Geoffrey Chaucer imagined a woman who even now feels progressive. She had a job, married several times, chose her own partners, inherited their money when they died, went on holiday without her husband, enjoyed having sex and also loved talking about it, got drunk with her friends, and protested that female storytellers don’t have enough opportunities. His Wife of Bath is a fiction, but her invented life reflects a reality for women in the late 14th century.

The medieval era is often characterised as a dark age. But some historians believe that for women in England, it was a golden one. Caroline Barron, for instance, argues that they had social and economic rights that vanished in later centuries. In the 14th century, she says, a widow inherited at least a third of her husband’s property. Women often gained domestic autonomy when they married, living in new households with their husband and children, rather than with their parents or in-laws. And they could keep money that they earned during their marriage.

It was normal to see women in a wide range of jobs. While the most common occupations were in the fabric and clothing trade, in victualling and brewing, and in domestic service, medieval records reveal female blacksmiths, parchment-makers, and ship-owners. Widows often continued their husbands’ businesses, and some women traded as “femmes soles” — in their own right, rather than as part of an entity with their spouse. Matilda Penne, a London skinner, ran a lucrative fur business, employed apprentices, and left a gift in her will for a female scribe called Petronella. Chaucer’s own grand-daughter, Alice (who married three times), lent money to the king, and ended up with land in 22 counties.

Of course, any “golden age” claim has to come with a caveat: women did not have the vote, many were abused exploited, badly paid and they generally died quite young. But while they lived, some medieval women did have surprising independence.

Things declined for women a couple of hundred years later: a change that is reflected in the marked reduction in skilled female labour. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the records are littered with references to female apprentices, who learned a trade and became highly qualified in the course of between seven and 10 years. We can read about Katherine Lightfot, apprenticed to a carpenter; or Katherine Claver, apprenticed to a wealthy female silk worker; or the sisters Alice and Matilda Shaw, apprenticed to a notary or lawyer.

However, in 1570, the Drapers’ Company at first refused to allow Mr Calverley and his wife to take on a female apprentice. Only after advice did it allow them to employ her. Between that year and 1640, of the 8,000 recorded apprentice enrolments in London, none was for girls or women. Women certainly continued to work — for instance as servants — but a more skilled career path was closed to them.

Many of us would like to believe in progress: that things will be better for our daughters than they are for us. And those who are socially liberal hope that change, even if it is slow, will be permanent. When my parents were born, there was no Pill and no legal abortion. By the time I was born, these things were mainstream. However, history can double-back on itself, as we are seeing in America since the overturning of Roe v Wade.

Major economic change plays a major part in such shifts. In the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out a huge proportion — perhaps even half — of England’s population. In the wake of this appalling pandemic, there were far fewer workers of course. More women entered the work force and moved to towns — and wages went up, for women as well as men. (More than 500 years later, the catastrophe of the First World War likewise propelled many women into jobs.) But by the 16th century, the population was beginning to grow significantly — and women were increasingly pushed out of skilled and more lucrative work.

Their rights declined, too. In pre-Norman Conquest England, wives could hold and dispose of property in their own right. Wills reveal women passing on property to their daughters: around 950, a woman named Wynflaed, for example, bequeathed an estate to her daughter, Aethelflaed, as well as an engraved bracelet and a brooch. But after the Norman Conquest, the idea of “couverture” entered English law, brought by the invaders, who had a different understanding of gender relations. Couverture suggested that a woman’s property became her husband’s after marriage — a wife’s legal identity was “covered” over by her husband. The law was unevenly applied in the Middle Ages and early modern England: women often managed to maintain a separate estate, and even to continue trading as separate entities from their husbands. But it was applied increasingly rigorously over time.

Over the course of the 18th century, judges began to impose a more restrictive understanding of married women’s rights. Scholars such as Susan Staves have suggested that liberal treatment of women precipitated a backlash from conservatives. In 1756, John Wilkes, a radical MP and journalist, agreed a contract with his wife, Mary, by which she could live separately from him and receive £200 a year. In 1758, he went to court in the hope that the law would say that such a contract was unenforceable, but the court upheld it. There are many other similar examples of contracts that allowed married women to hold possessions and income in their own right. But judges became increasingly uneasy: in 1779, Chief Justice De Grey said that a wife could only acquire a “separate character” from her husband through death, or a “civil death” such as exile — not by leaving him. In 1800, Chief Justice Kenyon asserted that husband and wife could not contract with each other because they were not separate people. The nature of English common law, with its reliance on precedent, meant that the position of women with property remained uncertain and unstable for decades.

Suggested reading

Mary Harrington: Feminism against progress

By Mary Harrington

Progress, then, can unleash reaction. A recent survey demonstrated, astonishingly, that a majority of Gen Z and millennials think that women’s rights have gone too far. (In older age groups, such views were in the minority.) This is despite strong evidence that things are getting worse for women in some areas. For higher-educated women, for example, the gender pay gap has widened since the Seventies — for mothers in particular. In 1978, higher-educated mothers earned 72% of the wages of equivalent fathers; in 2019, the figure was 69%. Kelly Beaver, the chief executive of Ipsos UK, suggested that people might be pushing back on equality precisely because there has been progress in some areas: “change can often make people uncomfortable and resistant”.

But why is social change so easily reversed? Writing about the end of the medieval era’s so-called golden age for women, Caroline Barron notes that, despite their economic power, women did not manage to increase their political representation. They did not take up positions in the city wards or guilds, let alone in law offices and parliament. The contemporary USA, where the recent decline in women’s rights has been most precipitous, has far fewer women in politics than Scandinavian countries, which are routinely rated as the best for women to live in.

Women are useful workers — particularly in struggling economies. But the opportunity to earn money means little without the opportunity to represent ourselves, in parliaments and the judiciary, in board rooms and financial institutions. Without political change, progress, as we see time and again in history, can easily be reversed.

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