Working Women

In this chapter, we will explore the working lives of women in the Middle Ages. Although for many women their primary work was keeping a household, some women worked for wages outside their homes and participated in trades, crafts, and other economic activities. We will see that work outside the home was far more common than has been believed for women of all classes except the elite. We will also see how daily life was shaped by the labor-intensive work of cooking and keeping the house.


By far, the largest group of workers in the Middle Ages were those who farmed and produced food. The prosperity of the upper class was based on a large population of agricultural workers, many of whom were unfree men and women. There were many types of servitude and many different ways for peasant workers to be exploited by the upper classes. For example, in France in the eleventh century, a serf (servus in Latin, the root of our English word servant), was bound to his or her own land and could be bought and sold along with the land. A colonus was not bound to the land but owed regular labor to the landowner, and a lidus was a person whose rights fell between the two. Servile status was hereditary and descended through the mother, a system many historians believe was a holdover from Roman-style slavery. Serfs could be freed, and it was also possible for free people to deliberately take servile status. It was even possible for a free person to become a serf as a punishment for a crime or for not paying one’s duties to the lord (Tierney 1999, 183).

Many serfs and unfree peasants lived on agricultural estates called manors, which were under the control of a particular lord. A serf generally could not change houses or leave the estate without the lord’s permission. Serfs and other low-status people owed their landlords payment in kind for their rents. If a peasant farmed, he and his family owed his lord a substantial portion of his crop; if he grazed his pigs in the lord’s forest, he owed some pork. The lord also had considerable power over his peasants’ daily lives. Serfs owed the lord fees such as a chevage or head tax, paid yearly; the corvée, which was a requirement that they work on the lord’s land several days per week; the formariage or marchet, a sum of money for permission to marry; and the mortmain, money paid when they inherited their relatives’ lands or privileges. The lord could order all his tenants to have their grain ground at his mill, which also required a fee. He ran the law courts on his land as well, so any crimes that were committed were tried and fined under his control (Tierney 1999, 182–183). The bond between a lord and his serfs was difficult to break. One wealthy abbot described a serf of his monastery as “mine from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (Bloch 1975, 58).

Serfs and other poor and unfree people are often hard to see in historical documents because they were illiterate, and upper-class people seldom saw fit to record specifics about them. One exception is that some monasteries kept records when they obtained people as part of a land transaction; another is when such people were freed. In one example from the twelfth century, the monks of the French abbey of Marmoutier’s priory in Blois witnessed the freeing of a female serf named Haiilde and all her offspring on behalf of the lords of Fréteval, Hugh and Eudo. The wealthy brothers freed Haiilde and her children as an act of piety, hoping to gain spiritual benefits for their loved ones who had died (Métais 1889, 124). In another, a knight gave the monks of Marmoutier a miller, his wife, and their three daughters as a donation (Salmon 1864, 54). When women were given “with their offspring,” it meant both those already born and those not yet born. A free man who married an unfree woman also became unfree, so servile status was passable through marriage. Manumission, the freeing of serfs, was rare, and once an individual was declared to be of servile status, it was usually permanent.

In the poorest of peasant families, both men and women had to shoulder the burdens of farming. Families were generally nuclear, consisting of a husband and wife and their children, and high rates of infant mortality and lifetime hardship meant that their lives were statistically short (see the section on nutrition in the introduction). Their housing was primitive by modern standards. It often consisted of a wattle and daub hut roofed with straw thatch, built around a hearth. Thatch was cheap, light, and waterproof and was easy to repair if damaged. The smallest of houses were simple one-room houses, perhaps sixteen by twelve feet, or two-room houses that were longer, with an enclosure at the end to house the animals. They often had clay or earthen floors; stone floors were also used in places where stone was plentiful. Floors were covered with straw or rushes to make a soft surface underfoot. When these became dirty, the housewife swept them out and replaced them with fresh straw. Many houses had horse and cattle pens attached to them, both to protect valuable animals and to take advantage of as much warmth as possible. In the simplest dwellings, people and animals shared the inside space. In more prosperous households, however, a separate room or building might be built for the animals. During winter, the whole family worked to stay warm and fed. During warmer weather, husband, wife, and children worked to get their land planted, cultivated, and harvested (Leyser 1995, 142–43; Hanawalt 1986, 32–33).

It is difficult to know just how much land and how much grain would have been required to support a peasant family at subsistence level. One calculation estimates that a holding of twenty acres would provide about 153 bushels of barley, oats, and wheat—enough for a yearly income of 35 shillings fourpence. A one- or two-acre holding with a garden was generally thought to be sufficient to support one person, but another estimate states that thirty-six bushels of grain (of whatever type) were needed to feed a family for a year, which would require at least five acres under cultivation. When crops failed, as in the famines of the early fourteenth century, some of the seed corn would need to be eaten, which would leave the following harvest short as well (Hammond 1993, 27–28).

