1273–1500

Craftsmen are men – and women? Work for women and men in the world of urban crafts and trades

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There is no trace of women at work in contemporary pictures of urban crafts. Nevertheless, women were active in many areas of urban economic life.

Contemporary illustrations from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, like the Buch der Stände (Book of the Estates) by Jost Amman and Hanns Sachs which appeared in 1568, provide a static picture of the world of urban crafts. In it women are shown at best as assistants or as customers. In the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period the guilds increasingly squeezed out women and thus deprived them of the political rights that went with membership. Having a say in political matters through the guilds was hence seen as privilege reserved for men. Often considerations of morality played a role, with criticism being voiced of men and women working side by side. It was not considered appropriate for women to travel or to be away from their home for any length of time, which meant that in the late Middle Ages women could not work in the field of long-distance trade. There were also many places where women were forbidden to come in contact with meat and dairy products during menstruation, to prevent food from being ‘polluted’. There was a complete ban on women pressing grapes. However, there was a great difference between such guidelines and what actually happened in day-to-day life. Women worked in the workshops of their fathers and husbands, or deputized for them when they were absent or sick. When they were widowed they could carry on their husband’s business for a certain period of time or until they remarried. Some trades like laundering were actually reserved for women, although they were ones that enjoyed little prestige. Overall women were in fact active in many areas of urban economic life. However, it was mostly work done for someone else, often hidden from view and in some cases unpaid.

Christina Linsboth