What a web we weave

Another little gem I discovered in Hana Videen’s fabulous book about Old English “The Word Hord.”


One of my closest friends is a Webster and after reading about the name,  I asked her if she knew what the name meant. Yes she did, because at school they had been set the task of finding out what their surnames meant, Webster meant a weaver. But what she (and I) didn’t previously know, was that Webster comes from the Old English “webbestre” meaning specifically a female weaver. The verb “web” meant to weave and the male equivalent led to the surname Webber.


Likewise, the surname Baxter  comes from the old English “bæcestre,” a female baker ; the male version then a bæcere, giving us today’s surname Baker. The prevalence of the surnames shows how many women were working outside the domestic environment and the importance of their roles.

Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England

It is easy to imagine that a woman’s lot in this time was a grim one. Endless toil in the home and fields, children coming thick and fast, only a handful of whom would survive until adulthood. This much would have been true for many. However, did you know that these women enjoyed rights the likes of which English women would not know again until recent times? Women could not be forced to marry against their will, they could own goods and land in their own names and dispose of them as they chose. Divorce was accessible and women were entitled to half the household goods and full custody of any children. Men were penalised for assault, both sexual and physical, femicide, rape and adultery. Fairly enlightened for the so-called Dark Ages. So what happened to overturn these liberal views towards women? The Normans. William the Conqueror – a bastard in name and deed.


11th Century Weaver Woman