Styles of cultivation varied across Europe and influenced the way that medieval peasants conducted their labor. In places with poor soil, farmsteads were typically spread far apart. Single homesteads were surrounded by their land. The land closest to the house was fertilized by the household animals and could be planted continuously year-round. Other plots were farmed until they were no longer fertile. In places with better soil, households gathered into villages, and villages had a different system. In regions in the northern part of Europe, this system was called open-field farming. Fields were divided into strips, each strip belonging to a different house, and each house held several strips mixed in with the strips belonging to their neighbors. The open-field system demanded that all the people in the village work together, since their plots of land were close together. Half the strips of land in a given year were allowed to lie fallow to rest the soil from cultivation. In the southern part of Europe, village houses had rectangular plots that were also rested every other year (Tierney 1999, 176–77). In the early Middle Ages, peasant women worked alongside men in the fields, until better farming technology in the High Middle Ages permitted them to give more time to the household or to selling their goods or produce for money.


A peasant couple cutting and stacking hay. (Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Full-page miniature of haymaking, in June.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

Occasionally, women peasants are visible in monastery records. In one document from the women’s monastery of Ronceray in Angers, France, a woman named Bohilia rented one quarter of an arpent of land (an arpent is approximately 0.85 acre or 0.34 hectare) from the nuns, and her neighbor Ausendis held one-half arpent (Marchegay 1854, 3:201). At another property, a woman named Albegia, wife of Morehen, paid 5 pennies for her yearly rent (Marchegay 1854, 3:250). Tenants of very small and very cheap plots of land must have lived at subsistence level. Some of them were probably widows who were permitted to keep living on the land left by their husbands. Women like these might do many kinds of manual labor if they were strong enough: haymaking, thatching roofs, breaking rocks, or reaping in return for food (Leyser 1995, 148). They could also be hired as servants or as laborers in other contexts.


There were also wealthier people, of course, who owned their own land, and some employed lower-status people as servants and workers. Many young peasant women worked for wages in these more well-off households. These kinds of jobs attracted young women (beginning at about age twelve) who wanted to save up for a dowry. Descriptions of what kind of work young rural women did for wages give us clues about what kinds of work medieval society expected women to perform. In a thirteenth-century text called the Seneschaucy, the anonymous author described the work of a dairymaid in great detail, writing, “The dairymaid ought to be loyal, of good repute, and clean; she ought to know her work and what relates to it . . . . She ought to know the day on which to begin making cheese and of what weight.” She also had many other duties, including winnowing grain and supervising the care of poultry (Amt 2010, 150–151). Overseeing the servants was part of the housewife’s job. “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter,” an English poem of the fifteenth century, reminded the housewife to manage her servants carefully and not to be “too bitter or too debonaire” with them (Furnivall and Rickert 1908, 36).

Young women could be bound over as servants permanently, either as chattel slaves, who could be bought and sold, or a kind of indentured servitude in which the term of service and pay were designated through contracts. In 1090 in Amalfi, a widow named Asterada bound her daughter Sica over to a household where she promised to serve until the deaths of her employers. In return, they owed her clothing, shoes, and food, and a sum of money to be paid from their wills (Skinner and van Houts 2011, 57–58).

Keeping the Peasant Household

When they married, free young women commonly did not continue to work for wages but switched to the tasks needed by their own households. This might include the care of livestock and poultry, spinning and weaving, sheep shearing, growing vegetables and herbs, and of course caring for children (Leyser 1995, 145). The household was the place where a woman’s leadership was most visible, even if female leadership was not normally praised outside of the house. A fifteenth-century poem called the Ballad of the Tyrannical Husband tells the amusing story of a husband who challenges his wife to undertake his work plowing the field while he does the housework. He complains that his wife has nothing to do all day and spends her time gossiping. Although the end of the poem is lost, the wife’s list of her duties remains: caring for the children, milking the cows, churning the butter, feeding the chickens and geese, baking, brewing, working both flax and wool, and feeding the household (Larrington 1995, 110–11).

Care of cows and sheep was also a primarily female occupation during the Middle Ages (Herlihy 1990, 53). Extra production of milk and cheese could be sold at the market. Women could also be paid to work during the harvests. The wage was one penny a day, often paid in grain. Making soap, by boiling wood ashes into lye and then adding animal fat, was another common household chore. Medieval women often did their washing by taking clothes to a river and beating and scrubbing them with sticks or rocks. Lye or human urine might be used as a stain remover.

In the later Middle Ages, women also performed many duties for their local churches in addition to their own households: cleaning, providing wax candles or cloth for vestments and hangings, sewing and mending, or providing other necessary supplies. In this way, ordinary women could express piety through the use of skills they acquired through housework, and express it in ways that were reflective of their household roles (French 2008, 18–20).

Living and Sleeping in Town

Archaeological evidence has shown that urban cemeteries have greater percentages of female than male skeletons, suggesting that a large migration of women to cities and towns occurred in the High Middle Ages. This challenges the long-held scholarly supposition that migrants to urban areas were predominantly male. Urban women tended to marry later than their counterparts in the country, perhaps because they had to earn enough money for a dowry. Since such women married later, they were also threatened by childbirth mortality later than country women and, therefore, skew older in urban cemeteries in contrast to rural ones (Kowaleski 2014, 586–589).

