Major York Resource Made Available

I am super duper excited about this:

From the site:

York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed provides free access to over 20,000 images of Registers produced by the Archbishops of York, 1225-1650, in addition to a growing searchable index of names, subjects, places and organisations. The registers are a valuable, and in many cases, unexploited source for ecclesiastical, political, social, local and family history – covering periods of war, famine, political strife and religious reformation in the Archdiocese of York and the wider Northern Province.

You can browse images using the options below, or search the 2187 indexed entries via the search interface. Further information, guidance and supporting material relating to the registers will be added to the site as time goes on.

This is me, rubbing my hands together with child-like glee and grinning like a fool. I can’t wait to see what turns up in these records, and I am so thankful that so many organizations are working to make records like these available online. The ability to access actual primary source documents is amazing! We live in the future!


Working Women of York: Was Margareta a Mason?

This is part of a series of posts in which I gleefully speculate about some of the women’s names found in the York Register of Freemen. To read my full research on these women, go here.

When I started my research into women in guilds and trades, I didn’t actually have a clear thesis. I had to start by exploring what was out there already, see the limits of our current knowledge to see what gaps I might be able to fill in. One of the things I explored was occupational bynames given to women. Friday Valentine compiled a database of all medieval English occupational bynames; I read through it and found a lot that intrigued me.

One of the things that made my research complex was my inability to sort out whether occupational bynames actually corresponded to occupations. Some but not all names in the Register have a specified occupation, e.g. “Thomas Chiken, carnifex.” (His byname also seems to match his occupation.) I also came across people with occupational bynames, such as “Rogerus le barber.” In general, I chose to assume that occupational bynames reflected the occupation of their possessor. 

But is that really the most accurate approach? Familial last names were not really standardized by this point in time, but were starting to exist. I also was not able to find a definitive answer on the concept of married names; a woman may or may not have had the same last name as her husband. Does it make sense to assume a woman with an occupational byname worked in that field, or was she carrying a husband or father’s last name?

I found evidence that this level of scrutiny and skepticism toward occupational bynames should be applied across genders. There was more than one example of men with occupational bynames and different specified occupations, e.g. “Joh. le carpenter, de Thresk, cordwaner.” Honestly, I still am not sure how to interpret these entries. Although I did not take detailed notes on this phenomenon, my gut sense is that these entries only started to exist as I got later in the Register. That would tend to suggest that familial last names were gaining a hold. I chose to list such persons by their specified occupation (cordwaner, here) rather than their occupational byname.

Given these limitations, I chose to apply the same rule to male names and to female names: if a byname was clearly occupational, and no occupation was specified, I would assign that name to the category corresponding to their name; if an occupation was specified in opposition to the occupational byname, I would assign the name to the specified occupation’s category. I made a deliberate choice to apply sorting rules equally to male names and female names.

This was phenomenally difficult to do, and I doubted myself at every turn. In a couple of cases, I came across women with occupational bynames that would generally correspond to male-dominated (or even male-exclusive?) fields. Were these women married to (or daughters of) men with these occupations, or were they themselves working in them? However one answers that question will be based on one’s own prior assumptions about women as workers, and the interpretation will then skew the data to support the researcher’s bias. I chose to record these women as practicing the occupation that matched their byname, knowing full well that this may be wildly inaccurate.

One such woman was Margareta Mason, fil. R. de Doncastre, entered into the roll of Freemen during the reign of Edward II. There is no evidence for her occupation, and I did not find her father elsewhere in the register. To put it simply: I want to believe. I want to find evidence that medieval women had lives much richer than 19th and 20th century historians imagined for them. I want Margaret to have been a mason, and a master mason with full guild privileges at that. But I cannot know that for sure with the evidence I have, and that infuriates me.

Given the rule I had already set for myself, I counted Margareta as a Mason. I will have to imagine her doing complex geometry, supervising builders, or maybe hastily marrying one of her husband’s journeymen and being given a largely symbolic guild membership. Medieval women’s lives were incredibly complex, just maybe not in the way I like to dream of them being.

Working Women of York: Brewsters

This is part of a series of posts in which I gleefully speculate about some of the women’s names found in the York Register of Freemen. To read my full research on these women, go here.

