History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Less Money Than a Man Would Take

Women who work in England today share an experience with female wage earners seven centuries ago: they take home only about threequarters the wages earned by men. In the 1360s, women earned 71 percent of male wages; today, they earn about 75 percent. Of course, no parallel across six centuries can be quite this precise. The medieval figure draws on one particularly detailed list of wages paid to harvest workers in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1363-64, whereas the contemporary wage gap is estimated from datasets for all of Great Britain in 2002.1 Medieval wageworkers were paid in food as well as cash, although my comparison is based on cash wages alone.2 And most important of all, the economic contexts are profoundly different. In 1363, most people took their living from the land, and relatively few worked for wages; today, agriculture has given way to manufacturing and service, almost everyone works for wages, and our economy is shaped, in ways unimaginable to medieval people, by capitalism, industrialism, and globalization. The medieval woman worker was certainly not her modern counterpart, but her wages nevertheless haunt our modern ones: 71 per cent in 1363 … 75 percent in 2002.

It is hard to know what to do with such a uncanny similarity because we have been taught to see the past in terms of “us” and “them,” with a wide chasm separating the modern West from the world of medieval Europe. This chasm partly reflects real differences—an agrarian medieval Europe and a modern industrial one; a medieval Christendom and a modern plethora of religions; medieval monarchies and modern democracies. It also partly reflects popular assumptions about the horrors of the Middle Ages, commonly misremembered as a thousand years without a bath when humanity “lay dreaming or half awake.”3 And this great divide thrives, in part, because of our own investments in it, for those of us who teach and write about the past collaborate in a story of the making of modernity that perceives the Middle Ages as the sociocultural antithesis to modern life.4 “Medieval” functions in this story as an inversion of

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