The basic design of the house of a well-off peasant or town dweller of the later Middle Ages was in place by ca. 1250 CE. In general, the house was divided into three sections, with a central hall that functioned as living space and which contained the hearth, a private sleeping chamber for the family at one end, and a pantry and other storage space at the other end. If livestock were quartered in these houses, they were in a space of their own at the pantry end. In towns, where there was more competition for space, some houses added a second story (Gilchrist 2012, 117–119). Excavations of such houses have allowed us to understand a number of characteristics of housework of the period. The hearth was often in the middle of the floor, covered at night with a ceramic lid called a curfew. At Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, a village abandoned in 1500, many women’s skeletons displayed a condition that occurs when the individual has been squatting for long periods of time, perhaps cooking on a similar hearth (Gilchrist 2012, 60). Floors were of beaten earth, chalk, or clay, covered with rushes. Window openings were small to conserve heat and covered with horn or oiled parchment, which let in the light (glass windows were uncommon until the very end of the medieval period). Artificial light was possible through lamps and candles, but the medieval house must have been quite dark by our standards, especially after night fell. Most households used lights made from animal fat, or tallow. Wealthier households could afford beeswax, which cost about three times as much.

Furniture seems to have been fairly sparse: a bed, a few chairs, a chest for storing clothes and linens, and perhaps a trestle table for eating, were common examples. The most valuable possession in the medieval household may have been the bed. Not only were the wooden parts of the bed expensive, but wool or (from the fourteenth century on) down-stuffed mattresses, curtains, and bed linens were also frequently passed down in medieval wills. In early medieval manor houses where the entire household slept in one large room, bed curtains provided extra warmth and privacy. Since the bed was also the location for sex, birth, and death (think of our words childbed and deathbed), it possessed significant cultural meanings. The household had a few eating utensils mostly made of wood and clay pots to cook the food in. A young wife’s most treasured possession might well have been the chest she used to hold her belongings; the remains of small chests or coffers are very common archaeological discoveries (Gilchrist 2012, 121). Tending to all these aspects of the household, as we have seen, was a central task of married women. Maintaining these important properties and possessions so they could be passed to future generations was a significant chore.


The staple of the medieval kitchen was bread, which varied from a white, wheat-based loaf eaten by upper-class people to the brown or black, thick rye, or barley bread more common to the lower classes. For the most impoverished, a sort of bread could be made of bean flour and the siftings of wheat. Bread provided about 82 percent of peasants’ daily caloric intake: a one-pound loaf of bread provided about one thousand calories, as well as various major nutrients (Scott 2010, 5–6). Unleavened bread such as flatbread could be cooked on the home hearth by using a clay pot heated in the ashes, but leavened bread required an oven, a luxury for many people. Some villages had communal ovens for bread baking. By the late Middle Ages, professional bakers baked much of the bread in town settings (Montanari 2012, 60). In some parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages, women were professional bakers, as well as millers: female bakers are mentioned in the records of Constance, Troyes, Frankfurt am Main, and Cologne, among others (Uitz 1988, 57). In towns, women often sold bread by moving through the town as itinerant sellers.

Producing bread was a laborious process. Raw grain harvested from the field had to be separated from its chaff, or inedible covering, by beating it with an instrument called a flail. The grain then needed to be winnowed to remove any excess chaff, which required shaking it in a basket so that the lighter chaff would rise to the top and blow away. Then the grain could be taken to the mill to be ground into flour. This flour could be made into bread with yeast, salt, and water; its quality determined whether the loaf would be light and fluffy or heavy and hearty. Bread was so important to the medieval diet that from the thirteenth century onward, many places in Europe passed laws that regulated the cost of a loaf of bread. Although the cost of a loaf was kept steady, the size and weight of the loaf varied according to the price of grain (Davis 2004, 466). Heavy, dark bread made up the bulk of many medieval diets.

Peasant diets were supplemented by vegetables, especially peas and beans, when the weather was warm. Peas and beans had the advantage of being easily stored for winter, when they could be boiled up into a thick porridge called a pottage. In the summer, fruits and berries could be had, and, in the fall, poor women and children were often allowed to glean nuts and grain that were left behind during the harvest. Able-bodied men were not allowed to glean (Hanawalt 1986, 54–55). Eggs and milk also provided some of the protein available to peasant families, and many households kept hens. To stop milk from spoiling, it had to be made into cheese or butter, which was made regularly to stay fresh. The butter was made from the cream skimmed off the top of the milk, and the leftover milk was made into cheese. Types of cheese varied from the hard cheeses that were aged before consumption to “green” cheese that could be made in a day.

Vegetables and fruits, widely available in rural areas, were also produced for sale in urban areas. In London in the fourteenth century, produce was brought into town from neighboring counties, but gardens in the city also supplied the markets. Town dwellers with enough money to buy produce had a wide choice: they could find tree fruits, such as apples and pears; vegetables with strong flavors, such as onions and leeks; and root crops like carrots and beets. Various herbs that flavored food or that functioned as medicine were available. Grapes were pressed not only to make wine but also verjuice (a green grape juice that was not fermented, used in many medieval recipes). Town markets were scheduled regularly and were often arranged by merchandise—fish, meat, poultry, and produce. Town governments did their best to regulate this commerce, to tax it, and to make sure that outsiders did not try to undercut the market prices (Hammond 1993, 42–43).

