2014/4
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Maija Ojala: ”Protection, Continuity and Gender: Craft Trade Culture in the Baltic Sea Region (14th-16th Centuries)”. Lectio praecursoria 18.10.2014

Filosofian maisteri Maija Ojalan historian alaan kuuluva väitöskirja ”Protection, Continuity and Gender: Craft Trade Culture in the Baltic Sea Region (14th-16th Centuries)” (Protektionismi, jatkuvuus ja sukupuoli: Käsityöläisten yrittäjäkulttuuri Itämeren alueella 1300–1500-luvuilla) tarkastettiin 18.10.2014 Tampereen yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä oli professori Sabine von Heusinger (Universität zu Köln) ja kustoksena toimi professori Christian Krötzl. Väitöskirja on luettavissa osoitteessa http://tampub.uta.fi/handle/10024/96147.

Honorable Custos, Esteemed Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have often been asked why to study medieval history. The question is good, but, a better question would be why to study history at all. Those of you who have read the famous dystopian novel called Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell can easily imagine what a world would be like without various interpretations about the past. In the novel, the main character Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth. This ministry is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. The job of Mr. Smith is to rewrite newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports the current state policy. This task is important because, according to Orwell, those who control the past also control the future. Unfortunately this rather sinister idea has truth in it. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that also present day governments often legitimize their actions, like military campaigns, with historical reasoning.  This fact, however, does not diminish the importance of historical research. Quite on the contrary: it underlines that today independent historical research is as important as ever. And, as a historian, I consider that my task is to provide information: information that helps us to understand not only the past societies but also our own society.

Medieval world was in many ways different from ours. Medieval people could not enjoy the modern commodities like running water, central heating, not to mention high technology and computers. Therefore, it is easy to fell into the trap where you, sometimes unknowingly, underestimate previous societies and ancient people. As a scholar you have to remind yourself constantly that people of past times made their decisions according to the information they had at hand. Their actions and decisions were shaped by the circumstances they lived in and by the values and traditions of their own society. Sometimes these actions may seem irrational to us, but were indeed very rational to contemporaries, as recent studies have shown. The citizens in Lübeck and other towns around the Baltic Sea tried to make best out of their lives − same as we do − but they had different resources available.

In this research I traced the essential elements of craft trade culture in late medieval and early modern cities bordering the Baltic Sea. The impulse for the study was that I felt perplexed by the arguments that craft organizations had no room for women. I wanted to find out if unmarried women and widows could be full members of the craft organizations and if they could practice their trade as independent masters. As the research went on I soon realized that it was impossible to answer this question simply. This led to the need to classify the various urban organizations like guilds, crafts and devotional guilds more precisely. Piece by piece the whole spectrum of the craft trade culture started to open, revealing a complex system shaped by protection, continuity and controversies. During the research project, I also discovered that the craft trade culture resembled our present day society and business culture in several ways. It was full of contradictions and often individual profit seeking overweighed collective welfare. The last point has been thought to be the elementary feature of modern market economy.  

Indeed, the image of the dark Middle Ages holds tight. Last week a friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher, posted a picture in social media. The picture presented life in a medieval city and was additional material for present day teachers. It depicted life in a medieval city as rather disgusting, claiming, for example, that people paid no attention to waste management. Of course, we who study this period of time know that life 500 hundred years ago was not that dark and miserable. However, this example clearly shows that more information about everyday life in medieval cities is needed. Moreover, it demonstrates how important it is to produce and publish also popular science books.  Gladly several fellow scholars have lately participated to school book projects and to making of new museum exhibitions.

Finland is often considered to be the role model of gender equality. According to the survey made by World Economic Forum our country holds the second place in the global comparison of how well the gender equality is fulfilled in various countries. In the survey it was examined in what scale both sexes participate to political decision making; how well economic equality comes true, and if both sexes have equal rights to education and health care. In Finland women’s political participation has long roots. Here women were given the right to vote and stand in the election first in the world, over a hundred years ago. Every citizen has the right for municipal health care and every boy and girl goes to school. According to our official statistics since the 21st century the majority of graduates with an academic degree are females. In addition, men are entitled to have a paternity leave. Hence, on the surface everything seems to be right.

