This demonstrates how women were trained in skills such as embroidery and the making of fabric, with these skills they were able to manufacture goods that could be sold for profit. Women often entered these trades as they were prevented from participating in other vocations and trades such as in northern Italy where women were forced into trades such as weaving12 as they were prevented from professions in law or medicine for example.
The seasonal nature of agricultural production required the help of the whole family during harvest season, therefore women were an indispensable part of the agricultural workforce and it was not possible to discriminate on sex as ‘all hands were required’13. Women participated in gleaning, weeding and cleaning the fields and were responsible for animals on the farms. Many sources make reference to special bonds that existed between women and their animals. Women were also involved in brewing, baking and dairy production. Sources differ over the extent to which women contributed to agricultural production and the agricultural trade at the time, such as the in childhood story of St. Alpaix ,born in 1155 at Cudot near Paris, the story describes how she was worked very hard and forced to carry baskets of manure until covered in sores.
However other sources seem to challenge women’s involvement in agriculture such as a record of a woman on the Baltic Coast who went down to the fields to set an example to her workers, however as she bent over to use the sickle, she froze like a ‘marble statue’15, showing her ill preparation for work. However it could be argued, as Herlihy asserts, that the fact that the women knew how to use a sickle provides evidence in itself as to women’s contribution to agricultural labour.
Women’s participation in work in rural areas was extensive; the majority of work undertaken by women was in the agricultural sector. In rural areas, the work done by women was indispensable, they dominated industries such as the brewing industry in northern areas of England and cheese making in Switzerland. In rural areas women organized themselves into guilds and through this earned considerable wealth17
When a woman became widowed during this period, she was placed in a unique financial position. As many women worked with their husbands and learned their trade and even trained apprentices, women often inherited their husband’s business and become financially independent. In some cases they were very wealthy and successful running profitable businesses as their husbands had done. Widows from higher up the social ladder could be in positions of great financial responsibility such as widows in England who were responsible to the exchequer for customs accounts at various ports as executors of their husbands18.
Widows and single women during this period are evidence for women making a distinct contribution to the economy and being far from marginal. Many women were trained in their husband’s trade but there are many cases of women who had completely different occupations to their husbands. Sources show that women who took on their own trade were considered financially independent as stated in the Lincoln Rules; a femme sole was not covered by their husband in trade disputes or over financial debts.
The term ‘spinster’ is now synonymous as a term for a single woman; this was a development of the early middle ages as so many single women became spinners to support themselves and as a result dominated the trade19. The number of single women in western Europe increased during this period as more people remained unmarried. At the beginning of the fourteenth century only 34.6% of the population of Ypres, 32.8% of Basel and 38.7% of Freiburg were married20. These figures could be interpreted as evidence that due to women developing financial independence through entering various trades, the need for marriage ceased to be vital, however, these figures could also be due to the Black Death.
In conclusion, women can not be marginalised in the economic history of medieval Western Europe. Women were a part of the new trade revival of the eleventh century and were solely responsible for trades such as silk spinning, dairy production and brewing. Women’s part in industry during this period is overlooked due to lack of sources on the subject and those sources available being written by men and therefore ‘socially restricted’21, as well as historians imposing the notion of women’s exclusion from work which did not actually exist during the period. In my view, women did play a part in contributing to the economy however, despite this part being far from marginal, I would not argue that this stretched to women being an indispensable part of the workforce and that female ‘entrepreneurs’ or considerably high wage earners did not exist, although femme sole can be considered these on a small scale.
Many historians see women’s work as only being valuable in terms of it being supplementary to their husbands, to an extent I agree with this although this judgement must be considered in the context of the time as women had the dual responsibility of the domestic sphere and earning a living. I think the valuable nature of women at the time has been reflected in literature such as in the poem ‘Women are Worthy’22. Women did make a significant contribution to the economy throughout 1000-1300 and this contribution has been overlooked due to exclusion of women from work towards the later medieval ages, however; regarding the period in question, women were economically valuable and can not be disregarded.