Archaeological sites have produced various animal bones that show what meat was available to medieval people. In the High Middle Ages, meat was regarded as the best and most nourishing food for good health. Aldobrandino da Siena (d. ca. 1296), a medical writer who wrote a health manual for elite medieval diners, wrote that “among all the things that nourish man, meat is the one that nourishes him best, fattens him, and gives him strength” (Montanari 2012, 64). Pork and chicken seem to have been the meats of choice for peasants. Pig bones are scarce in archaeological digs because their bones deteriorate quickly when boiled, so it is difficult to judge how much pork was available to high medieval diners. It was very likely a significant amount, because pigs are adaptable, reproduce well, and are easy to raise in a modestly sized space. In the Middle Ages, pigs were fattened with scraps and by letting them gorge on acorns in forests, and forests were assessed for taxes by the number of pigs that they could support, a sum called pasnage (Montanari 2012, 63). Similarly, chickens could be raised with very little extra expense and provided not only eggs but meat.

Upper-class medieval people certainly also ate beef (slaughtered when the animal was two years old), mutton (sheep’s meat), and poultry such as ducks and chickens. In the earlier Middle Ages, upper-class people favored fresh meat, especially wild game, to be served at the table: bear, stag, and wild boar were considered to taste rich and give strength for fighting battles. The emperor Charlemagne (d. 814 CE) was fond of roasted meat served to him at the table on spits so that he could cut off a portion with his knife. By the High Middle Ages, domesticated meat made up most of the meat served at wealthy tables. Upper-class people preferred veal, especially milk-fed veal; various kinds of mutton, especially lamb; and wild poultry such as pheasant and quail. These “lighter” and more expensive foods were understood to be appropriate for people of higher birth and greater refinement, interested more in court functions than in battles (Montanari 2012, 70).

During Lent, the forty-day period before Easter when eating meat was forbidden, and during religious holidays, households turned to fish to supply their diet. Some of this fish came from the coast, where saltwater fishing was commonplace, and some from local freshwater sources (Hanawalt 1986, 52–53). Data from the early Middle Ages in Britain suggests that only those who lived near the coast had saltwater fish in their diets, but by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, commercial fishing made it possible for people inland to supplement their diets with saltwater fish such as cod. It was packed into barrels with salt to be shipped, and then soaked to remove the salt before cooking (Müldner 2016, 241). Salting and drying meat was an easy way to preserve it for the long term, though salt had to be purchased and was not cheap. The sources of salt in the early Middle Ages were usually salt pans or mines where salt crystals could be dug from the ground. In the later Middle Ages, salt produced by evaporating seawater became more common, and prices dropped.

Everyday Drink

Medieval people were quite aware that polluted water sources were bad for drinking from. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a German abbess of the twelfth century, advised that well water was preferred to spring water, while water from rivers and swamps should be boiled before use. Accessing clean water for drinking was a more difficult problem for people in towns and cities than people in rural areas, but all medieval Europeans contended with obtaining and carrying water for their household needs. Much like traditional societies today, in rural areas, fetching the water was a chore for women and girls. Women carried water in cities as well, but there were also male water carriers who were paid to provide water to affluent households. Many medieval towns and cities built aqueducts and fountains for public use, some of which were theoretically intended for drinking water and some for washing clothes and watering animals. The number of fines and punishments in the laws about the fountains, however, show that many people ignored the rules. In general, city governments discouraged commercial interests from using public fountains, but they often did so, particularly brewers, who needed large amounts of water to brew beer. How medieval people felt about drinking water may be suggested by a teaching work written by a monk named Aelfric (955–ca. 1012), who lived in England. Asked what he liked to drink, one of the young monks replied, “Beer if I have it, but water if I don’t have beer” (Magnusson 2001, 134).

Brewing was an important chore for medieval women. Before the introduction of hops in the fourteenth century, the drink of choice in much of northern Europe was ale made from barley. This ale spoiled quickly and had to be made every few days to keep a fresh supply. Many women made ale at home, like the woman above in the Ballad of the Tyrannical Husband, and included it in their regular household chores. A few put together commercial enterprises. Denise Marlere of Bridgewater, England, who died in 1401, had a brewing business that was prosperous enough to leave her daughter and servant all the accoutrements of a thriving trade: numerous leaden vats and sacks of malt, along with silver cups and luxury bedlinens. However, Marlere was not typical among the brewers of her day, who were becoming increasingly commercialized. As in weaving, once the technology to make longer-lasting beer replaced the ale trade, brewing gradually came under the purview of men (Bennett 1996, 14).

