Late Medieval England: A Man’s World?


Medieval society is often depicted as a man’s world, where knights-errant ruled the land and women were clapped in scold bridles and chastity belts.  Late medieval England was certainly patriarchal; female subservience was understood to be natural and was enshrined within every aspect of culture.  Gender inequality didn’t, however, exclude women from engaging in and shaping the societies of which they were an essential part. Here, we’ll investigate women’s involvement in three central areas of culture.  Firstly, work.  It’s important to remember that life for the average medieval labourer or wage earner was very tough, and women’s earnings were central to the survival of families and communities.  We’ll also look at the involvement of women in the popular civic ceremonies so central to late medieval society, and at the ways women engaged with their religious beliefs and devotions.  Far from being “excluded” from popular culture, women in late medieval England were keen and active participants.

Women and Work

Work was central to the life of the late medieval populace, 85% of whom belonged to the peasantry at the time of the Black Death. Historians have argued that the demographic crisis wrought by the Plague, which killed perhaps half the population, heralded a “golden age” for late medieval women, claiming that the demand for labour vastly increased their economic opportunities.  P.J.P Goldberg, for example, argues that women were regarded as a “reserve army”, and drawn on to fill positions traditionally occupied by men. This trend was curtailed when the demand for labour began to decline in the fifteenth century, yet it did not signal an end to women’s involvement in either the urban or rural workforce.

Women in fact made up half the workforce in late medieval England. This fact is often obscured by the nature of much existent source material.  Heather Swanson convincingly argues that the craft guilds, associations into which particular trades wewomen at work.jpgre organised, were “deliberate and artificial [constructs] of the medieval urban authorities”.  They attempted to police the popular workforce in response to the increasing economic power of the labour market in the wake of the Black Death. Not only do the craft guilds falsely imply that labourers restricted themselves to one craft, they record only “skilled manufacturing by men.” Women did however make significant contributions in all aspects of industry, including victualing, textiles and the food market.  Borough ordinances for the city of York in 1301, for example, show women to be employed as brewers, food retailers and innkeepers.

Women also engaged in economic activities within their own homes.  Anthony Fitzherbert’s “The Boke of Husbandry”, dated 1523, provides a valuable insight into the tasks a dutiful wife was expected to fulfil: “Milk your cows, suckle your calves, strain your milk… Send corn and malt to the mill… make butter and cheese… sow flax and hemp”. What is perhaps most revealing about this source is the claim that “a woman can make an honest living by spinning with the distaff [tool for spinning textiles]” (my emphasis), which suggests the image of the female labourer was a recognisable reality for the contemporary readership. Indeed, women’s earnings accounted for 15-20% of a parish’s annual income. Work was a central aspect of popular culture in late m
edieval England.  We can see its significance refracted through popular conceptions of utopia; such as the Land of Cockayne, which is characterised by the very absence of labour. Occupations had their own patron saints, and rituals such as the Lord of Misrule, in which traditional social status’ were inverted, symbolised “a season of revelry and release from work.” Although the evidence for women’s work is harder to come by than that for men, they laboured just as hard, and were deeply immersed in this definitive aspect of popular culture.

Women and Ritual Culture

Women were also deeply engaged in the inclusive ritualistic culture of late medieval England.  This argument has been fleshed out by Charles Phythian-Adams, who argues that popular ceremony worked to preserve the status quo by uniting the constituent parts of the community in “celebratory circumstances”, smoothing societal conflict and “[intensifying] the bonds of belonging”. The York Corpus Christi cycle, a series of pageants telling the story of the bible, evidences this sense of inclusivity and unity.  For example, “The Last Judgement”, the final pageant in the York Corpus Christi procession, features the word “ilka” (every), at least once in each of the first five stanzas;

“Ilka creature for to call…

Ilka lede the ever had life – ”

Sithen shall ilka waried wight

On my left side for fearedness flee…”

The Angels who summon the deceased before Christ for their ultimate judgement address “both old and young”, and make a specific reference to men and women; “both man and wife.” The text also stresses charity and interdependence.  Jesus admits “Good Souls” to heaven on the basis of their charitable, neighbourly actions;

“When I was hungry, ye me fed;

To slake my thirst your heart was free;

When I was clotheless, ye me clad,

Ye would no sorrow upon me see.”

The emphasis on social interdependence and integration in the text supports Phythian-Adams’ conception of the role of ceremony and ritual as an inclusive force, uniting those of different social status and gender rather than excluding any one section of society.

