Mitchell Carroll.

Woman: in all ages and in all countries online

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should travel out of the hundred, rape, or wapentake
where he is dwelling, without a letter-patent under the


King's seal, stating why he is wandering, and that the
term for which he or she had been hired has been com-
pleted." Otherwise the offender might be put in a pair of
stocks, which was to be provided in every town.

The guild system, despite its attitude toward women,
was the beginning of the narrowing of her industrial
sphere. Prior to the importation of skilled laborers in
textile and other branches of industry, such activities were
identified with the homes of the people, not merely in that
the industry itself was conducted in them, but that the
product was limited to the needs of the household, the de-
mands of charity, and such surplus as was used in trade.
The guild broadened the meaning of industry to meet the
demands of a rising commercial system whose trade routes
became clearly established and extended throughout Eu-
rope and into the East. So that, while the industry of
the women artificers became limited in that many things
which had largely occupied their hands became the settled
occupations of men, the products which still depended
mainly upon their industrial activity became much more
widely dispersed, and made them factors in the developing
industries to which England is so deeply indebted for her
trade supremacy. With the decline of guilds, there was
a return on a very large scale to the system of home
industry, when every farmstead and rural cottage became
a manufacturing centre. The development of the factory
system of the eighteenth century, upon the introduction
of improved machinery for manufacture, completely re-
moved industry from the home and created the modern
factory town.

It is not our purpose to do more than suggest the influ-
ence which the guilds exerted in bringing woman into the
larger stream of English life by the definition of her legal
status which her industrial consequence and activities


made necessary. It has been already remarked that the
statutes of the times made her personally responsible be-
fore the law as an industrial factor. In this way, woman
became increasingly regarded as a social integer rather
than as simply a domestic incident. This was a distinct
gain in the end, however crude the conception at first.
The complex questions of woman's social status are still
largely centred about the question of her industrial place.
The insistent claim of the sex that they shall be regarded
as worthy of a part in the world's work projects into the
discussion of the place that she shall occupy many other
questions concerning matters which are immediately in-
volved. It is not too much to say that all of the issues
which arose during the modern period, and together form
the specifications of the platform of "woman's rights,"
find their beginning in this first responsible relation of
woman to the industry of the nation. Society is estab-
lished upon an economic basis, and so the problem of the
duties and responsibilities of woman in a public way
must be centred about industry. It will not do to criti-
cise the crudeness of the early legislation regarding
woman when she first stepped into the arena of asso-
ciated industry, and to remain oblivious to the fact that
the question of her industrial status is no more satisfacto-
rily determined after the lapse of centuries. It is true
that the question during these centuries became greatly
involved at times, as, for instance, at the period of the
great industrial revolution; but, with all the aspects which
the question assumes to-day and the problems which are
related to it, the crux of the matter is the same as it was
at the time of the rise of the guilds.

The guild ordinances took the view of woman as an
industrial unit, without regard to her personal relations.
If she became a merchant and associated herself with the

1 82 WOMAN

guild, she was under the same laws regarding financial
responsibility as was any other member. The fact that
she was a woman, or that she was married and had
children, did not constitute a plea in her behalf for differ-
ent treatment from that accorded a guild brother. If a
woman-merchant became a debtor, she had to answer in
court as an)' other merchant, and "an accyon of dette be
mayntend agenst her, to be conceyved aft"^ the custom
of the said lite, w' out nemyng her husband in the seid

The legislation of the period generally recognized the
equality of the sexes in the matter of labor. An ordinanca,
of Edward IV., made in the borough of Wells, provided
that both male and female apprentices to burgesses should
themselves become burgesses at the expiration of their
term of service. Similar statutes relating to apprentices
in London likewise made no distinction between boys and
girls. The problems centring about woman's relation to
industry not having arisen, the fact of her employment
presented no serious difficulties. When the proclamation
of 1271, relating to the woollen industry, was Issued, it
permitted " all workers of woolen cloths, male and female,
as well of Flanders as of other lands, to come to England
to follow their craft." Indeed, the women were less fettered
than the men in their industrial avocations, for, while by
the statute of 1363 the men were limited to the pursuit c:
one craft, women were left free in the matter.

