- A Medieval Woman's Work
PEASANTS - TOWNSWOMEN - NOBLEWOMEN - OTHER WOMEN
would be impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of women's
employment opportunities during the medieval period in full. I
have included a brief look at what women generally had the opportunity
to do, each according to her social status. This is by no means
definite in every single case and there are many records of women
who worked outside the normal conventions in occupations usually
reserved for men alone.
Women are almost never shown in paintings
or manuscripts waiting on tables, a job far too important to be
entrusted to a mere women. Serving food at a feast or to an honored
guest was highly esteemed and therefore a job which belonged to
the head Steward of a house- a man. In a poor household, of course,
the women of the house would have brought food to the table for
her husband and family.
at top right is a detail from the month of April from the da
Costa Book of Hours illustrated in 1515 by Bening. It shows
a domestic scene where men and women work together at a variety
of menial jobs- milking the cows, tending the sheep and churning
Peasant women were usually employed in menial work outside the
home as well as raising their own family, taking care of their
own vegetable patch and any poultry they may have had. Shown below
is scene from the Tacuinum Sanatatis showing women working
with men in a rural setting.
Young, single English peasant women
rarely had the capital to go into business for themselves brewing
or baking. They were often employed as live-in servants although
recent studies have shown that it was a very poor peasant who
could not afford help of her own.
Girls might have worked for a neighbour, relative or be engaged
in household work in the nearest town. Working as a servant was
not seen as a demeaning work choice and occasionally in household
rolls, children are described as being servants of their own parents.
only the very poorest peasant women unable to afford some domestic
help, there was usually no class difference between mistress and
maid. A woman's status came from her being a wife, rather than
where she was employed. Shown at right is a detail from the Tacuinum
Sanitatus showing women working in the home.
Once married, it was usual for a
women to give up her service to someone else and be mistress of
her own home. Peasant women were also engaged in spinning and
preparation of fibres for spinning and weaving- scouring flax,
combing wool and hemp and assisting with sheep shearing.
There was very little that a peasant
woman might not be called to do and many illuminations show women
working in the fields alongside men. They were hired to do various
types of agricultural labour, including planting peas and beans,
weeding, reaping, binding, thatching, haymaking, hay stacking,
threshing and winnowing.
Of the two work options, live-in
servitude was a more secure place of employment and the wages
were slightly higher than seasonal work. Outdoor work was usually,
but not in all cases, paid at a rate slightly less than men, although
women thatchers and reapers were often paid at the same rate as
their male coworkers.The
Statute of Cambridge in 1388 shows that the maximum wage
for women laborers and dairymaids was 6 shillings per year, much
less than the top wage of 10 shillings.
Shown at left is a detail from a border decoration from the Romance
of Alexander dated between 1338 and 1344. It depicts a peasant
woman working in the fields and using the same equipment that
a men would also have used. The picture is slightly unusual in
that the woman is wearing a short dress and her legs are visible.
and middle class women
Women who lived in towns, were middle class or were engaged in
some kind of merchant activity were better off than their counterparts
in the country, although it it not to be thought that the hours
they worked were any less. As well as a full time job, townswomen
also had a family to care for and a small household to run and
probably one or two staff of her own to manage. Many townswomen
were women who had previously lived in the country and had moved
a nearby town seeking full-time employment. This was not seen
as a lifetime occupation, but rather an employment option suitable
for single women until marriage.
Many women were shopkeepers and wage
earners. A women whose husband had died, may have continued his
trade alone as a femme solo, and be authorised to hire apprentices
to carry on her husband's work. Some women were permitted into
Guilds but in many cases they were not admitted solely because
of their gender and not because of lack of skill or experience.
Very few women were formally apprenticed, although many were trained
in trades informally. Wives and daughters of skilled tradesmen
often fell into this category.
of women who worked in towns include, but are not limited to,
the following occupations: hat-making, cobbling, glover-making,
girdle-making, haberdashery, embroidering, purse-making, cap knitting,
spinning and silk weaving. They were involved in the food industry
in the areas of brewing of ale, butchery, innkeeping, selling
garlic, fresh bread, flour, salt, candles, butter, cheese, fish
and poultry. While many of the textile arts were dominated by
men, embroidery seems to have a larger percentage of women workers
than other guilds. Records from the very end of the 13th century
show that of the 94 registered embroiderers in Paris, 79 were
It may come as a surprise to some
that women were also employed as chandeliers, iron mongers, smiths,
goldsmiths, skinners, bookbinders, painters, spicers and farriers.
Possibly these were widows who were able to carry on their husband's
trade. Shown at right is a woman blacksmith or farrier at work
from the Holstein Bible from the 1330s.
and upper class women
There are many misconceptions attached to the noble woman, and
how she spent her days. In reality, a woman in the upper classes
might not be called upon to do hard, manual labor, but she was
in no way exempt from a busy, managerial role. An upper class
woman was almost always a land owner, inherited as part of her
dowry at marriage. As well as her own holdings, a wife had to
be able to replace her husband during his absences. Considering
the number of wars and crusades which occurred during the medieval
period, these absences could be frequent and lengthy.
lady of the manor oversaw production of the home farm and dairy.
She had to be able to govern the house and hire or fire the staff
who worked under her and know enough about the work being done
to recognise if it was being done well, even if she was not actually
doing the work personally. She also needed to know how to hire
seasonal staff and repairmen and pay them fairly. Records indicate
that a noble woman could, and did, draw up wills, sue and be sued
and make contracts.
Even in a large manor, several small
rooms or cottages accommodated the production of consumable goods
for the estate or the immediate household, its staff and its guests;
all of which required overseeing. A noble lady also needed good
accounting and reckoning skills and was often literate. The detail
at left shows an illumination from a 15th century manuscript by
Boccaccio known as the de Claris Mulieribus showing Minerva
in a supervisory role instructing the making of armour.
Other occupations provided important livelihoods for medieval
women, and these included a life of religious devotion, healthcare,
musician or prostitution.
who wished to avoid marriage or were widowed and wished to avoid
further marriages had the opportunity to take a life of religious
contemplation. This came in many forms, but almost all involved
life in a community under the care of an Abbess. Beguines were
religious women who lived simple lives and were known for their
charitable works. Many of these women were from the middle or
upper classes. Shown at right is a scene from the right of the
Adelheere Altarpiece from 1443.
Other opportunities for women were
to train as healers or midwives. Doctors were needed in towns
of every size and it seems that midwifery was almost an exclusively
female domain. Nurses might have attend the new mother and cared
for the newborn, or worked in a hospital or hospice caring for
the sick, diseased or pilgrims who were en route to a shrine and
had fallen unwell along the way.
we hear of an exceptional woman who took a profession uncommon
to most other women. One such famous medieval woman was Christine
de Pisan who, as a widowed mother of three, and only aged 25,
became a successful writer to support herself and her family.
Although women did write, it was not a usual career path for most
women. The illumination detail at left shows Christine Presenting
Her Manuscript To King Charles VI of France. It is dated at
Women who were outside of the normal
roles for medieval women might also be employed as musicians-
jongleuresses and menestrelles. They usually traveled
as part a of small groups of entertainers and were often the wives
or daughters to their male counterparts. In a few cases, there
are records of women in independent roles. In 1321 in Paris, women
were given permission to participate in the Guild of Minstrels.
Prostitution, as much as it was frowned
upon, was deemed a rather necessary part of life, and poor women
sometimes turned to this in order to make a living. Towns and
cities tried to regulate the clothing a prostitute could wear
and sumptuary laws tried to curtail extravagant clothes which
the lifestyle of a working woman could afford.