Wine was also produced around Europe. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, a slight climate change made it possible to grow vineyards as far as northern France. At the same time, the population of Europe was increasing significantly, and demand for wine grew with the population (Phillips 2016, 34–35). Women are visible in the records as vineyard workers and as owners or renters of vineyards. A 1264 list of renters from the Cistercian abbey of Saint-Antoine, northwest of Paris, shows several women renting land from the nuns for viticulture. These women were likely to have been widows, and some were labeled with their husbands’ names rather than their own. The rents ranged from very cheap—from half a penny for one-quarter arpent of vineyard, about half an acre—to very expensive, 300 pennies for one-third of an arpent of established vines. The property rented to women was generally on the cheaper side, one or two pennies (Berman 2018, 1–3).

Wine was widely traded around Europe, so townswomen would probably have been able to buy it readily. It was usually drunk new and was not kept for long because it rapidly turned acidic and sour, especially when exposed to air. The Ménagier de Paris, writing to a young wife, suggested a method for opening a wine cask without letting in enough air to sour it and also gave her instructions on what to do if wine went bad. Exactly what made wine “bad” for the medieval palate is unclear, but it suggested adding bags of spices to overcome the strong odor (Hammond 1993, 57–58). If wine turned into vinegar, it had many uses in the medieval household, including wound dressing, cooking, and cleaning.


In large noble houses, feeding the family, retainers, and staff was a major production. Cooks ran large staffs and oversaw many people, and were more often men than women. The household accounts of Dame Alice de Bryene in 1412–1413 reveal a complex, expensive system that served as many as three hundred people at one time. Dame Alice was born in the late fourteenth century at the manor of Acton in Suffolk, England, and died in 1435. Through her marriage and the inheritance of property left by her mother and grandmother, she controlled around six thousand acres altogether and had an income of around £400 a year (around $576,000, in 2022 money) (Nye 2022). The accounts show that she spent about 40 percent of this income on maintaining the household, and 65 percent of that amount on food and drink. A usual meal at Alice de Bryene’s house consisted of a two-pound loaf of bread for each guest and three and a half pints of ale. The estate at Acton maintained its own bakery and brewery. More important guests received wine instead of ale. To this was added meat, shellfish, fresh and dried fish, cheese, and vegetables. On special occasions, when a very important person was present, Dame Alice added such delicacies as suckling pigs. High-ranking guests might come from neighboring manors for celebrations, while on the lower end of the social-class spectrum, the estate often paid laborers and artisans in food (Carlin and Rosenthal 2003, 135–136).


Servants prepare a large feast in the margins of a medieval Book of Psalms. (The British Library/StockphotoPro)

At an aristocratic medieval feast, everyone ate together in a large space, usually the great hall of a manor house or castle. The highest-ranking guests sat together at a table at one end of the hall. This table was covered by one or more linen cloths, smoothed with a rod to lie flat, and was sometimes physically raised up from the rest of the room by a dais. Each guest received a large, flat piece of bread called a trencher that served as a plate. The finest crust of this bread was reserved for the lord—the “upper crust.” (Peasants often used trenchers made of wood, since they did not have the luxury of trencher-style bread.) Utensils consisted of a spoon, a napkin, and a knife, often the diner’s personal eating knife (forks were not used until the sixteenth century). The next luxury item was the salt cellar, which was often a large, ornamental vessel that was placed near the lord before being passed down the table. Guests washed their hands with scented warm water and dried them carefully before the first course was served. During the meal, servants watched closely to remove trenchers that had become wet or food that the diners had finished, because what was left would be given to the poor. At the end of the meal, they served fruit and cheese, small sweet or savory cakes, and sometimes a spiced wine called hippocras. The guests then washed their hands again (Hammond 1993, 109–117).

Since diners at medieval tables often shared dishes and cups, the manners required were also elaborate. Courtesy books, beginning in the thirteenth century, specified how guests were to act at the table and differentiated the upper class from the lower. The higher-ranked guests were, the closer they sat to the high table, and the more elaborate the dishes they were given to eat. Diners were offered water and a towel to wash their hands before the meal. Since most people shared dishes with others, it was considered rude to take the nicest bits, and overfilling the mouth, speaking with the mouth full, and spitting were denounced. Diners were told not to wipe their knives on the tablecloth or blow their noses into their napkins. When taking salt, the diner was to take the salt and put it on the trencher before dipping meat into it. Sticking one’s finger into nose or mouth, naturally, was forbidden (Hammond 1993, 116–119). Such manners were not only more hygienic but emphasized the social differences between the well-bred and the ordinary.

Recipe books from this period were written for the convenience of cooks in noble houses and usually contained instructions for making elaborate ceremonial dishes rather than everyday food. Medieval recipes were not as formal and uniform as modern recipes, with few measurements or complete instructions listed. These recipes used large numbers of expensive ingredients. Sugar, which was considered a spice in the Middle Ages, appeared along with pepper, ginger, cinnamon, grains of paradise (a pepper substitute related to ginger), and many others that would have been imported and purchased at a premium price. Officials in the noble kitchen also had the responsibility of producing huge edible sculptures made of bread, cake, or marzipan called “subtleties,” which were served between courses. Sometimes such sculptures illustrated famous stories or religious subjects (Hammond 1993, 130, 142–143).


