By Simon A.C. Penn
Agricultural History Review, Vol.37 (1987)
Introduction: Historians are becoming increasingly aware of the role played by women in the economy of medieval England. Their involvement in the cloth industry, for example, particularly as spinners and weavers, has long been recognized as has their participation in the brewing and selling dale. More recently, attention has been extended to the presence of women as retailers, not only of drink, but also of food and clothing within both small and large towns of the period. A greater appreciation of women’s economic role in medieval urban society, however, has not been matched by a similar reappraisal of their involvement in rural work. Recent discussion o fwomen’s work at harvest time, for example, has tended to concentrate on the situation that existed after 1450. By and large, studies have emphasized the limitations upon female involvement in such activity. Thus, although it is shown that women worked in the early modern period as harvesters and farm labourers, the opportunities for such work and the rewards to be gained from it were restricted. It has been argued, for example, that the allocation of harvest work was made on the basis of strength. Consequently, women rarely reaped and almost never handled the scythe to mow. Moreover, even when women did help with the harvest labour, they appear to have been paid less than their male counterparts. The general impression is that whilst women did indeed play a part in the harvest their involvement was largely restricted to the relatively unspecialized and lower paid tasks such as gathering and binding the sheaves.
Certainly a cursory glance at the medieval evidence suggests that similar restrictions were in force. Limitations upon the range of work available to women seem to have existed amongst the full-time wage-earners who comprised the demesne famuli of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The opportunities for employment open to females were far fewer than those open to males, women only appearing in any numbers amongst the ranks of servants, cooks and dairymaids. Thus, not only did women have fewer jobs from which to choose but they appear to have been employed largely in unspecified service roles, the more specialist tasks such as ploughing and mowing being reserved for the men. Of course, the fact that we are seldom told exactly what sort of work servants were expected to do means that one should not over-stress these apparent limitations upon the work experience of female members of the demesne labour force. Certainly, however, women’s labour appears to have been more expendable than that of men. In the thirteenth century women were obliged to rest on certain days whilst the adult males were to continue work as usual.
Was the extent of female involvement within the sphere of rural wage-earning in the fourteenth century similarly limited by such. considerations? Thorold Rogers certainly felt that women’s work in the fields was limited to a great extent by their duties in the home. Thus, in the winter when dairy work was light, the dairywoman would probably have winnowed the corn but apart from that the female role appears to have been very much a secondary one – planting beans, binding and stacking the sheaves, reaping and gathering the stubble after the corn had been cut or bedding and cocking the hay following mowing.