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Contribution of Women to the Economy in the Middle Ages


This dissertation will focus on the contribution of women to the economy in the Middle Ages. It will explore how and to what extent women contributed to the economy of Medieval England, asking the question of ‘Is the role of women in the medieval economy undervalued by history?’. As part of this it will explore to what extent women are adequately reflected in the contemporary sources, and if they are not adequately reflected, aim to explain the reasons for this. It is also interesting to see if the contributions made by women vary depending on their social status and whether they reside in the urban or the rural environment. It is important to explore and aim to discover whether the contribution women made to the economy changed over time, whether it is to an increased contribution or a decreased one due to certain events or social changes. Clearly the role of men in society in the middle ages will be of great significance due to their large influence on the lives of women.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the contribution which women made to the economy in the Middle Ages it is important to look at how they worked alone, but also how women were recognised and treated alongside men, especially those who were engaged in a similar occupation. The role of women alongside their husband is also of great importance. Historians such as Christopher Brooke have often argued that women cannot be studied without also studying the men of the period. It is also advantageous to compare a woman’s work in the town to the work which women in the countryside were engaged in. Perhaps an aspect within this which could be explored is whether or not the work which women participated in changed over time, particularly after the Black Death. To look at all of the above, individual places will be looked at, for example the city of London and the town of Wakefield, but also individual people, especially those who appear in the court rolls on numerous occasions. It is difficult however to look at working class women in much detail as their lives were not as well documented as a woman of a higher social class and status. Also, the majority of sources used have been written by and for men.

Typically, when looking at the middle ages, the work of women can be overlooked as it is often assumed that they simply worked in the home. Although this is not strictly true, it is important to look at the work which women undertook in the home and whether or not and to what extent this work impacted on any other work which they might have been undertaking. It is sometimes difficult to assess the work which women did as very few women in the middle ages were literate, and therefore when they do appear in records it is nearly always from a male perspective, in records written for males. This creates a certain difficulty in truly understanding what women participated in, as it is often assumed that they simply worked in the house and there are no sources which concentrate purely on work undertaken in the household. Along with this, men often appeared in place of women in court rolls. This was often due to the fact that a man would pay the fine for a woman who had done wrong, for example brewing outside of the assize given by the manor. However, there are also a large number of instances where women do appear alongside men at court. It is important to recognise here however that women could often be found undertaking jobs inside their homes, for example textile work. This will also be considered.

Chapter one of this dissertation will mainly focus on women and the household. It will look in detail at the role which women played in the household. It will explore their role as both a wife and a mother but also their eventual role as a widow. Sources are scarce for this aspect of life in the Middle Ages but ones which do provide a useful insight include court rolls where women asked permission to marry. A main issue here is the amount of sources which are available to utilise for this aspect of a woman’s life. With few sources available it is understandably difficult to distinguish whether these women recorded in the sources are typical of society or anomalies.

Chapter two will look at women’s work in the home. As part of this the textile industry will be looked at, as well as the roles of women in domestic service and agricultural activity and markets. Within this there are various primary sources which can be utilised. These include court rolls, coroners’ rolls and weavers’ ordinances. There are of course various limitations to each of the sources. Perhaps the main one to consider here is that sources were generally written by males and for males. As well as this there are limited mentions of women in domestic service, although they are not as limited as the sources on women in the home in general.

Chapter three evaluates women’s work outside of the home. It looks at the occupation of brewing and uses sources such as coroners’ rolls and court rolls to look at the extent to which women could be found in this profession. It also explores prostitution as a lesser thought of economic contribution.

Together it seeks to discover the contribution of women to the medieval economy whilst asking whether or not the women are adequately reflected in the sources, and whether as a result of this, these women have been undervalued by history.

Women And The Household

It is arguable how much of a woman’s life was spent in the household looking after the family unit. It is typically thought that a large amount of a woman’s time was spent in the home and although this is supported to an extent by the majority of sources, there are also a significant number which dispute it. A large number of historians, such as Christopher Dyer, Jennifer Ward and Joanne Bennett have looked at the everyday lives of women and various conclusions have been drawn from their studies. It is important to look at the conclusions of both historians who argue that women spent the majority of their time in the home, and those who argue that women, like men, were able to hold an occupation, as well as working for the family. As well as this, some historians have argued that there was a difference in the way in which women contributed to the household depending on their social class. All of these factors are important when looking at the work women did, as any work undertaken in their household would have had an impact on the amount of paid work which they were able to undertake. It is worth noting that if a woman did not undertake paid work and worked only in the household, it is not likely to have been recorded and so makes it difficult to find information on these women.