Piers Plowman, a poetic work from the fourteenth century, advised: “Wives and widows, spin wool and flax” (Larrington 1995, 89). The work of women is often symbolized by the image of a woman spinning; images of a woman with a spindle and a distaff (a stick holding fiber that was ready to be spun) are in medieval manuscripts. The image of the spinning woman was so pervasive that it has survived in figurative language: a “spinster” is an old word for an unmarried woman, and the female side of a family tree is still called the “distaff side.” For much of the Middle Ages, housewives spent considerable time spinning thread to be woven into cloth and carried their spindles and distaffs with them as they did other chores. The instrument of spinning was called a drop spindle. It was a wooden rod with a whorl on the end that was spun quickly at the end of the fiber, twisting the wool or flax into thread or yarn.

Cloth production as a part of women’s work developed over time but was consistently present. There is clear evidence that textile workshops, called gynaecea (gynaeceum in the singular), from the Greek word gyne, woman, persisted from the ancient world and were common on large estates in the early Middle Ages. Workers were quartered in long, narrow buildings where the women both lived and worked. One example of such a building from Germany was twenty-nine meters long (about 95 feet) and six meters (about nineteen feet) wide, suggesting a capacity of twenty-two to twenty-four women. Gynaecea often owed their owners or landlords specific amounts of thread or cloth. In some instances, rents were even paid with cloth (Uitz 1988, 16–17).

In excavations from early England in the fifth and sixth centuries, loom weights are often discovered on the floors of houses, meaning some cloth was made at home. The rows of loom weights are long enough that archaeologists have suggested that weaving involved more than one person at a time. As the industry became more complex during the seventh to ninth centuries, female slaves worked at the production of wool and linen cloth in larger workshops. There is evidence, however, that upper-class women were still required to know the basics of cloth production and that spinning, weaving, and sewing still took place at home (Henry 2005, 51–55). The emperor Charlemagne (763–814 CE) forbade his female workers from working at chores on Sunday, such as washing clothes, shearing sheep, and cutting out patterns to sew—everyday chores in the household and the gynaeceum (Herlihy 1990, 34). His biographer, Einhard, also stated that the emperor made his daughters learn to spin, weave and work wool so that they might avoid idleness (Einhard and Notker the Stammerer 2008, 32).

As towns became larger and more important locations for production of cloth, textile production became more specialized. Women still did the majority of the spinning, even in towns, where individual households might contract with weavers to produce a certain amount of thread. After the spinning wheel was introduced in the thirteenth century, spinning became a more sedentary activity but remained women’s work. Weaving, however, gradually became a male profession. In the eleventh century, the invention of the horizontal treadle loom allowed for longer pieces of cloth to be produced. It was significantly faster than the vertical looms of the earlier centuries. Rabbi Rashi of Troyes (1040–1105) distinguished between women’s vertical looms and the horizontal looms that two men at a time worked with their feet, which suggests that both women and men worked in weaving, but that men used the heavier commercial treadle loom (Henry 2005, 55). This heavy loom was more effective in producing larger lengths of cloth that could be exported. By the late Middle Ages, just as brewing had become a commercial business, weaving was professionalized and became mostly a man’s job.


This fourteenth-century embroidered purse depicts scenes from the popular medieval story “Patient Griselda.” Here the noble Count rides away with Griselda after their marriage. (Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Beginning in the eleventh century, better quality, softer fabric became available in England as a result of sheep breeding. The new breeds of sheep had wool that was longer in fibers and softer once spun. These soft fibers, combined with the treadle loom, made luxury fabrics available for export, and a cloth called scarlet became the standard for luxury around Europe. Scarlet was woven tightly, fulled (a process to make the fabric become felt), brushed, and trimmed to make a velvet-like consistency. It was customarily dyed bright red, which is where our word scarlet originates. Materials and techniques for dyeing cloth also developed beginning in the eleventh century. In addition to the bright red or “sanguine” color of scarlet, it was possible for most well-off people to have garments dyed blue or green with woad (a plant from the cabbage family used for its dark blue color). By the end of the Middle Ages, the most popular colors were dark blue, green, and black. Women were certainly central to the development of such dyes, though documentary evidence is scarce for the period (Piponnier and Mane 1997, 15–17).


The Bayeux Embroidery, stitched by unknown artists in the eleventh century, is likely to have been produced by women. (Jorisvo/Dreamstime.com)

Fine needlework such as embroidery was considered to be a virtuous pastime for upper-class women throughout the medieval period. In the biographies of two future abbesses, Herlindis and Renula, a Carolingian-era author wrote of their education in fine work, including sewing gold thread and pearls, so that “they turned into artisans accomplished in extraordinary methods.” Unlike the lower-class women who provided basic linens, women who did such skilled work produced the vestments and luxury items used in churches (Garver 2009, 224). The most famous piece of medieval needlework is the Bayeux Embroidery (sometimes incorrectly called a tapestry), stitched by unknown artisans in the late eleventh century to commemorate the conquest of England by William of Normandy. There are many theories about who made the embroidery, but considering that needlework was uniformly women’s work, it is likely to have been the work of women.


