Some women did have what we would call professions. There were some women doctors for instance, some even served in royal households. Magistra Hersend physica, who was married to the royal apothecary and herself attended Louis IX and went on his crusading expedtions tot he Hol Land in 1248. At Acre in 1250 Louis granted her a lifetime pension of 12d a day for her services. Katherine, a surgeon of London, Ann the Medica, on the staff of St Leonards Hospital in York, and Agnes in Huntingdonshire, were all well-respected English female doctors of the 13th century. In the 14th century, however, several places passed laws against women practising medicine, and it seems there was some hostility towards them from the male medical establishment.
Much medical responsibility fell on the abbesses of convents and their delegated infirmaries, and particular skill in this field was usually emphasised. For example Hildegard of Bingen had served as infirmarian before she became abbess and her life claims that she was renowned for her cures and her skill. Even in the fifteen century a religious of the convent of Longchamps was named to the office of barber, ie. trained in bloodletting, when she was only thriteen and served her convent in this function for nearly forty years.
Midwives were well-respected professional women in medieval times, and there were a considerable number of them. About one-third of all the women identified in the comprehensive compilation of medieval French medical practitioners were midwives (44 out of 121 known by name). Many French cities and towns equipped themselves with sworn midwives who controlled access to the profession and maintained its standards. The skill was learnt by apprenticeship to a practising midwife and the candidate was then examined by a physician chosen by the local administration. They were to be found in towns of all sizes which might encourage midwives to be available for service, by giving them priviliges such as exemptionf rom taxation or even a pension on retirement. Among the favourite midwives of the nobility in the fourteenth century, Asseline Alexandre, though practising in Paris, attended the duchess of Burgundy in childbe on three seperate occasions in the 1370s and travelled to Dijon or Montbard. Although theevidence is not as clear in England there are various references to midwives who seem to have been well paid, for they are among the highly taxed. A fortunate midwife like Margery Cobbe who attended the queen of Edward IV at a successful birth might receive an annual pension - in her case £10.
Many businesses in the middle ages were family affairs, and wives often worked with their husbands at their trades, and were accepted as guild members. A widow would often continue to run a business after her husband died. Some single women would also be guild members. Some trades were almost exclusively female, such as spinning and embroidery for instance, other trades might be followed by both men and women, like tapestry weaving for instance. Brewing was a trade that was almost exclusively female, the 'ale wife' was a familiar figure in medieval life. Women also worked indeendently as bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and market gardeners.
In the textile trade, some women formed their own exclusive guilds, both Paris and Cologne for instance had female guilds. A female guild waas also formed within the Cologne silk trade, which dates from the mid-thirteenth century. This guild originally included the silk spinners, before they were granted their own guild in 1456.
The majority of women in the middle ages would have been peasant women, whose lives would have been extremely busy, you could not call what they did a 'profession' exactly, but it called for a lot of skills and their role was vital to the survival of the family farm. In 'Life in a Medieval village' Frances and Joseph Gies write:
'In most peasant households the tasks of men and women were differentiated along the traditonal lines of "outside" and "inside" work. The women's inside jobs were by no means always performed indoors. Besides spinning, weaving, sewing, cheese-making, cooking and clenaing, women did foraging, gardening, weeding, haymaking carrying, and animal-tending. They joined in the lord's harvest, and helped bring in the family's own harvest. Often women served as paid labor, receiving at least some of the time wages equal to men's.
For many village women one of the most important parts of the dialy labor wsa the care of livestock. Poultry was virtually the woman's domain, but feeding, milking, washing and shering the larger livestock often fell t oher also. peasant women would often sell their surplus eggs, cheese, butter etc to make money.
A Small sound of the Trumpet, Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade Labarge
Women in the Medieval Towns by Erika Uitz
Life in a Medieval village by Frances and Joseph Gies