The role of a woman as both a wife and mother in the household is an important one. Women were initially regarded as the property of men and this is reflected by a large number of women asking for permission to marry at the manor courts. An example of this is the court roll of 27 February 1360 from the manor of Walsham le Willows where Agnes Jay ‘pays 4s fine for leave to marry Robert Lene. Being married meant that a woman had a greater right to security and property than she would have had as a single woman as she sometimes gained joint tenancy with her husband. This joint tenancy over their house and belongings can be seen in court rolls, for example in the court of 16 August 1369. At this court ‘William de Preston…and Alice his wife…sold to William Kent…certain utensils in a house which he held from them’. The fact that Alice and William together agreed to sell items in a house which they jointly owned shows that Alice had rights to property, which she may not have had if she were single. However, these rights changed once more when a woman was widowed. Every woman who had been married to a freeman of the city became a freewoman of the city on his death. Whilst this is a good thing for women, it carried the condition that she only retained this status as long as she stayed single. Whilst living with their husband women were expected to learn about his work in order for them to cover whilst their husband was away but also so that they could continue his business on his death. There are numerous cases in sources of women taking over the business of their husbands and in some instances continuing to train any apprentices their husband may have had. This can be used to show that women were not as restricted as they are often assumed to be.

Widows seem to appear much more frequently in sources than married or single women. This is most likely to be due to the fact that they do no have a male to answer for them or to represent them. Males are frequently seen in documents and it is often argued that they took fines on behalf of their wives. This is mainly because a man was commonly seen as in charge of his wife and the family and therefore he was held responsible for anything which they did. Also, widows are commonly seen in court rolls seeking money or property owed to them, something which their husband would previously have done. This can be illustrated with the case of Alice de Perers of the city of London who sued Richard de Kent for 200 marks which she had lent him and not been returned. We can assume that Alice was a widow as she was representing herself in the court and was not presented as a ‘wife of’ someone else.

However, whilst it is commonly thought that men were in control of their household, there are some who argue that they were in fact not in control at all. Historians such as Ward argue that the household was a place which women ruled. She argues that the running of the household and the care of the family within it took up a large amount of a woman’s time and that as well as this a woman should also be able to help her husband with his job. Historians such as Dyer however, argue that while a woman in the aristocracy would have been the effective head of household, the household itself was predominantly masculine. This can be illustrated by the amount of males employed within the upper class household, for example servants and officers. In comparison there were relatively few female employees. Dyer observes that a peasant woman was expected to manage her household, but that she could also choose to have her own employment as long as it was secondary to any household chores she was expected to complete. It can be construed that though men were perceived to be the head of the household it was in fact the women who were responsible for everything within it.

It is important to realise that being a wife and a mother was often just part of the work which women were expected to undertake. In some cases they were also able to hold their own employment, as well as helping their husbands with their businesses. Therefore we can see that women could hold jobs both inside and outside of the home, both of which are important when looking at the contribution of women to the economy and whether or not their role has been undervalued by history.

Work In The Home

i. Textiles

J. Ward has argued that when women were not engaged in work in the home they were able to hold occupations for which they were paid. She argues that whilst a woman was free to do this, not all did and the majority of those that were employed worked in industries similar to work which they would have been doing in the home. An industry which employed a large number of women was the textile industry. Women were able to spin, weave and embroider from their own home if they chose to, which enabled them to continue with their household duties. Also, the majority of women were unable to be engaged in any occupation significantly different to their duties in the home as they only received a very basic education, as well as having to fully utilise the skills which they had been taught by their mothers. There were of course exceptions to the above and they will be considered in turn. The textile industry was one which is evident in both the town and the countryside, though more predominantly in the countryside and smaller towns after the thirteenth century. Textile work was more notable in homes in the countryside but it was not unusual for a woman to move to the town and take her work with her. This is significant as historians such as Dyer have suggested that it was much harder to come across skilled textile work in the towns unless the woman in question was skilled and had the money required for all the necessary equipment. An interesting point to make here is that whilst men were limited to being able to participate in one industry, women could participate in two or three if she chose. It is therefore not uncommon to find women working as spinners and weavers for example.

