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!