Women in the later medieval English economy: past perspectives, new directions



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Housework and childcare were matters of contemporary debate. See for example ‘The Ballad of the Tyrannical Husband’, a late fifteenth-century verse with a pronounced normative agenda. A modern edition is published in The Trials and Joys of Marriage, ed. Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002) and electronically at .

36 With the retirement of John Hatcher, neither Oxford nor Cambridge has a specialist in later medieval economic history in something like a tenured position. The same is largely true of Birmingham, Bristol, King’s College, London, St Andrews, University College, London and York. Oliver Vlockart of the Department of Economic History at the LSE, formerly headed by the late Stephan Epstein, is a specialist on financial markets from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.

37 Of Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, McGill, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Toronto, UCLA, and Yale, I counted only three specialist faculty.

38 Abram, Social England, 131 ff.; Power, ‘The working woman’, quotation on 52.

39 Shulamith Shahar, Die Frau im Mittelalter (Königstein: Athenäum Verlag, 1981), The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages (London and New York: Methuen, 1983); Edith Ennen, Frauen im Mittelalter (Munich: Beck, 1984), The Medieval Woman, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

40 Martha C. Howell, Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

41 P.J.P. Goldberg, ‘Female labour, service and marriage in the late medieval urban north’, Northern History, 22 (1986): 18-38, quotation on 37.

42 Caroline M. Barron, ‘The “Golden Age” of Women in Medieval London’, Reading Medieval Studies, 15 (1989): 35-58.

43 She has been followed inter alia by Sandy Bardsley and most recently Barbara Hanawalt, though Hanawalt does not specifically use the tag: Sandy Bardsley, Venemous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 7-8; Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 161-2. Hanawalt characterises Barron and Goldberg (162) as offering a Golden Age thesis that is ‘based on laws that seem to treat women’s employment as equal to men’s, a few examples of widows who successfully continued their husbands’ businesses, silkwomen in London who practiced their craft and sold their goods, and a scattering of other women who had businesses or well-paid jobs.’ This is a travesty of my work, but her note references only Barron’s 1989 essay. She goes on, ‘an additional argument is that young, single women did so well in employment that they delayed marriage and many did not marry at all.’ Here she references my 1992 monograph with the further observation that my work ‘often relies on only fifteen to twenty cases.’ (n. 3, 269) This again constitutes a rhetorical strategy, but the implication is that my work merely adds additional tropes to Barron’s original theme. Bardsley, who references only my 1992 monograph, likewise implies that my work follows Barron’s ‘Golden Age’ article. The opposite is the case. Caroline Barron presented versions of her Golden Age paper at various locations for a number of years prior to her hearing a version of my 1986 paper, but her observations about long-term changes in women’s economic fortunes first appeared only in her 1989 paper. (I owe this observation to my colleague Peter Biller.)

44 Hill, ‘Women’s history’, Women’s History Review: 12-13.

45 Judith M. Bennett, ‘Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide’, in Culture and History 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing, ed. David Aers (New York and Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 147-75. Bennett’s thesis has been challenged at length in Hill, ‘Women’s history’, Women’s History Review: 5-22. Bennett has replied to this in Judith M. Bennett, ‘Women’s history: a study in continuity and change’, Women’s History Review, 2, no. 2 (1993): 173-84.

46 Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 83 ff.

47 The term ‘unmarried’ here indicates both never-married women and widows. The poll tax returns only sometimes distinguish widows as such. Only three women are specifically designated ‘vidua’ in the extant Southwark returns: The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, Part 2: Lincolnshire-Westmorland, ed. Carolyn Fenwick, British Academy, Records of Social and Economic History, new series, 29 (Oxford: Oxford University Press / British Academy, 2001), 558-64.

48 P.J.P. Goldberg, ‘Household and the Organisation of Labour in Late Medieval Towns: Some. English Evidence’, in The Household in Late Medieval Cities: Italy and Northwestern Europe Compared, ed. Miriam Carlier and Tim Soens, (Leuven and Apeldoorn: Garant, 2001), 59-70, see 67-9. Judith Bennett responds to these criticisms arguing that ‘these two snapshots are not arbitrarily chosen … they remain the best data for long term comparison of female occupations over these centuries that anyone has been able to locate,’ and that she looks for ‘general trends, not precise patterns’: Bennett, History Matters, n. 39, 184. Both these are reasonable positions in themselves, but evidence of he 1381 poll tax can tell us nothing about the period before 1348 and hence about changes either side of the Black Death. The occupations of unmarried women in a poor neighbourhood characterised by the sex trade, moreover, is not a suitable proxy for the wider female experience.

49 Bennett cites the abstract to my 1987 doctoral thesis – the basis of my 1992 monograph – but clearly had not read the thesis itself: Bennett, ‘Medieval Women, Modern Women’, 150.

50 These arguments were published in 1992 largely unchanged from my doctoral thesis: P.J.P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300-1520 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 345-56.

51 Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, ‘Do Women Need the Renaissance?’, Gender and History, 20, no. 3 (2008), 539-57.

52 Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, ‘Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 63, no. 1 (2010), 1-33. They discuss the notion of a Golden Age at 26-7.

53 See for example Goldberg, ‘Household and the Organisation of Labour’, 59-70.

54 Bardsley’s argument that women did not usually receive equal pay when engaged in the same work depends on identifying those males who earned the same wages as either pre-adult or elderly. This may be, but the sources do not show this anymore than they make distinctions between different categories of female worker: Sandy Bardsley, ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentation in Late Medieval England’, Past and Present, 165 (1999): 3-29; John Hatcher has challenged parts of Bardsley’s thesis in his ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England’, Past and Present, 173 (2001): 191-8, but my observation is not part of his critique which places greater emphasis on how ‘heavy manual labour ... militated against the employment of women and precluded them from competing on equal terms’ (198), a position I find no more satisfactory.