Women in towns were, of course, obliged to do many of the same tasks as their counterparts in rural areas, and in the early Middle Ages, there was very little difference between them. As towns became larger and more focused on trade and commerce in the later Middle Ages, the roles women were able to take within them changed, just as in weaving and in brewing. The most important economic innovations of this period were the trade organizations called guilds. Guilds provided for the apprenticeship of children to guild members to train up new members of the organization, like the guild of goldsmiths or weavers, and guaranteed the quality of the items produced by guild members. Guilds controlled the apprenticeship system, in which children were legally transferred to a workshop to learn a craft or trade under the guidance of a master. Upon being released from their apprenticeships about ten years later, they could petition to join the guild as masters themselves, or they could be required to spend some years as a journeyman, or wage laborer, until eligible to apply for membership (Tierney 1999, 280). Guild membership, however, was often restricted to men, except in cases where the craft was thought to be women’s work, like embroidery. In many places, women could have only limited access to the advantages of the organizations except through their husbands. The context of their work was often the household rather than the guild hall.

Guild rules sometimes allowed widows to continue to run their husbands’ businesses as guild members and to train up their children and other apprentices (Uitz 1988, 51). In town charters, some lords guaranteed the rights of children and widows to inherit the goods and privileges of their husbands and fathers without paying an inheritance tax. For example, in the twelfth century, Duke Conrad of Zähringen guaranteed the inhabitants of Freiburg im Breisgau that “If one of my burghers dies, his wife and children should inherit everything: everything her husband leaves behind belongs to them and cannot be sequestered by others” (Uitz 1988, 20). These widows had rights to guild advantages that were not often extended to other women.

Craftswomen do show up in the sources. The Paris tax registers (livres de la taille) of 1300 show women working as flax beaters (preparing flax for spinning by beating and carding the fibers) and as wool spinners. The largest trade for women in fourteenth-century Paris was silk spinning, which was divided into two types of thread that were spun on different sized spindles. Those craftswomen who spun on larger spindles were completely independent and could train apprentices and their children, including their husbands’ children from previous marriages; those who spun on smaller spindles did not have the same rights. There were thirty-six female silk-spinning masters in the 1300 tax roll. Silk weaving was also a primarily female occupation, as was purse-making; in fact, in the total of 321 professions listed in the Paris documents for the second half of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, 108 named female workers in a broad variety of roles, including master (Uitz 1988, 52). Although men dominated the most high-status jobs in the silk industry such as gold beating, women silk workers were high status compared to other working women. Women artisans made gold thread by wrapping beaten metal foil around a wool center and worked at twisting silk fibers together into yarn, a process called “throwing” (Farmer 2017, 111). A lower-level “throwster” might still be very poor, for many of them did piece work only as they could and made very little money. In contrast, a female mercer, or cloth seller, could make herself very rich.

Paris, however, was a unique example, because its high population increased demand for luxury goods and may have increased opportunities for women to be involved in trades such as silk production (Uitz 1988, 53). Paris had five female-dominated guilds, but London did not have any. Membership in the Paris guilds for women was fairly easy to obtain because the level of expertise required was not very high; the statutes of the silk thrower’s guild, for example, included only the requirement that the craftswoman be willing to follow guild rules. By contrast, the men’s guild of makers of silk cloth and velvet specified that all practitioners had to be experts in the craft. This included not only an examination by the masters of the craft in Paris but also a sum of money paid to the guild and to the king for the privilege of operating (Farmer 2017, 115).

For women in England, the ability to engage in trade and to conduct business was governed by laws that placed married women as dependents of their husbands. A woman who did business under this law was called a feme covert (literally, a “covered woman”), who was legally under her husband’s control and finances. A feme sole, on the other hand, was a woman who did business under her own control. Such women were often unmarried, but English law also allowed married women to operate as femes soles when they practiced a craft separate from that of their husbands, like brewing or silk work. London custom also allowed a widow one-third of her husband’s property after his death, which she could take with her into a new marriage or a craft as a feme sole (Hanawalt 2007, 6–7).


Although women lagged behind men in literacy in the Middle Ages, there is considerable evidence that women worked as scribes. In the early Middle Ages, literate nuns copied religious manuscripts for themselves and for each other and continued to do so once vernacular (non-Latin) books became more common in the later period. Apart from those famous nuns who wrote their own works, like Hildegard of Bingen and Herrad of Hohenburg (see chapter seven), these writers copied major works for both inside and outside the monastery. In the late eighth to early ninth centuries, the nuns of Chelles, a Benedictine monastery in northern France, were widely acknowledged for their ability at copying. They produced a six-volume set of Augustine of Hippo’s Commentary on the Psalms for Archchancellor Hildebold of Cologne, along with many other works. The handwriting of the nuns of Chelles was so distinctive that some Chelles manuscripts are identified in libraries simply by the script. Many other nunneries had resident copyists. The nuns of the Benedictine monastery at Admont and the Premonstratensian house of Schäftlarn in twelfth-century Bavaria collaborated with the men in their double monasteries to copy numerous works and also authored new works on their own (Beach 2000).

