Medieval craftsman’s wife

The life of a medieval woman in town is closer to our modern ideas than the other pathways (such as the castle lady or peasant’s wife).  This isn’t coincidental, since modern life developed from the roots of those medieval towns. The towns created and steered progress.

Most women in a town were related to craftsmen, since the town existed as a craft hub. A typical town woman was born into a craftsman’s family and grew up in the rooms above his shop. She learned the rhythm of the craft from an early age and may have been helping in some parts of its work during her childhood. This would vary with the work, of course.

An only child inherited the business, so she always married within the trade. The sisters of a boy who inherited the shop often married among his friends who were probably in the same trade, since tradesmen clustered together in a town. If a girl married outside the trade, it may have been through family connections.

The wife of a craftsman had more cash running through her hands than most medieval women, and she bought far more of her things than rural women did. She was not under pressure to make her own cloth, but she still sewed the clothes her family needed, especially the children’s. She may have had a cook to help her, but she still probably stirred up porridge and brewet. She probably had at least one maid to help sew; this girl was usually someone in from the country, looking for opportunity.

A number of women in town maintained their own small businesses. Towns in northern Europe did a lot of wool and linen fabric processing; there were dyers, weavers, and fullers as separate crafts. All of the spinning, and some of the sewing, was done by women at home. Women in town were perfectly positioned to spin wool on consignment from a dyer. The spinning wheel hadn’t been invented yet, so they were spinning with distaff and drop spindle.

The other ever-present women’s small business was brewing ale. Typical ale lasted only about five days until it was sour. An ale-wife only needed to invest in copper tubs and some pitchers, assuming she knew how to brew. The brewing process took a few days, and then her fresh ale could be sold from a side door. Customers lived on the same block and brought their own pitchers to carry the drink home. Ale-wives often bought from each other on the days when their own ale was not ready, so that every home had fresh ale on hand.

Some crafts cried out for a related business on the side. Most obviously, a butcher created heaps of cast-off but edible materials. Towns had cook shops that sold ready-cooked food, and it’s likely that at least some of the meat-pie shops were run by butchers’ wives. (Meat-pies were where most of the really scrappy bits were hidden.) Tailors had scraps of cloth that could be made up into small articles like caps and wallets; a tailor’s business also lent an opportunity for a wife to make straps and belts with tablet-weaving.

There was one other intriguing business that was usually given to a town widow. Someone needed to keep the official weights and measures, charging a fee when someone needed to check their guild’s or business’s weights against the official ones. It was an easy task for a widow, but a nuisance for any man trying to run a real business.

Craftsman’s wives had much more opportunity to make friends than women in the country or manor. We can picture a craftsman’s wife knowing most of the people in her parish church, helping with parish and guild charity projects, and having friends in most houses nearby. Our word “gossip” was originally the medieval name for a woman’s female friend, and it gradually came to mean, instead, the type of chat the friends were able to have in their few spare minutes at the town pump, baker, or churchyard.

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