Women workers could be found on the medieval construction site, study finds

According to a recently published study, women could be found working on construction sites, if only occasionally, including in specialized roles such as carpenters and masons. The research is found in the article, “Appropriate to Her Sex?” Women’s Participation on the Construction Site in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” by Shelley E. Roff.

She surveyed a wide variety of records from throughout Western Europe, including tax records, inventories of wages paid on construction sites, and municipal accounts, and discovered numerous instances of women working alongside men on construction sites as far back at the 13th century.  Most of these women were employed as day laborers, carrying out tasks such as moving water and building supplies around the sites, digging ditches and serving as assistants to bricklayers and stonemasons. For example, in the Spanish city of Seville during the 14th century, women were hired to dig trenches for the foundation of a new city wall, while at the nearby city of Toledo, one or two women were hired each day for the construction of the city’s cathedral, where they gathered lime and worked on the roof. Meanwhile in the French city of Toulouse, almost half the laborers working on the Perigord college site were women. Ross also finds several examples from England and Germany.

Roff notes that previous historians have seen many examples of women working on construction sites in their research, but they had believed that these were just abnormal exceptions caused by economic crises, or because the male population had been killed off through war or disease. But her new study suggests that women construction workers were more than just odd occurences. She explains that “the expansion of urban centers starting in the thirteenth century set off a trend of increasing female employment for day laborers and in the crafts, which only began to contract on occasion for women working in the crafts in the sixteenth century with ensuing economic crises.”

She also notes that in almost all accounts surveyed, the women were paid at a lower rate than the men, which would make the “a cost-effective solution” for site supervisors looking for ways to reduce expenses. The women who took these jobs would have come from society’s poor – those women who could not maintain their households and families just from their husbands’ (if they had one) income.

Roff also finds records showing women taking part in specialized building trades. In London in 1383, Katherine Lightfoot is recorded as the supplier of 2,000 painted tiles for bath in the King’s palace. Meanwhile, tax records from Paris during the years 1296 and 1313 reveal the existence of two female masons, a tiler and a plasterer. These women were not poorer individuals, rather they were the wives of male craftsman, and in some cases their widows. The 15th-century French writer Christine de Pizan noted in her book The Treasury of the City of Ladies that craftswomen, “should learn all the shop details so that she can properly supervise the workers when her husband is away or not paying attention.”

Roff’s article, “Appropriate to Her Sex?” Women’s Participation on the Construction Site in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” appears in Women and Wealth in Late Medieval Europe, edited by Theresa Earenfight. The book contains twelve essays that examine various issues related to women and money during the Middle Ages.

Shelley E. Ross is an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. A historian of architecture, she is currently working on a forthcoming book entitled, Treasure of the City: Building a Monumental Port in Medieval Barcelona.

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