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Women in Medieval Guilds

The role of the craft guild in medieval society, specifically in Western European society, has been extensively researched and analyzed over the past 150 years.

A fair collection of written records concerning guild membership and structure has come down to us, most often in the form of pipe rolls of those taking out the freedom in a particular borough, and less commonly in the annals of court proceedings involving disputes or other legal actions taken between guild members or against them by municipal or private litigants. We have, for example, extensive records of the guilds in York, London, Leicester, Dublin, Coventry, Bristol, and Gloucester from the 13th century onward, and careful study of these reveals a wealth of information about the sociopolitical characteristics of the artisan and merchant classes in these locations.

The intent of this treatise is to explore some of the roles played by women in the structure and functioning of the collective organization of craftspeople in a representative medieval city, in this case York. York was a thriving merchant center of perhaps 8,000-15,000 inhabitants (maximum) during the period covered by this paper (late 13th through early 16th centuries), with hundreds of specialized artisans contributing to its ranks. The York Register of Freemen, which forms the backbone of the facts and speculations presented herein, runs continuously from 1273 to the early 16th century, and as such is a priceless 'core sample' of the makeup of the artisan class during this period.

Unfortunately for our research, medieval administrative records only included those people who had recognized public status, that is men. Judicial records mention women on occasion, but too often it was the husband, as head of the household, who was held accountable for the actions of his wife and thus the role of women was further obscured in official accounts. Of course, few, if any, male artisans operated on their own. In most cases they did not set up shop until after they were married, and this made them the ostensible head of a production system that included the wife, children, and sometimes other relatives as crucial components. Throughout much of the later Middle Ages, at least, the role of women can be detected obliquely through references in both public and private records. The widely accepted law of femme sole allowed women to trade in their own right, although most commonly this right was not exercised except in the case of a widow continuing her husband's craft.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will arrange artisans into convenient categories, keeping in mind that such arbitrary distinctions frequently would have had little if any meaning in contemporary usage. Artisans seldom kept to only one craft; the economic realities of the time made them opportunists who dealt in whatever commodity would gain them a benefit under a given set of circumstances.

Following convention, I will separate craft guilds into six broad categories: Victuallers, Textile Trades, Leather Trades, Metal Trades, Building Trades, and Others. The logical basis for these distinctions lies in the distribution of artisans across occupations and the associations they tended to form, although these are by no means uniform.


The victualling industry included bakers, brewers, butchers, fishmongers, graziers, hostelers, hucksters, millers, regraters, tapsters, taverners, vintners, and many other more obscure specialties. I will touch upon several of these below.

Bakers made and sold bread of different varieties, including brown, white, black, and 'horse.' White bread, also called wastel, simnel, cocket, or domain bread, was the finest and most costly (about a penny a loaf). Brown bread, also called bastard wastel and bastard simnel, was next at about a halfpenny a loaf. Lowest on the scale was black bread, or 'panis integer' at about a farthing. Horse was an extremely coarse form made from the lowest quality flour and not generally considered fit for human consumption.

Because bread was the staple food throughout the Middle Ages, regulations concerning bakers were in force from an early time. Most of these involved penalties for insufficient bread in the community, or for poor quality product.

While a great deal of the bread offered for sale was likely to have been baked by women, few women are recorded as master bakers in the official roles. This is a pattern that persists throughout the litany of crafts, and necessitates a fair amount of speculation when speaking of the overall economic and political impact of women in the context of craft guilds and the goods they manufactured.

Brewers made alcoholic beverages, specifically those made by fermenting grain without distillation. This encompassed mostly ales (in later years ale brewers were sometimes designated 'tiplers') in the early period, but with the introduction of hops brewers began to experiment with beer as well. It was viewed with some suspicion at first, and even militated against by some, but eventually hopped beverages gained quite a wide popularity and even supplanted ale as the principal beverage of the artisan and laboring classes. In some locations, clear distinctions were made between brewers, vintners, and tapsters, in some they were blurred. Vintners made wine, generally a drink for the upper classes. Tapsters served ale and beer, but theoretically were forbidden actually to make it themselves. This was not a widely-enforced restriction, however.

