Gender, Work, and Service in Late Medieval Europe (1300-1600)

Gender, Work, and Service in Late Medieval Europe (1300-1600)

Eva-Maria Cersovsky, University of Cologne; Julia Exarchos, RWTH Aachen
Vom - Bis
29.09.2022 - 30.09.2022
Matthias Aaron Wesseling, Historisches Institut, RWTH Aachen University

Work and profession do not only shape people’s role in society, but also their identity, both in the present day and likely even more so in the Middle Ages. The conference aimed at revisiting this important aspect of medieval life with a focus on service as an under-researched area of medieval history. Other forms of paid and unpaid, productive and reproductive labor as a means to secure one’s livelihood were a matter of concern as well. Furthermore, the conference took, above all, gender into account, as it tremendously shaped medieval life and labor. However, the influence of patriarchy and gendered norms on male and female working conditions and opportunities is still a perennial topic of discussion in scientific discourse. The conference mainly focused on female identity and work but perspectives on masculinity and work in the late Middle Ages were discussed as well.

The conference started with a keynote lecture by JEREMY GOLDBERG (York). He examined different perspectives on and different forms of labor as well as service in and outside of late medieval England with an outlook on present-day service. In his talk, he distinguished lifecycle servanthood from slavery, which was a long-term or rather lifelong work relation. In contrast to slavery, servanthood, besides its function as a livelihood activity, was mainly a means to educate and prepare young people, Goldberg argued. In late medieval England, in particular, servanthood was rather about education, fosterage (e.g., for orphans), and also kinship. Many servants were related to their masters, as research of the last decades has shown. Goldberg also stressed that servanthood evolved throughout history, with the Black Death marking a turning point in England. Because of the plague and the following shortage of laborers, servanthood increased. Thus, servanthood in late medieval England was more about inexpensive workforce than about status as it is nowadays.

Another development was the growing social distance between master and servant. The spaces for servants within the households were divided between genders and increasingly separated from the space that the employers used. Additionally, Goldberg examined differences throughout Europe. For example, in Italy coerced labor and slavery were far more common than in England where lifecycle servanthood was the dominant form of work.

Following the keynote, DOROTHEE RIPPMANN (Zürich) examined the visibility and invisibility of different actors, types of work, and material culture based on several examples from the Upper Rhine area. She first presented a 15th-century tapestry produced by so-called Heidnischwerkerinnen, that showed both women and men in a rural work situation. Rippmann compared these images to sources of day laborers in a vineyard of Basel’s Heilig-Geist-Spital. In some years, nearly half of them were female. Their numbers fluctuated heavily every year. Generally, visibility was gained by the integration in institutions such as guilds. Women like the Heidnischwerkerinnen, however, were often excluded from these institutions. Nevertheless, they created visibility of working women by portraying them on textile art.

EYAL LEVINSON (Jerusalem) shifted the perspective to Ashkenazi Jews. According to a Jewish proverb from late Antiquity, men became a burden to a household in their old age whereas old women were usually seen as a “treasure”. Levinson argued that male and female roles gradually resembled each other with increasing age. Men experienced a loss of masculinity and an ongoing feminization in their old age because their work was connected to physical strength in contemporary sources; something which did not apply to female work. However, old men were also associated with honor and respect, and a great number of women worked in trades and crafts that required physical strength. Therefore, Levinson shed some light on medieval (Jewish) gender role constructs and their complexity.

JACQUELINE TUREK (Aachen) completed the session and presented housekeeping books from Nuremberg, the so-called Ehehaltengedinge. These books, written by rich Nuremberg merchants, can provide insights into the everyday lives of late medieval servants, despite being written from a male perspective and the little information given about the individuals. In these books, gender roles in domestic service as well as gender pay gaps are reflected in a different way than in normative sources. Interestingly, only the minority of domestic servants left service by choice or because of marriage. Most were dismissed because of theft, sexual relationships, and most often (supposed) laziness. This leads to the question of whether these accusations were excuses to dismiss servants or, if not, why servants risked their position with deviant behavior. Additionally, Turek’s results highlight domestic servants’ limited freedom of action.
Overall, the session discussed new perspectives not only on gender roles in domestic and rural spaces but also on the visibility of workers and servants as well as their possibilities to create visibility and to act freely as individuals. It also showed the opportunities medieval sources are offering to examine the more invisible parts and people of medieval society.

