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Rural Economies

Abstract and Keywords

The great majority of the population of medieval Europe lived and worked in the countryside. This article examines gender differences in access to land (the key resource), in patterns of work or "the gender division of labor," and in wage earning and wage payments. Work in agriculture, textile production, and food processing is discussed, as well as the nature of domestic work or housework. Although evidence of everyday life is slight or nonexistent in many periods and regions, it is possible to discern important changes across the medieval period in women's access to land and the gendered organization of work. Commercialization, demographic trends, and technological change all had an impact. Nonetheless, continuities in the type of work women did are also striking, particularly their exclusion from high-status and profitable activities, and their consistently low wages.

Keywords: work, land, agriculture, textiles, domestic work, wages, gender division of labor, servants, everyday life

A Late fifteenth-century English ballad offers a lively representation of women’s work in the rural medieval economy. In it, the husband and wife argue over who does the most work. The man’s work is described only as plowing, all day long. In contrast, the woman milks cows, makes butter and cheese, raises poultry, bakes bread, brews ale, processes flax and wool into yarn, weaves cloth, and does the housework. Despite lying “all night awake with our child,” she tends to the cows and tidies the house each morning before her husband even gets up.1 The ballad takes the woman’s side, arguing that women’s work involved hard labor and skill. Its moral is that the contribution of women and men to the rural economy was different but complementary: both were crucial to survival and prosperity.

Medieval Europe was overwhelmingly rural: more than 90 percent of the population lived in the countryside or small towns. With little mechanical power available, all aspects of the economy depended heavily on human labor: women and men worked hard to make a living. On the one hand, a history that ignores either women’s economic role, or the role that gender played in shaping the economy, distorts our understanding of economic development and of women’s lives. Women, like men, worked long and hard. On the other hand, women’s position in society was not simply determined by their degree of participation in the economy. It is a modern assumption that active economic involvement and hard work translate into status and wealth. As any medieval peasant would have explained, while hard work might make the difference between survival and starvation, it did not bring wealth or power. A similar lesson can be learned about women’s economic involvement. To explain why women owned less land than men, why women were excluded from certain occupations, and why they were normally paid less than men, it is necessary to look well beyond the economy at customs, laws, political institutions, and religious teachings that favored men and worked against women.

This chapter is structured around three aspects of involvement in the rural economy. The first is the ownership and tenure of land, particularly the proportion of female landholders. In an economy which was primarily agricultural, land was an essential resource. Possession of land indicates involvement in the management of agriculture, (p. 312) but land was also an important source of status, power, and wealth. The second aspect is the gender division of labor. Occupations, tasks, and patterns of work were all gendered in the medieval period. Some were tightly restricted to either men or women, others showed a preponderance of one gender or the other, while other activities were mixed. Nonetheless, as the fifteenth-century ballad described above shows, daily work routines in rural households were understood in gendered terms. Despite often being presented as “natural,” particularly with regard to unpaid and caring work within the home, the gender division of labor did change over time. Technological innovations and commercialization had an impact. The third aspect of gendered involvement in the rural economy is paid labor and the level of wages. In the late medieval period, women were active participants in the labor market as servants and day laborers, but they were typically paid between three-quarters and one half of what men received. The discussion of women’s wages crystallizes many of the issues about women’s unequal participation in the economy. Were women paid less because they were less physically strong than men, worked shorter hours due to domestic duties, or were less skilled? Or was it because the gender division of labor “crowded” women into certain occupations while excluding them from others? Or was it simply that laws, customs, and social expectations dictated that women’s wages should be lower? This debate spills over into a consideration of the gender division of labor: why were women excluded from some occupations? Why were women and not men assumed to be burdened with unpaid housework and childcare? Why, as Judith Bennett has noted, was “women’s work characteristically low-status, low-skilled and low-paid?”2

Europe experienced significant economic change in the one thousand years between 500 and 1500. Indirect evidence of improved agricultural productivity is provided by population growth, with more people being supported from the same area of land, and by urbanization and increased industrial production, which indicate the ability to support a larger nonagricultural population. Over time, more agricultural and craft products were sold, and traded over long distances: the growth of towns and industry is evidence of this commercialization, as is the gradual replacement of unfree labor with wage labor. Population growth and economic growth slowed in the early fourteenth century, with famine in 1315–1318, followed by a sharp reduction in population (30–50 percent) caused by the Black Death in 1347–1351. Recovery was slow and uneven, with population levels remaining low and many towns experiencing decline or stagnation until the early sixteenth century. Nonetheless, rural society prospered: serfdom largely disappeared from Western Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the agrarian economy continued to commercialize in the fifteenth century, with an increasingly prosperous peasantry, an expanding rural cloth industry, and high real wages.

