“This Skill in a Woman is By No Means to Be Despised”

Weaving and the Gender Division of Labor in the Middle Ages
  • Ruth Mazo Karras
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In all the various divisions of labor along gender lines in the history of the western world, one set of connections appears with great consistency: the association of women with the maintenance of the household through feeding and clothing its members. This is sometimes termed reproductive, as opposed to productive, labor. These connections appear in distinctive ways in the Middle Ages. When households began to acquire their food and clothing on the market rather than producing it themselves—a shift connected with the urbanization of the central Middle Ages—this changed the significance of this work for medieval understandings of gender. It seems to have changed the significance of textile work less, however, than victualling. As changing economic conditions and technological developments altered the production and distribution of cloth so that men took it over on a commercial basis, cloth production remained a respectable and even prestigious occupation for women. It was especially respected as work for married women as part of their responsibility for their households. The continuing connection of women with textile production demonstrates that the cultural importance of an activity is not always a function of its economic importance. It also reminds us that production outside the market remained important during the Middle Ages and that cultural representations may provide us with clues to this where guild and tax records do not.


Married Woman Textile Production Textile Work Woolen Cloth Thirteenth Century 
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© E. Jane Burns 2004

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  • Ruth Mazo Karras

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