The importance of apprenticeships in the medieval and early modern world has long been acknowledged. The role played by these relationships in shaping the lives of early modern European boys and the men they would become has been well documented. In addition to teaching a trade, these apprenticeships provided young men with a master who would monitor their behaviour and keep them from trouble and harm. However, work on apprenticeships has predominantly focussed on boys and men, rather than girls and women. Given the prevalence of male apprenticeships in extant documents, this is perhaps understandable. The training in which women partook has also been discussed, but more with regard to its ambiguity than what it meant for a woman's life and future. Women in the early modern period, it is accepted, tended to work in whatever trade or occupation was practised by their husbands. Although they might engage in their own trade, or in any number of by-employments, while carrying out their roles as wives and mothers, they tended not to develop a strong occupational identity of their own. As a result, girls were not usually entered into formal apprenticeships by their parents, and instead learned a variety of skills that would stand them in good stead for their anticipated future role of wife and helpmeet to a husband.
There were exceptions to these rules. Caroline Barron argued that single women in London in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries could become apprentices. Historians have uncovered a number of apprenticeship contracts for girls in medieval London, and the apprenticeship arrangements of girls have also been discussed for England more broadly by others. Elsewhere in Europe, female apprenticeships seem to have become somewhat more common by the early modern period, as work on France and Germany illustrates. In Bristol in the 1530s and 1540s, girls were often apprenticed to seamstresses. Two-thirds of female apprentices were apprenticed to seamstresses or housewives, who were themselves the wives of masters. Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, in her investigation of female apprentices in the trades and crafts of early modern Bristol, noted that in the seventeenth century almost all women who entered apprenticeships (which differed from service contracts in that apprentices paid a fee to assume those positions) took on positions in domestic service, or else positions that combined a craft and household service.