Sunday, 5 June 2005

Medieval Businesswomen

Margery Kempe (top) and Christine de Pisan (below)

After the Black Death for obvious reasons, there was a noticeable shortage of people. This meant that women got the opportunity to get involved in tasks and areas which up til then were solely male territory. By 1363 a statute got rid of the law which limited women to only one trade or craft, so women were able to become traders and therefore support themselves. This newly found independence also meant that they now had more control over who they married too.

One of the better known businesswomen of the time was a certain Margey Kempe, from Lynn in Norfolk. She also wrote The Book of Margery Kempe which is often seen as the first English autobiography. Margery had a taste for very expensive clothes (the modern equivalent would be designer-wear) and would spend large amounts of money to this purpose. her husband eventually got tired of this and decided he would not give her any more money for expensive clothes. At this point Margery told herself she would find the money on her own and so she embarked upon a series of failed business ventures. She set up a brewery but sadly the beer would not ferment properly. She then got herself two horses and a mill and started grinding corn. When this didn't work out people did not want to work for her any more. Margery decided this was God's way of telling her to get out of commerce and look for something else. So, she made a huge career leap and launched herself as a professional hysteric.

Professional religious weeping was a lucrative career in those days and sources tell us Margey was on top of the competition as she could cry and get herself in a hysterical state with just about anything. If she was shown a cross she would faint. If she was supposed to be in the presence of God she would scream non-stop. She would cry in church, in public and at meals. She was loud. When she met the Archbishop of York, he is said to have given a memebr of his staff five shillings to take her as far away from him as possible. When she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the other pilgrims accompanying her couldn't stand her and told her to take a hike.

It might seem strange, but with all this Margery made the money she required and even became a memebr of the guild at Lynn.

Another one was the Parisian Christine de Pisan. When she was 25 her husband died and left her with three children and her widowed mother to look after. She started writing poems to supplement her income. The writing of poetry was a very male-dominated profession, taken up by men who would get wealthy patrons to subsidize them. Christine managed to find patronage at Court and started to get commissions.


Daldianus said...

Haha, funny story :)

I think these weeping or cheering women can still be 'bought for the occasion' in muslim countries today.

Conservative Mutant said...

daldianus: maybe you're thinking of "rowzeh", a Shi'ite ritual mourning for the death of Husayn at Karbela? There are elaborate female ceremonies built around it in Iran.

Chris Armstrong said...

What do you mean by "Margery Kempe (top)," in the caption? I'd love to find an image of Kempe, but I'm assuming none exists. If you have a source of such an image, I'd be most indebted to you if you would let me know about it at

Chris Armstrong
Associate Professor of Church History, Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN