Women and Cows – Ownership and Work in Medieval Sweden
By Janken Myrdal
Ethnologia Scandinavica, Vol. 38, 2008
Introduction: In this paper, I will be looking at butter making as a woman’s occupation. The general hypothesis is that, when this task gained significant economic importance in the Middle Ages and demanded increasing skill over time, it influenced attitudes towards women and their status in society. The critical aspects include not only the abundance of the work, but also its economic significance and the skills it required. In a slave system, the slaves from whom greater skill is required enjoy higher status, even though they are all subject to slavery. Here butter production as a female activity requiring skill is the subject, but other spheres of female activity can be discussed using similar research on, for instance, textile production, child birth, child rearing, etc. Some modern gender oriented research is also going in this direction of interpretation.
A scholar who has inspired me is the sinologist and agrarian historian Francesca Bray in her writings from the 1990s. She is critical of “feminists” who according to her underestimate household work, and have thus underestimated the importance of women. One of her examples is Chinese textile manufacturing, which was long the province of women. This was production that required knowledge and skill, and was managed inside the household walls, in the “inner quarters”. As the process became increasingly industrialized between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, much of textile production was transferred to men. But women stopped weaving primarily due to customs and moral strictures that barred women from leaving the home, not because technology had changed. When most textile manufacturing was eliminated from the female sphere, women also lost social status.
Bray’s comment seems to be, at least to a certain degree, valid for recent research on women’s work in the Middle Ages in Europe, which has been oriented towards gainful employment and women who worked in cities. Scholars have shown that women worked in low status, poorly paid occupations, partly because they were denied access to the formal training offered by the guilds. This is an important conclusion, but household duties tend to be underestimated as a dynamic factor.