How did these changes affect women’s involvement in the economy? Did women’s level of economic involvement and agency improve or decline across the medieval period? David Herlihy in Opera Muliebria argues that women’s work became increasingly restricted. For instance, in the early medieval period women dominated all stages of cloth and clothing production including spinning, weaving, fulling, dyeing, and tailoring. By the fifteenth century, only spinning was still restricted to women, and (p. 313) the other processes were dominated by men. There was also a decline in the proportion of landholders who were women. Female peasant tenants were more common in the period before the Black Death than in the early sixteenth century. There were more aristocratic women holding land in c.800–c.1100 than afterwards. Other historians see improvements, arguing that the labor shortages after the Black Death increased employment opportunities for women and thus improved their economic fortunes and levels of independence.3

In a study of women’s work in early modern Germany, Sheilagh Ogilvie usefully classifies explanations offered by historians, economists, and sociologists for gender inequalities in the preindustrial economy as: “technological,” that is determined by the physical characteristics of the two sexes and their interaction with the existing technology of production; “cultural,” that is determined by norms, mentalities, and informal customs, for instance relating to marriage, family dynamics, and education; or “institutional,” that is determined by the rules or laws that govern dominant institutions such as the manorial system, guilds, or markets. Thus Elizabeth Barber’s explanation that women dominated textile production in the prehistoric and ancient world because it fitted well with their home-based duties of childcare and food preparation relies on a technological explanation. Bennett’s argument that women’s work remained low-paid, low-skilled, and low status between c.1300 and c.1700, despite commercial and demographic change, because of a deeply ingrained patriarchy, is a cultural explanation. The arguments of Herlihy and Ogilvie that male-dominated guilds were responsible for formally excluding women from well-paid and skilled work in textile production is an institutional explanation, as is that put forward by Marjorie McIntosh that demographic and market conditions were favorable to women in the years after the Black Death.4 Yet, while many historians tend towards one type of explanation rather than another, these explanations are not exclusive, and it is possible (and indeed likely) that more than one type is necessary. While technological and institutional changes offer convincing explanations of shifts over time, it is hard to explain the long-term persistence of gendered differences without turning to cultural explanations, particularly the existence of patriarchy, a deeply ingrained social hostility to women’s independence, and an assertion of their inferiority to men.

Women and Land

Property, and especially real property or land, was crucial to the medieval economy. Instead of relying on earning wages, most people worked the land and/or produced items in their own homes as independent manufacturers. Rights to land, tenements, and goods were essential to prosperity. Property rights were gendered: sons and daughters had different rights of inheritance, married men and women had different rights of ownership, and widowers and widows had different rights to land and goods after their spouse’s death.

(p. 314) Aristocratic women in the early and central medieval period are rarely considered by historians as economic actors, a point also made by Joanna Drell (Chapter 21 this volume). However, like their fathers and husbands, these women owned and managed property. Husbands were often absent on matters of politics, war, administration, or pilgrimage, and women were expected to be competent managers of estates in their absence, as well as during widowhood, as Drell notes. The will of Aethelgifu, an elite woman who owned twelve estates in tenth-century England, is unusual in revealing the details of her landed and personal property. She bequeathed seventy-four oxen, thirty-four cows, 760 sheep, and three herds of swine, and she mentioned food rents rendered in malt, meal, fish, honey, and cheese. She owned not only land and livestock but also the people necessary to work the estate: in her will, she freed seventy slaves, while others were given as gifts to her family and friends. They included a miller, fuller, huntsman, dairymaid, shepherd, and swineherds. Aethelgifu listed many of her workers by name, and she knew whether they were married and how many children they had. She clearly had a thorough knowledge of her estates and workforce. According to England’s Domesday Book, 350 elite women, mostly widows, held landed estates in 1066 accounting for 5 percent of total lands. In the more detailed Exon Domesday and Little Domesday, 10–14 percent of smaller landowners (such as “thegns” and “freemen”) were women. One woman, Leofgyo, held a manor at Knook in Wiltshire and made “gold thread embroidery for the king and queen”: she appears to have been granted land in return for her work.5

Elsewhere in early medieval Europe, many women owned land in their own right even when married, and they could alienate land by grant or sale if they wished to do so. In a study of tenth-century Christian Spain, Wendy Davies shows that while 46 percent of property transactions were carried out by men acting without women, the rest involved women—19 percent women acting without men, 29 percent married couples, and 9 percent other mixed-gender groups (such as mothers and sons). The women involved in these property transfers ranged from elite women in court circles to ordinary free peasant women. Women were still active participants in the land market of Castile in northern Spain in the late thirteenth century. Herlihy identified Spain and southern France as areas where female landholders were particularly prominent from the ninth to twelfth centuries, accounting for 8–18 percent of alienations of land. In Montpellier, many elite women owned and devised land from the tenth century onwards, although by the thirteenth century this role had declined (perhaps because women’s dowries were by then usually made up of moveable goods rather than land).6