However, just recently it has been argued that a gendered division of labour is still visible in Finland. In an interview about a month ago the congresswoman Tuija Brax argued that in our Parliament, men often occupy the primary seats in economic and industrial sectors whereas social work and health care are women’s responsibilities. In addition, she claimed that especially during difficult times like now or during the economic depression of the 1990’s the decision making slips to men. According to our official statistics women dominated clearly three economic sectors in 2012: in health care and social work; education, and among food and accommodation services female workers made up the majority. Men, on the other hand, dominated construction work, manufacturing, transportation and waste management. Equal share of both sexes worked in public administration and defence. It has been debated if the reasons for gendered division of labour lie more in attitudes or in structures. A recent study about the behaviour of kindergarten teachers revealed that subconsciously the children were taught the traditional gender roles. 

The late medieval and especially early modern society has been seen as a world with gendered division of labour and strict gender roles. Men acted as head of households and represented the family outwards. Some historians have argued that the artisan world was a men’s world. Yet, during the past decades this picture has been changed as scholars have presented new interpretations about the past. For example, Raisa Maria Toivo and Tiina Miettinen have showed that the responsibilities of household management were often shared; the family could choose a woman to be its representative and a child born out of wedlock did not ruin a young lady’s life. During this research I found out that women, especially widows, were an integral part of craft trade culture. They could continue the family business for years after their husband had died. That is to say that someone delivered them raw materials; they had necessary resources and know-how to produce goods, and someone bought their products. Widows were familiar of the craft rules that regulated the work of the artisans. Furthermore, they did not hesitate to appeal to the city council if they thought their rights were threatened. In other words the artisan world appears to embody more flexible gender roles than has been thought. 

Craft trade culture has also been characterised as static and unchangeable. It has been argued that craft organizations were unable to react to changes in society and strong crafts were hinders for the development of market economy. However, recently scholars like Dag Lindström and Sabine von Heusinger have contradicted these notions. They have emphasized that craft system was dynamic and flexible and it was precisely this flexibility that enabled the long survival of the craft organizations. In many cities the crafts controlled the production, prices and labour markets way until the 19th century.

This flexibility can be observed at various levels. The craft ordinances, which regulated the everyday life and work of artisans, were checked, altered and modified at regular basis. In original parchments you can see how some articles in the ordinances were corrected, changed or deleted. Consequently, the crafts did react to the changing economic and social situation. Furthermore, craft ordinances gave widows various possibilities to continue their trade. The widows’ rights articles often included modifications and left room for negotiations. With these widows’ right articles the crafts provided flexible solutions how the production could continue at the time of a possible break. This was important at a time when the life expectancy was much lower than nowadays.

The history of Hanseatic League has dominated the history of the Baltic Sea region. Hansa is also important for the present day city image. On the register plates of cars from Hamburg it stands HH, indicating not simply Hamburg but Hansastadt Hamburg. During the past few years the major construction work in Lübeck has been the new museum dedicated to the history of Hansa. The European Hansemuseum will have its grand opening next spring. However, in previous research craftsfolk, the middle class urban inhabitants have often been left in a side role. The research has focused on the political and economic elite of the cities: on merchants.

Strong social hierarchies prevailed in late medieval and early modern cities. As Marko Lamberg has shown in his studies, social gatherings, like guild festivities, reinforced the boundaries between different social groups. Yet, as he has pointed out, rich and poor lived next to each other and people of different social status met on the narrow streets of densely built towns.  With this study I wanted to bring forward the social and professional group of artisans, the craftsmen and craftswomen living in the cities around the Baltic Sea. I have studied this group from economic and gender history perspectives. Special attention has been given to artisan widows and to the city of Lübeck. I hope that this contribution to knowledge will intrigue scholars to discuss the role and interaction of gender, economy and craftsfolk in Hansa towns more widely.   

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