What are some things that might surprise me about the Medieval Era and Middle Ages?
Answered by: Elena House,Tell it to the horse marines when they're riding at anchor. (Old slang is fun.)
The employment rate of women: almost all women worked during this period. Certain terms for women (e.g. spinster, distaff) actually denote jobs—jobs so frequently held by women that they became synonymous.
The idea of idle, unemployed women is a modern one, indicative of a wealthy culture: being able to afford to maintain an idle family member is an aspirational luxury. This level of wealth was extremely rare in western civilization until many centuries after the Middle Ages. (The same can be said of child labor.)
Peasant/serf/yeoman class women performed similar types of agricultural labor as peasant/serf/yeoman men.
Tradesmen/craftsmen class women helped run the business or owned it outright, and the wives of artisans & craftsmen often had the right to take over the business on their husband’s death; that female farrier/blacksmith in A Knight’s Tale was actually representative of something that happened relatively frequently. A few other trades that women regularly engaged in include:
Cordwainer (shoemaker) and Cobbler (shoe repairer)
Crusader (both as combatants and in support positions)
Merchant class women worked side by side with their male relatives in the shops.
The daughters and wives of artists participated in the prep work, and a few were even taken on as apprentices, becoming artists in their own right. Women in religious institutions were often instructed as scribes and created artwork, usually in the form of illuminations, the predominant form of painting at the time. (The following are a couple of examples of women’s medieval artwork, both containing self-portraits of the artist:)
The women of minor gentility had a list of chores a mile long, generally revolving around home maintenance and clothing and feeding their dependants, but extending into agricultural duties as well. Their husbands were often gone for extended periods, so their basic job was to take over as head of the household, and supervise the employees, tenants, and dependants who worked to maintain the family property.
The women of the nobility tended to either send their daughters to religious institutions (where they often did a variety of types of manual labor) or train them in estate management, or both. They may or may not have been allowed to hunt, but this was dependant on rank rather than on sex. Again, their husbands were often gone for months or years at a time, so their job was to act as head of the household, and basically perform the same duties that a male member of the nobility would, including everything from payroll accountancy to writing legal documents to organizing and leading military actions to defend their property. The women were often as literate as or more literate than their husbands.
The women in convents and other religious institutions, whether they intended to actually stay there long-term or not—many merely passed through; among other things, convents often acted as boarding schools for upper class girls—did all sorts of manual labor, from scrubbing floors to manufacturing fabric to farming & animal husbandry to butchery to candlemaking and beyond. Religious communities were like towns, with most of the major trades present.
When it comes right down to it, the list of women who didn’t work during the Middle Ages is so short that I’m having trouble thinking of anyone to add to it. The wealthy disabled would probably qualify, although only in the case of severe impairment; the workload of the husband-seeking young noblewoman would temporarily go down a bit to allow time for preening & display; women approaching their deathbeds might get a bit of a break, or they might just die in harness, as it were.
Even into the Victorian & Edwardian eras, the vast majority of women in the western world worked; it was only the highest classes who could afford to maintain non-working women. Being able to provide for your family so well that your wife didn’t have to work was a loving (and/or socially ambitious) dream that went unattained by most husbands. Considering the back-breaking nature of the work most women did, it’s easy to understand why their husbands wanted to spare them that. Usually when you found an unemployed woman, her husband was also too wealthy to work, though both would often still do what we might call ‘events planning’ today.
The modern image of the barefoot & pregnant, bon-bon eating housewife that feminists pooh-pooh is a historical flash in the pan; it reflects something that almost never happened until recent periods of unprecedented prosperity, because it requires a level of prosperity that very few reached.