From the thirteenth century onwards, there is better evidence about peasant women’s rights to land. These were influenced by local customs of inheritance, which varied a great deal across Europe. England was dominated by primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son), although sons sometimes inherited jointly. Daughters only inherited land when there were no sons, and widows typically received a third of the property they had held with their husband. In medieval Scandinavia, land was divided among sons and daughters, with each daughter inheriting half the portion given to each son. Widows had rights to all the property they brought into a marriage. Late medieval Germany (p. 315) was also dominated by partible inheritance between sons and daughters. In France, inheritance customs differed between the north and south. In northern France, property tended to be divided among children, male and female: in the Paris region, parents had the right to favor particular children as they wished; in Brittany, property was divided with strict equality among all children. Only in Normandy was land divided between sons only, with daughters excluded. In some places in southern France, impartible inheritance favored a single heir: in the Basque region and some other localities, it was eldest child—whether male or female—who inherited, while more commonly land went to the eldest son (and to the eldest daughter if there were no sons). Throughout these regions, widows were generally given preference to inherit property before children, except in Normandy, where they were excluded from receiving land.

How did such customs translate into practice? In England, where inheritance customs favored men, lists of tenants from the early fourteenth century show that women held about one fifth of tenancies in their own right. The effects of restricted landholding percolated through women’s lives. Village society in medieval England is richly documented by manorial court rolls. Manorial courts were run by feudal lords and oversaw many aspects of the village economy: the transfer of land by inheritance or sale, the payment of rent, agreements of debt and credit between villagers, brewing of ale for sale, and the marriage, place of abode, and labor services of unfree tenants. Women are less well recorded than men in court rolls: fewer women were tenants and women did not act as manorial jurors as men did, nor were they elected to the office of constable or reeve. For instance, only 20 percent of individuals appearing in the manor court of Brigstock between 1287 and 1348 were women. Nonetheless, the unfree status of serfdom affected women as well as men: the daughters of unfree tenants paid fines for permission to marry; labor services were due from female tenants as well as male tenants, and regulations might specify labor was supplied by men, women, or whole families. Women do appear frequently in court rolls as brewers of ale. Ale was the staple drink of medieval England, preferred even to water. It was sold regularly in villages and small towns, and manorial lords had the right to charge a small fine for testing its quality. Manorial court rolls list brewers, the majority of whom were either women or men appearing in right of their wives. There is also evidence that women engaged in the village economy by acting as moneylenders. This activity tended to be restricted to widows as married women could not make contracts independently of their husbands.7

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s vivid description of village life in Montaillou in the French Pyrenees reveals that, despite a misogynistic and male-dominated culture, women could be independent economic actors following their own occupations and making contracts. In the region of Montaillou, inheritance was impartible: families were so strongly identified with a single house that the word “house” meant “family.” Each house had a powerful head who ran its economy and chose his or her heir from among its members. Most heads were men, but women also took this role. In the early fourteenth century, a woman—Mengarde Clergue—headed the wealthiest and most important peasant house in Montaillou. Alazais Azema headed another, and she became a cheesemonger and pig farmer in her widowhood. Some of these women inherited (p. 316) the headship of a house from their parents rather than husbands. In her widowhood, Guillemette Maury left her marital house, reverted to her natal surname, and became head of her parents’ house in a nearby village. She farmed a vineyard, kept a flock of sheep, and cheated her nephew (who was a shepherd). Sybille Baille inherited her mother’s house, separated from her husband with whom she had two sons, and worked as a stock-raiser. Even married women who did not head houses sometimes had identifiable occupations, such as the sheep farmer Sybille Pierre.8 The sheep-farming economy, whereby flocks owned by peasant households were moved over long distances by itinerant shepherds, placed women like her in a powerful position over their male employees, the shepherds.

While women’s rights to land may have strengthened in the period up to 1000, no study of medieval female landholders after 1000 reveals an increase in the proportion of women owning or renting land over time. The situation was either one of stability or decline. Decline was often associated with commercialization and the switch to giving daughters dowries in goods and cash rather than land. Before the Black Death, 17–20 percent of peasant tenants in English manors were female; by the early sixteenth century, this had fallen to 10 percent or less. This decline occurred in a period of plentiful land and economic prosperity for the English peasantry. Yet the implications of this change are not clear-cut. Cash dowries could be worth more than a small inheritance of land, and daughters often received endowments that matched the arrangements made for younger sons. And, despite the drop in female tenancies, women continued to be active managers and cultivators of their husbands’ land and became independent economic agents as widows, even as the rural economy commercialized. An example of such a woman is Avice Lombe, a wealthy peasant from early sixteenth-century Norfolk, who managed to accumulate wealth in a combination of land, livestock, and cash, increasing her property during each of her four marriages.9 The institutional structures of law and inheritance were prejudicial against women, but they still left room for some women to prosper, especially in widowhood.

