Saturday, 30 January 2010

Medieval Women as Master Craftsmen

Often, when speak to groups about Testament, the same question will arise: 'Would Gwyneth really have been able to be a master craftsman in her own right?'

It's an interesting and valid question but it does seem to be based, as most of the askers are prepared to admit, on preconceptions of a time about which people know very little. Even if medieval history is taught in schools it will mostly consist of political history – the Norman Conquest, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the Hundred Years War with France, the Wars of the Roses. Social history doesn't get a look-in. And the fourteenth century was probably the century in which English people experienced the greatest social upheavals until the dawn of the industrial age.

Given this dearth of social history teaching, a general assumption seems to exist that the role and position of women started out, at some stage in pre-history, as a species of semi-slavery and proceeded, by excruciatingly slow historical degrees, to the equality of rights and opportunities that exists in the twenty-first century. On this thesis, if women were given few rights in the sixteenth-century Tudor period (a period most people seem more familiar with, though, again, I would suggest that their preconceptions come, largely, from the experience of noblewomen rather than those lower in social status) then it follows that they must have enjoyed even fewer rights in the fourteenth century.

This is a false assumption. Women were far less constrained in many ways in the medieval period and - certainly, in terms of labour and the workplace – the lower the woman's social class, the less constrained she was. In terms of work on the land, there is a certain amount of controversy about whether women (I'm not going to use the term peasant but you can if you like) were allowed to do things like wield a scythe because there is no pictorial evidence for this and a good proportion of our evidence for life on the land comes from pictures, as well as manorial records. However, women certainly did work in the fields and the poorer your family, the more likely the women were to have to work – there was no choice, the land had to be worked and if you didn't have enough men and boys, the women got roped in.

This wasn't just the case on the land, either. In the craft guilds, the need for cheap labour made family involvement a must and all the children of a family would have been expected to help; unless there was an abundance of sons, daughters would get at least the rudiments of their father's craft. Obviously, the expectation was that, once a girl was married, her job was to look after her husband and children but, before she were married, her help could be vital to the family economy. Unless her husband was a particularly high-ranking guildsman (and therefore rich enough to employ lots of people) he would also be likely to expect her to help him at times of need. If a woman was widowed young, she might very well carry on her husband's trade after his death because, frankly, otherwise she and her children would starve.

I think people tend to forget that, in the pre-modern period, what you did for your 'living' meant exactly that: if you didn't work, you didn't earn money, you couldn't afford to eat and therefore you didn't continue living. What you did – your profession or job – was, literally, your living.

But, back to women. If a woman was widowed on the land, she might, if she was very lucky, be taken in by a member of her extended family. More likely, she would be expected to marry again or manage the land on her own or with her sons' help. In the towns, where many people of Gwyneth's generation didn't have family because they were first-generation immigrants following the Black Death, there was nobody to step in and look after you so you had to marry again or work. And if you had the means at your disposal to work at a trade or profession, then you did that.

It wasn't a lifestyle choice, it was a necessity.

Admittedly, there was not this compulsion in Gwyneth's case but her working for Simon has to be seen against this background of economic necessity.

The fourteenth century is also a very interesting time in terms of female roles because, in the wake of the cataclysm that was the Black Death, opportunities didn't so much knock as come in through the door and drag you out to the workplace kicking and screaming 'but I want to be in the kitchen!' The workforce had been reduced by anything from a third to a half and anybody who had a marketable skill found themselves in a seller's market. Gwyneth is approaching forty when Testament opens in 1385. This means that she survived the Black Death as a child of four and that she grew up in a world that lacked an abundance of skilled people.

Gwyneth's backstory, as anybody who has read the first chapter of Testament carefully will know, is that she was raised by her father as an only child. He taught her his skills as a master carpenter because he had no other children and because he was worried, in that rather uncertain time, about how she might make ends meet if he died suddenly. And, don't forget, people did die suddenly. Quite apart from the astonishing violence of society and the fact that you could die (from septicaemia) of a casual cut or (from gangrene) of a broken limb there were recurrences of the plague throughout the 1360's, most notably in 1361 and then, again, in 1369.

I'm not saying that female master craftsmen were common. They weren't. A women practicing a craft independently was an exceptional circumstance and I known of no evidence, anywhere, of a woman who was recognised and accepted by an English town guild as a master craftsman in her own right. Gwyneth's father explicitly says this: 'They may not see you a master, Gwyneth, who can tell in these times? But the craft may be meat and drink to you.' (p.4)

So, what the novel catalogues is a chain of events which is unlikely but not impossible (and it is a novel, remember, a book that asks 'what if..?'.) Gwyneth, a child at the time of the population-decimating Black Death survives as her widower father's only child and is, therefore, taught his trade. He, in the absence of readily-available apprentices because of the labour shortage following the plague, is happy to rely on her home-grown talents. She marries a man who has professional need of the skills she possesses and, as his wife, her skills come free which is no small consideration to a man making his way in the world. She continues to be able to work with him as their marriage progresses because she has failed to conceive. Simon is not in the king's favour so the pool of carpenters he can draw from is never going to contain the real stars of the day but, fortunately for him, his wife possesses the kind of talent he needs. Their son is born damaged and this, together with Simon's association with heresy, further reinforces their professional isolation. Simon makes it quite clear to Gwyneth (and the reader) that, without her as his master carpenter, the college simply will not be built. As it is to be their son's memorial, she cannot refuse.