The most common association most people will call to mind concerning women in this context will be that of the alewife. Indeed, women were quite common in this industry, the alewife in particular referring predominantly to a woman whose husband was in some other trade, usually bakers (the common use of yeast for the two processes of baking and brewing drove this relationship). Evidence suggests that women made as much if not more of the ale and beer served in the Middle Ages as men. Butchers were widespread and consistently prosperous, in comparison with othervictuallers. Butchers supplied most of the beef consumed; indeed, many regulations required them to supply beef before any other type of meat. In fact, many, many regulations were passed to control virtually every aspect of the professional lives of butchers, but the very bulk of them suggests that they were largely ineffectual, especially given the wealth of most established butchers. Butchers also sold mutton, veal, and pork, but pigs, in particular, were common household livestock and as such were not in as great demand from commercial sources. Graziers were supposed to be the ones who actually raised the livestock, but by the end of the fifteenth century butcher-graziers had monopolized most of the grazing land near urban centers, and driven the graziers further afield. Some cities, like York, took steps to halt this, as it allowed butchers to control their own supply prices, but others did little or nothing. Butchers also supplied the raw materials for tanners, chandlers, and other trades, and benefitted from this symbiosis.

Women often continued as butchers after the death of their spouses, and in this one area seemed to be somewhat immune from the protection usually afforded women by being social 'non-entities.' Butcher's wives, not the butchers themselves, were frequently fined for leaving dung and entrails in the street. The monetary effect of these fines was of course identical to what it would have been if the butchers had been fined directly, but it is curious that court records name women specifically far more often in these offenses than in diverse others. Fishmongers were of two varieties: salt and fresh, corresponding to the habitats of their respective goods. Freshwater fish sellers tended to be local and small-time; saltwater fishmongers tended to be of the merchant class and international in scope.

Salt fishmongery seems to have harbored more women than did fresh, for reasons that are not altogether clear to me. While comparatively few people, men or women, listed themselves as fishmongers, the apparent number of people peddling fish was enormous, suggesting that fishmongery was practiced frequently by people with no official connection to the craft. Of course, proximity to fishing grounds played a large part in availability and number of fishmongers. Salted fish was common for long voyages or during winter months, but fresh fish was preferred, and less expensive. Hostelersran public houses that offered combinations of food, drink, and lodging. In later years the term hosteler was replaced by innkeeper, and the profession grew more respectable with time. It was quite common for a master of one craft, especially those in other quarters of the victualling industry, to have a wife who ran an inn, usually from spare rooms in the main house but sometimes in a separate building. It was uncommon for men to take out the freedom as hostelers before the fifteenth century; indeed, none are recorded in York until 1396. The first female hosteler to take out the freedom appears in 1526. Interestingly, though, court records show plenty of instances of hostelers of both sexes being prosecuted for one offense or another prior to this date. Probably the gradual increase in acceptability of hosteler as a bona fide profession late in this period led to open declaration. Hucksters and Regraters were similar. Hucksters sold a variety of items from stalls,the street, or other shops, attracting potential customers by yelling their pitches over the noise of the market crowds. Regraters were resellers, or middlemen, who bought goods 'wholesale' and resold them, either to patrons directly or to hucksters and other similar retailers. Both of these crafts were largely populated by women, although as usual little official record exists of their activities.

Textile Trades

The textile industry harbored such diverse crafts as broggers (wool-sellers), cappers, carders, drapers, dyers, embroiderers, fullers, hatters, hosiers, knitters, litsters, mercers, shearmen, spinners, tailors, tapiters, vestmentmakers, and weavers. It is evident that women played a critical role in the skilled workforce of the textile industry.

Drapers were cloth merchants, although the original definition of the term included those who made cloth (woolen or linen) as well. For obvious reasons there were close ties between drapers and tailors, and much crossover of function was to be seen. Because drapers were often very successful, they tended to cross the boundaries between the artisan and merchant classes with some regularity. While drapers no doubt employed women, little record of this exists.

Dyers and Litsters were at first essentially identical, i.e., people who used vegetable or animal-derived dyes to color cloth at various stages during its production. As time progressed a distinction came to be made between the listers, who did the actual dyeing, and dyers, who frequently dealt only in the tools and raw materials or dyestuffs. Women often continued in this craft after their husbands.