When a particularly important person died in a monastery, some monasteries (male and female) sent messengers to travel between churches and monasteries to ask for prayers for the dead person’s soul. Such messengers carried documents called mortuary rolls. Each place they visited added written prayers to the original document that carried the announcement of the death. When they ran out of parchment at the bottom, they sewed on another piece, so that the rolls became very long—some as long as thirty meters. One particularly fine example is the mortuary roll of Abbess Matilda of Holy Trinity, Caen (d. 1113), which is about twenty-two meters long (about 72 feet) (Leslie 1993, 116–124). The testimonies added to the parchment roll from women’s monasteries are likely to have been the work of the nuns.

Outside the cloister, as literacy and vernacular literature became more common, laywomen also copied manuscripts for themselves and each other. The Findern Manuscript (Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6), which contains the handwriting of over forty scribes, is an interesting example compiled in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The manuscript belonged to an English gentry family, and several women were closely involved with its compilation. It contains poetry, romances, and some well-known works from famous authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) and John Lydgate (ca. 1370–1450), but it also has unique examples of poetry. Some characteristics of the manuscript, such as the feminine pronouns used, give hints that the women revised and edited texts along with copying them. Four women’s names also appear in the manuscript, but it is not clear whether they were copying someone else’s work or setting down their own (Hanson-Smith 1979).


Women worked as caregivers and healers both as part of household labor and in public. Although the sources are far fewer for the early period than for the late Middle Ages, in the household the primary healer was always female. Healing lent itself to the daily activity of the household, as the preparations of foods and medicines were often identical and took place in the same kitchens. Herbs brewed or preserved by themselves, called “simples,” were given for everyday illnesses from sore throats to joint pain and could be eaten or drunk, plastered on with a bandage, rubbed on as an oil, or added to bathwater. They could also be combined together for more complicated medications.

Prayers and incantations were often used in healing. An early example of a medical text, the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga (tenth century), includes charms that instruct the healer to concoct a number of herbs over a fire into a thick soup called a pottage, and then to say a prayer over the pottage before giving it to the sick person to eat. The prayers in the Lacnunga are mostly Christian, but there are many phrases that we would consider magical; in fact, the distinction between religious and magical language seems to have been irrelevant to the people who used the remedies. The text does not specify who was doing the cooking and praying, leaving open the possibility that women were a central part of this healing process.

Women learned recipes and caregiving techniques from other women in their communities, particularly from their own families. In the later Middle Ages, aristocratic women wrote to one another about health issues and exchanged recipes that still survive. Such letters also tell us that upper-class women sometimes stayed in one another’s households for medical care, especially when an illness was prolonged or if they were widowed and did not have other family to take care of them. Although the passing of medical recipes from one woman to another has to have been largely oral rather than written, the letter evidence shows a strong network between aristocratic women that must mirror the exchange everyday women did on a daily basis. Some recipes may have had very long lives, as they were passed from mother to daughter and from neighbor to neighbor. Among them were cosmetic recipes as well—often to whiten the skin or make the hair more blond (Cabré 2008, 38, 48).

The most visible place to find female healers was certainly in women’s health and fertility. Pregnancy and childbirth were women’s business throughout the Middle Ages, although the university-trained medical community—all male—attempted to exercise increasing control over the process as the period progressed. (See chapter three for more information about midwifery.) The twelfth-century compilation known as the Trotula, one part of which was probably written by a female healer named Trota, gives numerous remedies for childbirth complications. The recipe evidence also suggests women healers continued to provide pregnancy and childbirth care throughout the period. (See chapter two for more information about the Trotula, and chapter seven for more information about Trota.)

An interesting example of a female healer survives in a court case that the medical faculty of the University of Paris brought against a woman named Jacoba Felicie in the fourteenth century. Jacoba had been practicing medicine, including examining patients’ urine and prescribing drugs, in and around Paris for some time. University-trained physicians, all men, were suing her to make her stop practicing. Numerous witnesses attested to Jacoba’s success in treating their illnesses. Some of the witnesses had even consulted professional physicians before consulting her. Jacoba argued before the court that not only had she been successful in treating the sick but also that her sex allowed her to visit and heal women who were too modest to show their illnesses to strange men. She also suggested that allowing her to practice medicine was a lesser evil than letting such modest women die of their illnesses (Wallis 2010, 366–369). The court did not agree: Jacoba was excommunicated and forbidden to practice medicine. Her story, however, may show us that some medieval people were comfortable with female healers and sought them out for treatment.


The work that medieval women certainly conformed to some of our modern expectations: cooking, child care, and household management were the central occupation of many. Managing the household, however, did not necessarily mean that a woman worked only at household tasks. Many women worked at least partly outside of the home, and a few became successful professional women. The gender binary of the Middle Ages restricted their ability to participate in some trades, but the wives and daughters of guildsmen were involved in making the household’s livelihood work. In the next chapter, we will explore the lives of upper-class women, who also performed important functions both inside and outside the home.

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