Gender Division of Labor

The peasant economy of medieval Europe combined agriculture with textile production. Everywhere, grain (wheat, barley, rye, and oats) was the staple diet, eaten as bread or stewed in pottage. In northern areas, grain cultivation was combined with keeping livestock, primarily cattle and sheep, which provided meat and milk for butter and cheese, while ale brewed from malted grains was the primary drink. In southern Europe, grain cultivation was supplemented with olives grown for oil and vines for wine. Everywhere, poultry, pigs, fruit, and vegetables raised on the farmstead, typically by women, provided important elements of the ordinary diet. The two main types of textile production relied on agricultural products: sheep’s wool for woolen cloth, and plant fibers, primarily from flax and hemp, for linen.

(p. 317) The gender division of labor described in the late medieval ballad with which this chapter started was common across northwestern Europe. Illustrations from religious psalters emphasize women’s participation in agriculture. Thirteenth-century psalters from southern Germany show women raking hay and harvesting wheat with a sickle; the early fourteenth-century English Luttrell Psalter depicts women weeding crops, harvesting wheat, milking sheep, and spinning wool; while the many psalters produced in the Dutch and Flemish workshops of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries illustrate women making hay and harvesting wheat, picking grapes, shearing sheep, milking cows, feeding pigs, and bundling firewood. In southern Europe, women tended vines and olive groves, but were less commonly involved in grain agriculture.10 Everywhere, women are revealed as consistently present in the agricultural workforce.

It is often assumed that women’s responsibility for childcare led them to concentrate on work that could to be done around the house and farmstead. However, there was no overriding reason why all childcare had to take place within the house, or why, other than breastfeeding, such care had to be undertaken by women. This type of argument is undermined by the clear evidence that women did agricultural work in the fields. Late medieval sources such as Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry (1523) describe women’s responsibility for marketing butter, cheese, poultry, ale, and other items they produced, as well as taking grain to the mill, activities that also took them well away from the house. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that rural houses even in the late medieval period were normally simple structures, typically consisting of a single main room with an open hearth at its center and smoke escaping through the thatched roof above. Furnishings and possessions were limited. An inventory of a moderately prosperous peasant in Normandy in 1401 lists all the moveable goods in his house: two furnished beds, four pairs of bed sheets, one table, one bench, two bins, three copper cooking pots, two brass bowls, and various items made of tin (six pans, two plates, two pots, and a small barrel).11 Most medieval households owned less than this. Where evidence exists, women do seem to have been responsible for “housework,” but this routine work consisted of sweeping the floor, cleaning the few cooking and eating utensils, and preparing meals, often cooked in a single pot over the fire. The really laborious work done by women around the home involved processing raw materials into useful products: grain into flour, flour into bread, barley into malt, malt into ale, milk into butter and cheese, pigs into salted meat, wool and flax into yarn and cloth. In the late medieval period, many of these products, particularly yarn, ale, and cheese, were sold for cash. Both men and women worked to provide the family’s direct subsistence, and both produced goods for sale.

In the early Middle Ages, labor requirements differed and slavery was more prevalent. Among slaves, such as those mentioned in Aethelgifu’s will, women worked as “hand-grinding slaves” turning grain into flour, as dairymaids, and as producers of textiles and clothing. Male slaves commonly worked as animal herders, plowmen, and craftsmen. Constance Berman has suggestively argued that the spread of water-powered mills to grind grain across France and England in the tenth and eleventh centuries transformed women’s work, offering a major stimulus to the expansion of viticulture and the textile industry. Grinding grain by hand was a menial task involving long hours of hard, (p. 318) repetitive labor. The construction of water mills, of which there were at least 6,000 in England by 1086, freed up women’s time to be used in other activities. Guy Bois notes that lords in tenth-century Burgundy instructed their female slaves or servants to take up spinning and cloth-work instead of hand-grinding, while Berman’s own work on western France links the introduction of water mills to the establishment of the wine and wool trade between Bordeaux and eastern England. She argues that once freed from the necessity of hand-grinding, women first helped to establish vineyards and later turned their attention to spinning, enabling both wine and cloth production to increase.12

The strongest evidence for women’s work in the early medieval period relates to cloth. In the ancient world and the era before c.1000, women dominated all aspects of cloth production. Christine Fell discusses archaeological and linguistic evidence from Anglo-Saxon England that indicates women’s role. Finds such as thread-boxes, spindle whorls, and weaving batons occur in the graves of women but not men. Linguistically, spinelhaelf (or spindlehalf) was used to refer to property descending down the female side of the family, while the occupations of spinning, weaving, fulling, dyeing, and sewing were all given feminine “-ster” endings such as spinster and webster. In France and Germany, the ancient form of large-scale high-quality cloth production, in which women were gathered together in a gynaeceum or women’s workshop, survived into the medieval period. These workshops undertook the whole process of cloth production, from preparing the fibers to finished pieces of cloth. In early medieval Bavaria, there were cloth workshops or gynaecea on major rural estates, staffed entirely with female slaves. Although dominated by women, cloth production was not restricted to slaves. Free peasant women undoubtedly spun yarn and wove cloth on simple upright looms. Elite women were expected to be skilled in weaving and embroidery. And in Spain in 619, a church council decreed that weaving and spinning were the only manual work suitable for nuns in female monasteries.13