Tailors found that their fortunes were inversely related to those of the drapers. Early in the period, drapers were dominant in the industry, but as their fortunes and status gradually declined, the tailors, who had been only moderately successful, grew in stature and economic influence until by the sixteenth century tailors were widely considered part of the merchant class. Women played important roles as tailors, but the vast majority of them took commissions from the male master tailors, and thus remained in perpetual obscurity themselves. Some few stood out in wills, however; Margaret de Knaresburgh in 1398 bequeathed two gold rings and six silver spoons.

Weavers wove cloth, either from wool or flax (linen). Combing, carding, and spinning to prepare wool for weaving was done almost exclusively by women. Although many women undoubtedly worked as weavers, usually for their husbands or male relatives, very few actually gained their freedom as weavers. Isabella Nonhouse, made free in 1441, two years after the death of her husband, is the only known female master weaver in the York register. Those who bought their freedom sometimes became true entrepreneurs in this field, organizing small groups of female laborers. The poorer women who carded and spun were paid piece-rates, either by the pound of yarn produced or by the pound of wool delivered to be spun. Many of them had to rent spinning wheels, as they could not afford to own one themselves. There are multiple records of husbands leaving looms and associated materials to their wives to continue the family business, however, so it is safe to assume that many women did pursue the craft after their husbands' deaths.

Women also played significant roles as cappers, embroiderers, knitters, and vestmentmakers (for the clergy).

Leather Trades

These included bottlemakers, bowgemakers (bagmakers), cardmakers, chapmen, cobblers, cordwainers (shoemakers), curriers, girdlers, glovers, horners, leatherworkers, parchmentmakers, patoners, pointmakers, pouchmakers, saddlers, sheathers, skinners, tanners, tawers, and whitawers.

The leather industry processed animal skins for use in a wide variety of products. The two principal types of preparation were tanning and tawing. Tanning involves soaking leather in a series of liquors (called woozes) of grading strength over a period of months until all the water has been driven out and replaced by tannin from oak bark. Red leather has been simply tanned; black leather has been tanned and curried, or thinned, dyed, and treated with tallow for suppleness. Tawing was a dry process, consisting of adding alum or oil to the hide, usually with a mixture of salt, then stretched and softened with oil and egg yolks. This was an expensive and laborious process, but it produced exceptional leather. Tawing produced white leather, so tawers were sometimes called whitawers.

Cardmakers set metal teeth into rectangular leather pieces to be used to card, or tease, wool. Probably the great majority of these craftspeople were women, as regulations concerning the craft frequently employ the feminine pronouns.

Cordwainers, or shoemakers, were so called because they worked with cordwain, or cordovan leather, named for the Spanish process by which it was tawed. While shoes were certainly made from cordwain, they were made from a wide variety of other leather and even from cloth; the designation is one of convenience only. Early in the period cordwainers manufactured shoes, whereas cobblers merely repaired them. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, cobbler had assumed both meanings. The trade of cordwaining was inextricably bound up with those of tanning, tawing, and currying, and much struggle for power took place among these rival crafts. Here and there are hints (as in wills) of great numbers of women employed as shoemakers, although registers and roles mention them seldom in this context.

Women did much work assisting skinners, by sewing together skins. They also contributed greatly as glovers, pouchmakers, bagmakers, bottlemakers, and especially parchmentmakers. In some areas, in fact, women dominated the parchmentmaking craft.

Metal Trades

Armorers, bell-founders, bladesmiths, brakemen, braziers, cutlers, ferbers, ferrours, founders, glaziers, goldbeaters, goldsmiths, hookmakers, ironmongers, latoners, lockyers, lorimers, marshalls, painters, pewterers, pinners, plumbers, silversmiths, smiths, spurriers, stainers, wiredrawers.

Metal workers constituted less than 10% of the total artisan population, overall. They were categorized not so much by individual craft, but by the type of metal they employed: iron and steel, non-ferrous metals such as copper, pewter, bronze, and brass, and precious metals such as gold and silver.

Armorers were usually quite successful, but as the period progressed became less so as armor gradually waned in necessity with the introduction of more powerful projectile weapons. At least one woman, Agnes Hecche of York, was trained by her father as an armorer. Ferbers or furbers refurbished worn or damaged armor. One specialized form of armor, mail, made from drawn wire, was often constructed by women, who here used their patience and dexterity to great advantage. While the actual drawing of iron wire was very strenuous, copper wire was more easily drawn and this craft was populated by a fair number of women.