Ward continues her argument by suggesting that women were engaged in the textile trade purely to provide clothes for her family. This can be supported with Anthony Fitzherbert’s

The Boke of Husbandry. Written in 1523 Fitzherbert outlines basic tasks expected of a wife in her home, but also within her work in and around the home. He outlines in great detail the importance of the textile industry and how a husband should have sheep of his own but ‘let his wife have part of the wool to make her husband and herself some clothes’. This illustrates the argument that women were engaged in the textile industry purely to provide clothes for their families. However, other sources provide a different perspective. Women were referred to by their trade in court rolls if they were the head of the household, for example ‘Joan Spinster’, ‘Agnes, servant of…’. For them to be referred to as spinners as opposed to ‘his wife’ or ‘wife of’, it can be assumed that they were engaging in a significantly larger amount of textile work than simply that required for their family. This of course would not have been the case for all women.

Whilst textiles remained a main occupation of women until the late eighteenth century, it did have periods of decline within both the thirteenth century and the late mid to late fifteenth century. The decline in the market for textiles is illustrated by Weavers’ ordinances. Weavers’ ordinances show a declining market, as well as employment opportunities, as they were designed to go together with local monopolies on particular cloth. In some towns the monopoly stretched as far as to limiting each employer to one apprentice each. In the weavers’ ordinance of Shrewsbury from 1448 it describes how ‘no woman shall occupy the craft of weaving after the death of her husband except for one quarter of the year’. This illustrates a distinct decline in the occupation, but can also be used to show that women were not as free to participate in an occupation as they maybe once seemed. It can also be used to suggest that widows were not as free as maybe once thought. As well as this it supports the suggestion that women found it hard to move their craft from the countryside to the town unless they had significant amounts of money and they were highly skilled. It is possible that this was a minor cause in the decline in the textiles industry in the thirteenth century when cloth making originally took place for home and for export in larger towns but moved to taking place mainly in the countryside or smaller towns, with a distinct decline in exports. Despite this decline it has been estimated that in towns such as Babergh Hundred in Suffolk up to nineteen percent of the population was still employed within textiles, and this is not including the women who were part time spinners, who would have added a considerable amount to this. This illustrates how women were continuing to engage in textile work throughout the period.

As mentioned previously, women were expected to fully understand the business of their husband so that they may take over in his absence or on his death. This is illustrated in the textile industry in the case of the will of John Walton, a weaver from York. He states that he leaves to ‘Margaret my wife my best woollen loom with those things to pertain it’. This shows how women were able to take over the business from their husbands if necessary and therefore displays their capabilities. Wills such as these can also be used to show how women gained from their husbands only if they remained single. Women were able to retain freewoman status if their husband had been a freeman of the city, but only if they stayed single. The will of John Nonhouse, also from York, shows this to an extent. He states that ‘Isabel my wife has the said two looms with all he tools pertaining to them whilst sole’. These two wills together show how women had the ability to continue work on their own after the death of their husband. They can however also be used to show how society had not fully accepted the majority of women who were working on their own. The absence of women from craft guilds can also be used to show the exclusion of women working on their own. The guild ordinances of York show us how ‘No woman of the said craft shall occupy the said craft after her husband’s death longer than a whole year’. This again illustrates the limitation of women on their own as opposed to those women who were married. It has often been argued by historians that it was the husband who gave the woman their social status and this supports the argument that single women were limited to crafts they could participate in.

These factors together show how women were employed in the textiles industry throughout the Middle Ages. However, they also to an extent show how women were often employed and working as a result of their husband as while they may gain the equipment used in textiles after his death, they very rarely retained their position in the craft guild. This in turn made selling their products more difficult. Also, women participated in a larger amount of textile work than perhaps thought, although the sources to support this are fewer in number and within them it is difficult to find the women of the lower classes.

ii. Agricultural Activity And Markets

Throughout the Middle Ages farming was an important part of everyday life. The main priority when farming was not to produce for sale but to produce and provide for their own family, selling any excess they may have made. Women in the countryside and small sized towns were expected to help out on the land when they had completed their tasks in the home and the majority can be seen as capable of the agricultural tasks required of them. Farm work however did not produce a large amount of money as the majority of it was undertaken part time and the first objective was to feed the family. It is significant to note the way in which women contributed to agricultural work both before the Black Death and after it. This is due to the fact that the Black Death caused a great amount of changes to take place and this therefore impacted on women and their contribution.

In the period before the Black Death it was common for members of peasant households to be called upon by the lord of the manor to carry out some agricultural work for him. Most peasants would carry out this work as they did receive payment for it, albeit a small one, but on some occasions it would not get done. This could be due to extensive amounts of work needing doing on their own land or in some case just choosing not to do it. Those individuals who did not work for the lord as required were called to court and fined. This can be seen in the manor of Walsham le Willows where ‘Christina Lene and Isabelle Spileman each amerced 3d. because they were summoned to winnow the lord’s corn…and did not come’. This is significant as both of these being fined were women. Again it is possible to suggest that these women are either widows or are acting as head of their household while their husband is away. In either case it is a possibility that they did not winnow the lord’s corn as they had too much work to complete in their own households or on their own land.

