Medieval Gender

Medieval Gender October 28, 2016

It’s tempting, Ivan Illich admits (Gender), to think that “gender” is tribal and primitive, and that “social sex” inevitably arises in advanced, complex social and economic settings. He offers the gendered world of the Middle Ages as a counter-example.

Tenants and freeholders paid rent to the lord, and these payments were done in “a gender-specific way”: “A large number of contracts carefully determined not only the amount of rent due for the land but also the gender from whom it was due. For instance, Ingmar paid the abbey fifteen days’ labor, presenting himself each day with two draught animals, and also owed one sheep every second year; his wife – and in the case of her death, a maid – delivered five chickens each fall.”

In these contracts, “‘Women’s products’ and ‘men’s products’ are clearly distinct. Church law did not forbid any and all general ‘servile work’ on feast days. Rather, it clearly specified that men were to abstain from the hunt, from tree-felling, from the building of stockades; and women, from hoeing, shearing lambs, and pruning trees.”

Outside the manor, craft guilds were gendered, sometimes in surprising ways: “Not only the crafts of subsistence – potting and cooking in one’s own hut, or spinning and weaving to outfit one’s camel – but also arts and crafts organized for sale and trade possess gender. . . . The silk-spinning and -weaving guild in fourteenth-century Cologne was made up solely of women. But, more surprisingly, we find women in guilds that were decidedly men’s domain: In one case, a woman headed a fourteenth-century smithy, which had two dozen workers and a heavy investment in water-mill-driven hammers. But such women were widows of guild members, and by being in the guild, they could keep the shop in the family. They were appointed the shops’ guardians, as their men had been before them. But to jump from evidence of this guardianship of town or family interests to a conclusion that women worked iron ore side by side with the apprentices, in competition with them, would be ludicrous. Rent, trade, and craft are only examples of areas that must be studied to evolve a history of gender in advanced or high civilization.”

In short, “Gender thrives in high civilizations. In the urban life of the Middle Ages it combined with the division of labor into crafts and arts to bring about new and complex configurations that are far more difficult to disentangle than the primitive divide on which anthropologists have fastened.”

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