Craftswomen and the Guilds


In the last quarter of the 13th century Etienne Boileau compiled “Livres des Métiers” which documented the codes and traditions of the more important Parisian crafts. About 500 years later an English researcher reviewed Boileau’s work and found of the 100 crafts, five were headed by women and in most of the crafts women were employed. Women worked the same hours as men, they could be apprentices and the equivalent of a journeyman. He noted “writing-table makers” could be male or female.

Further work on “Livres des Métiers” was done by Janice Archer for her 1995 PhD thesis. Archer created multiple data bases, deciphered some of the obscure terms and shed new light on the extent and kinds of work done by women. One-third of the women worked in the more traditional fields of food and clothing production and two-thirds worked in almost every other job that men did.

From the extensive number of occupations Archer listed here are the woodworking-related catagories in which women worked: wooden measures for grain, barrel makers, bed frames, tables, benches, armoires, doors, windows, carts, roofs, “everything else made of wooden boards,” strong boxes for travel, provider of wood for carpentry, builders of scaffolds, thatched roofs and wooden clogs to protect shoes from mud. Except for the possible exception of the clogs, sounds like what women in the 21st century are making, doesn’t it?


One point that is brought up in most of the research is the contrast in the availability of work for a woman inside and outside the home. For the wife, daughters and any other related or unrelated women it would be easier and safer to learn and perform the craft of the master in the home workshop. Even if a woman was not performing the same full work as that of an apprentice or journeyman (because of incomplete training or other household responsibilities) she could still contribute to the production of the shop via smaller jobs such as gluing, decorative work, painting or polishing. For a master involved in carpentry for a building site the female members of the household would generally not work at the site. As far as can be determined from studied records most female laborers on building sites tended to be related to unskilled male laborers, poor single women and widows and slaves.

Sometimes the master’s wife was prohibited to go outside the home to accomplish a task necessary for the workshop to function. In the mid-1550s the Worshipful Company of Carpenters decreed “…that no women shall come to the waters to by (buy) tymber bourde…” Apparently some wives thought it better to just get the wood needed for their business for on March 10, 1547, several master carpenters were called to the guildhall and told to “…warne ther wyffes that they schuld not by no stuffe at the waters syd upone payne of a fyne.”

Guild records about warnings and fines, complaints brought by widows and the increasing restrictions guilds placed on women have helped researchers determine the kind of work women did and their contributions to the various crafts.

Medieval European guilds and their codes and statutes were many and complex. Each city had its own guilds and through time related guilds might merge and later separate. Some guilds could have sub-guilds. Competition  might result in highly specialized guilds: in one town a baker’s guild only handled dough that was already kneaded by the customer, the other baker’s guild only handled unkneaded dough! A city’s guilds could gain enough economic power to challenge the local government.

When the societal and religious views of a woman’s expected role (get married as early as possible, when widowed get married again as soon as possible) are combined with a guild’s control over trade, a woman’s economic status could very quickly be decimated. And that is what began to happen in the 15th century.

At the beginning of the 15th century Christine de Pisan wrote “The Treasure of the City of Ladies.” She had been married at 15 and widowed at age 25. For years she fought in the courts to recover her late husband’s land and was hampered by not knowing the full extent of her husband’s finances. In the “Treasure” she gave advice to women in all social classes about getting an education, learning the husband’s business and finances and protecting themselves if they became a widow. Becoming a widow, even to a successful craftsman, was a precarious situation. Earliest guild statutes did not place many restrictions on the widow of a master craftsman and widows could generally continue to run the husband’s business. One exception was if she remarried a master in a different craft she could not continue in the first husband’s business.

By the middle of the 15th century nearly every craft began to enact limitations on a widow’s ability to run her husband’s workshop. The restrictions began by limiting how long after her husband’s death a widow could run the business. A example of the escalating restrictions can be seen in German cities in the 15th and 16th centuries: the widow could operate the workshop for one to two years, the next limitation was no new apprentices or journeyman and operations for just a few months, next was to allow the shop to only finish any work in progress at the time of the husband’s death. An exception might be made if there was a son old enough to take over the business.

A guild might allow the widow to be a “placeholder” until a son reached his majority. The ability for a daughter to inherit a business was eliminated. The worst restrictions reached into the workshop and regulated against wives of masters participating in the business. Of course, there were exceptions because each city and guild was different. But the common thread in the transition from the Medieval era to Early Modern was to limit a woman’s economic work and try to confine her to marriage, children and household.

An exception to the strictures placed on widows is the case of Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselar (1526-1588) a wood merchant of Haarlem.


She was widowed in 1562 but continued in business. One of her exploits is the highly romanticized story of her defense of the city during the 1573 Spanish. The image to the left is presumed to be her, but you might also find her in paintings wielding some fearful weapons. Her business included owning a ship that made about five trips per year transporting wood to Norway. When her ship’s captain was taken hostage in 1588 she went to Norway to get her ship and disappeared, presumably the victim of pirates.

