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24 January 2016

Dairymaids on the cheap

I’m reading The Edge of the World, how the North Sea made us who we are, by Michael Pye. It’s a book I want to read slowly, to savour every sentence, to take in every beautifully expressed piece of information.  

Adam Nicolson doesn’t like The Edge of the World. Writing in The Spectator he describes it as ‘a mass of storytelling allied to a rather cute way with a moral (‘The personal isn’t just political; it is economic’ )  . . . leaves you hungry for system, rigour, the search for pattern and consistency, any form of understanding which goes beyond the charming anecdote.

Tom Holland, for The Guardian, is a little kinder. The focus on the North Sea  . . . becomes increasingly blurred. . . The problem he faces is as simple as it is unacknowledged: so successful was the process of conquest and evangelisation by which Latin Christendom expanded into its northern periphery that what had been distinctive about the North Sea in the early medieval period was increasingly lost. . . . None of which prevents Pye’s book from being hugely enjoyable . . . Grey the waters of the North Sea may be; but Pye has successfully dyed them with a multitude of rich colours.”

And what has all this got to do with equal pay? Quite a lot, for in Pye’s book, women are neither an afterthought nor a side issue. What women do while the men are out farming, fishing, fighting, and trading, is given its due. 

Pye’s chapter Love and Capital describes how women were able to make to make choices in the north-west of Europe available to women nowhere else. He argues that the merchant business made families and marriages more flexible, while marriage itself became more equal. 

Crafts and professions included both men and women. In Bruges the bosses of the town were addressed as ‘mester’ and ‘mestrigge’.The growth of towns, coupled with provision for women to inherit property enabled women to flourish as clothiers, bakers, tanners, and money changers in their own right, but they also ran the shop or the warehouse when their menfolk were absent. Pye describes women as ‘the constant, stable heart of business’.  

Country women had a harder time of it, for making a living had everything to do with having the use of a property. And whereas a townswoman could charge what the market would bear on her products and services, countrywomen’s wages were less than those of a man. 

Pye writes: “A thirteenth century bailiff in England, in a book that was copied again and again, says it is worth having a dairy maid to look after the small animals even if you don’t have dairy: ‘it is always good to have a woman there, at much less cost than a man.’”


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