Women and Wealth

I’ve just started on a wonderful book, The Wealth of Wives Women, Law and Economy in Late Medieval London. The title sounds a bit dry, but it is really fascinating as the author, Barbara A. Hanawalt has spent years trawling through the various London archives to piece together some idea of the role of women at this little known time. In her introduction, she writes: 

“Women in London were in a unique position to have an impact on the city’s growing economy in the late Middle Ages. As London became a leading commercial city in Europe, women contributed to the household economy and the retail trade, but they also helped to provide the capital for London’s expansion in the late fourteenth centuries as it became a leading commercial city in Europe. the city was a major participant in the international trade in raw wool to the weavers of Flanders and Italy and also established itself as a distribution center for goods such as wine, fine cloth imported from the Continent, and, increasingly, luxury items produced in London itself. Trade and merchant guilds gained in power, and – although revolts of the ordinary people occurred – London’s government became more oligarchic and more stable. Major officers, such as the mayor, were selected from among citizens who were members of the most powerful guilds. International trade, the presence of the royal government in Westminster, and crafts (particularly in the production of luxury items such as silk weaving and goldsmithing) fuelled the city’s growing wealth. The Hundred Years’ War contributed to London’s importance, perhaps even providing silver and gold looted from France for the goldsmiths of the city to work and for wealthy Londoners to place in their homes. All of these economic and political roles involved men and seem to leave little role for women, but London’s laws were generous to women in terms of inheritance, dower, dowry, and wardship of their children and their inheritances. Women had access to courts to preserve their rights, and city officials oversaw the administration of laws regarding women, their children, and their property. ”

We tend to think of women having a pretty tough time throughout history, and for the poor that was undoubtedly true, but about 1/3 of the population of London were ‘free’, ie they had trading rights within the city, so had recourse to the courts and trade protection, also for the protection of their inheritances and care of orphans. When a man died, 1/3 of his wealth went on his soul, ie to pay off his debts and for prayers to help him on his way to heaven, 1/3 went to his wife (ie dower) and 1/3 to his children. When a woman married she brought a dowry with her which her husband could use, but it remained hers, so if she outlived several husbands, she could become very wealthy, so widows were often very powerful women, and very desirable to younger men.  But they were far from equal in the way that we understand it today. The society was still patriarchal, and women were expected to marry and produce children as their main goal in life. 

“Women learned how to manipulate patriarchy for their own ends. They were not necessarily victims of the system. although subject to the usual limitations of access to education, credit, magisterial position, and freedom of movement, London women had a number of advantages. they inherited equally with their brothers. Their marriage contracts protected their dower. They usually were selected as guardians of their children. The courts were readily available to women for redress of wrongs. London lawa and the men who enforced them certainly upheld patriarchal authority, but in so doing they put limits on men’s rapaciousness and protected their women and children from those  who might do them or their property harm. The city put constraints on patriarchal domination. ”

One of the most interesting points she makes, and that I found common in Bristol of the 18th century, was the lack of dynasties: money tended to circulate within trade groups, rather than down family lines. During the Civil War, women were incredibly visible, as defenders of the city and in the case of Dorothy Hazzard, as the founder of the Baptist movement. I thought it odd, but it seems to be of wide and long standing:

“Foreigners were very interested in London’s household economies, as well as their inheritance, dower and dowry practices., because they differed from those that were familiar to them. William Caxton, an Englishman returning after a long sojourn in flanders in order to establish a printing business, was shocked to find that families in London existed for only three generations of inheritance from father to son. In flanders, he had observed lineages that went back generations, even, he thought, a thousand years. A Venetian visiting England around 1500 made a similar observation and commented on the concentration of wealth and property in womens’ hands. He shrewdly observed that the inheritance system was the cause of this deficiency. Added to the partible inheritance of the father’s estate was the dower right of widows which delayed or even deprived male heirs of paternal wealth. London seemed to have a meo horizontal social structure, compared to the vertical one in Venice or in Italian cities. ”

Giving power to women is rare, which begs the question why it is so marked in English cities. Women only get power when there is a shortage of men. This happened during both the World Wars in Britain and elsewhere, when women worked in heavy industry and on the land. Which begs the question, why was there a shortage of men at this time, and, it seems, throughout much of England’s history. Part of it can be attributed to other nationals. The Normans, who invaded from 1066 were highly patriarchal and patrilineal, but the Germanic tribes  who settled southern England after the Romans left, had a far more equal attitude towards their women. Btu we are still left with the law of the land being Norman, but the cities being Germanic, which is the reverse of what happened historically.

I wonder if this arrangement is due to the fact that England is part of an island, and as the winds batter our shores, and much of the country is being flooded, I am mindful of the many men who have lost their lives at sea, as merchants, fishermen or in battle. I think this is the source of these laws, of the millions who have died over the centuries in maintaining what Nelson called, The Wooden Walls of England.

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