55 William Beveridge, ‘Westminster Wages in the Manorial Era’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 8, no. 1 (1955): 18-35, see 34. Rodney Hilton and Simon Penn have also been sympathetic to this position. The historiography is usefully surveyed in Bardsley, ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered’: 6-9.

56 Bardsley suggests that the relationship between men’s and women’s wages is ‘critical’ to what she dubs ‘the golden age debate’: Bardsley, ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered’: 4. In fact, save for a brief notice of servants’ money wages which shows male servants to have earned considerably more than female using urban evidence from 1391-2 and the second decade of the sixteenth century, discussions of wages is largely absent from my 1992 monograph: Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, 186. Most work in later medieval society was performed within a familial context and done without formal payment. Live-in servants were hired primarily for bed and board and payments to older servants effectively represent contributions to future needs rather than wages as we conventionally understand them. Only day labourers (or journeymen) regularly received a money wage, often supplemented by the provision of meals. Many of the wages paid to women workers observed in the records – particularly presentations for receiving ‘excess’ wages contrary to the provision of the Statute of Labourers (1351 and later revisions) – represent seasonal tasks only and probably reflect women’s work only indifferently.

57 Bardsley, ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered’, p. 11.

58 Pamela Sharpe, whose focus is primarily post-medieval, astutely observes that ‘women’s access to economic resources did not always readily translate into wages. Indeed, controlling resources can be concerned with budgeting, looking after children or the sick, or managing a piece of land. None of these is readily measurable in terms of economic indicators’: Sharpe, ‘Continuity and Change’, 356.

59 P.J.P. Goldberg, ‘The Fashioning of Bourgeois Domesticity in Late Medieval England: A Material Culture Perspective’, in Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England, ed. Maryanne Kowalewski and P. J. P. Goldberg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 124-144.

60 John H. Plumb, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, The Birth of a Consumer Society: the Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa Publications, 1982). McKendrick’s chronology has been challenged by Jan de Vries who sees women as playing a key role in an ‘industrious revolution’ which he sees as ‘gaining momentum for over a century before 1750’: Jan de Vries, ‘Between purchasing power and the world of goods: understanding the household economy in early modern Europe’, in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. Roy Porter and John Brewer (London: Routledge, 1993), 85-132 quotation on 114.

61 C.C. Dyer, ‘Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: The Case of Harvest Workers’, Agricultural History Review, 36, no. 1 (1988): 21-37. There is good visual evidence for males and females reaping and binding in tandem, for example in one of the bas de page illuminations from the Luttrell Psalter and, over a century later, from an glass calendar roundel now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).

62 S.A.C. Penn, ‘Female Wage-Earners in late Fourteenth-Century England’, Agricultural History Review, 35, no. 1 (1987): 1-14.

63 Pamela Nightingale, for example, has made much of the Statute Merchant and Staple Certificates as sources, but her revisionist arguments still place particular emphasis on international trade, c.f. her most recent article, ‘The Rise and Decline of Medieval York: A Reassessment’, Past and Present, 206 (2010): 3-42.

64 Cf. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, 86-104, 137-49, 158-68, 186-92, 196-9.

65 Zvi Razi, Life, Marriage and Death in a Medieval Parish: Economy, society and demography in Halesowen 1270-1400 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); R.M. Smith, ‘Hypothèses sur la nuptialité en Angleterre aux XIIIe-XIVe siècles’, Annales: ESC, 38 (1903): 107-36; L.R. Poos, A Rural Society after the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), especially 148-57; Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, especially 217-32.

66 Marjorie McIntosh makes a similar point concerning the problem of interpreting ‘scant evidence’: Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Working Women in English Society 1300-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 36-7.

67 Judith M. Bennett, ‘Misogyny, Popular Culture and Women’s Work’, History Workshop Journal, 31, no. 1 (1991): 166-88. Bennett used John Skelton’s ‘The Tunning of Elynour Rumming’, which she claimed ‘seems to be very much a popular poem, as suggested by its vocabulary, syntax, and meter, and by its particular suitability for oral presentation’ (173), as evidence for popular misogynistic sentiment against women brewers. Her discussion neglects to notice Skelton’s status as a court poet, the poet’s artifice in constructing what purports to be a plebeian oral text, and that the poem concludes with three stanzas of Latin verse (omitted from some modern editions).

68 Cordelia Beattie, Medieval Single Women: the politics of social classification in late medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

69 A good example of a close reading of a single medieval text to throw light on women in the late medieval English economy see Cordelia Beattie, ‘Single Women, Work, and Family: The Chancery Dispute of Jane Wynde and Margaret Clerk’, in Voices from the Bench: The Narratives of Lesser Folk in Medieval Trials, ed. Michael Goodich (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 177-202.

70 David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London’, GLQ, 1, no. 3 (1995): 459-65.

71 John H. Arnold, Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), ch. 3.

72 The case is translated in Memorials of London and London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1848), 484-6.

73 John Cleland’s Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was first published 1748-9.

74 Memorials of London and London Life, ed. Riley, 496-8.

75 Caroline M. Barron, ‘The Education and Training of Girls in Fifteenth-Century London’, in Diana E.S. Dunn, ed., Courts, Counties and the Capital in the later Middle Ages (Stroud, 1996), 139-53.
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