Women in the Medieval Guilds

by Lady Magdelene Saunders

Under the Feudal System local landowners also owned their peasants, who were obliged to work for them for defined amounts of time and provide them with amounts of goods. Villages had agricultural workers and also some skilled craft workers who were exempted from farming duties in return for their craft services. Some estates had workshops, usually staffed by women, producing textiles for sale.

The Domesday Book, compiled after the Norman Conquest of England as a means of assessing tax, lists craftswomen in lots of different occupations under the Feudal System. All sorts of tools have been found in pre-Christian women's graves. The only major craft which seems to have been restricted to men only was Blacksmithing.

The towns developed in the medieval period as trading centres. They were independent of local Feudal lords. Town councils made their own laws and raised their own taxes. Under medieval law any peasant who reached a town and remained there for a year and a day without being claimed by his or her Feudal lord became free.

Not all the people living in a town would be citizens, there were procedures for applying for citizenship. Citizens had both rights and responsibilities within the town.

Within the towns Guilds would control particular businesses. Guild members had monopolies in their particular areas, and were controlled by Guild law as well as by town law. The main Guild structure was to have Masters, Journeymen and Apprentices to a trade.
Masters had the right to trade independently. Journeymen were trained in a craft, but inexperienced, and had not yet been granted the full trading rights. Apprentices were in training. A Master's household would consist of his family, apprentices, journeymen and various servants who also worked in the business.
A contract between master and apprentice included details of their obligations to each other. These might include the work and training required, punishments to which apprentices could be subject, as well as what food and accomodation was to be provided by the Master.

To become a full member of a Guild, a person had to have undertaken approved apprenticeship of several years. They also had to pay a membership fee to the Guild and providing a birth certificate to show that they were legitimate.

Guild members had to contribute to the guard duties and the defence of the town, either by turning out with the militia, or, alternatively by paying for someone else to do it for them. Members also had the right and obligation to take part in Guild meetings at which things like Guild laws were decided. Guilds might specify how many employees members could have, and when they could work.

Many medieval Guilds had women members. Some Guilds specifically excluded women, but most did not. There are records of women only Guilds in Paris and Cologne which dealt with the manufacture of silk and textiles.
Women who were independent Masters of crafts generally had same rights and obligations as men in the Guilds. Sometimes women had to meet additional conditions before being allowed to join a Guild, for example they might have to prove that they had a reputation for being chaste. Women members of some Guilds also had to abide by dress codes.

Some towns and Guilds allowed widows who did not have independent Guild membership could continue to use their husbands' Guild rights as "part members" provided they had a competant journeyman to do the craft work involved in their business.

The legal position of craftswomen and women traders in towns was complicated because of an assortment of marriage laws, some of which made women the property of their husbands, and gave husbands control of their wives' assets. Unmarried women might be under the guardianship of their fathers, and widows might be under the guardianship of their late husband's family. Women's right to inherit and to make independent wills also varied throughout the medieval period and throughout Europe.
Various towns made different laws concerning the position of women, their property and their inheritance rights.
A husband might be entitled to take all the property his wife brought into a marriage. In other cases he might become custodian of her property and administer it for her, but not be allowed to sell it without her permission. Most German law gave a widow the right to keep or sell her own clothes and jewelery. A lot of it also gave her the right to keep property which she had bought into a marriage. Usually, a childless widow had to share her deceased husband's assets with his relatives, unless he made a specific will in her favor. A widow might lose her share of any inheritance if she remarried.

Many town laws give women who are involved in separate trades to their husbands the right to be treated as if they were single women as far as their business affairs are concerned. In some places a dowry was the wife's property and could not be taken to settle the husband's debts.

In the second half of the 11th Century, Bishop Burchard II granted the right of succession to merchants' daughters. Kings of Navarre granted succession rights to daughters of all town inhabitants in 1212. Other laws allowed women to sign contracts relating to their husband's business.

Despite their status as independent traders, guild members, or even members of the town militia, women were still expected to defer to men. One woman was forced by a town council to apologise to a customer because she badgered him about his unpaid bills. There are also records of men being given authority to collect debts owed to business women on their behalf, because women were not able to go and insist on being paid themselves.

Here are a few examples of jobs done by women in the medieval period:
brewer, laundress, barrel and crate maker, soap boiler, candle maker, book binder, doll painter, butcher, keeper of town keys, tax collector, shepherd, musician, rope maker, banker, money lender, inn keeper, spice seller, pie seller, woad trader, wine merchant, steel merchant, copper importer, currency exchanger, pawn shop owner, lake and river fisherwoman, baker, oil presser, builder, mason, plasterer, cartwright, wood turner, clay and lime worker, glazier, ore miner, silver miner, book illuminator, scribe, teacher, office manager, clerk, court assessor, customs officer, porter, tower guard, prison caretaker, surgeon and midwife.

There are records of women traders in 1205 in Genoa, Italy. In fact, 21% of people involved in trade contracts there in the 13th Century were women. Women also provided 14% of capital in seafaring ventures at the time.
Even earlier, in the 12th Century, there are records of women traders in Georgia, Eastern Europe. Paris tax registers for 1292, 1300, 1313 list lots of craftswomen, many of whom were in different trades to their husbands. In 1397 in Cologne a butchers' charter grants men and women equal status in the trade. There are 14th and 15th Century records of several women clerks, including three clerks of courts in a parish in Nuremburg.

Towns and Guilds encouraged people to learn to read, write and do arithmetic. This was obviously useful in keeping business records. Girls might be educated at home, with private tutor, or at a Convent. There were also schools within towns.
In some cases girls were excluded from these, or only allowed to enter elementary schools. In other cases they were allowed to enter secondary schools and obtain a much broader education, including Latin and other languages. Some schools were mixed, others were single sex. Town Councils and the Church had some control over schools and over the appointment of teachers.
In 1388, a Jewish woman, Sarah of Gorlitz, donated a property to be used as a school for Jewish children.

Outside of the Guilds, women might be employed as unskilled labourers in vineyards, on building sites and so on. Many more women than men were employed because they could be paid less for doing the same work.
In Wurzburg, 1428-1449, for example, there are records of 323 female building site workers, paid 7.7 pfennings a day, and 13 male building site workers, paid 11.6 pfennings a day.

In general, it seems that a wide range of professions were open to medieval women, although they were also subject to a variety of restrictions.

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