Following, the conference dealt with other forms of female work starting with a talk by JAMIE PAGE (Birmingham) about clandestine prostitution, which we know very little about although it must have been far more common than prostitution in a brothel. As an example of his scientific approach, Page presented a unique case study from Zurich: A woman called Replin was accused of abortion. In the following legal proceedings, ten men testified to have had sex with Replin, which lead Page to the conclusion that she must have been a clandestine sex worker, a heimliche Frau. Interestingly, all nine local men testified in favor of Replin and only the tenth, a foreign man, who was not integrated into the local community, spoke against her. Replin, therefore, must have been tolerated to a certain degree, by the local community. Page tried to examine the subjectivity and identity of sex workers utilizing jurisdictional sources. In contrast to other source types, they provide at least some insights into the ways these women might have perceived themselves and into the social categories that shaped their lives.

Remaining with the topic of prostitution MICHAEL HAMMER (Graz) dealt with the question whether prostitution in late medieval Austrian brothels was dominated by coercion or protection. He admitted that a comprehensive answer was not possible at the current stage of research, but suggested an ambiguous result. Emerging in the late Middle Ages, the institutional brothel with the new profession Frauenwirt, officially sanctioned by city councils, was a means of protection for prostitutes. It provided sex workers with a better legal status and basic rights which they had not had before, but the system was not sufficient to prevent abuse and slavery-like conditions. The women often had to leave their original social network and were at the mercy of the brothel keepers in the new environment.

ANGELA ZHANG (Boston) concluded the second session by shifting it to coerced labor with a paper on slaves in late medieval Florentine households, who were predominantly female. By analyzing both sources of domestic environments and institutional sources, Zhang traced how a language of otherness was created in these documents and how it was transferred onto slave women as a means to subject them under their master’s rule and in parts to even dehumanize them. This language was deeply connected with gender, race, sexuality, and religion as these women were foreign and could only be enslaved if they were non-Catholic. Zhang used the Florentine Foundling Hospital as an example to draw an even bigger picture of forced domestic service: Slaves were rented out for financial purposes, and even their breastmilk was commercialized.

Thus, the session offered some interesting perspectives on medieval female life between varying degrees of coercion and possibilities to negotiate constraints, e.g., by utilizing social networks. Additionally, the session illustrated society’s perception of these women and, on the other hand, tried to examine their own identity and subjectivity.

The second keynote lecture of the conference given by JUDITH BENETT (Los Angeles) was strongly connected with the previous session. In her talk, Bennett examined the blurred lines between prostitution and intimate labor by linking them to the role of courtship in late medieval England. According to Bennett, courtship was not only a way into marriage but also a source of income for single women. By giving their bodies and risking their honor, women could, for example, receive wooing gifts. While we might tend to label a paid sexual relationship as prostitution, receiving occasional gifts from men could also simply be understood as another form of (intimate) work, Bennett stressed. There were several ways for women, besides prostitution, to gain from a sexual relationship: E.g., they could live as clerical concubines or could secure an employment as a servant by having a relationship with a member of the master’s family.

For her research, Bennett built upon songs, poems, ecclesiastical, and manorial records rather than sermons or pastoral guides as they provide, despite their predominantly male perspective, a more realistic view of medieval conditions. Eventually, Bennett pleaded for historians to fully regard medieval women as subjects with options and agency.

The next two speakers presented an, probably because of past and modern perceptions, under-researched field of medieval history. EDWARD LOSS (Florence) focused on women in late medieval Italy who served as couriers, information gatherers, or spies. Tracing names, salaries, and missions within expense records, he asked why women in particular were often chosen for these tasks while they were increasingly excluded from other professions at the same time. One explanation may be found in their position as servants and/ or most couriers’ marginalized and poor backgrounds which offered them greater mobility as well as invisibility; both made them very suitable for the task. On the other hand, the position as a courier offered women a salary that was a lot higher than the wages a poor working woman would usually receive. While these findings might seem exceptional, Loss also highlighted the number of little-explored sources that could prove these practices of information gathering and extensive female mobility to be a lot more common than previously suspected.

