Saturday, October 3, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myths Presents The Role of Women In The Ancient Guilds

The records of the industrial history of England reveal one anomaly which is by no means cheering to those who are striving to improve the economic position of women. It cannot be gainsaid that in periods before the labour question began to be scientifically discussed, there was a juster conception of the relations which should subsist between the sexes in the common affairs of daily life. Men and women were treated on a par. When labour laws were enacted they were enacted for both alike; it was assumed that the sexes stood on an equality. With one or two exceptions, there was no especial legislation for women. Nor was there any hindrance, either in theory or in actuality, to women trading and engaging in industrial occupations. A woman was not debarred from any commercial pursuit simply by reason of sex. Whatever work she was able to undertake she carried through without having to surmount artificial barriers set up by prejudice and by the action of those interested in the restriction of women’s industrial liberty.

At the present day women have to fight their way into the commercial world, and every fresh step which they make towards independence is hailed as a triumph, and a hopeful sign for the future; or as a retrograde step, a deplorable and dangerous departure, according to the views of the onlookers; but in all cases as something abnormal, to be commented upon and criticized. The general opinion in the first half of this century was that women and business were things apart, and better kept separate. Either it was assumed that women knew nothing about business and could never learn, or that if they did edge their way in they would be thrusting men out.

It does not appear that in the past such views were entertained, that women were considered to be going out of their “sphere” when they entered the world of trade, or that it was attempted to deny them any of the privileges which might attach to commercial pursuits. The women took their places quite naturally side by side with the men, and no one saw anything strange in the position. They could receive apprentices; they became members of trade gilds, worked at various industries; in short, played their part as full members of the industrial community. It has been remarked that “great changes in the status of woman and in the status of labour have been correlative and often contemporaneous.” This is exemplified in the revolution brought about by the factory system, which altered the whole conditions of domestic life for large numbers of women in the lower ranks. The greater freedom which women enjoyed in olden times in regard to trading is remarkable on account of the severe restrictions applied to all forms of industry. It was not as if the worker were left to tread his own path. The relations between employer and employed were strictly defined. Hours, wages, clothing, form of engagement, manner of work, all came under legal supervision. And yet this interfering legislation did not create those differences between male and female adult workers, which have been a deplorable feature of modern times, and which faddists of a certain school are doing their best to accentuate.

It may be argued that women have perfect liberty in the present day to enter upon any commercial pursuit; that the law does not hinder them from becoming merchants, shipowners, and traders of all kinds. What the law, however, does not forbid, custom prevents. Among the middle classes it is tacitly agreed that the boys of the family must be started on a commercial career, and systematic efforts are being made towards achieving that end. A boy is apprenticed to some trade, and shown how to work his way up step by step from the bottom rung to the top of the ladder. He can enter a manufactory, a workshop, a retail business. But want of training and want of capital have militated against the industrial progress of women. There are only a few trades open to a girl, not for lack of physical strength, but because custom has decreed that certain occupations shall belong to men. Putting aside such pursuits as are obviously unsuited to girls—for in dealing with female labour it is the fitness of girls that has to be considered, since all occupations must be entered upon before adult life—there are many employments in which they are as well, if not better, fitted to engage than men and boys.

Sir John Bennett, writing in 1857, called attention to the fact that women were excellent watchmakers and might be profitably employed in England as they were on the Continent.
“Thousands of women are at this moment finding profitable employment at the most delicate portion of watch-work throughout the district around Neuchatel. The subdivision of labour is there wisely made so minute as to adjust itself precisely to the special capabilities of every woman’s individual dexterity. The watch is composed of many distinct parts; some require force and decision in the hands of the workman, while many are so exquisitely delicate that for them the fine touch of the female finger is found to be far superior to the more clumsy handling of the man.... Now, why should not our English women be employed upon a labour for which their sisters in Switzerland prove themselves so eminently adapted, and thus provide, to a large extent, a remedy for the distresses of our labouring population, and open out a new channel whereby they may elevate their condition and benefit mankind? In London 50,000 females are working under sixpence per day, and above 100,000 under one shilling per day. So long as nearly every remunerative employment is engrossed by men only, so long must the wretchedness and slavery of women remain what it is. For any man to declare, whatever his motive, that the women of London are sure to do badly what the Swiss women are now doing well, is an insult and a fallacy in which I refuse to join.