A woman with a flagon
A woman with a flagon

“Brewing was women’s work.” At least, that’s what they tell us. The reality, as usual, isn’t that simple. Many women supplemented their income by brewing. In the 12th and 13th centuries, ale was brewed on a small scale by a large number of women. The brewing industry during this time was not heavily regulated, and brewing tended not to be a guild occupation.

This changed during the later medieval period. Starting in the 14th century, brewing as an industry became more concentrated; professional brewers emerged, responsible for large quantities of commercially produced ale. The village alewife slowly disappeared. There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. I know that I cannot do them justice here. If you are interested in learning more about brewing, Judith Bennett (as usual) has the best writing on the subject: Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World and  “Misogyny, Popular Culture, and Women’s Work” in History Workshop Journal 31.1 (1991).

What does the evidence from York show? Because I only studied the 13th and 14th centuries, I can’t give a full account of the possible rise of male brewers through the 15th and 16th centuries, and because my source material only gives evidence for guild members I can’t really speak to the many women who may have worked as brewsters without having the social and legal protection of a guild. But here is what I do know.

During the reign of Edward I, I found no recorded brewers of either gender, however two men appear to have brewing related surnames, the del Brouhous brothers. During the reign of Edward II, two female brewsters appear: Alicia de Wetwong and Isabella Brewer. There were no male brewers during this time period. During the reign of Edward III, there were no female brewers entered into the Register, yet six male brewers. Incidentally, all the male brewers are noted as breuster or brewster; although I have always read that the -ster suffix denotes that the occupation is female (webster = weaver, baxter = baker), I actually did not find evidence of this in the Register, instead, men seem to have been given -ster occupations too.

While these data are very sketchy, they do seem to suggest a trend of a rise in professional male brewers in the late medieval period. Did this trend continue? That should be a relatively simple set of data to pull from later volumes of the Register of Freemen if one is interested. I might explore this more, and in the meantime I think one of you reading this should try to track down an answer!

Here are the stories I tell myself about Alicia and Isabella: they are friends, sharing trade knowledge freely with one another (although Alicia things Isabella’s ale is too sour). Plenty of other women brew, but only Isabella and Alicia do it as their only occupation. Some of the bakers use barm from both brewers to make expensive bread for the richer citizens to enjoy. Isabella likes to use stale beer when she boils bacon. Alicia is a tanner’s widow; she misses her husband, but mostly she misses the income from his business. Isabella has never been married and is thankful she doesn’t have to take in laundry anymore. Alicia worries about her daughter, who should be married already but hasn’t shown an interest. Neither woman has any sense they’ll pass their business on when they die.

Working Women of York: Queneld

This is the first in a series of posts in which I gleefully speculate about some of the women’s names found in the York Register of Freemen. To read my full research on these women, go here.

We shall start with the earliest female name I found in the Register:

Queneld, reign of Edward I. Occupation: serviens (apprentice). Note: serviens Roberti de Hedon; name cannot be definitively gendered.

Queneld… Oh, Queneld. I really want you to be a woman. Let’s start there. I looked up all the information I could readily find on medieval English naming conventions. I talked to every names herald I know (and perhaps surprisingly I think I know some pretty serious heralds). Some sources  and people said Queneld was a female name. Some said Queneld was a male name. Some were certain. Some uncertain. I’m sure people will weigh in in the comments.

The way we choose to interpret this name has deep implications. If Queneld was a woman, she was the only woman in the Register who gained her freedom through apprenticeship. She would provide evidence that women could at least sometimes be apprentices, and that they could in some remote realm of possibility rise from apprentice to Mistress.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it: I think it’s easy to say that there being no other evidence of women as apprentices supports the claim that Queneld is a male name.

I think this is the problem with researching medieval women.

The information is so sparse and requires so much conjecture that whatever set of assumptions you start from will determine the conclusions you draw. This frustrated me so much in my research. I kept second-guessing myself — “Is that just my bias? Am I reading too much into it? What’s real, anyway?” It turned the research into a slog. Eventually, I came to a decision: I’ll be honest about where I made leaps and why, but when I have a chance to believe that women did things, I will; too many people do the opposite, and so I’m okay with evening the score a bit.

