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When Adam delved and Eve span: gender and textile production in the Middle Ages


Randles, S, When Adam delved and Eve span: gender and textile production in the Middle Ages, Women and Work in Premodern Europe: Experiences, Relationships and Cultural Representation, c. 1100-1800, Routledge, ML Bailey, TM Colwell and J Hotchin (ed), Abingdon, United Kingdom, pp. 71-103. ISBN 9781138202023 (2018) [Research Book Chapter]

Copyright Statement

Copyright 2018 The Author

DOI: doi:10.4324/9781315475097


During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Lollard preacher John Ball rhetorically asked:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

In Ball’s context, this text primarily references social rank rather than gender, but it also represents medieval ideas on the division of work based on gender, a division, moreover, understood as biblically sanctioned and representing the natural order of the things since the Fall of Man. Common medieval iconography of the post-lapsarian Adam and Eve shows them labouring, as in the illumination from the twelfth-century Hunterian Psalter in Figure 4.1. Adam is shown tilling the soil while Eve works with a distaff and spindle to produce thread. However, the issue of gender and textile production in the Middle Ages is a complex one and the dichotomy suggested by Ball’s lines does not accurately represent the realities of medieval textile work. Certainly, medieval women engaged in spinning and other forms of textile production, but there is also abundant evidence that men too engaged in many forms of textile work and that the gendering of medieval textile production is both multi-faceted and dynamic.

This chapter aims to raise two broad questions: how was medieval textile production gendered, in specific times and places, and what are the factors which govern this gendering? It will consider how different sorts of evidence might provide information about the ways in which medieval textile production was practised and viewed in the Middle Ages, while acknowledging that the answers to these questions can be difficult to determine. Such questions include: were different sorts of textiles made by men and by women, or were different aspects of textile-making processes gendered differently? Were there gender differences between domestic and commercial textile production? How did position in the social order intersect with gender in the field of textile work? What factors governed the ways that textile production was gendered? What ideological bases were there for the divisions of labour in textile production?

This chapter will not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions. It is important to acknowledge that there will always be differences in the circumstances governing how textile production was gendered in particular instances, but this chapter aims to highlight a range of approaches to this complex field, including some new avenues for further research. It will also make a case for the importance of interdisciplinarity in textile history. Clearly, the task of considering the evidence for gender and textile production across the whole of Europe for the length of the Middle Ages is far beyond the scope of this chapter, so this study is limited to presenting some cross-disciplinary case studies from England and France, from the mid- to late Middle Ages, which might serve as examples to illuminate the field. The term ‘work’ is used here expansively to encompass all aspects of textile production, from the processing of raw materials to the embellishment of luxury textiles, regardless of whether the worker was paid for their labour, or whether they made textiles as part of a domestic or gift economy. This approach acknowledges that all textile production required time, effort, skill and resources, and that, whatever their purpose or status, textiles and their making were an integral part of medieval society and culture.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:work, gender, textiles, middle ages
Research Division:History, Heritage and Archaeology
Research Group:Historical studies
Research Field:European history (excl. British, classical Greek and Roman)
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in history, heritage and archaeology
UTAS Author:Randles, S (Dr Sarah Randles)
ID Code:132184
Year Published:2018
Deposited By:Office of the School of Humanities
Deposited On:2019-04-26
Last Modified:2019-05-01

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