Female Professions in Medieval Europe
Updated: May 2, 2022
Or, how to write female characters that don’t bounce tittily down the stairs.
Home-maker, midwife, or prostitute. Sometimes it seems like those are the only female archetypes fiction authors have heard of–that, and the video game one of a sexy warrior in a chainmail bikini. But the role of women in mediaeval-style societies was far more complex. To help aspiring authors extrapolate the lives of women in their fantasy worlds, this episode aims to give a fundamental understanding of the reasons why things often panned out as they did.
Effective and widely available birth control–in the form of the Pill in the 1960s–made a huge difference in the lives of women. Suddenly, reproduction became a choice.
As with all things fantasy, an author doesn’t need to stick strictly to history, but a bit of logic in your world-building goes a long way. Let’s outline several big things to bear in mind.
Part one: Childbirth is really, really, hard.
Ask your mother. Ask my mother. Ask any mother. Then ask her how it would have gone without an epidural.
Thanks to modern medicine, childbirth today has drastically lower chances of infection and haemorrhaging, not to mention the benefit of painkillers. Relatively, it’s a cakewalk. And any mother will tell you it’s still no cakewalk.
Not only was childbirth an order of magnitude more dangerous for pre-modern women, they also weren't always given a choice in the matter. Any sexual liason with a man–whether that was in marriage, a brief romance, or most tragically, in a forced encounter–could leave a pre-modern woman without recourse.
Before widespread, affordable infant formula was developed in the 1950s, the stay-at-home parent had to be the mother, as she was the only one who could feed the baby.
Effective and widely available birth control–in the form of the Pill in the 1960s–made a huge difference in the lives of women. Suddenly, reproduction became a choice. Before that, the work a woman took on was often limited by what she could do whilst pregnant or with a nursing infant in tow.
It is nearly impossible to string two cohesive thoughts together with a toddler underfoot, much less to keep house at the same time. One need only ask a modern stay-at-home parent how much else they get done during the day, and modern parents have the assistance of television–not to mention the water piped in rather than carried from a well, and the heat turned on with a switch and no need to collect firewood. Historically, keeping the children alive AND having supper ready was a Herculean feat.
Wet nurses did exist, but were rare. A woman who was forced to wet nurse someone else’s child might see her own child starve.
Before widespread, affordable infant formula was developed in the 1950s, the stay-at-home parent had to be the mother, as she was the only one who could feed the baby. Wet nurses did exist, but were rare. Most people lived in small agricultural hamlets, in easy reach of only a few hundred people. Among such a small group, the odds of finding another woman who’d just weaned her own child but was still producing milk were low.
One must bear in mind that milk production demands a lot of calories, and in the pre-industrial world, food availability was always in question. With limited food, it was difficult for a woman to produce enough milk for one child, much less two. A woman who was forced to wet nurse someone else’s child might see her own child starve. If you create a character who has the help of a wet nurse, you must be prepared to write her as extremely wealthy, extremely lucky, or extremely cruel.
The celibate, the infertile, and the post-menopausal were all free to pursue professional callings. But remember when populating your fantasy world without reliable birth control, those women were exceptions. If your female character’s time is not taken up largely by the continuation of the species, stop to think of a specific reason why.
Convents provided a refuge for female non-conformists and intellectuals. Female writers, artists, and religious scholars were nurtured by the church, as well as botanists, healers, and educators.
Living in a convent is a fantastic reason for a female character to be celibate. In addition to those with genuine religious callings, convents provided a refuge for female non-conformists and intellectuals. Nearly 10% of women in mediaeval France and England never married, and ‘marriage to the church’ provided many of them with a livelihood and education not otherwise available. Female writers, artists, and religious scholars were nurtured by the church, as well as botanists, healers, and educators. The mediaeval church was a major economic enterprise, and the Abbess of a large convent was a force to be reckoned with.
Two nuns learning from another, from the Burnet Psalter, 61r.
According to the CDC, around 10% of women in modern America are infertile. To get a rough estimate, let's assume this has been true for the human population across time. Then, if we assume an average menopausal age of 50, another 15% of the female population was too old to become pregnant, based on skeletal analysis of archaeological sites.
This adds up to 35% of the female population without children–although some of the women surviving to menopause likely never had children, given the substantial odds of dying in childbirth. Let’s reduce the total a little to account for women in multiple categories, such as those who are older and also nuns. This means roughly 30% of your female population is realistically free to pursue occupations that would be hampered by having a child in tow.
