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Working Women in the Middle Ages

By: Mary Czarnecki

Introduction

The purpose of this site is to take an extensive look at medieval "women" and their role as "workers." What were the roles of these women and what kind of occupations did they have? This site will examine these questions along with many more. This site is broken down into three main sections: Peasant Working Women, Urban Working Women, and Women Involved in Healing and Nursing. These three groups of women have both similar and different characteristics. The following quote illustrates the status of women during this time period. It is crucial to understand their status because it plays a role in every aspect of their lives', especially their occupations.

Peasant Working Women

woman working in field (Taken from: The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Calendar for 1993. New York: Workman Publishing.)

The peasants made up the bulk of the medieval population. They were referred to by an eleventh-century bishop of Laon as a class that "owns nothing that it does not get by its own labor and provided the rest of the population with money, clothing, and food...Not one free man could live without them" (Gies & Gies, 1978). The peasants played a major role in medieval society, and the peasant women made large contributions to society. A married woman's place was in the home and the village, while the man's place was in the fields, roads, and forests (Hanawalt, 1986). But what exactly did the women have to do in the home and in the village? Most peasant women rose at dawn. They had many responsibilities which they were required to complete throughout a typical day. Click on responsibilities to check out an excerpt from The Boke of Husbandry (Goldberg, 1995). This excerpt illustrates the many "jobs" a peasant woman had. She not only had to do the housework, but she was expected to work in the yard and take care of the animals. If need be, she also had to work in the fields to help her husband. Another major contribution was to produce and train new members of the future work force, her children (Hanawalt, 1986). The wives were also sometimes involved in other activities which would bring in extra money for the house and family. For example, some women took up the occupation of spinning. Some women also became ale wives in order to supplement the family income.

woman feeding chickens (Taken from: Gies, F. & Gies, J., 1978, p.149).

The work of peasant women was sometimes very strenuous. The days must have seemed very long for those women. They were responsible for the same "jobs" day after day. These jobs were sometimes very dangerous. For example, In Women's Lives in Medieval Europe (Amt, 1993), there is a section which reports violent incidents. One such incident was reported as follows: "About nones on 2 Oct., 1270, Amice daughter of Robert Belamy of Staploe and Sibyl Bonchevaler were carrying a tub full of grout between them in the brewhouse of Lady Juliana de Beauchamp ... intending to empty it in a boiling leaden vat, when Amice slipped and fell into the vat and the tub upon her ... the household came and found her scalded almost to death. A chaplain came and Amice had the rites of the church and died by misadventure about prime the next day" (Amt, 1993, p. 189).

The following poem, illustrates the way many husbands reagrded the work of their wives in this time period. This poem thoroughly explains the many duties a "goodwife" was responsible for.

Ballad of a Tyrranical Husband

Servanthood

According to Frances and Joseph Gies (1978), many peasant women did not marry. Some of these women became servants. Some servants helped with crafts in homes and/or nursed the children of their master. Their main jobs were to clean, cook, and do all of the other domestic work (Hannawalt, 1986).

Servanthood was not only comprised of single peasant women. The daughters of poor families also often entered servanthood to earn money for their dowries (LeGoff, 1987, p.309). In Italy, children were often sent into other people's homes when they were seven or eight years old to be servants (Goldberg, 1995). According to a passage about Italian Relation, people would send away their children into houses of others to teach them "better manners" (Goldberg, 1995). However, some believe that parents did this "because they like[d] to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children" (Goldberg, 1995, p. 87).

Sites which deal with peasant women:

The Wife's Duties


Urban Working Women

(Taken from: The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Calendar for 1995. New York: Workman Publishing.)

The working women of the cities lived a different life than those who were members of the peasant class. In the fourteenth century, women did play a role in the work force and in some business ( Hannawalt, 1986). Women were involved in many different occupations. However, "[w]hen one looks at their participation ... one finds them clustered in occupations that relate to their skills as housewives or to the lighter crafts" (Hannawalt, 1986, p.115). Another interesting fact is that "married women usually worked at her husband's trade, but might work a trade of her own" (Gies, 1978, p.174).

women weaving (Taken from: The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Calendar for 1993. New York: Workman Publishing.)

Women were heavily involved in the textile industry. For example, "spinning remained almost wholly in the hands of women, together with many of the finishing processes" (Gies & Gies, 1978, p.168). According to Gies and Gies (1978), outside of the textile industry, working women were mainly involved in two groups of trades. The first group was referred to as the "hundred-odd crafts". The second group consisted of women who were involved with the making and selling of food and beverages (Gies & Gies, 1978). Women were also active in trading, especially the service trades. Some women were also school teachers and even prostitues (Gies & Gies, 1978).

Some Sites which deal with Brewing:
Brewing Historty and Recipes
Women and Brewing in the Middle Ages
...Women Chief Brewers, Children Drank Ale
Beer in the Middle Ages

Guilds

The craft guilds "were important institutions in medieval European towns from the eleventh and twelfth centuries onward... (Amt, 1993, p. 194). The topic of guilds and women is an interesting one. Some guilds were willing to include women, but the majority were not. "The fact that guilds seldom permitted women to become masters did in the end relegate them to the least-skilled and certainly least-renumerative aspects of the trade" (Epstein, 1991, p.122). This statement shows that the fact that women were not openly admitted to the professional guilds led to the downfall of the woman's status as a worker during this time period. Since "[m]ale masters displayed no eagerness to train young women, and with few or no women recognized as masters, the guilds did contribute to the narrowing opportunity for women" (Epstein, 1991, p.122). Different guilds had different regulations. The excerpt from the factoid shows an example of some of the regulations which guilds had.