“No factory system is necessary for the successful manufacture of this very beautiful little machine. The father has but to teach his own daughters, wife, and female relatives at his own home, and then, just as their leisure suits, they can perform each her part without necessarily interfering with the most indispensable of her domestic duties. Thus the whole family is well provided for, and by the reduction of the cost of the watch, the sale would be increased indefinitely, and this increase would give additional employment to men and women in about equal proportion. Working watchmakers have no need to fear the introduction of female labour; the large demand that necessarily would ensue, when watches were materially cheapened in price, would doubtless more than compensate any loss they might temporarily sustain; the change it would effect would be found not only a moral good and an immense social blessing, but would satisfy the indispensable requirements of a strong commercial necessity.”
When people complain of women pushing into men’s occupations, it ought to be remembered how many things men have absorbed which formerly belonged as much, if not more, to women. For instance, it was the women who did the brewing, even in households where men were employed for other domestic duties. The feminine suffix in the word “brewster” is another sign that brewing was a woman’s occupation. Most of the beer-houses in London were owned by women who brewed their own beer up to the end of the fifteenth century, by which time brewing was passing into the hands of men. Women were also the principal ale-keepers, and the ale-wife was a noted character in rural England. The number of inns kept at the present day by women, in the country districts especially, shows how this old custom has held its ground.

An ordinance of Edward III. indicates the kind of trades in which formerly women were predominant. It runs—
“But the intent of the King and his Council is that women, that is to say, brewers, bakers, carders and spinners, and workers as well of wool as of linen cloth and of silk; brawdesters, and breakers of wool, and all other that do use and work all handy works, may freely use and work as they have done before this time without any impeachment or being restrained by this ordinance.”
In former times it was not felt to be unseemly for men and women to work side by side, nor are there any evidences that such a proceeding led to immoral conduct. Then it was habitual for the sexes to be associated in labour. The situation presented nothing strange, and nothing tempting; custom proved a safeguard. In spite of the improvement in manners and public conduct, the difficulty of men and women consorting for a common purpose has always been put forth in modern times as a reason why certain occupations should be restricted to men, except among the lower class of operatives who are continually under the eye of overseers, and in shops where the public act as supervisors.

There are certain departments of industry which bring out very clearly the advantages which women formerly possessed and the privileges they enjoyed. It is claimed, though on insufficient grounds, that the present trade unions are the legitimate descendants of the ancient gilds. In one respect, certainly, they are extremely unlike. The trade unions have, until quite recently, been purely men’s associations, and their formation has been a hindrance to the women working in the same trade. The gilds knew no distinctions of sex. They were formed in the interest of the trading community for purposes of mutual help, and were as much for the benefit of the “sisteren” as the “bretheren.” The attitude of the ancient gilds towards women was essentially different from that of the modern trade unions.

In the Middle Ages the influence of the gilds was considerable. Their authority was widespread, and they practically controlled the trade. It is, therefore, of importance to note their action and the rules by which they were constituted when considering the position of women in regard to industry and commerce. In nearly all the gilds there were women members, and in many cases the names of women appear as founders. Gilds were formed for various purposes. They were in the nature of friendly societies. In addition to their commercial side, they were “associations for mutual help and social and religious intercourse amongst the people,” and these associations “were almost always formed equally of men and women."