The most prestigious products of medieval foundries were probably bells. Bell-founders frequently attained high positions in civic society, becoming even mayor and MP. Quite often the trades of bellmaker and potter or brazier were combined, since the techniques of manufacture were associated. While little if any record exists of women specifically as bellmakers, evidence can be found to show that they were potters, some, such as Margaret Soureby in York and Joan Hille in London operating large and respectable foundries, employing many male apprentices.

Goldsmiths and silversmiths, not surprisingly, often rose to wealth and lofty social status. Not all of them prospered, however, and the fortunes of even the richest of them were precarious and subject to considerable fluctuation.

While female precious metal smiths were rare, women excelled in the manufacture of fine jewelry. In Paris, in fact, some of the work in precious metals was reserved specifically for womens' guilds. Especially in major continental cities, independent female jewelerswere not uncommon.

Smiths made a wide variety of metal items. While their work was often very strenuous and could involve lifting substantial weight, there is evidence that women assisted, at the very least by tending the fires, preparing tools, and performing tasks such as quenching and tempering. This assertion is borne out even by a few surviving illuminations from various manuscripts.

Building Trades

Builders, carpenters, cartwrights, carvers, dawbers, dykers, earthwallers, glaziers, groundwallers,joiners, masons, pavers, plasterers, reeders, sawyers, shipwrights, tilers, wheelwrights.

Builders, like other craftsmen, probably involved their families in their craft. Katherine Rolf of Cambridge, as an example, took time off from her customary occupations of spinning, candle-making, and threshing for the nuns of St. Radegund's to help thatch the roof of the nunnery. At least four specific trades were known to have supported women who survived their husband and continued in his craft: carpenter, shipwright, plasterer, and plumber.

I can find no direct evidence that women were employed as carvers or glaziers, but given the nature of the work (glaziers painted on glass), it seems highly likely that they were involved in these crafts. In the case of glaziers, especially, few records of their doings exist at all, yet much of their exquisite work has survived, providing mute testimony to their great skill and artistic integrity.

Other Trades

Apothecaries, barbers, bowers, chandlers, coopers, fletchers, hairsters, mariners, moneychangers, ropers, scribes, stringmakers, turners.

The above is really only a representative list of a much larger body of crafts and trades that do not readily fit into even the broad categories I have chosen for this paper. Women play an important role in several of them, and so I have found them worthy of inclusion.

Chandlers were a small group, but usually a disproportionately affluent one. Mostly they dealt with wax candles, not tallow ones (who were as often as not made by butchers or skinners because of their access to animal fat). The demand for wax candles, especially from the church, was consistently high throughout the period. In addition, most people left provision in their will that as many candles as they could afford be burned at their memorial services. Many chandlers specialized in casting wax into images and other complex shapes that could be left on altars as offerings, which were then periodically collected and melted down for candles by the church officials. Because chandlers were relatively well off, the incidence of widows taking over the family business was high, bringing many women into the front lines of commerce in this field.

When the English longbow became a standard armament during the Welsh wars of Edward I (c. 1277), the crafts of bower (bowyer), stringmaker, and fletcher took on added importance. Not until the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) did the government take responsibility for equipping its troops with weapons, so the somewhat motley armies of earlier kings relied on local artisans to provide them with such before they answered the levies. Despite the reputation that English yew has acquired for being the premier bow wood, contemporary bowers thought it too open-grained and preferred yew imported from the Baltic. Women played a large role as stringmakers, most of them probably the wives of craftsmen in other industries. Elizabeth Baker of York was made free as a stringmaker in 1467.

Women were scribes, especially as lay scriptoria became more widespread and workshops were established in the urban areas, but this subject is one I would rather treat by itself in a separate paper.

In conclusion, I find that, while evidence of women's contributions to medieval society must often be hunted for between the lines, it is there. There can be little doubt that the roles played by women, either as direct participants in mercantile affairs or as infrastructure for a given craft, can hardly be overstated. Much of what we think of as medieval culture, and thus what has become our modern way of life, is directly and unequivocally the product of the creative and intellectual talents of women.


Charles, L. and Duffin, L. (eds), Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England. London: Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1985.

Swanson, H., Medieval Artisans. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Sharar, S. The Fourth Estate: a History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1983.

For clarifications of spellings and often of basic meaning, I am forever indebted to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Edition), without which my life would be discernibly poorer.

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