While the years around 1000 saw the spread of water mills and an expansion of the cloth industry, they also saw the disappearance of the gynaeceum and the entry of men into cloth production. In Paris in the late thirteenth century, by which time extensive occupational data survive, there were many male weavers, and cloth-finishing processes such as dyeing and fulling had been taken over entirely by men. The Florentine cloth industry in northern Italy, which relied predominantly on female weavers until the late fourteenth century, turned to male weavers in the fifteenth century. In rural Normandy, all weavers were men by the fifteenth century. In England, there were still some female weavers in the period 1350–1500, but they were greatly outnumbered by men. Spinning continued to be a female monopoly but was low-paid. It took eight to ten times longer to spin the yarn than to weave it into cloth. In Normandy, the production of an ell of linen cloth required one male weaver (paid 10 d.) and a number of women who prepared and spun the wool (who received 6 d. in total). For woolen cloth, a male weaver was paid 17 s. for 24 ells of coarse woolen cloth, and the women who combed, carded, and spun the wool 25 s.14 Although poorly paid, spinning with a distaff and drop spindle had one advantage: it was a portable occupation that could be combined with other activities such as watching over children or animals, or even walking to market.

(p. 319) The transfer of weaving from women’s work to men’s coincided with two important changes in woolen cloth production. The first was the adoption of the horizontal loom, a more complex piece of machinery than the older upright loom, and one that allowed higher-quality cloth to be produced more quickly.15 The second was a radical reorganization in the way cloth was produced. In the early Middle Ages, ordinary cloth was produced for direct use by peasant women working at home, and high-quality fabrics (for elite use and gift exchange) were made in women’s workshops on estates. In contrast, the later medieval cloth industry was based on specialist weavers (male and female) producing for sale cloth of various grades. Weaving became a full-time occupation, but one carried out at home and with the assistance of other family members. The growth of weaving as a specialist occupation correlated with the gradual decline in women’s involvement.

Other industries experienced similar trends. Bennett’s study of English brewing describes how in 1300 almost every village in England contained women who brewed ale commercially but on a small scale, for home consumption and for sale to neighbors. With improved standards of living after the Black Death, demand for ale increased and thus, the scale of production. The introduction of beer brewed with hops in the fifteenth century intensified this trend. Beer keeps for longer than ale, and thus can be made in larger quantities. Women rarely had the time, wealth, access to credit, or political influence within the community to run large-scale businesses; by the early sixteenth century, brewing had become a specialist male trade located in towns rather than the countryside. Women still participated in brewing, taking over the husbands’ businesses as widows, working as servants for brewers, as small-scale retailers, and brewing for home consumption, but they no longer dominated the industry.16

Increased male participation did not occur in all growing industries, however. Dairying remained an all-female occupation in England and elsewhere despite increased cheese consumption. Enterprises could be quite large scale, such as the dairy of sixty-three cows run by head dairymaid Katherine Dowe and three other female servants for the monastery of Sibton Abbey in early sixteenth-century Suffolk; they also produced linen cloth, and raised both pigs and poultry.17 Nor did the commercialization of the rural economy always work against women. Women found work as petty retailers and used their houses to run taverns and inns. The influx of women from rural areas into late medieval towns (evident from unequal sex ratios in urban censuses and taxes) suggests women sought work within the more commercial and industrial urban economy, even if such work was often insecure and low-paid.

McIntosh, citing evidence of market-based work, mostly in small towns, concludes women had “unusual opportunities and agency” in the 150 years after the Black Death. There was a shortage of agricultural labor, the growing cloth industry needed women to spin yarn, women carried out petty retailing and offered services to earn a cash income. However, her conclusions contradict those of Herlihy who found that women were increasingly excluded from a range of occupations, despite labor shortages.18 In fact, it seems very unlikely that the quantity of work carried out by women either increased or decreased across the medieval period: women had always worked hard and continued (p. 320) to do so. The particular types of occupation women worked in did change over time, but the status of women’s work changed little. When they were dominated by women, weaving and brewing were not high-status or profitable occupations. Nor were the petty marketing activities women took up in the later period. Women, with a very few exceptions, were consistently excluded from controlling high-status and profitable activities. The final section of this chapter, on wage labor, reinforces this conclusion. There is plenty of evidence of women working for wages, but rarely were they paid the same as men, and wage labor itself was a low-status occupation.

Wage Labor

There were two quite different forms of wage labor in the late medieval economy. First, there was labor carried out by the day or task in return for a cash wage. This is familiar from more modern economies and needs little explanation. The second is service, the work of servants. Servants were contracted for longer periods of time, often a year, and lived within their employer’s household. They were paid largely with board and lodgings, but also received a cash wage. Medieval servants should not be confused with “domestic servants” of the type found in the nineteenth century. Medieval servants participated in whatever work was required by the household. In rural households, they worked in agriculture and textile production, although they also helped with any housework or childcare that needed to be done. In elite households, male servants, employed partly as a mark of status for the employer, carried out domestic work such as cooking and cleaning, and only laundry work seems to have been reserved for women.