A source which is of great importance when it comes to agricultural work is Walter of Henley’s

The Husbandry. Walter of Henley was an agricultural writer who wrote more than thirty sources on how to carry out agricultural procedures correctly. It also outlined what was expected of each person on the land. However, only ten of these sources give his name as the author and they have therefore caused much discussion amongst historians.

The Husbandry was a highly read source. We know this due to the amount of copies of it which had been made, but also because of the amount of copies which have survived until today. Although it is thought that it was written around the 1250s it has caused much discussion amongst historians as to its original date. Despite this it remains a useful source for looking at agriculture in the Middle Ages.

One part Walter of Henley’s The Husbandry outlines the role of the dairymaid on the land. Women were mainly responsible for the poultry and the dairy of the land and so it can be argued that

The Husbandry outlined their role in full as it would have the role of a man on the land. It states how ‘the dairymaid ought to look after all the small stock which are kept on the manor such as…geese…hens…chickens and eggs’. It is arguable here that women were responsible for the livestock as the nurturing role required was similar to that they would have deployed in the home. These women who had been responsible for the dairy and poultry on the land were also often responsible for taking it to and selling it at the local market. Women of the manor could often be found selling cheese and poultry amongst other fresh produce. It is because of these trips to the local markets that we can see some of these women in coroner’s rolls. An example here is of Margaret Derbye of Bury, recorded in the Coroner’s rolls of Sussex in 1524. Margaret is recorded as ‘hurrying to Petworth market on horse’ and being thrown off of her horse. In the impact of landing on the ground she injured her neck and died immediately. This case of a woman dying on her way to market shows how women were directly involved in the selling process. It also illustrates a woman’s contribution to not only maintaining the land but also making a profit from it.

A further source of importance when looking at agriculture is Anthony Fitzherbert’s

The Boke of Husbandry. As mentioned in chapter two, The Boke of Husbandry outlines basic expectations of a wife inside and outside of the home, amongst other things. Fitzherbert outlines how ‘it is a wife’s occupation to winnow all kinds of grain, to make malt…to make hay… reap corn…and to go or ride to the market’. This directly supports the point above where women can be seen in coroner’s rolls due to accidents on trips to local markets to sell their goods. The majority of the time it would be women from the countryside taking their goods into local towns to sell; however there would have been exceptions to this. This illustration of women from rural areas taking produce into the urban areas shows the difference between the rural and the urban.

There were occasions where women can be seen to have been acting illegally when it came to markets and the buying and selling of goods. Agnes, wife to William Sandelere of Louth is an example of one of these women. She was called to the peace sessions of 1375 in Lincolnshire for being ‘a common forestaller of both salt and fresh fish at Louth’. This can be used to argue that women would do things outside of their legal allowances to ensure that they made an extra income to support their family.

Women can be seen in court rolls on numerous occasions both before and after the Black Death. In the manor of Ingoldmells women were often called to court for agricultural issues. One of these occasions is where Alan Polber complained that Agnes, the wife of Thomas Herward had stolen his crops. This illustrates that women were participating in agricultural work on the land, and can also be used to illustrate the notion that women did more agricultural work during the harvest. Another example here is of Beatrice Herward. She brings the issue to court that Alan Polber had beaten her and ‘struck her beasts’. In this case Beatrice is found to be making a false claim. This not only shows that she was involved in agricultural work, but can also be used to suggest that she was a widow as she was the one to initiate the claim into the courts.

The Black Death was a significant event in the middle ages, particularly for agriculture. From the time it first hit in 1347 until it eventually died out in 1351 the lives of both upper classes and lower classes were affected greatly. Perhaps a rather explicit change was the effect it had on the labour force in England. The Black Death caused more deaths in England than any previous famines had done. This meant that women could demand higher payment for goods and services as they were able to carry out more work, due to a lower number of people in the workforce. Before Black Death there had been a vast amount of people wanting work but this changed dramatically afterwards. Women were quick to fill in gaps in the workforce, carrying out a wide range of jobs. Goldberg refers to these women as a ‘reserve army’. These women were able to demand a higher rate of pay than they had done previously due to the lack of labour. It is important to note however that women were the first to lose out when the demand for labour returned to normal.

