MEDIEVAL WOMEN and their Occupations in Chaucer's Time

Michelle Cogan


We typically envision medieval women as beautiful, young ladies whose principal activity was 
being charming to men and waiting for her knight to rescue her from the tower.  This couldn't be 
further from the truth.  In real medieval societies, women were truly active. In order to discuss
 the occupations of women, one must look into their levels of education and religious beliefs
 and how these come to play. In doing so, I will discuss the different levels of women.
1. The Lady

2. The Working Woman in Town and Country

3. The Pheasant Woman


1. Eileen Power
Medieval Women 

2. Margaret Wade Labarge 
A Small Sound of the Trumpet, Women in Medieval Life 
I will first begin with the most desired position in Medieval Time.

The lady of Upper Class

The women of the Upper Class consisted of the following:


· Queens - were the most noticeable and most respected, they dealt in Politics and affairs of the 
  state.  Their descendants are follows:

· Example of power:  In the Wife of Baths tale, the queen begged the king to have say over what
  happened to the Knight when he raped the young maiden.  She determined what he had to find
  out in order to save his life. He came back with finding out that all women want sovereignty over 
  their husbands

· Royal Princesses

· Duchesses

· Countesses

· Baronesses and many ladies of noble birth.

 Lady Aristocrats:

· Rich city heiresses
These were women who were wives or daughters who gained their status through advantageous 
 marriage or a succession of marriages.

Wife of Bath's Tale, she had 5 marriages

· Death of the husband meant automatic freedom of luxury and the ability to keep everything 
  once possessed by her husband, again the woman could remarry.

The women of the upper class were normally as children arranged in marriage by their fathers
 while they were still in their cradles.

A girl was held capable of consenting a marriage at the age of (7) and usually would have the 
first baby by (13).

The girls father was the sole person who selected a suitable husband for his daughter.

If he died before she was married or if she was too young to marry he would make sure to leave 
her a suitable dowry in his will to either wed her or put her into the nunnery.

The first well-born girls rule was that she married. The only alternative to marriage was the Nunnery. 

Only upper class girls and women stayed in the nunneries.   

Nunneries were also used as boarding houses for


They were also convenient for gentlemen to have somewhere to send their wives and 
daughters during a temporary absence from the estate.


Many girls were educated by being sent to nunneries.

The following applied to the education given the girls in the nunnery.
Young girls were taught to:

· Read and write
· Tell stories, read romances and judge the merits of poetry.
· Learn of Ladies fashion and appropriate dress.
· Polish their manners and learn to speak properly.
· Hawking
· Play chess
· Singing lessons
· Play musical instruments

· The other side of educating of the upper class girls was having them sent to the households 
  of great ladies, this way they could learn to shine in proper society.

· Here, they would learn much of the same at the nunnery only put it to practice in daily life
  while living a short time with the high lady of the house.  Some fathers thought it was more important 
  for a girl to be better equipped with proper manners than intellect.

One drawback of learning for men was the fear of women learning how to read and write 
because they were afraid women would start writing love letters.

An upper class woman was usually a land owner.

The woman who owned land or was considered a person of importance and even in some cases
had estates that resembled the marks of a queen's palace.

When an upper class woman married everything she owns becomes her husbands for the
duration of her marriage.

After the death of a husband, usually due to a war or dreadful plague or illness she could claim 
1/3 of her properties and if she chose to re-marry they would still remain hers.

Wives had to be able to take their husbands places at all times.  In reality this was very hard work.

She must be capable of replacing her husband during all absences.

· She had to look after the Manor
· Collect rents
· Supervise the farming
· She must know about the laws in case her lord's rights were ever violated.
· She must know about management
· She must be able to plan expenses wisely
· Must be charitable - giving alms
· Household expenses
· Payment of officials 
· Wise in the purchasing of gifts
· Wise in the purchase of jewels, dresses and other miscellaneous items.
In a very large manor several small rooms or cottages were set up to accommodate the
making and producing of consumable goods.

ALE - brewed in the brew house

BREAD - baked in the bake house

BUTTER and CHEESE - made in the dairy.

CANDLES - were made

BACON - was cured

WINTER MEAT - Salted down.

CLOTHES - were spun and woven.

SILK - cocoons collected and silk spun. - Silk spinning was a caste strictly for the upper class
as it was considered a fine fabric.


The lady of the manor's duties were also as

Monitoring production of the home farm and dairy.
She had to be able to govern the house and hire or fire the servants who worked under her.  
She monitored daily duties and distributed functions only going into town to buy the finest fish, 
best wines and exotic spices from local merchants.

She had to be wise in gardening and fruit growing and be able to hire proper help to assist her.

Must know how to hire occasional work men and pay them accordingly.  She also had to know
how to deal with trades people and bargain.

She could draw up wills and make contracts.  She could sue or be sued.

As we descend the Social Scale
Needless to say, The women in the lower classes had none of the responsibilities of
supervising large estates or households or employing and managing numerous servants.

