The question of the economical position of women in medieval Western Europe between 1000 and 1300 is one of debate among historians due to the transitional economic climate of the period, this period is also seen by some historians as a prelude to the late middle ages when women were excluded from work. At the beginning of the tenth century until the end of the fourteenth century, a wave of economic development spread through Western Europe and opportunities for women opened up in a vast number of trades and vocations, however at the end of 1300, women’s involvement in work and thus contribution to the economy was beginning to decline.
Due to the lack of education available to women, sources written by women on their lives are scarce; therefore judgements made are based on what can be deduced from sources written by men, leading to women being viewed as economically marginal throughout history. However, I will argue that throughout this period women, from the whole social spectrum, did contribute to the economy, although not in proportion to their percentage of the population, they did play a significant role in the developing economy of medieval cities.
The lives of noble women throughout the middle ages are well documented as they had access to education and many women indulged in writing literature such as Angela of Foligno 1248-1309 who lived in Italy and the Lais of Marie de France. Historians debate the extent to which noble women held power and their contribution, if any, to the economy. During this period, noble women were often placed in positions of great responsibility when their husbands went to war; as a result many wielded great economic power. Opitz argues that aristocratic women, although a lot of their power came through their husbands and marriage, they did have to a certain degree, financial independence. Evidence for this are ‘The power of the keys’ in medieval law, which gave noble women power over goods produced in the household and ability to enter into business dealings1.
In the later half of the tenth century, Western Europe experienced a trade revival and towns evolved into commercial centres throbbing with economic activity. This presented new opportunities to women and they became involved in a number of different trades such as brewing, tapestry making and silk spinning. The economy expanded and some historians see women played a vital role in this, Labarge argues that ‘the work of townswomen was essential for urban prosperity’2. Claudia Opitz argues that the exclusion of women from industry and production was a specific phenomenon of nineteenth century bourgeois society3.
This view is exemplified in Paris, the 1292 records show women involved in 172 different trades4. In many of these areas production was carried out exclusively by women, only one male was recorded as being involved in the silk trade in 12925. However historians such as Labarge argue over the validity of the tax rolls as evidence for women involvement in work, as a woman could be recorded as being involved in a trade which was actually her husbands despite it being indicated it her surname6. Similar disputes arise over sources such as the records of trade guilds in England, women are recorded as being for example a blacksmith when it is in fact their husband’s trade and they are only involved in as far as the social activities of the guild7.
Paris, as one of the largest cities in Europe at the time, kept detailed records on the economy and therefore sources on this subject are ‘lumped together’, however they provide strong evidence for women’s involvement in the economy. The fact that women were taxed as individual people reflects their economic status in society as being equal to that of wage earning men. Women were very successful in their work shown in the 1292 tax role; 2238 women were hearths8 (that is the person responsible for the tax in a business or household). Women therefore made up 15% of the total number of hearths and shows them to be identified as responsible tax payers and economically independent.
The records also show successful women such as dame Isabeau, a cloth merchant from Tremblay and she had an assessment of 75 livres, in comparison to 150 livres9 which was the highest tax assessment figure held by a man. In total, women contributed 9% of all the taxes collected in 129210 which can not be considered marginal when one takes into account that women were earning two thirds of what men were earning, which is considerably less than men. Luxury trades were the area in which women thrived; this is demonstrated in the story of ‘La Fresne’ retold in the Lais of Marie de France.