dealing with widows are focused on charity (providing some form of care to widows in lieu of guild membership) or remarriage (which automatically excluded widows from guild membership). Taken together, the evidence from widows’ lives supports rather than undermines a general pattern that only certain types of trades (such as brewing) were open to women, while others (like tanning) were closed.

The overall picture in England, at least, is that women’s work was largely not guild work. Low-skilled laborers were not part of the guild structure, and female-dominated trades were not guild run; there were no laundress or prostitute or huckster guilds. Women often worked in trades that required specialized knowledge, such as midwifery and brewing in particular, but that their contemporaries viewed as unskilled and low-value; if work done by women was viewed by the medieval mind as inherently lesser, this in turn would have further reinforced a lack of economic activities for women. (For more on the role of misogyny in the medieval economy, drawing predominantly on evidence from brewing, see Bennett 1991.) London’s silkwomen are a famous example of a female-dominated, highly-specialized trade. Yet, unlike the silk trades in large continental cities, London’s silkwomen never formed a guild. Indeed, over time men took over both silkwork and brewing, implemented guild systems, and then subsequently excluded women from these trades.

There is no simple explanation for why the relationship between women and guilds was fundamentally exclusionary, nor is there a single interpretation of the available evidence for female economic activity both within and outside of guilds. General scholarship on urban, economic, and guild history has tended to ignore the role of women within these fields. The first generation of female scholars studying medieval women tended to write from a position of celebrating the positive contributions of women to medieval society, while second-wave feminist authors tended to see the same evidence as part of an overall pattern of constraint and limitation for women. All writers of history, myself included, interpret the world in terms of our personal schemata. While it has been my aim to conduct this research and present my findings with minimal bias, I do come from a modern feminist perspective; this project grew out of my interest in more deeply understanding the daily realities of life for medieval women, neither ignoring, excusing, nor dwelling on general medieval attitudes toward women. It is my belief that we can celebrate the lives of these women while still recognizing that they are, in the truest sense, exceptional.

Overall, it is my hope that by studying women in commerce, guilds, and trades in York I can add a new case study to the existing corpus. This could potentially pave the way for comparative analysis between York and London or York and similar continental cities, or for a deeper analysis of trade patterns over time within York with a specific eye toward women’s roles. In my findings that follow, I have presented what I have been able to uncover about the lives of York’s women during a transformative period in history; it is possible to view these women’s lives primarily in terms of their limitations or their successes, but I would exhort the reader to consider both equally, and to try, whenever possible, to see the complex interactions between the two.

There will be more posts based on this same paper coming in the future. If you can’t wait, head over to the Files section and read the whole thing.


Author: eulalia

I'm a foodie, medievalist, crafter, and gardener living in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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