Female Guild Members in York, England between 1272 and 1377

This is an abbreviated version of a paper I presented at An Tir’s Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship in March of this year. The full paper is available online: https://medievalyork.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/womenswork1.pdf



Through an examination of archived medieval documents, this paper presents evidence for women in guilds and trades in York during the reigns of Edward I through III. I examined digital transcriptions of primary source documents, primarily the York Register of Freemen, extracting data about female names and occupations. By analyzing these data, I was able to compare my findings to those of other researchers who have written about women as workers in other areas of medieval Europe. Overall, I found that the situation for women in York was consistent with that for women in other medieval European cities: while women did participate (sometimes significantly) in wage-work, women’s participation was typically limited to certain types of jobs in certain industries, and women rarely achieved full guild membership.

Source Material and Methodology:

Register of the Freemen of the City of York, Volume 1:

Also called the “Freemen’s Roll,” this is a record of those who were free citizens of the city of York. For the purposes of this research, I only examined names in volume 1, which was begun in 1272 (corresponding with the start of Edward I’s reign). The Register contains a list of names of persons who became free citizens, entitled to practice trades or sell goods. The names were recorded yearly, as were the names of the mayors and (sometimes) the chamberlains for that same year, and split by reign. This record was copied from other documents, and at least the earliest section appears to be incomplete; for example, there are gaps between the 6th and 12th, 13th and 17th, and 21st to 22nd years of Edward I’s reign. (ibid) The complete Register of Freemen was transcribed and published in 1897 in a multi-volume work edited by Francis Collins. The Collins’ transcription was itself digitized by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust; the full text is available online.

With some data entry help, I was able to convert the sections of the Register I was interested in into a spreadsheet, recording names, genders, occupations (if specified), and notes (if given) of each entry. I sorted the data by gender and counted the number of definitively feminine names per reign. These and related raw counts were used for the analyses and data transformations reported here. I further broke down the female names from Edward III’s reign (1327 to 1377) into roughly split pre- and post-plague categories and used these to test the hypothesis that women may have enjoyed increasing economic opportunities following the Great Mortality.

My completed spreadsheet can be viewed online: <http://goo.gl/0P5nMg>


Results in Brief:

Across the 105 years of records examined, a total of 6,152 names were recorded. Of these, 46 can be positively identified as female; female names represent less than 1% of the total names recorded (0.75%). This overall absence of women from guild records is in line with evidence from comparable medieval cities, and would tend to support the view that women were largely excluded from formal guild membership.

There appears to be an increase in women entering the Freemen of York during Edward II’s reign; which corresponded to a period of significant economic instability. There are many possible explanations for the increase in female names during this period, including a greater number of women leaving rural areas for cities. By contrast, I found no evidence for an increase in female guild participation in post-plague York. In fact, the data would tend to suggest the opposite.

The majority of women who were entered into the Register do not have an occupation specified, which stands in contrast to male names. This would seem to support the general conclusion that medieval women were rarely if ever viewed in terms of a specific, recognized occupation the way that medieval men were.

Data and Graphs:

Table 1: Calculations and Comparisons of Names per Year and Percentage of Female Names

Reign Duration of Reign (in years) (Y) Total Recorded Names (T) Female names (N) % Female (N/T * 100) Average total names per year of reign (T/Y) Average female names per year of reign (N/Y)
Edward I 35 818 4 0.49 23.4 0.11
Edward II 20 986 17 1.72 49.3 0.85
Edward III 50 4348 25 0.57 86.96 0.5
Total: 105 6152 46 0.75 58.6 0.44

Table 2: Occupations of All Women in the Register

Occupation Number Percentage
Unknown 34 75.6
Brewer 2 4.4
Mason* 1 2.2
Merchant 1 2.2
baker 1 2.2
glover 1 2.2
pelter 1 2.2
spicer 1 2.2
cloth seller 3 6.7
Total: 45 100


Table 3: Percentage of Men with Unspecified Occupations; compare the orange highlighted value to that in the previous table.

For men: Unknown Out of Percentage
Ed I 304 812 37.4
Ed II 221 965 22.9
Ed III 453 4317 10.5
Total 978 6094 16.0


Figure 1: Number of Total and Female Names Per Reign

Figure 2: Percentage of Female Names by Reign

Figure 3: Total Names-Per-Year by Reign


Figure 4: Female Names-Per-Year by Reign



Overall, these findings are in line with general trends of women as workers in the medieval period. During a 100+ year period, over 6,000 individuals became citizens of York with trading rights; of these, fewer than 1% can be definitively identified as women. By their existence in this record, these women were exceptions to the norm. Indeed, not only is the number of freewomen of York markedly small, but these women typically do not have specified occupations (unlike their male counterparts). When taken in conjunction with some of the evidence from contemporary cities (particularly London), is entirely possible that at least some of these guild “members” were widows receiving charity or wives given honorary membership with partial rights. Future study of regulations or additional records from York guilds could clarify these possibilities.

Given their lack of involvement (as far as can be determined) in the formal trade and merchant guilds, further research could uncover what types of wage-work or income earning activities women did practice in York. Work in London has uncovered evidence of women as laborers and income earners outside of guild membership. Similar evidence from York could be gleaned through taxation records, court cases, and wills. If women were taxed based on income, filing or defending against suits, and bequeathing or inheriting property, this could provide evidence of women’s economic status in the face of apparent guild restrictions. It is my hope that I and others might turn to such records to expand our view of women as workers in medieval York. Whether as wives, widows, or singlewomen, in general the women of York appear not to have not made their living under the official coverage of a guild.

Selected Bibliography

Bardsley, Sandy. “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender And Wage Differentiation In Late Medieval England.” Past & Present 165.1 (1999): 3-29. JSTOR. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/651283&gt;.


Beattie, Cordelia. Medieval Single Women: the Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford University Press Inc., New York 2007. Print.


Collins, Francis. “Register of the Freemen of the City of York: Vol. 1, 1272-1558.” Register of the Freemen of the City of York. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, n.d. Web. 04 Jan. 2015. <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/york-freemen/vol1&gt;


Epstein, Steven. Wage Labor & Guilds in Medieval Europe. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1991. Print.


Hanawalt, Barbara. The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.


Hawkin, Richard York. A History of the Freemen of the City of York. York: Jas. L. Burdekin & Son, 1955.


Keene, Derek. “Tanners’ Widows, 1300-1350” Notes on Medieval London Widows 1300-1500. Eds Caroline Barron and Anne F Sutton. Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1994.


Kowaleski, Maryanne and Bennett, Judith M. “Crafts, Gilds, and Women in the Middle Ages: Fifty Years After Marian K. Dale.” Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages. Eds. Judith M. Bennett, Elizabeth A. Clark, Jean F. O’Barr, and B. Anne Vilen. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1989.


Leongard, Janet Senderowitz. “Legal History and the Medieval Englishwoman: A Fragmented View.” Law and History Review 4.1 (1986): 161-178. JSTOR. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/743718&gt;


Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. 1995 St Martin’s Press, New York.


Penn, Simon. and Dyer, Christopher. “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws.” The Economic History Review 43.3 (1990): 356-376. JSTOR. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2596938&gt;.


Swanson, Heather. “The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns.” Past & Present 121.1 (1988): 29-48. JSTOR. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/650910Accessed: 26-08-2014>


“History of York.” The Guilds of York:. York Museums Trust, n.d. Web. 04 Jan. 2015.



Author: eulalia

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

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