For the other 70% of your female characters, childbirth and childcare should figure prominently into their daily lives.
Part two: Running the family business.
Even with children, women participated in nearly every economic aspect of mediaeval life. In most cases, only a man was allowed to own property or a business, but his wife, daughters, mother, and sisters were invaluable to operating it. Frequently, women ran the entire show as proxy to absent male relatives.
Frequently, women ran the entire show as proxy to absent male relatives. Managing an estate is no mean task: similar to managing a large hotel, if that hotel might also have to mobilise as a military unit.
As stated by Christine de Pizan, a famously competent widow from fourteenth-century Venice:
“Because that knights, squires and gentlemen go upon journeys and follow the wars, it beseemeth wives to be wise in all they do, for that most often they dwell at home without their husbands who are at court or in diverse lands […] The lady who lives on her estates must be wise and must have the courage of a man. She should not oppress her tenants and workers but should be just and consistent. She should follow the advice of her husband and of wise counsellors so that people will not think she is merely following her own will. She must know the laws of warfare so that she can command her men and defend her lands if they are attacked. She should know everything pertaining to her husband’s business affairs so that she can act as his agent in his absence, or for herself if she should become a widow. She must be a good manager of workers. To supervise her workers, she needs a good knowledge of farming. She will be sure to have adequate supplies for the spinning and weaving of cloth, for the wise housekeeper can sometimes bring in more profit than the revenue from the land.”
Christine de Pizan
Managing an estate is no mean task: similar to managing a large hotel, if that hotel might also have to mobilise as a military unit. If your political system is feudal, any land-owning male character is absent from his estate a good portion of the year, either at war or schmoozing his superiors. The character who consents to let your adventurers sleep in the barn is almost certainly the Lady of the manor, not the Lord.
In towns, the wives of merchants or artisans could assist their husbands, or pursue trades of their own. Many women must have done both. There is a 1363 English parliamentary ordinance specifying that men had to keep one trade, whereas women might pursue as many as they pleased.
This exemption, however, speaks to the fact that although women could learn trades, they were rarely permitted to master them. Mediaeval guild records list many women, but rarely in positions of power or supervision, and often limited to lower levels of production by bizarrely specific laws. A female dyer, for example, was not permitted to lift cloth from the vats, and a female pastry-maker was only permitted to carry one box of biscuits around town at a time.
Your female townswoman likely worked multiple odd jobs to make ends meet, possibly whilst carrying a baby on her back. Many widows inherited businesses in their own right, often to huge financial success.
Your female townswoman likely worked multiple odd jobs to make ends meet, possibly whilst carrying a baby on her back. It would also be plausible to see a competent baker’s, cooper’s, or wheelwright’s wife running the whole business for him. Everyone in town would know she was the one to ask if they wanted something done, even though he was officially speaking for the family at guild meetings.
The textile industry was full of women. Mediaeval silk-weavers were a notable exception among guilds, with women controlling every aspect of production. Silk-weaver guild records show dominantly female supervisors and guild-masters. In other trades, the best legal loophole was if a woman’s husband died. Many notable widows inherited property or businesses in their own right, often to huge financial success. The famous Champagne house, Veuve Clicquot, literally translates ‘Widow Clicquot.’ The eponymous widow was a far more formidable businesswoman than her late husband, and the house’s best product is called, fittingly, ‘La Grande Dame.’
Although it’s easy to picture women working in textile production, or as cooks and washerwomen, for some inspiration, here’s a list of unexpected trades from the Paris guild records of the 1300s. In all cases, there were fewer women than men, and some trades were later restricted to men only, but there is at least some historical precedence for women working at all in the following male-dominated fields:
English universities barred female medical practitioners, but the Holy Roman Empire did not, and there were German female doctors. Additionally, men in every country have historically been terrified of childbirth. Midwives attended to birth and general female health, making them effectively the ob/gyns of the middle ages.
Medieval female physician. From an early 15th century English manuscript, The British Library
Famous twelfth century women who contributed significantly to mediaeval medicine included the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, who published the treatise ‘Causae et Curae’, and the midwife Trota of Salerno, who’s ‘De Passionibus Mulierum’ is still praised by modern obstetricians for its thoroughness and relative knowledge.