In this connection, it is interesting to refer to the devel-
opment of the silk industry as a typical occupation of
woman. It is impossible to determine the time \\'hen "the
arts of spinning, throwing, and weaving of silk " were first
brought into England. We do know, however, that, when
first established, they were pursued by a company of
women called "silk women." The fabrics of their skill


were in the many forms of laces, ribbons, girdles, and
other narrow goods. Toward the middle of the fifteenth
century, these women were greatly distressed by the Lom-
bards and other Italians, who imported into the country
the same sort of goods, and in such quantities that their
sale was hindered and the workers placed in danger of
starvation. This led to a reference of their complaint to
Parliament, with a statement of the grievances for which
they desired redress. This document bore the title: The
petition of the silk women and throwesters of the craftes and
occupation of silk-work within the city of Londoii, which be,
and have heen, craftes of women within the same city of time
that no man remembereth the contrary. The petition then
goes on to set forth "that by this business many reputable
families have been well supported; and young women kept
from idleness by learning the same business, and put into
a way of living with credit, and many have thereby grown
to great worship; and never any thing of silk brought into
this land, concerning the same craftes and occupations in
any wise wrought but in the raw silk alone, unwrought,
until now of late that divers Lombards and others, aliens
and strangers, with a view of destroying the silk-working
in this kingdom, and transferring the manufactories to for-
eign countries, do daily bring into this land," etc. Then
follows a statement of the inferior grades of fabrics thus
introduced, which the complaint said was "to the great
detriment and utter destruction of the said craftes; which
is like to cause great idleness among the young gentle-
women and other apprentices to the same craftes." The
petition that the importation of these goods should be pro-
hibited was granted, and we hear no more of these esti-
mable ladies and little of their infant industry. It was
then thought no disgrace for a lady of quality to conduct
such household manufactories.

1 84 WOMAN

The town-dwelling woman looked down upon her rural
sister, a fact that is not at all surprising when the differ-
ence in the condition of the two classes of women is con-
sidered. The town-dwelling woman had the privileges of
guild association and the liberties which it gave her, while
the woman in the agricultural districts was but a drudge.
The former were identified with manufactures and com-
merce, while the latter were tied to the soil. Even after the
rise of copyhold tenure of land, the grievances of the agri-
cultural population were considerable, and of many sorts.
While the villains flocked to London to demand legal ex-
emption from the old labor obligations which went along
with such servile condition, the cottars claimed freedom
from labor rents for their homes, and the copyholders of
all kinds demanded that they should not be compelled to
grind at the lord's mill the corn which they raised for
their household needs. The rising tide of industrial revo-
lution represented a climax of centuries of grievance; and
when the revolt did come, it was as a demand for the
manumission of property held in villanage. There was
at the time hardly any personal servitude demanding such
strenuous measures for betterment. The popular agitation
seemed to be enlisted against class impositions, and so the
following lines:

" When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman ? "

became the slogan of the insurgents.

It is not possible to ascertain how particular grievances
in Kent and Essex became identified with the general
movements of the peasantry south of the Thames and
in many parts of the midland. The vast movement,
however, extended throughout the agricultural districts,
and included burgesses of towns, rural priests, yeomen,


and farm laborers. It is unlikely that a personal griev-
ance should have caused it, but it was precipitated by
such. The immediate occasion was the indignation which
was aroused at an outrage committed by one of the tax
collectors on the daughter of Wat the Tyler. As the in-
dignation which centred in the sentiment against this
act served to cement the feeling of injustice which was
prevalent among the peasantry, so it is probable that
the act itself was not a solitary instance, but only
one of many indignities which were suffered by the
peasantry at the hands of the representatives of those
above them. Although the insurrection soon came to an
end, and those who were responsible for it suffered the
severest penalties, nevertheless the various "statutes of
laborers" which from this date appear on the statute book
show that the day had gone by when the lords of manors
could require the personal services of tenants in return for
the lands they held; so that the one thousand five hundred
persons who were executed for this social uprising died as
a protest against grievances of the poor tenantry, which
were corrected by legislation.

By the close of the fourteenth century the manorial
courts had lost much of their former vigor; and there were
frequent instances of villain tenants sending their daugh-
ters to service beyond the bounds of the manors, in spite
of the requirement of a license so to do. Daughters were
also married without reference to the lord, or obtaining his
permission, or paying the fee. As a result of their ex-
tended liberties, women as well as men deserted the
country in large numbers and resorted to the towns. The
population thus became much more mobile, and among
the people there was a wider degree of intelligence be-
cause of this fact and of their more varied experience.
As women are the progenitors of the race, it is always

1 86 WOMAN

important for the intelligence of a people that the mothers
shall not be stupid and inane creatures such as were for the
most part the women of the agricultural classes in England
during the greater part of the Middle Ages. They were
limited to the narrow confines of homes, humble indeed,
and yet homes which they could not feel were their own,
and they could not leave these habitations excepting under
conditions which were practically prohibitive. Their days
were spent in an unvarying monotony of domestic duties
and farm labor, which afforded no stimulus to the mind or
food for the soul. It is not strange that morals were as
depraved as manners were uncouth. In the imagination,
superstition took the place that was unoccupied by intelli-
gence; and the world of the peasant woman, who went
about her round of daily hardship, was peopled by a throng
of supernatural creatures, and her life spent in fear of
violation of some of those strange rules of conduct which
now form interesting matter for the student of folklore.

