Friday 21 September 2012

A Hard Day's Night: Medieval Women at Work

The roles played by medieval women in society were many and varied. Socially, they were defined by their marital status and ability to produce healthy children, but it appears that many were engaged in useful work of the type more associated in the modern mind with their male counterparts. It is well known that women were involved in assisting childbirth and running the home but beyond that, their activities encompassed a range of tasks from the physical to the intellectual. The types of work undertaken by the medieval woman has often been underestimated but studies made by the economic historian Elieen Power, at Cambridge in the 1920s, began to challenge such assumptions. As part of my ongoing research in this area, I wanted to share some of the images I have found which give a flavour of the types of employment women were engaged with, alongside men.

It is difficult to differentiate though, exactly what status this work afforded women. It is quite likely that much of it was undertaken on an informal basis, as seasons dictated or as part of a family business: how many were considered professionals or received a salary outside the home is unclear. Midwives were one distinct female role and other waged women were engaged in the businesses of brewing and hospitality. Most were widows or married women, whilst the unmarried were to be found engaged in tasks such as spinning, cooking or sweeping within the home, although this was also done by the majority of women. Widows could inherit businesses and apprentices, whom they often went on to marry, or else could remain financially independent, even entering a few of the London guilds. Social class obviously played a key role in their labour. Leisure was a luxury: upper-class women also performed tasks in the home as various contemporary images and manuals make clear but these were directed more towards the luxury end of production, such as the making of special dishes and medicines, as well as the overseeing of accounts and organisation of servants and hospitality. Poorer women had little choice but to roll up their sleeves and help with the harvest or in the workshop.

There was a clear division between those working professionally and those engaged in labour within their own home about daily tasks, often alone.

Other women clearly accompanied their men to work, or else worked in close proximity with them where workshops were established within the home. This was common for many urban businesses, where the front room or ground floor of a house was given over to trade and the back, or upstairs (or cellar) was the family's living space.


It appears that groups of women collected together to engage in tasks such as spinning and weaving. This was more likely to have been for the benefits of their family, charity and friends rather than a collectively owned female business, as the manuscript images depict almost exclusively upperlcass women in this way, suggesting it was more of a leisure activity.


Other upper-class leisure activities included music:

Poorer women feature most commonly in the images of work outside, particularly engaged in harvesting or tasks to do with the seasonal cycle. The necessity of their involvement is highlighted by the presence of the heavily pregnant woman in the second image.

The lowliest appear in images of the most physical work, perhaps earning money in areas their social superiors had rejected:

A few appear to have penetrated what could have been considered traditional male areas of work: here, teaching geometry, sculpture, medicine, portraiture and writing.

There are so many manuscript images of women engaged in work during the medieval period that it was clearly an everyday occurrence for women of all classes. What they did and where and why, were factors determined by their status and need, but employment was clearly desireable even when it was not necessary. The involvement of women in male industries is apparent, although less well represented: the polarisation of "men's" and "women's" work was not as clear cut in the medieval period as might have been assumed.


  1. Hi, Interesting post, I was wondering if you would mind putting up the sources for the three manuscript depicting the workshop scenes? I just cannot find them on the internet. Many thank.

    1. I am compelled to comment that you Amy are far to pretty to be an historian! :-)

    2. Thank you Eddie, Happy New Year!

  2. Hello, regarding sources for images: I tend to get most images for the blog from online searches- often wikimedia, google searches or other blogs- in some cases the provenance of isn't given but if I think they will be of interest to my readers, I'll share them, as they are already out in the public domain. If I wanted to include them in, say, an academic paper, then I'd only use those I could pinpoint exactly but there are so many good images out there regarding medieval women and work, I wanted to include a range, albeit informally. So I'm afraid I can only partly answer your question:

    Of those three workshop scenes, the first was "The Holy Family at Work", taken from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves. The second came from a blog on medieval clothing, with no given source while the last, carpenter image came from this site-

    Hope that helps; do you have a particular interest in medieval workshop scenes?

  3. Hi, Thank you for responding so fast! I am very interested in the medieval world in general but I am currently at university and doing a essay on women working. So I wondered what the source was for the first one was because it illustrated a point in my essay well. Thank you very much for your help! :)

  4. Hi, no problem. If you're writing on women working and want medieval examples, two great books on the topic are Eileen Power's "Medieval Women" and Shulamith Shahar's "The Fourth Estate":

    You may have already encountered them as they're classics now but very accessible and interesting. Best of luck with it :)

  5. Thanks this helped a lot.

    From Bucket