Her days were occupied with working and trying to feed her family this is 
Working Woman In The Town And Country (Middle Class)


Girls were often apprenticed to trades in the same way as boys.  Again it was customary for a 
father to leave her money for dowry or put her in a trade.  Most middle class girls were taught 
to read and write for the most part.

Not all women could hope to marry.

There were normally more women to men.

The men were usually killed in wars, town feuds or disturbances in the countryside.  

Men were also in lack due to the celibacy of the large body of monks and clergy.

After marriage they continued on with their crafts and also helped their husbands.

Apprenticed women supported themselves by their craft or worked in their own homes or 
workshops in town.  This was because there were a large number of wives who carried on their 
dead husband's trades.  

Many women were shopkeepers and wage earners.

Most women either worked in agriculture or industry.

Other women worked in Domestic Services.

Most workers were wives, or wives of widows or brothers or daughters of the craftsmen.


Iron mongers
Hat makers
Shoe makers
Purse makers
Cap makers
Spinners - SPINSTER synonymous with a single woman.
Book binders
Silk weavers - collected cocoons and weave clothes in the manors of the wealthy.
Smiths and goldsmiths
Inn keepers

Of all trades the most numerous were those in the cloth trade.

Food industry - Sellers of bread, ale, fish and poultry.

Also, growers and seller of such Commodities as:



These women received little or no education unless they lived in or near the town.  
For the most part the extent of their education was learning the alphabet and religion.

Poor women couldn't afford to go to nunneries for education and many of the peasants
were kept outside to do the agricultural labors of planting in the wealthier homes.

Peasants and dwellers - most hard worked class of all.  Small girls were helping mothers 
at very young ages with hard work.  

Young girls helped their mothers with the pulling of wool for spinning.

Largest of the social classes.  These people are scattered all over.

Most of them were expected if they married to share in all of their husbands labors.

These women were mostly compelled to spin, to scour and flax
To combe the hemp
To wash and wring clothes
To dig up beets
And sheep sheering.
Chambermaids and servants

And many strenuous hours and weeks spent in the fields and pastures.

They were hired to do all sorts of agricultural labor from
Planting peas and beans
To weeding
Binding Thatching and haymaking
Hay stacks
Servants and chambermaids get up very early, go to bed very late, eat when everyone was
finished have little or no leisure time.
Other roles which were important livelihoods for medieval women.


Beguines lived simple lives and did good works - many of these women were from the middle class.

Mystics were found among nuns, beguines.

Mystics were described as having an immediate knowledge of God.  

This knowledge was attained in this life through a personal religious experience.  



They were recognized doctors in towns of any size.

In the country, help might come from a practiced herbalist or from a nearby monastery or 
nunnery, or from a village wise-woman with a local reputation for healing powers.

Ideas for treatment gleaned from classical sources, practical experience and a general 
reliance on magic, or faith

It was an accepted part of a noble lady's education to know how to deal with the wounds 
broken or dislocated bones, and severe bruises that her menfolk might bring home from wars, 
tournaments, or vigorous hunting expeditions.  The suitability of women being skilled in bandaging, 
ointments, and the cleaning of wounds having acquired these skills as part of their education.

Women trained in blood letting

Midwives, aiding in childbirth and some of the difficulties that often accompanied it.

The first doctor in the 13th century Laurette de St. Valery first doctors.

It was not surprising that midwives were felt to be dangerously close to sorcery or occult practice.


Some women were chosen to follow the Royal armies and were paid a yearly fee.
The men felt this to be a male necessity.

Towns and cities named special streets where prostitutes could exercise their trade.

Prostitutes had their own profession and included each woman to war a red braid on her shoulder.

Many wealthy women protested prostitutes walking in their part of town.

They wanted them to be confined to certain parts and not be able to purchase the finer things 
prostitution has allowed them to afford.
		Or silks as these goods were simply reserved for honest women.

They wanted prostitutes to wear white hoods and ribbons as symbols of their profession.


These women stole silver dishes and salt cellars

White collar crime


These women would be circulating and clipping new coins and distributes them with real money.



Mostly a form of gossip.

Many women were imprisoned or burned if there was a suspicion of treason or witchcraft.


In Chaucer's time, the literature was filled with the favorite theme of reinforcing the frailty of women.

For example:

The Knights Tale
· Emelye was just there; she frolicked in the courtyard and looked pretty.  Her father the King, 
chose her husband to be either Arcite or Phalemon which ever Knight won the fight.

The Millers Tale
· Alison was the 18-year-old wife of the old carpenter.  She submitted to the lodger astrologer and 
student Nicholas.

The Reeves Tale
· The miller's wife was raised in a nunnery.  The miller wed her because he was a social 
climber and wanted a refined wife.

The Man of Laws Tale
· The men who heard of the young maiden Constance.  The poorest man in the land's only 
daughter who was prized for her beauty, goodness and innocents and thought to be the perfect woman.

The Clerks Tale
· The story of Griselda, she was most desired for her patience virtue and kindness as well 
as her extreme fairness and beauty.

The Squires Tale
· In the land of Tartay there was a noble King Cambushkan.  His daughter was named 
Canace, there was no fairer creature who ever graced the earth.

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