It is difficult to exaggerate the hardship of the agricul-
turist of the Middle Ages; and as she was an active
participant in such labors, besides having upon her the
burdens which commonly belong to the mother of a house-
hold, the woman of the times had to bear duties much
beyond those of a woman in a similar grade of life in Eng-
land to-day. The great pestilences of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries swept away so many lives that, for
two centuries and a half before the accession of Henry VII.,
the growth of population was so slight as to be scarcely
calculable. The unsanitary condition of the homes in gen-
eral was greatly injurious to health; but this was espe-
cially so of the homes of the humble, the women of which
had no ideas of cleanliness, either in person or surround-
ings. The weekly shilling or ninepence of the agricultural
laborer must have been distressingly inadequate for the


needs of the household. These included wheat or rye,
which formed the staple of living, the rent of the cottage,
the usual manor dues, the national tax, something for
clothing, medicine for the children, and occasional items
which would enter into a complete enumeration. Even if the
wife, as was frequently the case, had to bear the burden
of her own support by engaging in some form of industrial
activity in connection with her other duties, the wage of
the husband was barely enough to meet the needs of the
remainder of the family, and he had not a farthing left for
"rainy days," which were of frequent occurrence, or
for those common and extraordinary exactions which could
not be evaded. So rigidly were the taxes levied, even
upon the poorest, that every form of possession came
under tribute; thus, the pet lamb of a poor man, which
may have been the one source of joy to his children and
pleasure to his wife, appears in an inventory of Colchester
as amerced for sixpence. In the fifteenth century, to
which this entry refers, the master of a tenant was for-
bidden by the Statutes of Laborers to assist him by reliev-
ing his poverty; and even in case of illness of his wife or
children, the master could not legally furnish him aid. So
onerous was the income tax, levied to meet the expenses
of foreign wars, that it was not uncommon for bequests of
money to be made for the relief of the poor in paying it.
The laborer had attached to his cottage a small piece of
ground, which his wife and himself tilled; he might also
feed his goose or his sheep upon the manor waste, but
only on the sufferance of his master.

By the end of the fifteenth century the lot of this class
of England's population became almost unendurable. The
womer, who bore more than their share of the burden of
work in an attempt to provide the bare necessities of ex-
istence, were bowed under a weight of misery which made

1 88 WOMAN

that existence endurable only because they knew of none
better, or none which could possibly come within the
range of their narrow hopes. The wretched condition of
life among those whose possessions were so limited is well
summed up in the following quotation from an article by
Dr. Augustus Jessup in the Nineteenth Century, Febru-
ary, 1884; he says: such people "were more wretched in
their poverty, incomparably less prosperous in their pros-
perity, worse clad, worse fed, worse housed, worse taught,
worse tended, worse governed," than the peasants of the
present day; "they were sufferers from loathsome dis-
eases their descendants know nothing of; the very beasts
of the field were dwarfed and stunted in their growth; the
death rate among children was tremendous; the disregard
of human life was so callous that we can hardly conceive
it; there was everything to harden, nothing to soften;
everywhere oppression, greed, and fierceness."

Although wages were higher by the end of the century,
reaching fourpence a day, meat, cheese, and butter were
much dearer than at its beginning, so that it is doubtful if
the last of the century found the condition of the laborer
at all improved in this respect. As labor was suspended
on the holidays of the Church and for a half-day on the
eves of those holidays, and as the laborer was forbidden
to receive more than a half-day's wage every Saturday,
the men and women most anxious to work, even if they
could obtain constant employment, could not average more
than four and one-half profitable days per week. It is not
surprising that, for want of nutrition, there was throughout
the Middle Ages a wide prevalence of fever, the large
death rate of women and children from this cause affording
evidence of their physical weakness.

The wage of women employed In agricultural labor in
the first half of the fourteenth century was at the rate of


a penny a day, although this was not uniform:; and in
some parts of the kingdom they received considerably
more. Their duties on the farm consisted, in part, in
"dibbling beans, in weeding corn, in making hay, in as-
sisting the sheep shearers and washing the sheep, in filling
the muck carts with manure and in spreading it upon the
lands, in shearing corn, but especially in reaping stubble
after the ears of corn had been cut off by the shearers,
in binding and stacking sheaves, in thatching ricks and
houses, in watching in the fields to prevent cattle straying
into the corn, or, armed with a sling, in scaring birds from
the seed or ripening corn, and similar occupations. That
they might not fail of employment to fill up the measure
of the hours, there was the winding and spinning of wool
to stop a gap." But these were not the sole employments
of the wives and daughters of the medieval farmer, for
they took their part in all farmwork together with their
husbands and fathers. After the "black death" had made
such terrible inroads upon the rural population of England,
a woman received a wage that seldom went below two-
pence for a day's work; but this amount was diminished
by the effect of one of the Statutes of Laborers, which re-
quired that every woman not having a craft — that is, not
a town dweller, nor possessed of property of her own —
should work on a farm equally with a man, and, like the
man, she should not leave the manor or the district in
which she customarily lived, to seek work elsewhere. It
was difficult for a woman of the agricultural classes to pass
out of the dreary sphere in which she lived, for it was
enjoined that if a girl before the age of twelve years —
significant of the time when she was supposed to be a
woman — put her hands to works of industry, she must
remain for the rest of her life an agricultural laborer, and
was not permitted to be apprenticed to learn a trade.