It was common for young men and women to work as servants before marriage in northwestern Europe. The English Poll Tax returns of 1377–1381 show that around 8 percent of taxpayers were servants. In towns, female servants often outnumbered male servants; in the countryside, the proportion of females varied between half of all servants in rural Yorkshire to a third in the midland county of Rutland. Outside of England, rural servants are poorly documented, but there is plenty of evidence of young unmarried male and female servants in towns such as Nuremberg, Ypres, and Reims. Female servants in Bergen even formed their own guild in the fourteenth century. Birgit Sawyer and Peter Sawyer argue that in Scandinavia female servants were more attractive employees than men because they could undertake indoor work during the winter, such as brewing, baking, spinning, and weaving, as well as working in agriculture during the summer. In contrast, men’s work was highly seasonal as a result of being conducted largely outdoors.19

In southern Europe, including southern France, Italy, and Spain, women tended to marry relatively young and move directly from their parental household to that of their husband. This meant that working as servants before marriage was rare. On the other hand, women in this region were often widowed young, and remarriage was less frequent for women than men. Many of these older women sought work as servants. (p. 321) Otherwise, it was only the poorest girls who entered service, such as those sent from the Tuscan countryside to cities like Florence, where they worked until marriage in return for an employer paying their dowry.20

Records of rural wage labor provide plentiful evidence about the gender division of work. In England from the thirteenth century onwards, plowing, mowing with a scythe, and threshing grain were typically carried out by men, while weeding, haymaking, and binding sheaves and gleaning in the grain harvest were dominated by women. Harvesting grain with a sickle was a mixed activity. Women also planted beans, winnowed grain, and collected firewood. Nonetheless, it is a common feature of wage accounts that many more days were worked by men than women. In the period after the Black Death when there was a shortage of agricultural labor, occasional exceptions can be found; for example, women sometimes outnumbered men as reapers at harvest time.21

In fifteenth-century continental Europe, women worked for wages processing flax and wool into yarn, weeding crops, making hay, harvesting wheat, cutting grapes, and shearing sheep in Normandy, while in Languedoc, women weeded crops, picked grapes, and gathered olives. At harvest time, women bound the sheaves of wheat, and one female binder was needed for every two male reapers. In the area around Seville in the late fifteenth century, men’s and women’s work alternated between tending their smallholdings (devoted to viticulture) and working on the large estates for wages, following a pattern that was both seasonal and gendered. In winter and early spring, men earned wages tending estate olive groves, while women dug and hoed the vines on the smallholding. During the summer, men worked in the grain harvest in July and August before returning to harvest the grapes on their own holdings in September. Then between November and January, olives were harvested: wage-work done almost entirely by women, who left home and boarded for the duration on the large estates. Women’s wages were low, perhaps half of what an unskilled male laborer earned.22

Women’s rates of pay in late medieval England have been subject to intense debate. Scattered evidence from before the Black Death demonstrates that men and women were sometimes paid the same wages. Simon Penn considered that the labor shortage following the Black Death led to more equality, and women often received wages equal to men’s. This has been disputed by Sandy Bardsley, who argued that men only received the same pay as women when they were young, old, or in some other way disabled; healthy adult men were always paid more than healthy adult women. Evidence from the seventeenth century supports this conclusion, showing that old men and boys joined women in tasks like weeding for the same pay. However, it also demonstrates that in times when the labor market was oversupplied, such as the early seventeenth century (a situation similar to the early fourteenth century), able-bodied men desperate to find work accepted women’s wages to do tasks normally performed by women, such as weeding and haymaking. Bennett has noted that on average, women’s wage rates remained remarkably stable over time at between one half and three-quarters those paid to men, a conclusion supported by Bardsley.23

Bennett’s explanation for this persistent gender wage gap is that wages were determined at least in part by patriarchal prejudices that devalued women’s work in (p. 322) comparison to men’s. This conclusion has been forcefully disputed by John Hatcher, who argues that men and women were paid the same for piece work (work paid by the task), and only day wages (paid for time) varied. Borrowing from Joyce Burnette’s discussion of the male–female wage gap in early modern England, he suggests that women’s day wages were low because women were less physically strong and also may have worked shorter hours due to their “need to care for their families and to work in the house.” Women’s lack of strength also explains their exclusion from the best-paid agricultural work, such as mowing with a scythe. In essence, Hatcher argues that women’s wage rates in agriculture were determined by the market: “systematic discrimination of this type is extremely hard to sustain in competitive markets such as those prevailing for agricultural labor in later medieval England.” The debate remains unresolved. We lack conclusive evidence about piece rates or hours of work for the late medieval period. Few historians would agree that the market for labor was wholly competitive in the late fourteenth and fifteenth century. Women’s total exclusion from working with the scythe, a well-paid task, cannot be explained by strength alone as some women were stronger than many men.24