More sites concerning Guilds and Women:
Eight Hour Shift vs. the Guild Worker's Day
Women and Guilds in the Middle Ages

Wages

Research hs shown that women earned substantially less than men did. For instance, "women as day laborers by contract...earned salaries usually about half of what men earned" (Epstein, 1991, p.118). In this same book, the following statement also discusses the low wages which women received: "Women were more prominent in some trades - dyeing, spinning thread- than others, so any general statement that dyers were well rewarded needs to be qualified by realizing that women in the trade did not receive the high wages of men" (Epstein, 1991, p.118). "In the winter master masons were earning this yearly income of women in about twenty-five days, according to the ordinance, but in practice even less time was needed" (Epstein, 1991, p.236). This statement gives an example of how much a woman received for her labor and hard work. This inequality was evident in every trade, as can be seen from each of the previous examples.
 
 

To conclude this section on Urban Working Women, we will examine an excerpt taken from Women and Work in Preindustrial England (Hanawalt, 1986) which discusses Maryanne Kowaleski's research on women's role in the economy of a town called Exeter. This excerpt has a wealth of information in it.


Women Involved in Healing and Nursing

nurses(Taken from: Labarge, 1986, p. 170)

Who exactly was responsible for the health care needs of people in the middle ages? According to Margaret Wade Labarge (1986), "[t]he woman at the head of a household , whatever its size or importance, seems to have been responsible for the health of those within her sphere of influence" (page 169). Women were especially involved in dealing with women's health needs (e.g., Gynecology, Obstetrics). The two positions in this field were midwives and wet nurses. A midwife was in charge of the birthing process, which was "exclusively a female ritual in the Middle Ages" (Hanawalt, 1986, p.81). A midwife was thought to be close to sorcery because "[m]agical practices to ease delivery, such as the use of precious stones with magical properties or wonder-working girdles, were grafted to scanty theory, some practical knowledge, and the pragmatic solutions gradually worked out for recurrent problems" (Labarge, 1986, p.179). On the other hand, a wet nurse was a woman who would nurse a baby after it had been born. In order to do this, "the women involved had to be relatively young and to have had a child of their own so that they had milk" (Hanawalt, 1986, p. 81). Many wet nurses were hired for various reasons. Some would be hired for a wealthy family, or others would be hired if the child's mother could not produce milk. It is quite interesting how these wet nurses were hired. The wet nurses "had to be interviewed for character and health, and for appearance, the thought of being that the nurse should somewhat resemble the child's mother. The nurse's breasts came in for scrutiny; if too large they might flatten the infant's nose. It was also desireable to get a nurse who did not conceive too readily, since babies were normally nursed for two years before being weaned - to wine rathe than milk" (Gies & Gies, 1978, p.203-4).

(Taken from: The Illuminated Manuscript 1994 Calendar: The Brittish Library. Pomegranate Calendars and Books.)

According to Margaret Wade Labarge (1986), women were also involved in the field of healing. These women healers "usually learned their craft working with another, usually their father or husband, and were often described as being more skilled than men" (Labarge, 1986, p.173). When the possesion of a degree from a unviersity became requirement to practice in this field, women healers were described as "illegal practitioners" (Labarge, 1986). Despite this, some municipalities still allowed women healers to practice.

There were also women who were "sisters" who worked in hospitals. The hospitals presented women who could not marry and women whose "social class would not allow them access to the established forms of religious life" (Labarge, 1986, p.187) with an opportunity to help others.These sisters had a variety of duties. One duty was to accompany the sick people to the "privy" (toilet) during the middle of the night. Since most hospitals did not have lanterns, a majority of the patients had accidents on the way to the "privy." Other duties included "washing clothes taken from the sick when they arrived and storing them, the massive task of laundering the sheets and the provision of the necessary supplies for the task, [and] the apathecary work..." (Labarge, 1986, p. 189).


Conclusion

The following poem concludes this journey on the topic of working women. This poem illustrates that women were and are still "worthy" in every sense of the word.

"Women are Worthy"

I am as swift as any roe
To praise women where'er I go.

To dispraise women it is a shame,
For a woman was your dame:
Our Blessed Lady bears the name
Of all women where'er they go.

A woman is a worthy thing:
They do the wash and do the wring;
"Lullay, lullay," she does you sing,
And yet she has but care and woe.

A woman is a worthy wight:
She serves a man both day and night;
Thereto she puts all her might,
And yet she has but care and woe.
(Taken from: Goldberg, 1995, p. 183)


References

Amt, E. (Ed.) (1993). Women's Lives in Medieval Europe. New York and London: Routledge.
 

Epstein, S.A. (1991). Wage, Labor, and Guilds in Medieval Europe. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
 

Labarge, M.W. (1986). A Small Sound of the Trumpet. Boston: Beacon Press.
 

LeGoff, J. (Ed.) (1987). Medieval Callings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 

Goldberg, P.J.P. (Ed.) (1995). Women in England c. 1275-1525. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
 

Gies, F. and Gies, J. (1978). Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Perennial.
 

Hanawalt, B.A. (Ed.) (1986). Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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