[Header Image: Illustration showing women in a counting house, ca. 1400. BL Additional MS 27695]
How much is a woman’s work worth? Gender pay equity is an issue that’s come up frequently during the current U.S. presidential campaign. Some candidates have been in favour of legislation to close the gender pay gap; others oppose it; some think the problem doesn’t exist, and others think it exists but that it isn’t a problem. But while the nature, significance and causes of the gender pay gap are often debated, that it exists is well-attested.
The figures for the U.S. alone are stark: the National Committee on Pay Equality states that since since the signing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the gender wage gap has narrowed by less than half a cent per year; the American Association of University Women points out that more education has helped, but hasn’t closed the gap; and statistics show that the gap is even more egregious when it comes to women of colour.
A Medieval Woman’s Work
The gender wage gap isn’t a quirk of recent history—historians have identified a very similar state of affairs in medieval Europe. Of course, most of the labour in the Middle Ages, whether carried out by men or women, wasn’t waged work. The household was the basic economic unit, and women’s work was fundamental to the smooth functioning of that unit and of daily life as a whole in the Middle Ages. The average woman (whether free or enslaved, rural peasant or town dweller) cooked for her family, brewed and baked, spun thread and wove cloth, managed poultry and milked cows, brought goods to market and carried water home from the well. She also raised children, oversaw servants, and tended to the sick, in a schedule that was no doubt full from sun-up to sun-down.
Rural women also laboured out in the fields alongside their male relatives, often undertaking back-breaking work from an early age. As a twelve-year-old, Alpais of Cudot worked the land with oxen and plough, and hauled loads of manure so heavy that her father had to tie her shoulder yoke to her forearms to stop her from falling over.1 Women’s work within the household was all economic in nature, helping to provide food, clothing, and shelter and even—in the case of the occasional surplus—a monetary profit.
Earning a Living
Some women, however, engaged in work on a larger economic scale. Though there were legal and social constraints on their activities, as single women, wives, and widows, women could and did conduct business on their own terms. In the later Middle Ages, for instance, women were particularly predominant in the production of luxury textile items. In Paris, female silk workers had their own guild, ran workshops, and employed apprentices; their counterparts in London didn’t have a guild, but between 1368 and 1504, they petitioned the mayor or parliament for protection from unfair competition at least six times—and they almost always won.2
Women also struck out on their own to work as merchants, traders, and landlords, and could acquire a sufficient business reputation to be considered credit-worthy. From a notarial record drawn up in early fourteenth century Crete, we learn that Viola Ovetaro of Candia bought a pound of silk on credit from her townswoman Maria Natale. Viola owed Maria the sum of three perpera four grossi, to be repaid within six months. Presumably Viola hoped to make a profit on the transaction.3 Likewise in 1248, the widow Gostiana of Marseilles rented out a shop and a house of hers to one Peter Regi, “from the next feast of St Michael for ten years at a price of fifty solidi-worth of current money at the time of payment, and this will be twenty-five pounds for the next ten years.”4 This is all clear evidence of the presence of enterprising women in medieval Europe.
Of course, knowing that a woman engaged in business doesn’t necessarily tell us much about her overall financial worth or business savvy. Was Viola able to sell on her silk at a profit and repay Maria? Did Gostiana get fair market value for her rental property and a responsible tenant who was prompt about payment? We can’t know—nor can we know if they were able to buy and sell on the same terms as their male contemporaries.
The Evidence Problem
Waged work made up a far smaller proportion of the medieval economy than agricultural or domestic labour, but it is by comparison well documented (emphasis, of course, on the “by comparison.”) Where the records concerning, say, the agricultural labourers hired of a monastic institution survive, they can provide a picture of trends in waged labour in an area over a number of years and of the differences in men’s and women’s pay. We know that medieval women did many different kinds of jobs, working as brewers and rosary makers, artists and building labourers, carpenters and apothecaries and barbers.
However, even when relatively complete these records are often not so straightforward as they seem at first glance. For example, spouses often worked together so a single payment made to a man might include the “hidden” wages of his wife. Women also seem to have been more likely to undertake waged work on a part-time or irregular basis—fitting it in around the demands of child-rearing and housewifery—but this is rarely made explicit in the documents.
These documentary difficulties have contributed to a long-running debate between scholars about gendered wage differences in the Middle Ages, and how they may have changed over time. Some historians believe the documents provide a pessimistic view of medieval women’s earning power; others are more optimistic. Both sides, however, have to be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing a task as inherently less skilled, valuable, or physically demanding just because it’s carried out by a woman. As recent studies have shown, when women in the modern Western world move into a previously male-dominated field, pay declines because the job is perceived as less important.
Did the Black Death Have an Impact?
Of course, conditions weren’t static across the entire millennium or so of the Middle Ages. Historians, by training and inclination, like to look for change, and this has led many scholars of women’s work to concentrate on the fourteenth century, a time when war, famine, and epidemic disease caused widespread social change. In England alone, between a third to a half of the population died in the ten years or so following the first appearance of the Black Death on its shores in 1348; we know from the 1377 poll tax records that England’s population was about half that of the pre-plague levels. Such a catastrophic death toll undoubtedly exacted a deep emotional toll on an entire generation, but it had the unexpected side effect of spurring social mobility. The land and wealth of the dead were passed on to the survivors, food prices fell and wages rose.
Because of these changes, some scholars have argued that the years after the Black Death were a kind of “Golden Age” for women, particularly for women in England—the plague simply killed so many people that necessity required that women take up jobs formerly reserved for men, while the lack of ready hands meant that women’s wages rose to levels that almost or actually matched men’s. This is far from a consensus, though. Judith Bennett has calculated that in fourteenth-century England, the wages paid to a woman were on average about 71% of those paid to men.5 Even in the aftermath of the Black Death, while their rates pay increased, women were still paid less than men, at about the same rate as boys. Social precedent was powerful. Moreover, the fledgling labour laws which were passed—such as the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) and the Statute of Labourers (1351)—seem to have contributed to women’s geographical and occupational immobility in late medieval England.
Why Medieval Women’s Work Matters
Do the experiences of medieval women point to us being stuck forever in a kind of gendered holding pattern—will there always be a gender pay gap? At first glance, it might seem so. The gender wage gap in Europe and North America has fluctuated within a fairly stable range from the Middle Ages through to the Industrial Revolution and on to the present day, so that women have on average always earned somewhere between a half to three-quarters of the average male wage. Judith Bennett has termed this the “patriarchal equilibrium.”
But the devaluing of women and their work is not an immutable law of physics. The gender pay gap has persisted even when economics would suggest it shouldn’t (as after the Black Death) or when laws have been passed against it (as is the case with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009). What a study of medieval women reveals is that the subordination of women’s work is a function of ideology rather than economics, law, or biology; that women have long found creative and flexible ways to supplement their families’ incomes or to support themselves; and that long-term change doesn’t necessarily result in a true transformation. It shows us that a failure to transmit awareness of women’s achievements and disappointments across the generations impoverishes current conversations, particularly those around the gender pay gap.
A thousand years after they brewed ale, traded in cloth, and laboured on building sites, medieval women’s work still matters.
1 Elizabeth van Houts and Patricia Skinner (eds.), Medieval Writings on Secular Women (Harmondsworth, 2011), 54-55.
2 David Herlihy, Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, 1990), 480.
3 van Houts and Skinner, Medieval Writings, 107.
4 van Houts and Skinner, Medieval Writings, 237.
5 Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, 2007), 9.