It all comes back to fathers and their children; to Gwyneth's father who has passed on all his skills to her; to Simon's father whose forthrightness to a king has denied Simon the royal patronage and name-making work he craves; to Simon and his desire for a son and the consequences of that desire.


AllyColl said...

Many thanks for that. I realised that women worked on the land to survive (Tess is a great favourite)but didn't fully appeciate their role in the Guilds. When you speak of the after affects of the Black Death it makes complete sense. You have started something smoldering in my much under used brain! I am now looking to do an OU degree concerntrating on English Lit and social and economic history.
So From me 'many thanks for writting Testerment and relighting my interst in social and economic History:-)
Take care,
Alison (Cornflower Book Group)

adele said...

This is fascinating, Alis....I'm learning more about the 14th century every day, thanks to writers like you and Karen Maitland.

Juxtabook said...

I think that that is really interesting Alis. I was aware that more lower class women did what we think of as "men's" work in the past, because of my study of the 18th century (there were a surprising number of women carpenters and women brick-layers then for exmple) but I had forgotten the socio-economic impact of the labour shortage caused by the Black Death. As you say, in labour terms, a sellers market. In terms of the back story in the novel, I guess that we should see it as a bit like WWI - the labour shortage and husband shortage then caused more and more women to work outside the home, as the Black Death and the resulting urbanisation would have done in the 14th century.

Can you recommend any readable social histories of the 14th century?

Alis said...

Hi Ally - thanks for taking the time to comment - much appreciated. I hope the OU degree works out for you!

Hi Adele - Yes, must get Karen Maitland's next book, Owl Killers - not read it yet.

Hi Catherine - readable social histories of the fourteenth century - the best I've come across is Ian MOrtimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England - a Handbook for Travellers in the Fourteenth Century. It's excellent and the bibliography is beyond belief - Mortimer has read all the source-books so we don't have to!

jodi said...

My first thought on reading your reply to the question was that it was interesting that Simon still thought that he needed a son to carry on his work given his wife's story.

Thank you for answering this question. I also had never thought the the Black Death and it's ramifications.

Alis said...

Hi Jodi - despite Gwyneth's obvious prowess, I guess it was still hard for a woman to be accepted. Since Simon had never really been accepted he would have wanted to make any of his offspring's path as easy as possible, which meant having a son, really. Also, despite the evidence of our own eyes, tradition dies hard, don't you find?

Aliya Whiteley said...

Brilliant post - you made me see it in a new light.

Deborah Swift said...

This is a fascinating post. And for a writer it raises that awkward question about historical accuracy and how it impacts on your writing. On various blogs I have seen readers complain that they get turned off the book if, to use an example, they read about someone using a pocket before 1750, because they did not exist. This in fact is not true, as those of us researching our books will be able to verify.They did exist - though they looked a little different from today. But - do you have someone take something from a "pocket" in your 17th century novel and risk alienating your readers, or do you avoid pockets altogether and let the less knowledgeable reader dictate your writing? I suppose it all depends on how much defending of our research we are prepared to do, and how important the contentious fact is to the plot. In Testament, I can see that it was important for Gwyneth to be a master craftsman as much of the plot turns around it,and also the unexpected is always the thing that makes the reader think and challenges their assumptions.

Alis said...

Hi Deborah - you raise an important point as many readers may feel they know about a period and judge our writing accordingly.
What I've found in my research is that, even if something is generally accepted, there will always be historians who say 'ah but..' and that for every rule there are always going to be at least a dozen exceptions.
And that's not surprising, really, when we're talking about people. I mean, what hard and fast social norms do we have now? I can't think of one that applies to all British people apart from - they all breathe in and out regularly'!!

Neil said...

Great post, Alis. (And comment trail too.)

Alis said...

Thanks Neil - looking forward to seeing you at the 'do' on the 15th.

David Isaak said...

Nice post.

In a rather later era, there were some rather well-known female pirates, too. But their exploits seem to have been brushed under the rug becasue they don't match with the common view of history.

Alis said...

I think that's the issue, isnt it David - that people have a conventional or accepted view of history and anything that fails to chime in with that doesn't feel plausible. But those people who don't fit in are the interesting characters that it's great to write about.

David Isaak said...

Faye Booth has a lot to say on this issue, too. She spends a lot of time pointing out that not all the Victorians were, well, Victorian.

Alis said...

And that, of course, is where the real interest lies for the writer - who's interested in stereotypes?

Brooke said...

what was gwyneth's last name? where did you find out about her? I'm writing a paper for a medieval craftman. i would appreciate it if you could answer this comment or email me at thanks!