Apothecaries, barbers, bowers, chandlers, coopers, fletchers, hairsters, mariners, moneychangers, ropers, scribes, stringmakers, turners.
The above is really only a representative list of a much larger body of crafts and trades that do not readily fit into even the broad categories I have chosen for this paper. Women play an important role in several of them, and so I have found them worthy of inclusion.
Chandlers were a small group, but usually a disproportionately affluent one. Mostly they dealt with wax candles, not tallow ones (who were as often as not made by butchers or skinners because of their access to animal fat). The demand for wax candles, especially from the church, was consistently high throughout the period. In addition, most people left provision in their will that as many candles as they could afford be burned at their memorial services. Many chandlers specialized in casting wax into images and other complex shapes that could be left on altars as offerings,
which were then periodically collected and melted down for candles by the church officials. Because chandlers were relatively well off, the incidence of widows taking over the family business was high, bringing many women into the front lines of commerce in this field.
When the English longbow became a standard armament during the Welsh wars of Edward I (c. 1277), the crafts of bower (bowyer), stringmaker, and fletcher took on added importance. Not until the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) did the government take responsibility for equipping its troops with weapons, so the somewhat motley armies of earlier kings relied on local artisans to provide them with such before they answered the levies. Despite the reputation that English yew has acquired for being the premier bow wood, contemporary bowers thought it too open-grained and preferred yew imported from the Baltic. Women played a large role as
stringmakers, most of them probably the wives of craftsmen in other industries. Elizabeth Baker of York was made free as a stringmaker in 1467.
Women were scribes, especially as lay scriptoria became more widespread and workshops were established in the urban areas, but this subject is one I would rather treat by itself in a separate paper.
In conclusion, I find that, while evidence of women's contributions to medieval society must often be hunted for between the lines, it is there. There can be little doubt that the roles played by women, either as direct participants in mercantile affairs or as infrastructure for a given craft, can hardly be overstated. Much of what we think of as medieval culture, and thus what has become our modern way of life, is directly and unequivocally the product of the creative and intellectual talents of women.
Charles, L. and Duffin, L. (eds), Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England. London: Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1985.
Swanson, H., Medieval Artisans. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Sharar, S. The Fourth Estate: a History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1983.
For clarifications of spellings and often of basic meaning, I am forever indebted to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Edition), without which my life would be discernibly poorer.