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.

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:



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.

Continue reading “Female Guild Members in York, England between 1272 and 1377”

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.)

Continue reading “Women as Workers in Medieval England (a brief overview)”