Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Women reaping while a man binds sheaves
  • Creator:
  • 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/
  • Inscription:
  • 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.