Miss Toulmin Smith says, in her Introduction to “English Gilds,” that—
“scarcely five out of the five hundred were not formed equally of men and women.... Even where the affairs were managed by a company of priests, women were admitted as lay members, and they had many of the same duties and claims upon the gilds as the men.”
The brothers and sisters all met together to transact the business of the gild. It was no mere matter of form to admit women. They were active working members, sharing in all the privileges and contributing to the funds, though smaller payments were sometimes exacted of the women. The female members, like the male, wore the livery.
“Also it is ordeyned that every suster of the fraternite and Gilde schul ben cladde in a swte of hodes, that is for to seye reed, pena 20d.”
Not only did the gild lend money to the younger members to start them in business, and succour those in distress who “fell into poverty through mishap, and not by fault of their own,” but it provided the dowerless with marriage portions, or the penniless with means to embrace a religious life. In the ordinances of the Ludlow Gild, established in 1824, was a clause that—
“if any good girl of the gild of marriageable age cannot have the means found by her father either to go into a religious house or to marry, whichever she wishes to do; friendly and right help shall be given her, out of our means and our common chest, enabling her to do whichever of the two she wishes.”
In the religious gilds, of which there were two classes, one for the clergy and one for the laity, the women were put on a par with the lay members. Any gross offence, such as drinking and rioting, committed by a priest, was punished with degradation; but if the offender were a layman or a woman, by exclusion until satisfaction was given. The clergy gilds did not admit women as members, but in one of the foreign gilds the wives of lay brothers were admitted on certain conditions at the oft-repeated request of the members.

The great companies also admitted women. The female members of the Drapers’ Company carried on business and received apprentices like the male members. “Every brother or sister of the fellowship taking an apprentice shall present him to the wardens, and shall pay 1¾,” runs the ordinance of 1503. This company was very careful to enjoin respect for its female members. It was expressly ordered that when a “sister” died she should be interred with full honours, have the best pall thrown over her coffin, and be “followed by the Fraternity to the grave with every respectful ceremony equally as the men.” After the death of a gild brother, his widow could carry on his trade as one of the gild. If a female member married a man of the same trade who was not free of the gild, he acquired freedom by the marriage. A woman who married a man of another trade was excluded from the gild. There were certain gilds of which women became free in their own right, and others where the wives and daughters of the gild brothers acquired a right to membership from their connection. In the craft gilds a member was allowed to have his wife and children and maid-servant to assist him in his work. The Clothworkers, the Fishmongers, the Grocers, all speak in their articles of brothers and sisters. Wives of members of the Grocers’ Company were admitted on their marriage.
“All women not of the Fraternity and after married to any of the Fraternity shall be entered and looked upon as of the Fraternity for ever, and shall be assisted and made as one of us; and after the death of the husband, the widow shall come to the dinner and pay 40d. if she is able.”
If she married out of the fraternity, she was not to be admitted to the feast, or to receive any assistance from the company. Within recent times women have obtained the freedom of both the Fishmongers’ and the Drapers’ Companies, but for the purpose of sharing in the charities, not with a view to trading. Since the beginning of the present century forty-two women have been admitted to the Drapers’ Company, and there are now upwards of a hundred belonging to the Fishmongers’ Company.

