Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Image of the Month

November 2023

  • Title: Women reaping while a man binds sheaves
  • Description:

    This illustration represents the collaborative activity of harvesting ripe grain. Three women are pictured, two bending at the waist to cut the ripe grain with sickles, while the other arches her back to rest from the task. A man behind them gathers and binds the cut grain into sheaves. The image is surrounded by blue, orange, and green foliage and decorations. The illumination appears at the foot of the page with verses 7-12 of Psalm 95. Immediately above the image, readers would see:
    Lætentur cæli, et exsultet terra:
    commoveatur mare et plenitudo ejus;
    gaudebunt campi, et omnia quæ in eis sunt.
    (Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad,
    let the sea be moved, and the fulness thereof:
    The fields and all things that are in them shall be joyful.)

    This image appears in the Luttrell Psalter, a medieval manuscript well-known for illustrating both everyday life and fanciful figures. Scenes include men plowing, a woman tending chickens grinning hybrid animals, and a mermaid with mirror and comb. The psalter was originally commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire. It was written and illuminated by one scribe and at least six different artists. Though their names remain unknown, art historian Michael Camille refers to them as "the Decorator," "the Animator," "the Illustrator," "the Luttrell Master," "the Hurrier," and "the Finisher." The manuscript is thought to have been made in the diocese of Lincoln circa 1325 and 1335- though some experts have attributed it to different time periods. Besides the psalms, the manuscript also contains a calendar of church festivals and saints' days, liturgical songs, the Athanasian Creed, the litany with prayers and the Office of the Dead.

    There are differing views on whether this and other scenes in the Luttrell Psalter accurately represent rural life. In Mirror in Parchment, art historian Michael Camille discusses how among almost one hundred reaping scene images studied, only one other image represents women doing reaping and harvesting work, indicating that this task was carried out mostly by men while others argue that harvesting with sickles was a mixed activity. Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies, Michelle Brown, however, argues that the image symbolizes procreation and different but related cycles. The women are bending and "raising their buttocks provocatively towards the man who is flanked by a curious corn dolly resembling a phallus pointing in their direction." According to her, the woman arching her back portrays the cycle of pregnancy, childbearing, and child burying. The scene of reaping also represents the cycle of “seed-sowing and bearing the fruit of the souls for the Lord - and workers for the local Lord” and the agricultural year.

    This scene, as manuscript expert Janet Backhouse pointed out in in Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter, shows that during harvest time everyone was required to help. The Psalter was written between a difficult time with famine in 1315-1318 and with the Black Death in 1347-1351. These brought many changes to the rural economy, but were there any changes for women's wages? In late medieval England, both men and women had to work hard to earn a living, and both produced goods for sale. However, women were still excluded from the better-paid agricultural activities such as mowing with scythes, and they generally earned less than men. There are differing views as to why this was the case. John Hatcher, professor of Economics and Social History, has argued that the difference in physical strength, stamina, and hours available to work - since women bore the responsibility of caring for children and the house - were reasons for the difference and not systemic discrimination that devalued women's work.

    Sandy Bardsley, professor of Medieval History, on the other hand, finds that women received the same rate paid to boys, older men, and men with disabilities, and that strong healthy men always earned more than women. Although women's wages increased after the Black Death due to labor shortage, they continued to receive 70 per cent of a healthy men's wages. In that sense, she finds that the wage gap remained relatively the same before and after the Black Death. Bardsley argues that gender in and of itself was an important factor in determining wages. This is further demonstrated in work by de Pleijt and van Zanden in which wage gaps of 50 per cent are found in southern Europe while the gap in northern and western Europe varies between 40 and 80 percent. Furthermore, in later medieval England, there is evidence that women suffered labor market discrimination since they were the first ones to lose their jobs to men when the labor market tightened. That is, men would take on work previously done by women and receive the lower pay.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Agriculture Discrimination Economics Luttrell Psalter Peasantry Psalters, Liturgical Books Wages Work
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1325- 1335
  • Related Work: Full page view with the reaping scene in the margin.
    Digitized version of the Luttrell Psalter.
    Men plowing, Luttrell Psalter.
    Men stacking sheaves, Luttrell Psalter.
    Old woman carrying grain to a mill, Luttrell Psalter.
    Men harvesting with sickles, Queen Mary Psalter, English, 1st quarter of the 14th c., British Library, Royal MS 2 B VII, fol. 78v.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Additional 42130, fol. 172v
  • Original Location: Lincolnshire
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paints; Gold;
  • Donor: Layman; Sir Geoffrey Luttrell III (1276-1345), lord of the manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 35/24.5
  • Related Resources:

    Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter. University of Toronto Press, 2000.

    Bardsley, Sandy. " Women's Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England." Past & Present 165 (1999): 3-29.

    Bardsley, Sandy. [Women's Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England]: "Reply." Past & Present 173 (2001): 199-202.

    British Library. "Add MS 42130." This manuscript description is available open access.