Part Three: Women in Warfare
Pope Urban II’s call to the First Crusade in 1095 used explicitly masculine language. An unattributed account of the Third Crusade stated: “A great many men sent each other wool and distaff, hinting that if anyone failed to join this military expedition, they were only fit for women’s work.”
This may, however, be more indicative of male pride, to imagine they managed warfare on their own. Muslim records of the crusade make note of the active involvement of Christian women, not only as camp followers, but also as strategic advisors and active combatants.
Camp followers were not necessarily prostitutes; often the wives and children of soldiers simply moved around with them. A soldier’s wife wouldn’t sit helplessly beside the battlefield waiting for him to be killed; she would pick up whatever weapon was available and enter the battle with him.
More women were camp followers than advisors or combatants, but an author should not assume camp followers were less important. As Napoleon–or possibly Frederick the Great–famously said, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’ Soldiers, workers, or anyone expected to perform a task cannot do so if starving. An army can only fight well as long as it is fed and its wounded are cared for, and historically, these tasks fell to female camp followers. Despite common portrayals to the contrary, these women were not necessarily prostitutes; often the wives and children of soldiers simply moved around with them.
Medieval women fighting
A soldier’s wife wouldn’t sit helplessly beside the battlefield waiting for her husband to be killed; she would pick up whatever makeshift weapon was available and enter the line of battle with him. While female knights are certainly rare, so were knights in general. Bear in mind that mediaeval armies were a mixed lot, and only a small percentage were full-time professionals. A large portion of the forces were levied from the poorer classes, and among those, an untrained woman armed with a pointed stick was just as useful as a man in the same position. Period paintings show women fighting alongside men in besieged cities. Although not outfitted with armour as their professional male counterparts, they are shown swinging weapons and clearly not passive.
Formal military supply infrastructure did not become thorough enough to eliminate the need for camp followers until the late nineteenth century, so a fantasy world modelled on any period before that would have had a large and rag-tag secondary army of camp followers along for the journey.
On the other end of the spectrum, highborn women often prominently rallied and directed their own troops. In the early twelfth century, Empress Matilda was the first woman to pursue a claim to the English throne in her own right, and in the later twelfth century, Eleanor D’Aquitaine is famous for accompanying her first husband on crusade, and later rebelling against her second. In the fourteenth century, Marguerite D’Anjou commanded the Lancastrian forces almost exclusively in the name of her mentally incapacitated husband.
It’s important to remember when building a fantasy world that there were only as many nobles making waves in a feudal economy as there are billionaires making waves in ours: less than one percent of the population. Among this small set, it’s realistic to have at least one dauntless highborn woman per generation flying in the face of expectation.
Women in the mediaeval world were faced with much steeper challenges of childbirth and childcare, but women then were every bit as fierce as women today,
Women in the mediaeval world were faced with much steeper challenges of childbirth and childcare before the availability of birth control, modern medicine, and infant formula, and a realistic portrayal in fiction must acknowledge these difficulties. But women then were every bit as fierce as women today, and participated widely in every level of the economy. The wives of farmers, craftsmen, and soldiers worked alongside them, often inheriting the business on their husband’s death. Highborn women managed everything from estates to kingdoms in proxy to their husbands, and ‘marriage to the church’ allowed women to pursue art, literature, and medicine.
Some further reading
For original sources on midwifery, medicine, and estate management, check out:
‘The Trotula: the Mediaeval Compendium of Women’s Medicine’, the original text by Trota of Salerno, first published in the late 1100s.
Christine de Pizan’s spectacular feminist writings can be found, along with lots of other cool stuff in ‘The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women’ by Diane Borenstein.
For more about townswomen and merchant’s wives, check out:
‘From Workshop to Warfare: The Lives of Medieval Women’ by Carol Adams, Paula Bartley, Hilary Bourdillon, and Cathy Loxton;
‘Women in the Middle Ages, The Lives of Real Women in a Vibrant Age of Transition,’ by Joseph and Frances Gies;
‘Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe’ by Barbara Hanawal, which also contains excellent material on midwifery.
For women in battle, we recommend the academic papers:
‘Women on the Third Crusade,’ by Helen Nicholson
‘The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe,’ by Megan McLaughlin.
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The content of this article was originally gathered for Fact in Fantasy (Penguin 2022).
Thank you for reading and good luck with your worldbuilding!