Medieval records are, indeed, full of these independent women. A glance at any manorial ‘extent’ will show women villeins and cotters living upon their little holdings and rendering the same services for them as men; some of these are widows, but many of them are obviously unmarried. The unmarried daughters of villeins could always find work to do upon their father’s acres, and could hire out their strong arms for a wage to weed and hoe and help with the harvest. Women performed almost every kind of agricultural labour, with the exception of the heavy business of ploughing. They often acted as thatcher’s assistants, and on many manors they did the greater part of the sheep-shearing, while the care of the dairy and of the small poultry was always in their hands. Similarly, in the towns women carried on a great variety of trades. Of the five hundred crafts scheduled in Etienne Boileau’s Livres des Metiers in medieval Paris, at least five were their monopoly, and in a large number of others women were employed as well as men. Two industries in particular were mainly in their hands, because they could with ease be carried on as by-industries in the home. The ale, drunk by every one who could not afford wine, in those days when only the most poverty-stricken fell back on water, was almost invariably prepared by women, and every student of English manorial court rolls will remember the regular appearance at the leet of most of the village alewives, to be fined for breaking the Assize of Ale. Similarly, in all the great clothworking districts, Florence, the Netherlands, England, women are to be found carrying out the preliminary processes of the manufacture. Spinning was, indeed, the regular occupation of all women and the ‘spinster’s’ habitual means of support; God, as the Wife of Bath observes, has given three weapons to women, deceit, weeping, and spinning! Other food-producing and textile industries were also largely practiced by them, and domestic service provided a career for many.
It must, of course, be remembered that married as well as single women practiced all these occupations, but it is clear that they offered a solution to the problem of the ‘superfluous’ women of the lower classes.
Nevertheless, this equality of men and women in the labour market was a limited one. Many craft regulations exclude female labour, some because the work was considered too heavy, but most for the reason, with which we are familiar, that the competition of women undercut the men. Then, as now, women’s wages were lower than those of men, even for the same work, and the author of a treatise on Husbandry was enunciating a general principle when, after describing the duties of the daye or dairywoman, he added: ‘If this is a manor where there is no dairy, it is always good to have a woman there at a much less cost than a man’.
C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)