So back to Queneld. If she was a woman, she was unique, and thus is noteworthy. I can’t find Robertus de Hedon elsewhere in the Register, so we have no indication of what his occupation was. Another mystery to tack onto Queneld.

Here’s the story I’ve made up about her in my head, though: She was a hard worker. Her parents arranged her apprenticeship; maybe Robertus was a relative. She impressed him with her quick wit, and he was proud to stand up and speak for her before the Guild. She paid her fee and the registrar wrote her name down. That night she had chicken and spiced ale. She led a good life.

Or, whatever, some guy in York had kind of a weird name and was otherwise entirely unremarkable. I know that could also be the truth, I just choose the better story. Women are written out of too many stories, I’d rather write one in where she didn’t really exist than risk erasing one more.

My Peerage Oath

For my elevation, I modified the Oath of the Freemen of York to use as my oath to the Crown. Here is the text, and if there’s anyone else out there with a craftsperson persona from high medieval York, I gleefully give permission to use this for your own Court ceremony, or to modify it to suit you. (If you do, will you let me know? We should clearly be York buddies!)


photo by Ivan Cauldwell
New freeman, with hands between the King’s:

“Before the Crown, peers, and populace: that I from now forth shall be trustworthy and true to the Crown sovereigns of [Kingdom], and to the same Kingdom, and I shall save and maintain to our said sovereigns and their heirs and successors. And all the franchise and freedoms of the said Kingdom maintain and uphold at my power and cunning, with my body and my goods, whenever it has need of help, so say I, [Name].”

(Optional: I switched to another symbol of state, the Orb, at this point; the original implies that the new freeman was swearing on a book — I assume a Bible / religious text but I don’t actually know — and I wanted to keep the same rhythm.)


“And by this orb you shall be obedient to the Crown sovereigns of this kingdom that ere or shall be, for the time being and justified after the law, customs, and ordinances of this same Kingdom. And if you know of anyone working in any craft or occupation with outstanding skill and not franchised, you shall make it known to the Crown, your Peers, or their representative for the time being. The works of any stranger nor of man unfranchised you shall not claim as your own by the will of the Crown, or face their wrath. The council and private of this said Kingdom you shall keep. All these points and articles afore rehearsed you shall hold earnest yourself and for nothing leave. But you shall so do. So say we, [King] , and so say we, [Queen], and by this orb.”

I’m joining the 0.1%

A week from Saturday, I’ll say a revised version of the Oath of the Freemen of York and henceforth be Mistress Eulalia, Piebakere. 

I’ve written quite a bit on women in York craft guilds, and it occurred to me that I could calculate just how long the odds were for Eulalia to become Mistress. I know what percentage of guild members were women, but what percentage of women became guild members?

Unfortunately, hard demographic data don’t appear to be available for Edward I’s reign. But accepting that this is all a hand-waving estimate, I did find enough to do a napkin calculation. 

I found some census data on Wikipedia (their citation is Hoskens 1984) from which I got a rough population estimate of about 6,700. Medieval cities seem to have had more women than men. Schaus gives an estimate of a sex ratio of 90-95 (~110 women to 100 men) in medieval towns. This would give us about 3,500 women living in York at the same time as Eulalia. 
There are 4 female names recorded in the Register of Freemen at this time. So, just over 0.1% of York’s women were guild members. 

That’s a really tiny bullseye to hit. 

More Women Workers in York: Looking at the Ebor Cause Papers

I have begun to explore additional research avenues for examining the lives and economic activities of women living in medieval York. One potential resource is the Ebor Cause Papers: these are records of individual cases heard in the ecclesiastical courts at York between 1300 and 1858. These cases represent a cross-section of medieval legal proceedings and can provide some insight into the daily lives of common people. The Cause Papers have been digitized, making them readily accessible to the casual researcher; I chose to use only the most basic records for this preliminary study. Under basic access, one can see the name, role (plaintiff, witness, etc.), and employment of participants in each case, as well as some other notes and details.

Continue reading “More Women Workers in York: Looking at the Ebor Cause Papers”