Despite modern-day beliefs, working women in medieval times were not just relegated to going into unpaid domestic service or running a household. Many skilled tasks were carried out in craftsman’s house or workshop. Wives and daughters were often called upon to assist in the tasks at hand. Though the regulations of many guilds expressly forbade entrance by women, exceptions were made for female family members of a guild member. By the late middle ages there were many cases of widows continuing to run the business after their spouse’s death. Many times men expected their wives to carry on even to the point of providing in their wills that any apprentices must serve out their term under the tutelage of the widow.
Trades carried on by such widows ranged from small crafts to large merchants trading in all kinds of goods. To manage such large businesses, these women had to be knowledgeable and hearty. One such was Alice de Hortsford whose ship was confiscated as the property of someone else by the marshal. Alice stood before the crown justice and proved title to the ship. The court ordered the vessel and goods returned. After the death of her wealthy merchant husband, Rose of Burford petitioned the royal court at least five times to recover a loan made to the King. When it became apparent that the crown was either unwilling or unable to repay the debt, Rose came up with the suggestion that the loan might be settled by removing the tax levy on the import of her goods. The crown felt that was more than reasonable and Rose brought her goods in tax free for several years.
However, widows were not the only female business owners. Married women many times had occupations distinct from those of their husbands. Many unmarried women supported themselves as shopkeepers. Especially in major cities, girls were often apprenticed to a trade just like boys. Whereas a nobleman might leave a dower in his will so his daughter might be married or put in a nunnery, an urban craftsman or merchant would leave a sum so that his daughter might be married or apprenticed to a trade. Women so apprenticed could ply the learned trade so long as they remained unmarried, as femme soles. Even though most guilds had rules regarding women other than wives and daughters, there is hardly a trade that women did not ply. There are records of women ironmongers, butchers, net-makers, chandlers, glovers, cobblers, haberdashers, purse-makers, bookbinders, spinners, smiths and many others.
Though their wages were sub-standard and many times men were loath to admit it, women were an important part of the labor market in medieval times.