Formerly married women were merchants and traders on their own account. Clearly, it was by no means unusual, for in the Liber Albus of London, compiled in the fourteenth century, is an ordinance relating to married women carrying on business alone—
“and where a woman coverte de baron follows craft within the said city by herself apart, with which the husband in no way intermeddles, such woman shall be bound as a single woman as to all that concerns her said craft. And if the husband and wife are impleaded in such case, the wife shall plead as a single woman in the Court of Record, and shall have her law and other advantages by way of plea just as a single woman. And if she is condemned she shall be committed to prison until she shall have made satisfaction; and neither the husband nor his goods shall in such case be charged or interfered with.”
It was recognized that wives were independent beings responsible for their own acts. This is clearly shown by the following ordinance in the Liber Albus:
“Item, if a wife, though a single woman, rents any house or shop within the said city, she shall be bound to pay the rent of the said house or shop, and shall be impleaded and sued as a single woman, by way of debt if necessary, notwithstanding that she was coverte de baron at the time of such letting, supposing that the lessor did not know thereof.”
There was no exemption for women on the ground of sex. An enactment in the Statute of Labourers passed in the reign of Edward III. for preventing idleness expressly includes women. It provides that—
“every man and woman of our realm of England of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body and within the age of threescore years, not living in merchandize, not exercising any craft, nor having of his own whereof he may live, nor proper land about whose tillage he may himself occupy, and not serving any other, if he in convenient service (his estate considered) be required to serve, he shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require.... And if any such man or woman being so required to serve will not the same do, ... he shall be committed to the next gaol, there to remain under strait keeping, till he find surety to serve in the form aforesaid.”
When an oppressive enactment was made regulating the wages of labourers and prohibiting them from receiving anything beyond a certain sum, women were included. Their movements also were controlled. In the reign of Richard II. it was provided—
“that no artificer, labourer, servant nor victualler, man nor woman, should travel out of the hundred, rape, or wapen-take 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 completed. Otherwise the offender might be put in a pair of stocks, which was to be provided in every town.”
Another curiously arbitrary regulation ordained that if a girl or boy served up to the age of twelve at husbandry, they were to continue that employment all their lives, and not to turn to any craft. “Up to the age of twelve” is a significant sign of the conditions of juvenile life. Children were held as full members of the working population.

It is evident that in the eye of the law women ranked on an equality with men. Narrow as was the view taken by legislators of industrial life, and absurd as many of the enactments seem now, it was reserved for modern times to set up an artificial barrier between the sexes, to push the working woman down a step, and rank her with children and “young persons.”

The sense of the community was in advance of the legal conception which merged the personality of the wife in that of the husband. The gilds took care, by special ordinances, to remedy the defects of the law. Having admitted women to the full privileges of their order, and regarding them as workers with individual rights and duties, they naturally reasoned that women should not be exempted from the responsibilities of their own acts because they were married. In the ordinances of the Worcester Gild, founded 1467, is the following:—
“Also yf eny man’s wyf becom detto^r or plegge, or by or sylle eny chaffare or vitelle, or hyn eny house by har lyf, she to answere to hym or hur that hath cause to sue, as a woman soole marchaunt; and that an acion of dette be mayntend agenst hur, to be conceyved aftr the custom of the seid lite, wtout nemyng her husband in the seid accyon.”
It has been pointed out that under the gild system women were employed to a much smaller extent in manufactures than under the domestic system which followed. An ordinance of the fullers of Lincoln places a restriction on the indiscriminate employment of women, and limits it to the wives and servants of the masters. Whatever their position in the lower branches of trade, they had full access to the higher departments. They had governing power and the privileges which belong to members of corporate bodies. The changes that followed on the break-up of the gilds tended to throw women into the rank and file of workers and to exclude them from the more responsible posts.

The principle of equality is everywhere apparent in the ordinances relating to labour. In the reign of Edward IV. an ordinance was made in the borough of Wells, that apprentices of both sexes to burgesses would become burgesses themselves when their term of service was accomplished. No distinction was made between male and female. Statutes relating to apprentices in London and elsewhere apply equally to both girls and boys. It was taken as a matter of course that a parent might wish to apprentice his daughter just as much as his son. The proclamation in 1271, relating to the woollen industry, expressly permitted “all workers of woollen cloths, male and female, as well of Flanders as of other lands,” to come to England to follow their craft. Sometimes, indeed, the women appear to have enjoyed an advantage, as in the statute of 1363 which ordered that “handicraftsmen should use but one mystery,” while workwomen were free to work in their accustomed way. In later times a theory grew up that women were competitors, not co-workers, with men. There are numbers of people who on this ground would hinder women from engaging in commercial pursuits and earning their own livelihood. They argue that it is better for women to be dependent upon their male relatives than to make their own way in the world. That women should seek to achieve economic independence was, until recently, quite against the general sentiment. But the force of circumstances has proved stronger than theories: a surplus female population and changes in social life have upset the notion that women were created solely for family life, and that they were to be the spenders, not the providers.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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