A further, but connected, issue is whether the wage gap between men and women narrowed after the Black Death and whether women increased as a proportion of the wage labor force. For Languedoc, Le Roy Ladurie found that women’s agricultural wages almost equaled men’s in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, but by the 1360s had stabilized at 50 percent of those paid to men doing similar tasks, and remained at this rate until the mid-sixteenth century, when they deteriorated further to 37 percent. Similarly, Bois found that women’s wages were “less than half the level of male wages” in fifteenth-century Normandy. For England, Penn is more positive, arguing that women were more often paid the same as men after the Black Death and made up an increased proportion of the wage labor force. Recently, Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden have suggested there was a “‘golden age for women’ active in the labor market” in northwestern Europe between the late fourteenth and late fifteenth centuries, when plentiful employment opportunities meant that women delayed or eschewed marriage in order to earn wages, an argument first put forward by Jeremy Goldberg.25

As with the debate over wage rates, evidence remains limited. But it can be argued that positive assessments are too rosy. While real wages for agricultural laborers rose after the Black Death, wages for the type of work that women did were still low, and working for wages was a low-status activity. Higher wages might have allowed women to buy land, which was relatively cheap in this period, and secure the independence of running their own farming household. Yet the proportion of female landholders declined, particularly in the most commercialized regions where wage labor was common. Day laboring gave women their own small income, but female day laborers lived with fathers or husbands and lacked full control of the money they earned. Female servants living away from home were more financially independent, but the work of service was a demanding twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week occupation, which limited independence in other ways. A flexible workforce of poorly paid women benefited the wider economy, but the degree it benefited medieval women themselves is questionable.

(p. 323) Concluding Comments

“Women,” “rural Europe,” and “medieval” are all huge categories that mask a great deal of variation and large swathes of Europe for which evidence of everyday life is slight or nonexistent. There is no general agreement, and perhaps not enough questioning, of what an improvement or decline in women’s economic position would have looked like, or what changes in women’s economic position meant to their wider position within society. In this quagmire of uncertainty, some continuities stand out. Women’s predominance in textile production and food processing persisted over millennia; the majority of women’s wages remained fixed at between a half and three-quarters of men’s from the thirteenth century to the twentieth; women never dominated high-status, profitable occupations.26 But change is part of the story, too. Technological change and commercialization had the capacity to shake up existing modes of life and shift the gender division of labor, as with the spread of water mills, and large-scale brewing. We should also be wary of assumptions. Despite the consistent characterization of agricultural work in the fields as “male,” women’s participation in agriculture was widespread. It is assumed that women always were responsible for childcare and housework on the basis of very little evidence indeed, as it is also assumed that this shaped their working lives. Yet housework and childcare changed over time like other aspects of economy and society. There is no question, however, that women worked hard in medieval Europe, and made a vital contribution to the key sectors of the economy: agriculture, textile production, and food provision.

Further Reading

Bardsley, Sandy. “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England,” Past & Present, 165 (1999): 3–29.Find this resource:

    Bennett, Judith M. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006, chapters 4 and 5.Find this resource:

      Berman, Constance Hoffman. “Women’s Work in Family, Village, and Town after 1000 CE: Contributions to Economic Growth?” Journal of Women’s History, 19 (3) (2007): 10–32.Find this resource:

        Emigh, Rebecca Jean. “The Gender Division of Labour: The Case of Tuscan Smallholders,” Continuity and Change, 15 (1) (2000): 117–37.Find this resource:

          Goldberg, P. J. P. Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

            Herlihy, David. Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

              Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294–1324. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980.Find this resource:

                Mate, Mavis. Daughters, Wives, and Widows after the Black Death: Women in Sussex, 1350–1535. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                  McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. (p. 324) Find this resource:

                    Penn, Simon. “Female Wage-Earners in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” Agricultural History Review, 35 (1987): 1–14.Find this resource:

                      Stone, Marilyn and Carmen Benito-Vessels, eds. Women at Work in Spain: From the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.Find this resource:

                        Whittle, Jane “Inheritance, Marriage, Widowhood, and Remarriage: A Comparative Perspective on Women and Landholding in North-East Norfolk, 1440–1580,” Continuity and Change, 13 (1) (1998): 33–72.Find this resource:


                          (1.) P. J. P. Goldberg, ed., Women in England c. 1275–1525: Documentary Sources (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 169–70.

                          (2.) Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 106.

                          (3.) David Herlihy, Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); P. J. P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c.1300–1520 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Marjorie K. McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

                          (4.) Sheilagh Ogilvie, A Bitter Living: Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7–15; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: Norton, 1994), 29–30; Bennett, History Matters, 54–81; Herlihy, Opera Muliebria, 188–91; Ogilvie, Bitter Living, 320–44; McIntosh, Working Women, 250–53.