It can therefore be seen that women were involved to quite a large extent in work on the land and in selling goods at local markets. Contemporary sources such as Walter of Henley’s

The Husbandry and Anthony Fitzherbert’s The Boke of Husbandry

outline what was expected from a wife in regards to her work on the land. Court rolls help us to understand to an extent what women were doing in order to gain more of an income for her family. When looking at farming it appears that women added a great deal to this, especially during and in the short period after the Black Death. However, it is important not to forget that these women may have been small in number and also that as soon as labour supplies returned to their normal levels women were once again left out.

iii. Domestic Service

Throughout the Middle Ages a large section of urban society was made up of male and female servants. This number was significantly lower in rural areas due to the lower class status of the majority of the people who lived there. It is arguable that such a large proportion of women were engaged in domestic service because it was something which was almost identical to the work which they would have been doing in the home. Examples of female servants can be seen throughout the Middle Ages, along with the comparison of female servants to male servants. It is important to look at male as well as female servants here as they not only impacted on a woman’s home life but they also affected which jobs the women were able to be employed in. If there were a significant number of male servants it is arguable that not such a large number of female servants would be required. As well as this there were areas where male servants could be found employed and female servants not, for example elite households. This will be discussed later.

Firstly, it is key to note that references made to female servants are not common. Ward has gone as far as to argue that it was more likely that a large number of women were slaves as opposed to servants. However, women servants can still be found in sources, even if it is to a lesser extent than their male counterparts. Arguably, female servants were less likely to be found in elite households than men. This could perhaps be pinned on the idea that male servants entered elite households to be apprenticed to a particular trade or skill, whereas women rarely entered for apprenticeships. This links back to the idea of women learning their key skills from their mothers in the home.

A key point to make here is that women who were employed as servants were not always treated well. Although they were often given food and lodgings in return for their work, they still often received wages lower than male servants did. There were many cases of people being brought to court for mistreating their servants. John Catour of Reading, Berkshire went to court to complain against the way his daughter was being treated in her apprenticeship to Elis Mympe of London. It has been suggested that the apprenticeships of young girls to a trade or to be a servant were often periods of time much longer than necessary. This gives the impression that they may have been exploited as it can be argued that rather than spending all of the years learning the trade, they were in fact simply providing their master with cheap labour. A further example of servants being exploited can be seen when Margaret la Garnystere ‘brought action of trespass against Agnes, widow of Thomas Bagge…for detaining their servant who was lent on March 23 to embroider until 13 April’. In both of the above cases the courts reported that the females had been recovered. However, it is likely that a large proportion of these women would have been exploited for a considerable amount of time as the time of their apprenticeship may have been considered normal.

It is however important to note that not all female servants would have been treated badly. There are numerous cases where servants were left goods in the wills of their masters. The three women serving Ellen Holgrate by her death in 1403 each received a cow as a thank you for helping her with her illness. This shows that whilst there were women who were being mistreated, there were also those who were valued in their occupation. It is also key to remember that whilst these women were working within a household they were gaining valuable skills which they could take back and utilise in their own homes. This is important when you consider that some servants were young, single women, but some servants were married women who lived apart from their families during service but eventually returned home.

Therefore, whilst there were women engaged in domestic service it is difficult to tell exactly how many there were. There is evidence to suggest that women, both single and married, worked in the homes of others in order to gain an extra income for their family. There is also evidence to suggest that these women may have sometimes been mistreated, although this was not always the case and again, there is no suggestion as to how many women would have received poor treatment. All in all women did provide a good service as domestic servants, but it is important to remember that males also provided this service and women were consequently excluded from some aspects of it.

Women’s Work Outside Of The Home

As we have seen previously, women could be found contributing to the economy in various ways from inside their homes. Women could often be found engaging in textile related activities as well as helping their husbands with any land they may have and selling produce at local markets. Women were expected to help their husbands in the running of their business so that they may take over in their absence or on their death. As well as this work women could also be seen participating in further occupations outside of household work and expectations.

i. Brewing

Brewing was an occupation which women could often be seen in. This was due to the fact that they could run their household as expected, but also take on a new type of work. At one stage women brewed the majority of the ale on sale in England. It is arguable that women were able to participate in brewing as ale was part of the staple diet in the Middle Ages and much of it was needed to sustain the population. Any ale a woman brewed was first provided to her family, and any surplus may have been sold after this. Surplus had to be sold soon after it was brewed as it took only a short period of time for ale to turn sour. It is because of the need for ale for everyday consumption that women who were

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