    Brown, Michelle P. The World of the Luttrell Psalter. British Library, 2006.

    Camille, Michael. Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    de Pleijt, Alexandra and Jan Luiten van Zanden. "Two Worlds of Female Labour: Gender Wage Inequality in Western Europe, 1300-1800." Economic History Review 74, 3 (2021): 611-638. Available open access.

    Hatcher, John. "Debate: 'Women's Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England." Past & Present 173 (2001): 191-198.

    Whittle, Janet. "Rural Economies." The Oxford Handbook of Women & Gender in Medieval Europe. Edited by Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras. Oxford University Press, 2013. Pages 311-326.

    Wright, Sharon Hubbs. "Medieval English Peasant Women and Their Historians: A Historiography with a Future?" History Compass 16, 8 (2018): 1-11.

The Feminae database presents images of medieval art with descriptions, data, and subject indexing. Each thumbnail picture has a link to a higher quality image often with a zoom view and added content from a museum. Images included represent women and gender 450 to 1500 C.E. in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Beginning in June 2012 we have highlighted each month a newly added image that is rich in documentary evidence or iconographic significance.

As images build up in the database, users can browse for aggregated evidence. The Donor field groups people together in the categories layman/men, laywoman/women, female religious and male religious. The Current Location field allows users to see artwork that is all housed in the same museum. Image records are integrated with all the other Feminae content, so that a search on Mary Magdalen will include results for essays, journal articles, translations, book reviews, and images (which come at the end of the list which is sorted by date). Feminae Research Assistants

Feminae Research Assistants:

Collin Kawan-Hemler worked on Feminae during the summer of 2021. He is majoring in History at Haverford College with a minor in Health Studies.

Caroline Ford was the Feminae intern during the 2020-21 academic year. She majored in English at Haverford College with a minor in psychology.

Joe Ding worked on Feminae during the summer of 2020. She is majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy at Haverford College.

Rebecca Chen was the Feminae intern during the summer of 2020. She is an English major at Haverford College with interests in pursuing medicine.

Jonathan Sudo worked on Feminae in summer 2019. He majored in History and East Asian Studies at Haverford College.

Drew Forte worked on images from Spring 2018 through Spring 2020 . He had a particular interest in the occult and magic as represented in medieval art.

Jessica Urban researched and wrote about images from fall 2016 through fall 2017. She concentrated on archaeology and material culture. She majored in Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College.

Bill Ristow worked on manuscript images during the 2015-16 academic year. He majored in history and wrote his senior thesis on medieval kingship with reference to Wace's Roman de Rou and Henry II.

Rachel Davies worked on the brass rubbings during the 2013 summer session for the exhibit Lasting Impressions. During 2015-16 she researched and wrote entries concerning Spanish art.

Leigh Peterson worked on images during the Fall 2012 through Spring 2015 academic years. She was an undergraduate student who majored in art history at Bryn Mawr College. She was an intern at the Cloisters Museum during summer 2013.

Shannon Steiner added images during the summer and fall of 2013. Shannon was a doctoral student in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a B.A. from Temple University (2009) and M.A.s from The University of Texas at Austin (2011) and
Bryn Mawr College (2013). Her research focused on the visual culture of saints' cults and the role of art in forming community and gender identities in Byzantium.

Sarah Celentano worked on the initial 300 image records. She was a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focused on the visual culture of female monastic communities with a specialization in twelfth-century German-speaking areas. Her dissertation, "Embodied Reading as Political Action in the Hortus deliciarum," explored the textual and visual responses in the twelfth-century Hortus deliciarum to papal schism and imperial challenges to Church authority. Additional areas of examination were the use of medieval mnemonic techniques, and conduits of artistic exchange between northern and southern Europe.

Independent College Programs 142 Women and Gender in the Middle Ages: Representations in Art Margaret Schaus Haverford College, Spring 2021
Students in the class researched and wrote about medieval art in groups and as individual projects. They contributed their work to Feminae as image records.

Elinor Berger is a Literatures in English and Medieval Studies double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Jia Jing Ding is a History of Art and Economics double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Helena Frisbie-Firsching is a Physics major and Health Studies minor at Haverford College.

Bella Gerstmann is a prospective Linguistics or Anthropology major at Bryn Mawr College.

Leela Krishnan is a Math major and a Chemistry minor at Haverford College.

Faith Meacham is a Computer Science major and Math and Visual Studies minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Lipi Paladugu is a Computer Science major with minors in Visual Studies and Math at Bryn Mawr College.

Sadie Pileggi-Proud is a Political Science major with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College.

Caroline Quillen is an English major at Haverford College.

Esmé Read is a History of Art major, with a prospective minor in French and Francophone studies at Bryn Mawr College.

Annabelle Renshaw is a History of Art major and a Classical and Near-Eastern Archaeology minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Aviva Soll is a prospective Biology or Chemistry major and Environmental Studies minor with a Biochemistry concentration at Haverford College.

Lauryn White is at Haverford College, and their major is Religion.