                          (5.) Julia Crick, ed., Charters of St. Albans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 91–100, 148–54; Peter Coss, The Lady in Medieval England 1000–1500 (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), 17; Pauline Stafford, “Women in Domesday,” in A. K. Bate and Malcolm Barber, eds, Medieval Women in Southern England (Reading: Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Reading, 1989), 77–82; Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 42.

                          (6.) Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 172; Teofilo F. Ruiz, “Women, Work, and Daily Life in Late Medieval Castile,” in Marilyn Stone and Carmen Benito-Vessels, eds, Women at Work in Spain: From the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 104–107; David Herlihy, “Land, Family, and Women in Continental Europe, 701–1200,” Traditio, 18 (1962): 108; Elizabeth Haluska-Rausch, “Transformations in the Powers of Wives and Widows near Montpellier, 985–1213,” in Robert F. Berkhofer, Alan Cooper, and Adam J. Kosto, eds, The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe: 950–1350 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

                          (7.) Judith M. Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Medieval Brigstock before the Plague (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 21–23; Chris Briggs, Credit and Village Society in Fourteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 115.

                          (8.) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294–1324 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), 5, 360–77.

                          (9.) Jane Whittle, “Inheritance, Marriage, Widowhood and Remarriage: A Comparative Perspective on Women and Landholding in North-East Norfolk, 1440–1580,” Continuity and Change, 13 (1) (1998): 36–37; Jane Whittle, The Development of Agrarian Capitalism: Land and Labour in Norfolk 1440–1580 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 140.

                          (10.) Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); Janet Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (London: The British Library, 2000); Rebecca Jean Emigh, “The Gender Division of Labour: The Case of Tuscan Smallholders,” Continuity and Change, 15 (1) (2000): 124–25.

                          (11.) Goldberg, ed., Women in England, 167–69; Guy Bois, The Crisis in Feudalism: Economy and Society in Eastern Normandy c. 1300–1550 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 181.

                          (12.) Constance Hoffman Berman, “Women’s Work in Family, Village, and Town after 1000 CE: Contributions to Economic Growth?” Journal of Women’s History, 19 (3) (2007): 24–25.

                          (13.) Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England, 39–42; Carl I. Hammer, A Large-Scale Slave Society of the Early Middle Ages: Slaves and Their Families in Early-Medieval Bavaria (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 22; Christina Cuadra Garcia, “Religious Women in the Monasteries of Castile-Leon,” in Stone and Benito-Vessels, eds, Women at Work, 39.

                          (14.) Berman, “Women’s Work,” 10; Bois, Crisis of Feudalism, 111.

                          (15.) John H. Munro, “Medieval Woollens: Textiles, Textile Technology and Industrial Organisation, c. 800–1500,” in David Jenkins, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 194–97.

                          (16.) Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

                          (17.) Jane Whittle, “Housewives and Servants in Rural England, 1440–1650,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 15 (2005): 69–70.

                          (18.) McIntosh, Working Women, 251–52; Herlihy, Opera Muliebria, 180.

                          (19.) Richard Smith, “Geographical Diversity in the Resort to Marriage in Late Medieval Europe,” in P. J. P. Goldberg, ed., Women in Medieval English Society (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997), 35–36; Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, 165; P. J. P. Goldberg, “Marriage, Migration, and Servanthood: The York Cause Paper Evidence,” in Goldberg, ed., Women in Medieval English Society, 2; Birgit Sawyer and Peter Sawyer, Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion to Reformation, circa 800–1500 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 210–11.

                          (20.) David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

                          (21.) Mark Page, ed., The Pipe Roll of the Bishopric of Winchester 1301–2 (Winchester: Hampshire County Council, 1996); Simon Penn, “Female Wage-Earners in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” Agricultural History Review, 35 (1987): 7–11; Sandy Bardsley, “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England,” Past & Present, 165 (1999): 11, 23–25.

                          (22.) Bois, Crisis in Feudalism, 110–14, 247–48; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 108–10; Mercedes Borrero Fernandez, “Peasant and Aristocratic Women: Their Role in the Rural Economy of Seville at the End of the Middle Ages,” in Stone and Benito-Vessels, eds, Women at Work, 11–31.

                          (23.) Penn, “Female Wage-EarnersÂ’; Bardsley, “Women’s WorkÂ’; Bennett, History Matters, 82–83, 101–103.

                          (24.) John Hatcher, “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England,” Past & Present, 173 (2001): 194–95; Michael Roberts, “Sickles and Scythes: Women’s Work and Men’s Work at Harvest Time,” History Workshop, 7 (1979): 7–12.

                          (25.) Le Roy Ladurie, Peasants of Languedoc, 109–11; Bois, Crisis of Feudalism, 114; Penn, “Female Wage-Earners,” 13–14; Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, “Girlpower: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval Period and Early Modern Period,” Economic History Review, 63 (1) (2007): 26–27; Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life-Cycle.

                          (26.) Bennett, History Matters, 82–107.