Last week I discovered the Balthasar Behem Codex of 1505 (also known as the Codex Picturatus), a compilation of the charters and bylaws of the guilds of Krakow written in German, Polish and Latin. The Codex includes an illustration for each guild, including a carpenter’s workshop and a cooper. Finding the Codex was significant for two reasons: I haven’t seen too many early woodworking images from Eastern Europe, and both images show women working alongside men (my two Polish aunts are cheering!).
In the carpenter’s shop a women is using a bellows to keep the coals under the glue pot warm. In the cooper’s scene a women works on a large cask and a younger women (possibly an apprentice) works on a small bucket. In several illustrations for other guilds women are also working alongside men.
In illustrations from Medieval and Early Modern Europe women (other than the upper classes) are usually seen doing the arduous work of the farm: working in the fields and tending to animals.
When women were portrayed in a woodworker’s shop they are spinning, doing needlework and tending to children. Often, a similar scene is of Mary, Joseph and a young Jesus.
Were the women of Krakow an anomoly? No, they were not. Women can be seen working as stonemasons, blacksmiths, bakers, as well as in the textile trades. The various crafts and trades were family businesses requiring the work of all members of the family. In 1405 in Christine de Pisan’s “Treasure of the City of Ladies,” she advised: the craftswomen…”should learn all the shop details so that she can properly supervise the workers when her husband is away or not paying attention.”
Some of the early research on the role of women and the work they performed in Medieval and Early Modern Europe concluded it was only supportive in nature, or work only done until marriage. These conclusions undervalued both women and the work they did, and these attitudes persisted well into the twentieth century. In the last 30 years a huge amount of research has been done to uncover the details of the daily life of Medieval and Early Modern European women. As more city registries and other archives have been made available, and as more researchers have delved into non-English archives, a very different picture of women (single, married and widowed) has emerged.
The family workshop was a mainstay of the economy and master craftsmen were expected, or required, to be married. The wife was expected to balance her activites between working alongside her husband, manage accounts and sales, oversee apprentices and journeymen and also manage the household. Being the wife of a craftsmen conferred status and reflected her value to the business. In some German records the wife of the master was noted, for example as, “die Frau Bäckerin” (the wife of the baker). Daughters and household maids also worked in the shop. In periods of high demand other women in the community would be hired to work.
Some records show daughters were apprenticed to their fathers although there were few formal provisions for recognizing their apprenticeships as there were for boys. A daughter who had worked in her father’s craft was often viewed as more “marketable” as a wife.
City records and other archives in Spain, France, Germany and England have revealed women working with their fathers or husbands as masons, capenters, doormakers and other crafts in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Women have been documented working on stone and wood structures as day laborers on construction sites.
One of the reasons early reseachers did not recognise the full extent of women working in male-dominated crafts was how women were noted in the records. Women might be documented with their father’s or husband’s name or in terms such as mulier, mullyer, dona, femme or wench. Medieval and Early Modern writers were also largely silent on women’s employment. A woman being fully engaged in an artisan’s workshop or working outside the home did not fit in the conservative and religious views of the the proper role of a women. As for the visual record of women working one has to consider who commisioned the illustrated manuscripts and seasonal calendars and their purpose. The patrons were usually aristocratic and religious figures that were paying for an idealised view of the their estate or world, not an historical documentation.
Another consideration as to why there are few women shown working in male-dominated occupations is the persistence of viewing women as dangerous, polluted and ruinous. An example of this is the blacksmith’s wife. As the story goes (and there are variations) the blacksmith was asked to make nails for the crucifixion of Christ. When he refused, his wife said she would make the nails. The image below is from the Holkham Bible (1327-1335) in the collection of the British Library. This is one of the more destructive images of a woman, as she is engaging in a man’s work, she is enabling a reprehensible act and it has helped perpetuate anti-Semetic ideas. What is factual, is women made nails and otherwise worked in the smith’s shop as part of contributing to the family business. Women continued to make nails as a means of income well into the 19th century.
In a few days or so I’ll continue this short series with the topic of women and the guilds. In the meantime consider this….at the end of the 14th century Giles de Benoyne was allowed an additional apprentice by the founder’s guild of York “because he had no wife” (he was likely a widower).
In 1889 the Balthasar Behem Codex was published in the original languages with black and white illustrations, additional commentary in German and you can find it here.