When people talk about women in the workplace, more often than not they discuss it as a new phenomenon. Women, we are given to understand, emerged to gain a foothold in the office as a part of the feminist revolution of the 1960s, bolstered by new ideas of equality, and a booming post-war economy. Some may note that this precedent was partially set as a result of the war time economy of the 1940s, with Rosie the Riveter still serving as an iconic reminder of a theoretically unprecedented moment when women emerged from the domestic sphere to take up the places of absent men.
While this is a familiar narrative, it is fictitious. For the great majority of human history, there was no doubt that women were to be understood as workers par excellance.
Though this is true across history, the medieval period is a particularly instructive era to learn more about the history of women and work. This is because it acts as the bridge between the ancient world and our own modern one—a literal Middle Age—which holds hallmarks of classical society, and still influences us today. As a result, it is can be used to understand the working patterns of the past writ large, which generally involved the great majority of the population working.
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To be fair, in the European context, if you mentioned women and work to a medieval person some of the first things they would probably discuss were the domestic work of motherhood and housekeeping. After all, marriage and motherhood were the most common expectations of women across the period. However, when discussing the intricacies of married life, medieval Europeans often spoke quite specifically about the role of wife and mother as a form of work. Pregnancy and childbirth were very much discussed as a form of labor—a painful and arduous process that often led to death for the women involved. After the violence of the childbed, women were then expected to perform domestic labor that was expressly gendered and acknowledged as backbreaking.
One English medieval document, the Hali Meiðhad or A Letter on Virginity, expressly discussed the backbreaking work involved in keeping a home, asking: “What kind of position is the wife in who when she comes in, hears her child screaming, sees the cat at the filch and the dog at the hide, her loaf burning on the hearth and her calf suckling, the pot boiling over into the fire—and her husband complaining.” This picture of homelife acts as a quick list of the work that was expected of women: animal husbandry, baking and cooking, and child care were all expressly work for women and ones which a complaining husband would never deign to assist.
In this example, however, we can see that while most women could expect to come home to a slew of chores and an unhelpful spouse, this was by no means the only work they were expected to perform. The theoretical woman in this situation was, after all, “coming in” to this difficult domestic scene from somewhere else. That somewhere else was her other work. For the vast majority of medieval Europeans—about 85%— work meant farming. Peasant women worked alongside men doing almost exactly the same jobs in the fields. Some more physically demanding jobs such as plowing were at times more likely to be performed by a man than a woman. However, the scores of farms headed solely by widowed or single women are proof that women were more than capable of performing this work, and indeed expected to do so.
In the premodern world, there were also several jobs that modern women have since jettisoned thanks to modern conveniences. Women spun wool into yarn, or flax into thread, and then wove their own cloth. They brewed their own small ale, as necessity for thirsty workers who wanted a low-alcohol, high-calorie drink while out in the field all day. They milked their farm animals, collected eggs, churned their own butter, and made their own cheese.
At times, some of these chores could be professionalized. Wealthier peasant women might employ others as dairymaids to help on the farm, chambermaids to help with sewing, or brewers in larger brewing houses. These wealthier peasant women usually had staff because they were operating businesses that sold surplus goods at market. Peasant women, then, were real Jills of all trades. They might be holding down a family farm as well as a second job on another, or a business on top of their agricultural responsibilities.
If most women were working in the countryside, medieval cities boasted scores of women in professional occupations. Poorer women made up the veritable armies of servants who attended to the wealthy. They washed laundry, scrubbed floors, and worked in the kitchen or as maids throughout the house. Women could also be hired in as nannies or wet-nurses to assist well to do mothers who had other matters to occupy them. Prosperous urban women, in addition to being wives and mothers, were expected to be highly trained help meets who were familiar with the ins and outs of the family business. In particular, it was expected that women would act as bookkeepers, looking after the incomings and outgoings of the household as well as whatever craft their husbands were employed in. Women could also be working as crafts people themselves, and it was particularly common to see them employed as weavers, or running bathhouses and shops.
Of course, the group of medieval women whose work we know the most about are those from the highest ranks of society—noble and royal women. Those in the highest echelons of society enjoyed an enviable quality of life and luxury almost unimaginable to the majority of the population. But they were also expected to work for it. Like their urban counterparts it was the women of aristocratic households who saw to the bookkeeping. They also might be called upon to manage their lands if their husbands were away at war or at court, overseeing taxation, the crop yields, and adjudicating in legal matters. These women were also diplomats themselves. Queens could be called upon to carry messages between their court and that of their birth, or to sway their husbands when they made rash or foolhardy decisions. At times, they even lead their own armies, as Eleanor of Aquitaine supposedly did while on Crusade.
So, if the women of the medieval world were consummate workers in all walks of life, why is it that we tend to treat the career woman as a modern invention? This is partially to do with a phenomenon called “coverture” wherein women take on their husbands’ names after marriage. As a result, it becomes difficult to learn more about their successes as farmers or businesswomen. If all one sees is “John Smith and wife” in a historical record, it is easy to forget the humanity and industry of the woman in the equation.
Similarly, our ideas about women as domestic were also influenced by the call for women to retreat from the public world and into the domestic sphere during the Enlightenment. At the time, this was considered a “logical” way of dividing the world based on the “natural” proclivities of men and women. However, it was never the case that all women left the working world for the comforts of home. The women of the working classes were as likely to be found serving in the kitchens of their affluent peers as they were harvesting in the fields or working in industrial mills. Instead, it was middle class women who ceased to work alongside their husbands. Instead, they were simultaneously reduced to and reified as the “angels in the house” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the phenomenon of housewives was at its peak.
The working women of today are nothing new. Instead, women in the workforce represent a return to the historical status quo. The idea that half the population of the world has ever, or could ever, live an entirely domestic life is a fantastically modern one which fizzled out almost as quickly as it was introduced. The sooner we accept that women are an intrinsic part of the working world, the better we can make the adjustments necessary to support them as a part of it.