These regulations were, of course, very often honored in
the breach, but nevertheless they were frequently en-

The poverty of the peasantry made it necessary for
them to make for themselves almost everything that
entered into the needs of their life, — their houses, their
clothing, their agricultural implements, and most of their
household articles. Flax was raised, and from it the
women manufactured the linen for the ladies of the hall;
from hemp they made the coarse sackcloth for their under-
clothing, and they spun and wove the wool shorn from
the backs of their few sheep for their outer clothing. The
women of this class frequently could not afford an oven of
their own, and so the flour which was made from the grain
that was required to be ground at the lord's mill was also
baked in his oven. The simple medicines were brewed
by the housewife from the herbs which grew by the copse
side or on the commons or in the ditches. When the
manufacture of wool and flax was withdrawn to the towns,
the labor of the women was to that extent lightened,
although their income was correspondingly lessened.

The condition of the very poor was pitiful in the ex-
treme; as there had been no opportunity for the laying up
of provision for old age, the only recourse for the women
and men alike, when indigency and age overtook them,
was to seek shelter in the almshouses which had been
founded for the decrepit and the destitute. Many yielded
to their "miserable cares and troubles," and died from
starvation. By the fifteenth century the monasteries had
ceased to be important centres for the dispensing of char-
ity, so that relief from destitution could not be looked for
from that source. The conventual orders, in common
with the rest of the nation, had become burdened with
debt through the wars at home and abroad. The numerous


regulations for the control of beggars, and the licenses
which were issued to regulate the practice, show the great
prevalence of real poverty and want during the whole of
the fifteenth century, although throughout the Middle Ages
mendicancy was familiar enough.

Such was the condition of the women of the industrial
classes during the Middle Ages. The period that witnessed
the transition from the Middle Ages into modern times, the
breakup of feudalism, and the construction of society upon
a different basis, was, as transitional periods are apt to be,
one of peculiar stress. And as this period in England was
marked by severe wars, with all the blight and desolation
which they bring to a land, it was one of especial severity
upon those who had to bear the burden of such under-
takings. Not only was the standard of living brought low,
and the comforts of life reduced to the bare necessities,
but manners were as disastrously affected as was the
economy of the realm. Crime and violence stalked through
the country, seemingly under no restraint; and from the
prevalence of deeds of violence, it is very clear that law
was not only ineffectual, but that public sentiment was
not strong enough to create a better state of affairs. The
condition was not unlike that which prevailed in Ireland at
the beginning of the nineteenth century. Women were
the chief sufferers from the prevalent lawlessness. They
were seized at night, and, after being dishonored, were
compelled to go to the church, where the priest, under
threats and despite the protests of the victims, performed
the ceremony which linked them to their captors. It mat-
tered little if the woman happened to be already married,
as such proceedings were supposed by many to constitute
a sufficient divorce. Rent riots wer'e of everyday occur-
rence, and murders were not unusual. It was not alto-
gether the poor who were involved in such deeds of


violence, as there were among them agitators from the
upper classes, who not only urged them on, but them-
selves took part in all such outrages. Often murders and
other forms of violence grew out of the practice of men of
quality having about them bands of retainers who were
frequently the roughest of characters, including men under
indictment for capital offences. No class was quite secure
from the disorderly elements of the population, but the
women of the country districts were more frequently the
sufferers than were their sisters of the towns.

The great increase of sensuality, the low esteem in
which women were held, and the little regard they mani-
fested for their own characters, showed the decadence into
which the spirit of chivalry had fallen. Being a child of
feudalism, with the decay of that system it went into
eclipse. Nevertheless, chivalry contributed to English life
real benefits, apart from the elevation of women, and
these remained permanent factors in the character of the

€^e Women of tf)c transition iPeriotr



The authorities upon whom we depend for information
as to the condition of the industrial classes — particularly
the agricultural — during the fifteenth century are in such
hopeless conflict that it is impossible to do more than
follow the views of some one of them, with such modifica-
tions and checks as may be reasonably introduced from

Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 13 of 30)