One of the recurring themes of Barbara A Hanawalt’s book, The Wealth of Wives, was the unusual status of women in early Medieaval London, and some other towns and cities of England and the Low Countries. I am intrigued as to why, when so many countries concentrated their wealth on the male lines, with many long lived dynasties developing in this way, why did women in London and elsewhere get given so many rights? Why was the paternal line so unimportant here?
Much emphasis was placed in towns on the role of the freemen. This seems a confusing term, as people had to pay for this right, be born or marry into a family, or serve an apprenticeship to be able to trade in the town or city. But the term means they were free of obligations to the families who owned the land; they did not have to help with the harvests or go to war on their behalf. This was only a few centuries after the Norman invasion, so the land was – and to an extent still is – held by Norman families, so this may also have been a race/cultural difference. Their desire to keep the money and trades within the town may have been a distancing of themselves from the landed aristocracy. The fact that there were often separate laws for the towns and for the country seems to further this notion.
It may also have had something to do with Britain being an island. Their trade was largely by sea, and the merchants sailed their own ships, so were often abroad, so had to leave someone behind that they could trust. It makes sense that this would be their wives, so their wives were empowered to run the family home and business in their absence,and to be able to continue if they failed to return for whatever reason.
Or maybe the answer can be found in geography. To this day, family names in Iceland are passed down male and female lines equally, with, say, a girl called Anne whose mother was Ingrid being called Anne Ingridsdottir, with the boys similarly named after their fathers. In general, even today, there seems to be a rough rule of thumb that the countries of northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, have far better protections and rights for women than their southern neighbours, so maybe this is related to harsh climates. The period we are dealing with had a lot of cold weather and famines, hence people tended to live in walled cities to protect themselves from marauding bandits. The poor lived outside the walls, but they had little to steal, and besides, the poor didn’t count then any more than they do now.
Even though women had a lot of rights, very few really used them, with few apart from some widows, actually choosing to become sole traders. Conditions for women became harder after the population collapse of the Black Death. You would think that, as male labourers managed to demand, and often get, higher wages that women would also do better, but the tendency was instead for men to invest in technology.
Women used to be common as ale makers and sellers; this was a drink which was made at home, but had a short shelf life. After the Black Death, the technology for making beer, ie the introduction of hops as a preservative, and the larger scale production, was by Europeans, who tended not to employ women, and as women often didn’t have the access to credit for mass production, they were often unable to compete.
Also at this time, larger looms were introduced, and again, women struggled to compete with these larger, heavier machines so their role in the fabric trade tended to decline.