Medieval Monday: Working Girls

I love History.  I always have.  Ever since the day that the lightbulb went off and I realized that all these things I was forced to study in school actually happened.  People actually lived these lives hundreds of years ago.  They got up in the morning, ate breakfast, went to work, came home, ate dinner, and went to bed.  They had families, husbands and wives, children and grandparents.  They had drama, relationship issues, family feuds, good friends, and ups & downs.  Maybe they looked forward to holidays or dreaded going to church.  History was filled with individuals.  This is why I always had a hard time with the classic statement that the in the Middle Ages life was “nasty, brutish, and short”.  In fact, that phrase was not spoken as a descriptor of life in the Middle Ages, it was part of a larger statement by Thomas Hobbes about life in a state of war.  Most people in the Middle Ages did not live their lives in a war zone.

I get particularly annoyed when people assume that life sucked for women in the Middle Ages, that they were mere property, bartered and oppressed by the males in their lives.  This wasn’t exactly true.  In my last two Medieval Mondays I talked about specific women who were leaders or scholars.  These individuals stood out in the Medieval firmament.  But there were other women, average, everyday women, who lived lives of comfortable productivity alongside their male counterparts.  In some cases they commanded entire industries.

One such industry was spinning.  Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the economies of Britain and Flanders at least were dependent upon the wool and cloth industry.  But spinning, the act of turning wool into thread that could be used to make cloth, was done exclusively by women.  In fact, just about every woman of middle or lower class not only knew how to spin but spent a large portion of her day doing it.  I have a friend who knows how to spin using a drop-spindle.  She says it’s incredibly time-consuming to spin just a little bit of yarn, so it’s no wonder women spent so much of their day doing it!  Much of the time weaving was done by women as well.  A lot of these activities were done at home, but major cloth-producing families would employ weavers and spinners who weren’t members of the family.

Actually, in the days before major cities, just about any occupation you could think of was done at home, whether in a small feudal village or a more sizable town.  And one of the most highly appreciated, prevalent, and also female-driven industries like this was brewing.  Yes, if you wanted beer in the Middle Ages you would have to find a woman to make it for you.  Until the “discovery” of hops and its use in beer-making in the High Middle Ages (the period from about 1000-1300) and even afterwards, the sweet, fruity beers that formed the center of many a little Medieval town was brewed by woman.  Yet another reason a man wanted to find himself a good wife.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the Late Middle Ages, in the era after the Black Death caused every kind of havoc on average Medieval society, that trade guilds became exclusively male.  For much of this era any business was a family business.  The entire family, men, women, and children, would all take part in any given trade.  That’s why so many surnames are professions: Brewer, Tailor, Fuller, Carpenter, Cooper, etc., and my own personal favorite, Farmer.  Gee, wonder what my ancestors did.  Widows even took over the family business if their husbands died.  It wasn’t until the population took a dramatic dip in the 14th century era of the Black Death and entire estates, businesses, and properties were left in inheritance limbo due to so many sudden deaths that inheritance laws were changed to prevent women from gaining what was theirs on their father’s or husband’s death.  Yes, the tide of Women’s Rights has risen and fallen throughout History.

The sheer volume of essential jobs that women did in the Middle Ages and the dependence that men and women had on each other for sustenance and prosperity actually makes me wonder if their lives weren’t, in fact, happier than ours today.  I know that it all comes down to the luck of the draw, one family has a different philosophy than another just as individuals view the world differently.  But when your entire society depends on individual families working together as a unit, each member, male or female, knowing their part in that equation, I would think there would be a kind of order to daily life.  Sure, you wouldn’t have as much choice.  If you were born Mary Weaver chances were you weren’t going to be able to say “Oh! I think I’ll be a blacksmith when I grow up!”  But at least you knew you would have a job.  Can college graduates say that in this day and age?  I’m all for the Industrial Revolution, but I don’t think we of the Modern Era have a true appreciation for how it changed society.

I also don’t think we with our modern sensibilities and love of freedom can look back on, say, the Feudal System without instantly assuming it was horrible, abusive, and unfair.  But what exactly was the Feudal System and how did it effect the people who lived and worked under it?  Well, you’ll just have to check back next week to find out, won’t you.

Okay, so this pic doesn’t have anything to do with working women of the Middle Ages, but I laughed so hard when I found it that I had to include it.  Poor piggie!


2 thoughts on “Medieval Monday: Working Girls

  1. Wow…laughing at that poor pig. For shame!

    I found this post extremely interesting. I actually was not aware women in the European middle ages had more rights than later on. Most of my history classes focused entirely on men and more so on the American revolution, slavery, and the civil war. World history focused mostly on all the various wars and Egypt.

    The middle ages was usually summed up so quickly that most of the figures mentioned were male and a glossed over version of how horrible the black death was (without being terribly specific).

    It makes much more sense this way. It’s too bad we came to devalue the traditionally female side of the equation. Your average family may well have been happier back then. Freedom of choice is good, but at the same time, too many choices can be worse for quality of life than no choice at all. Don’t get me wrong though, still like having my choices, but it would be nice if society today encouraged family unity more than the need for both parents in the house to get a job just to make ends meet or at least “provide equally.” Reminds me of a friend that recently said “Working mom? So what are the rest of us? Lazy moms who lie around in their housecoats all day?”

    I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it hehe. Not that I have anything against working moms at all. I just think it’s silly to undervalue those of us that decide to take care of hearth and home (or have no choice due to job scarcity and potential “childcare issues”). Money is not the value of a person and what they do (though the person who brings in the money is not to be undervalued either). I’m fortunate to have a husband who values what I do for my family more than the money I could be making if I found a job.

    I’ve gotten a little off the point you were making since women in the middle ages didn’t just take care of hearth and home, but ran businesses from them. Sorry! Too bad we couldn’t decide to all at once combine the best of both words 😀 All I can really do is continue to value people for what they do and who they are, rather than the presence or absence of money they earn.

    Sorry for the novel-long response ^^”

    • Long responses are great!

      But yeah, from the time when I started studying History it always annoyed me that so much of it is ignored or brushed over. Especially Medieval History. So much of what we study today was determined by the Victorians, and the Victorians were horribly biased and treated women as second-class citizens. I’m not saying that life in the Middle Ages was a perfect Utopia and women had 100% equal rights as men, but it was surprisingly better than people think. Actually, women don’t have 100% equal rights with men NOW in much of Western society even. We think we do because those ideals are out there, but I’ve lived places, like the Deep South, where attitudes can be downright archaic. It varies from person to person and community to community now just like I’m sure it did back then.

      Just like with everything else, we’ve gained some and we’ve lost some. I’m very happy to be living in the era of modern medicine and automobiles, for example, but I do believe community was stronger back then.

      Come back next Monday for more amazing stuff you wish your History teachers had told you! LOL.

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