‘Appropriate to Her Sex?’ Women’s Participation on the Construction Site in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

‘Appropriate to Her Sex?’ Women’s Participation on the Construction Site in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

By Shelley E. Roff

Women and Wealth in Late Medieval Europe, edited by Theresa Earenfight (Palgrave, 2010)

city of ladies

Abstract: Until recently, studies in the architectural history of medieval and early modern Europe have assumed an all-male labor force on the construction site and in the related building trades. Historical chronicles and manuscript illuminations of construction sites support this notion, purporting the total exclusion of women from this complex industry. This chapter demonstrates the true nature of women’s contribution to construction sites from the 13th to the 17th centuries in western Europe, uncovering a wide range of occupations in which they engaged: poor women hired for manual labor, women working as slaves, women working with their husbands and fathers in the building trades, widows continuing the workshops of their deceased husbands, and women supplying building materials for particular sites. There is a history to be told of women’s repeated participation in and subsequent denial from working in the building trades that echoes a theme between towns and across language barriers and indicates a common experience shared by women in this era.

Introduction: The construction site, supported by numerous trades and material suppliers, was an important factor in the economy of cities in medieval and early modern Europe. When reading the literature on the history of architecture, construction, and the related trades, one has the impression that women made virtually no contribution to the built environment other than as aristocratic patrons of the art. Although it is true that the majority of day labourers and craftsmen at any given site were male, there is evidence in many regions of Western Europe that women were commonly employed alongside the men, albeit in the most menial tasks. Poor women and slaves worked as day labourers on construction sites, and women of better means were employed in the workshops of the various building-related crafts. One might not expect to find a woman in the historically male position of master of a craft, much less as a master of the works, or architect. The training and professional licensure required for it was not permissible for a woman to be built for a woman to be in this kind of a position of knowledge and leadership. However, aristocratic women were in a position to personally influence and guide the design of the projects they patronized, and there are cases where women have managed the design and construction of their own houses. Illuminating women’s participation on the construction site has implications for understanding women’s relationship to money. The construction site provides an opportune lens through which to observe societal attitudes toward women whose livelihood was secured through wages, rather than the socially sanctioned route to inheritance and to bring out of the shadows women’s work or ‘support’ that was continually a vital part of the economy.

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