MARKUS JANSEN (Cologne) examined another under-researched area of female service work. He stressed that, although far less numerous than men, women played a role in medieval military service. Despite the fact that femininity was connected with vulnerability and contrasted with male virtus in medieval thought, women often appear in urban records as household leaders who had to possess arms and send male substitutes in favor of the city’s defense. This indirect female involvement in military service is accompanied by other examples of more direct involvement. Female characters can be found in martial arts manuals with practices adjusted to the female body. Furthermore, the direct involvement of women in cases of civic defense is recorded in a small number of city accounts (e.g., Duisburg and Neuss), even in very dangerous situations.

This session invited us to see the complexity of medieval gender roles and to think about spaces in which we would not expect to find a lot of women, mainly because of either modern or medieval conceptions of femininity.

Different from the former topic, ADRIAN KAMMERER (Cologne) addressed the religious sphere and the Dominican Third Order. He stressed that there were more female than male Dominican tertiaries, resulting in higher visibility of female tertiaries in the sources. He examined the differences between women and men as well. Female tertiaries often formed small communities (e.g., like the Beguines) outside of monasteries whereas male tertiaries mostly lived within the convent. One possible explanation is that men who did not want to live an enclosed life could join the First Order also, while the tertiary communities provided the only chance for religious women to do so. Kammerer also showed that admitting tertiaries could strengthen a nun’s agency within her community: He convincingly argued that the supervision capacities the prioress held over the convent’s male and female tertiaries increased her authority.

EMMA GABE (Toronto) remained with the Dominicans in late medieval Germany but focused on lay sisters. She explored the tasks these women – who often were of humble social origins but not exclusively so – performed within the convent. Here, she could stress that the lay sisters were responsible for the physical needs of the convent but had the option to reach leading positions, especially as a part of a party that founded or reformed another convent. She also asked if the background of the sisters before entering the convent had an impact on their later tasks. Gabe identified education and personal merits as factors and also took external social status into account, but the latter had to remain an assumption due to the scarcity of sources.

Lastly, MARCO TOMASZEWSKI (Freiburg) took a more general look at labor using the St. Gallen linen production and Johan Rütiner’s Commentationes, commentaries about the St. Gallen society, as an example. He highlighted that modern definitions of labor as paid work and contribution to the wider economy do not fit preindustrial notions or practices of work, because of the great amount of unpaid labor. According to Tomaszewski, “livelihood activities” would be a better term, which, as he stressed, were dependent on age, status, and gender. For example, a woman who received better wages than her male spouse in a working couple relationship could be a source of conflict and especially female servants were in danger of inhabiting precarious positions, as Rütiner’s Commentationes clearly portray. Tomaszewski also agreed with e.g., Judith Bennett that premodern labor relations needed to be addressed in all their complexity, but preferred to use the terms “livelihood activities” or “economic strategies” instead of “intimate labor” for the asymmetric relationships and practices of compensation Bennett had presented.

The session went on with IVANA LEMCOOL (Belgrade) examining Serbian embroidery that was made as part of votive gifts by well-known noblewomen. It is unclear whether or not these textiles were produced by these women themselves, as inscriptions are suggesting, or if they were produced by workshops or employed craftsmen. These donations served various functions: The gifted churches gained prestige and developed a strong relationship with the noble-women and their dynasty. The donators’ involvement in the production process is well explored in Western history but less so in Eastern Europe. Lemcool aims at changing that, but could not provide an answer about the scale of the noblewomen’s involvement in the production at the current early state of her research.

MEAGAN KHOURY (Stanford) concluded the conference with her presentation on Bolognese conservatori, reform houses for women and girls, in which they produced textile products, especially embroidery, as a highly skilled form of artistic work. The ideal of these conservatori was to save young souls and help marginalized women while exploiting a cheap workforce at the same time. However, the houses also enabled women to create art and to learn from each other independently of male workshops. Khoury examined that the produced embroidery followed paintings created by female artists. Manuals for embroidery were emerging in the context of these workhouses, which gave women the opportunity to teach themselves this particular form of art.