As Claire Sponsler shows, historians have challenged the model offered by Phythian-Adams, arguing that popular ceremonies functioned as “agents of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Produced and performed by the exclusively masculine craft guilds, the pageants have been seen to deliberately and permanently exclude women.  Yet this view underestimates the deep-seated ways in which the ceremony responded to and resonated with the interests and aspirations of female audience members.  It is no coincidence that much of the subject matter found in the text of the York Corpus Christi plays echoes themes found in the “Lives”, we might say “biographies”, of popular saints venerated by women.  The plays didn’t privilege female interests over those of males, and they didn’t stop women becoming the butt of misogynistic jokes from time to time.  Yet they certainly didn’t exclude them from engaging with this fundamental aspect of popular culture.

It’s also important to recognise the significance of rituals in which women were actively engaged; such as Hocktide celebrations.  Hocktide was a festival held after Easter every year and a means of raising money for the parish.  The custom was for the men and women in a community to tie or “bind” each other, exacting money in exchange for the prisoner’s release.  Katherine French has demonstrated the significance this festival had for women, providing them with an opportunity to contribute towards the parish income.  The money raised by women at Hocktide was very much their own, and could be used to fund female devotions or church decoration such as alter cloths and banners which reflected their interests and experiences.  In this way, Hocktide celebrations ensured female involvement in the very fabric of the community.

Women and Popular Religion

Women’s desire to see themselves reflected in the parish church is part of a wider female engagement in various forms of religious practice.  That religion occupied a central space in late medieval culture is demonstrated by the sheer extent of lay involvement in religious fraternities and st katharine.jpgengagement with saint’s cults.  Two of the most highly venerated saints in medieval England, Saint Katherine and Saint Margaret, possessed gender-specific attributes which rendered them more accessible and relatable to women than men.  Indeed, Saint Katherine was venerated for her intercessory role as a provider of husbands. Capgrave’s “Life of Saint Katherine” constructs a saint who is both virgin and bride.  He takes care to provide detail about Katherine’s identity as a wife, as is seen below in Mary’s dialogue with Jesus;

“Sone,” sche [Mary] seyth, “and makere of all maner t
I hafe browte a mayde here in full grete fere;
The spouse whech Thu lovyst, here I hir bryng.
Sche desyryth that Thu schalt now with a ryng
Despouse hir to Thiself for evyrmore –
This is hir desyre and hath be full yore.”

Saint Margaret, too, is a prime example of a saint who appealed directly to women. Towards the end of Lydgate’s “Life”, Margaret asks God to ensure the safety of pregnant women;

“And specyally to thee I beseche

To alle wymmen whiche of childe travayle,

For my sake, oo Lorde, be thou her leche;

Lat my prayere unto hem availe”.

The extent to which women actively engaged in the veneration of saints and sought their intercessory powers is testified by the fact that Lydgate’s “Life of Saint Margaret” was commissioned by Anne Mortimer, Countess of March, during the period of her life when she was most likely to bear children. Thus, in the cults of Saint Katherine and Saint Margaret we have firm evidence of women’s inclusion in an important aspect of late medieval popular culture.

It is also worth remarking upon the extent to which women engaged in the religious aspects of popular culture through their involvement in fraternities.  Religious institutions of this kind were an intrinsic part of the social landscape in late medieval England.  Their primary aim was intercessory, and revolved around securing and protecting the salvation of their members. Fraternities also served important social functions, providing friendship, kinship, and protection in times of physical or financial hardship. The involvement of women in religious fraternities is evidenced in a fourteenth century ordinance of the Guild of Saint Katherine in Norwich:

“…it is ordained that whenever a brother or sister has died, every brother and sister shall come to the dirige and mass… And also it is ordained that if any brother or sister falls into poverty through wordly misfortune his livelihood shall be helped with a farthing in the week from every brother and sister of the guild…And also it is ordained that… the brothers and sisters of this guild shall… eat together on their guild day at their common expense.”

This passage clearly illustrates the extent of women’s involvement in religious fraternities.  Not once does the word “brother” appear without the word “sister”.  The use of these familial nouns also emphasises the bonds of kinship and community which characterized these institutions, and which were central aspects of popular culture.


Clearly, women were very much engaged in the aspects of popular culture most significant to the populace of late medieval England.  Women were deeply involved in the late medieval economy, engaging in industries such as husbandry, retail and textile work.  As such, aspects of popular culture which centred around labour were as much a reflection of women’s economic activities as they were men’s.  Likewise, women engaged with popular performance and ceremony.  Although they may not have taken an active role in events such as the Corpus Christi plays, the inclusive nature of the performances affirmed the connection between women, as one section of society, and a coherent social body.  Festivals such as Hocktide provided an opportunity for women to see their own interests and experiences reflected in community culture.  Finally, women were able to participate in lay religious devotion through the veneration of saints who reflected female pre-occupations, and could experience the social and spiritual benefits of a religious fraternity.  To deny women’s involvement in popular culture would be to misunderstand and misconstrue the social fabric of late medieval England.

Written by Martha Bailey

Secondary Sources

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