Women in the Workshop


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.

Suzanne Ellison

This entry was posted in Historical Images, Women in the Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Women in the Workshop

  1. tombuhl says:

    Thanks, Suzanne. I appreciate glimpses of background on how the text of history is manufactured. Good to get a peek behind the curtain at times. A good reminder the selective nature of story telling, myth creation and news reporting.

  2. Andy in Germany says:

    ”should learn all the shop details so that she can properly supervise the workers when her husband is away or not paying attention.”

    I wonder if that is a Euphemism. In the UK especially alcohol was a real issue and it could be that “Not paying attention” means “drunk”.

    Wives of local carpenters here are often heavily involved with the business, come to that our local paker’s wife was also integral to the company, as is the wife of the local plumber and electrician, although technically not ‘qualified’. I wonder how many of our local companies would survive if the guild rules were applied as rigidly as they should be…

  3. When the master died, the widow would often continue the business on her own. Many planemakershops in 17th century Amsterdam were run by woman.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Kees, the next part of the series includes what happened to the widows of craftsmen.

  4. fitz says:

    I’ll have to dig out my Christine de Pizan; I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten most of it.

  5. Dave Fisher says:

    Fascinating article, Suzanne. Thanks for writing and sharing that.

  6. rdwilkins says:

    I love your articles, Suzanne. You always come up with such great research.

  7. aashiv57 says:

    Thank you! Thank you Suzanne and LAP! For years I thought I was an annomolly! In my heart I knew I could not be, but as with so many things, a sanitized history wipped clean of female influence or participation spoke louder than one isolated voice. Thank you for your work, your humor, your sharp whit. Love the blog. Love the important books LAP is publishing. Keep going. You are appreciated!

  8. Thanks for your contributions, Suzanne. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!

  9. Mercie bien Suzanne – what you are doing is vital to us all. Many of us already have known the amazing craft skills of women in every domain, and who are often the ones who have brought Vitruvious’ visual “delight” to not only our architecture, but to our homes and our very well being. This article opens a door long closed to those of us in the English speaking world. And it is truly an “internet” that is bringing the past, the present and the future to those of us who have thinking hands. Maybe some day the world will realize that being part of the Industrial Age does not mean our hands become idle and thus not create the delight we are all capable of creating.
    Richard O. Byrne

  10. Derek Long says:

    You can read this in Homer as well, a further 2400 years in the past from 1505. In the Iliad and Odyssey the women who were “versed in crafts” had status and value. All those suitors were after Odysseus’s wife because she could manage a household (for 20 years!) and was very skilled. They weren’t after Odysseus’ wealth, because the wealth didn’t go with her, it went to his son (which is why his son was eager for his mom to make up her mind and get remarried and out of the house). The local noble boys were after her and her skills, which would enrich and beautify their own households.

  11. jbgcr says:

    My free spirited mother, born in 1918, was a very good carpenter as taught by her father. She always won the nail driving contests at the local fair. She would do a quick repair of a fence or a shelf but ask her to build something and she would say that’s men’s work and she had her own work to do. She said this in a way that was almost a put down and she knew her cooking, baking, sewing, knitting, weaving, childcare and household management were equal or perhaps even more important work.

  12. bsrlee says:

    At least in the late 19th to early 20th Century it was considered essential that even ‘well born’ ladies who would not have been expected to do more than a little embroidery had to know all the household tasks so that they could properly supervise the servants and make sure they didn’t shirk or cause wastage. Same had applied to Medieval women – knowledge is power – probably why so many ratbags want to stop women today being properly educated.

    • wldrylie says:

      I was a Union Steamfitter with the United Association for over thirty years. In that time I had 4 apprentices that worked with me for most of their 5 year apprenticeship. Two of them were young women. I imparted pipe welding techniques and welding knowledge to the two women that I did not teach to anyone else. Especially with hot welds on chrome alloy piping using the SMAW and GTAW process. It gave the gals an advantage in getting out to good jobs and being the last to be laid off because they were excellent welders. There is a prejudice out there of women working on construction jobs, and I think that women get slighted in the education part because people in charge of their education think the women won’t follow through with years of service on the job. Both of them are established Journeymen now and one is a tight weld specialist who squeezes into small spaces and makes x-ray quality welds. My philosophy has always been that It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are qualified for one of the trades and so inclined, you should do it.

  13. Eric R says:

    Excellent writing.
    Your finds are truly amazing.
    Thank you.

  14. diondubbeld says:

    The work you guys put in to bring this history back to life is remarkable! Keep it up! very interesting!

Comments are closed.