The session dealt with female production and again female visibility, including women of high rank. It also stresses that it is important to look beyond our modern understanding of labor as paid work when it comes to premodern labor and to take activities into account that were not paid but secured livelihoods and were fundamental to medieval economies.

All in all, the conference had many related themes despite the broad range of topics presented in the individual papers. Female work, services, and living conditions as well as women’s agency and their possibilities to negotiate normative constraints were repeatedly brought into focus throughout the whole conference. Connected with these issues, another thematic focus consisted of questions regarding (in)visibility and its dependence on social status as well as the ways (in)visibility was used by different people and in various sources. Furthermore, the conference showed that it is possible to gain extraordinary insights into medieval society and everyday life by using different perspectives on both well-known and relatively unknown sources.

Employing a broad definition of “work” and putting services and service work at the center of the event, the conference shed light on a range of working relationships, including religious life, prostitution and intimate labor, domestic service, textile production, or even diplomatic and military services. Thus, the papers successfully highlighted both the diversity of late medieval service work as well as the complexity of medieval gender roles and relationships. At the same time, the conference illustrated the chances that late medieval sources provide for recent and future research on the relations between gender, work, and service.

Conference Overview

Introductory remarks (Eva-Maria Cersovsky)

Chair: Karl Ubl (Cologne)

Jeremy Goldberg (York): “They Put Them Out, Both Males and Females, to Hard Service and in the Houses of Other People”: English Servanthood in Comparative Perspective

Session 1: Domestic Service and Work in Urban and Rural Contexts
Chair: Sabine von Heusinger (Cologne)

Dorothee Rippmann (Zürich): Gender, Work, and Visibility: The Examples of Agriculture and Textile Production (15th and 16th Centuries)

Eyal Levinson (Jerusalem): “If there Is an Elderly Woman in the Home, there Is a Treasure in the Home”: Work, Old Age, and Conceptualizations of Gender Among Medieval Ashkenazi Jews

Jacqueline Turek (Aachen): Gender-Specific Aspects of Domestic Service: Work, Wages, and Migration of Male and Female Servants in Late Medieval Southern Germany

Session 2: Prostitution and Unfree Labor
Chair: Eva-Maria Cersovsky (Cologne)

Jamie Page (Birmingham): Sex, Work, and Social Identity: Evidence from Late Medieval Europe

Michael Hammer (Graz): Prostitution in the Late Medieval “Frauenhaus” – Sex Work between Slavery and Protection?

Angela Zhang (Boston): “She Keeps the House”: Enslaved Labor in the Racializing Processes of Late-Medieval Florence

Chair: Eva-Maria Cersovsky (Cologne)

Judith Bennett (Los Angeles): Poor Women and the Intimate Labor of Sex in Late Medieval England

Session 3: Military and Diplomatic Services
Chair: Julia Bruch (Cologne)

Edward Loss (Florence): Far from the Exception: Female Couriers and Information Gatherers in Late Medieval Italy

Markus Jansen (Cologne): Women of War. Urban Women and Martial Service in the Late Middle Ages

Session 4: Serving and Working in Religious Communities
Chair: Lioba Geis (Cologne)

Adrian Kammerer (Cologne): Male and Female Tertiaries as Workers at Dominican Convents: A Gendered Approach

Emma Gabe (Toronto): Lay Sisters, Social Status, and Labor in Late Medieval Female Monasteries

Session 5: Serving and Working in Textile Production
Chair: Milan Pajic (Berlin)

Marco Tomaszewski (Freiburg) Gender, Work, and Status. A Multi-Relational Approach (St. Gallen, 16th Century)

Ivana Lemcool (Belgrade): Donors or Embroiderers: Late Medieval Serbian Noblewomen and their Votive Textiles

Meagan Khoury (Stanford): Silken Sensualities and Wayward Women: High and Low Cultural Labor in Early Modern Bologna

Concluding Remarks