Stevens M. (2006) Women’s work in early 14th-century Wales

Stevens Matthew (2006) “Reassessing urban women’s work before the Black Death: a case study, 1300-49”, paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Economic History Society, Reading, 6 p.

This article is available on line.


This paper focuses on the borough of Ruthin is Wales, an active market town, during the first half of the 14th century to explore female involvement in the urban labour market. Two models have been proposed by historians:David Herlihy considers that by 1250 female participation to urban economic enterprises peaked and soon after declined until the Black Death (1349) when labour shortage reversed that trend. After the plague women’s role in the urban workforce declined steadily.

JPJ Goldberg, on the other hand, argues that female work was unimportant before the demographic crises of the early and mid 14th century when they seized an opportunity to abandon the traditional female tasks (spinning, laundering) to enter more prestigious trades. They delayed their marriage in exchange of income and higher social status. But once the dramatic labour shortage disappeared by the end of the 1300s, they “again fell prey to early marriage and lower status” (1).

Impact of the crisis

The Great Famine of 1315-1322 was caused by short and wet summers, cold and protracted winters and recurrent cattle murrain. In Ruthin, by 1318, measures were implemented to limit the export of foodstuff out of town. As the result, the poor and starving moved in the town, they could purchase and consume there what they could not find in the countryside (2).

Demand increased abruptly, creating skilled labour shortage. Women moved in to fill them. The case of the bakers and bakeresses is particularly interesting. Between 1315 and 1330 the number of bakers in Ruthin doubled, the number of female bakers quadrupled. Women represented 40% of the towns’ baker in the corporation reunions whilst they used to be only 15 to 20%. After 1330, the total number of bakers declined and the proportion of female bakers plummeted back to pre-1315 levels.

Opportunity gained…

More often then not, the female workers were used as makeshift and occasional labours before 1315. But for the following 15 years they enjoyed a newfound recognition and an intensification of their trade-work. The author give the example of this father who was replaced at the reunions by his daughters after 1314. For 6 years they were alone representing the family’s enterprise, until the son took it over by his own.

The sisters seem to have remained unwed well into their 30s “opting for the economic security of labouring under the umbrella of [their father’s] trade rather than the uncertain prosperity of marriage”. Yet this did not imply reproductive failure as at least one of the two sisters had an illegitimate son who was to take over the bakery in the 1340s (4). Remaining unwed seems indeed to have been important for female economic success: three of the four most active bakeresses of the period were not married (5).

… and lost.

Herlihy has indicated three obstacles to the feminisation of the medieval skilled workforce:
• Urbanisation: it “brought with it the professionalisation and specialisation of productive activities as marlets became more competitive.” Due to domestic obligations women were not free to develop these specialised skills.
• Capitalisation: being an independent tradeswoman seems to have been particularly difficult. In Ruthin, most bakeresses were coming from family firms. Obtaining capital must have been difficult for the independent female workers.
• Monoplisation: when a market was becoming saturated, male workers swiftly imposed monopolies forcing their female competitors out.

“For related bakeresses this ‘exclusion’ was probably more symbolic than reflective, as they are likely to have continued as members of commercially productive households. However, the disappearance of independent female bakers in the 1330s evidences a very real lost trade opportunity. [This] struck a blow at the status of female bakers, relegating the from the prestige of skilled tradeswomen back to the obscurity of makeshift labourer from which they had come.”


Both Herluhy’s and Goldberg’s model apply in the Ruthin case study. Medieval women’s market access may very well have been cyclical and circumstantially based. Each crisis increased the female proportion of skilled labourer, the end of each crisis meant a return to the previous situation (6).


David Herlihy, Women, Family, and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays 1978 – 1991 (Oxford, 1991).

P.J.P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy; Women in York and Yorkshire c.1300-1520 (Oxford, 1992).


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