A widow could bring a complaint to continue operating the family business and many did. Extensions to the time limit might be made or the answer from the guild could be crushing. Merry E. Wiesner, an intrepid researcher in women’s working lives, uncovered a stonemason guild’s response to a widow in Frankfurt in 1642. The widow wanted to continue to work as her husband had purchased a large amount of stone prior to his death. The guild refused her request and gave six reasons for the refusal: 1. other widows would want the same rights; 2. her husband had been the most successful stonemason in the town and others felt bitter that he had taken business from them; 3. her husband had vigorously opposed widows working, why go against his wishes; 4. she could not oversee the shop well enough and work might not be done properly which could bring shame to her and the whole guild; 5. she could not control the journeyman who might marry, have children and later abandon their families and with no means of support they would be a drain on the public treasury; 6. because she couldn’t control the journeymen they would want to work in her shop and not for other masters.

The guild’s response (or six nails in the widow’s coffin) reveals their effort to eliminate competition, settle old scores, humiliate the widow and belittle her ability to run the business. If the widow had been allowed to continue the business I would think she would have encountered a concerted effort by others in the guild to block and undermine her workshop.

What was behind the restrictions on women in the craft guilds? Why stop wives, daughters, single women and widows from working? To quote Merry Wiesner, restricting women’s work was linked to “every major economic change going on: decline of craft guilds and rise of journeyman’s guilds, shift in trade patterns, the general inflation, decline of old manufacturing centers and growth of new ones, formalization of training requirements, rise of capitalism.”

If they were prohibited from working in the family shop how did women make money for their families and themselves? Well before restrictions came into play women were already paid much less than men and supplemented their incomes by making small items for sale. Pins, brooms, brushes, spoons and bowls could be made at home and sold from the home. Guilds did not try to regulate these activities. For the single woman and the widow with no families on which to rely the restrictions on their work had the greatest impact. They were left to find work in the lowest paid jobs with their opportunities becoming more limited as they aged.

A list of the many upheavals in the 15th through 18th century includes outbreaks of the plague, famine, catastrophic weather, war, more war and the crushing limits on a woman’s ability to work in a craft or outside the home. In his book “London-The Biography” Peter Ackroyd wrote, “It will come as little surprise that the desire to control women occurred at times of panic and low financial confidence.”

The last part of this series will cover a bit of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

I am sorry to say that other than the two illustrations from the Balthasar Behem Codex mentioned in ‘Women in The Workshop’ I found no illustrations of Medieval or Early Modern women involved in woodworking. The closest thing was a woman holding an axe near a tree…wearing some interesting footwear…those clogs.



The “wooden clogs to protect shoes from mud” mentioned in “Livres des Métiers explained what the woman in orange is wearing with her shoes. I took a short detour from all this women in the workshops research (I needed a break!) to take a look at those clogs and found a pair in a Jan van Eyck painting. Very sensible and they also explain the Dr. Scholl’s phenomena several centuries later.

The gallery has a selection of women in other crafts and a listing of the resources I used for “Women in the Workshop” and this post.

Suzanne Ellison

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22 Responses to Craftswomen and the Guilds

  1. Is there enough space in the LAP new store for unicorns?

  2. whutchis says:

    The “clogs” are called pattens, and we have lots of archeological evidence for their use and construction. See Grew, “Shoes and Pattens: Finds from Medieval Excavations in London” for more information.

  3. nrhiller says:

    This is fascinating stuff. What a ton of research! Keep it coming.

  4. Fascinating indeed! We need so much this “history of necessity”, as a counter to the ” official” history, which was written by… the winners. Keep’em coming.

  5. Roger Holmes says:

    Fascinating research, Suzanne. Any plans to publish in paper?

    Keep up the good work!

    Roger Holmes

  6. John Hurn says:

    Wonderful material. Is there a book in the offing?

  7. And we have women clog maker here in th UK

  8. Eric R says:

    Defenders of the Unicorn !’
    (Excellent writing Suzanne.)
    Really enjoy your posts.

    • saucyindexer says:

      That’s my new cause after being soaked in Medieval art for over a week. Thanks, as always, for your kind comments.

  9. Excellent article! Definitely smashes old stereotypes of women in the middle ages. I have to say I thoroughly enjoy reading your research posts!

  10. fitz says:

    Suzanne, have you read “Working Women in English Society, 1300-1620?” An oldie now (2005), but pretty good.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I have not but the author’s work was sited in some of the references I used.

  11. hildacorners says:

    “Guild of Women Anarchists” … a wonderful contradiction of terms!

    Where do I sign up?

  12. nealm44 says:

    I want a poster of the Guild of Women Anarchists for my granddaughters! In all seriousness, thank you very much for this. The impact of the increasing restrictions on the role women could play that ramped up during the 15th and 16th centuries is one of the things I always had trouble getting history students in the late 20th & early 21st centuries to understand. There is an all too common misconception that such legal disabilities have always been the case and always with the same severity.

    • In much the same way, folks have a tendency to extrapolate prudish Victorian attitudes backwards into the colonial era, when in fact the Georgians were far more prurient than their 19th century progeny.

  13. I think you misinterpret the picture of the carousing gentleman stumbling home mid-morn wearing another craftslady’s pink leggings and scarf. The axe is not meant for the tree.

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