Beguine Silk Workers in Medieval Paris
This paper examines communities of beguines (religious laywomen) and their participation in the production of luxury textiles—especially silk—in medieval Paris. Published and unpublished tax rolls, guild records, and property sales from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Paris show that Parisian beguines worked as silk spinners, weavers, and merchants; undertook apprenticeships; acquired specialized knowledge and skills; utilized special, costly tools; and established successful silk shops. Beguines were part of significant commercial networks in their neighborhoods, employing their fellow beguines and maintaining close ties with merchants and workers in the silk-producing sectors of the city. Silk work appealed to beguines because it offered a sufficient, and even profitable, source of income while accommodating the communal living arrangements of lay religious women. Parisian sources suggest that beguines possessed a strong group identity, grouping together in households that were just as stable as households composed of blood-related kin. The creation and stability of such households were fostered by specific features of the Parisian silk industry, particularly its predominantly-female membership, apprenticeship opportunities, and female-controlled guilds and confraternities. Thus, silk work provided opportunities to create workshops that were not centered on the kin-based household, but rather on associations of lay religious women. Although most historians of women and work have concentrated on the household production unit—which historiography traditionally associates with the family—this picture of a home-workshop composed of beguines enhances our understanding not only of beguine communities but also the opportunities available to singlewomen in medieval Paris.
See more of: AHA Sessions