Sharon Farmer

title.none: McIntosh, Working Women in English Society (Sharon Farmer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.013 06.02.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sharon Farmer, University of California, Santa Barbara,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Working Women in English Society 1300-1620. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 292. ISBN: 32.99 0-521-60858-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.13

McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Working Women in English Society 1300-1620. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 292. ISBN: 32.99 0-521-60858-9.

Reviewed by:

Sharon Farmer
University of California, Santa Barbara

Focusing on women in urban settings, Working Women in English Society, 1300-1620 provides both an up-to-date synthesis of current scholarship on women's work in medieval and early modern England, and new material drawn from archival sources. Those sources include lists of food and drink workers from five market towns, and narrative accounts from royal equity courts, for which records survive from 1470 on. By looking at evidence from a varied sampling of market towns, McIntosh pushes the discussion of pre-modern England's working women beyond its 38 cities (the focus of most of the scholarship) to its 600-700 market centers, where about half of its working women lived. Her use of equity court cases--which did not fit the categories of common law courts--is especially valuable for the study of working women because the equity courts allowed married women to present their own cases, which women could not do in the common law courts, and because the equity courts recorded the narratives of plaintiffs and their opponents, thus enabling us to get inside the everyday relations of servants and masters, shopkeepers and their employees, consumers and retailers, boarders and their landlords. As McIntosh warns us in the introductory section of the book (but then sometimes fails to take into account later on), the accounts cannot be taken at face value, since plaintiffs would exaggerate their cases in their pursuit of the money that was at stake, and their opponents would do the same in order to hold onto their resources.

Despite the inevitable distortions that people brought to the courts, what emerges from the equity records is the rich murky realm of everyday transactions, which frequently relied on unwritten agreements and delayed payment. In such a world, both parties to a business agreement were vulnerable, but women, who had the entire weight of male power and gender stereotypes working against them, were especially vulnerable, even when they had written contracts to back them up. In 1588, for instance, Elizabeth Pearson claimed in equity court that her son, who had accrued some large gambling debts, had stolen two written bonds for a total of 36 pounds owed to her by two sets of borrowers; he then persuaded the borrowers to pay smaller sums to him rather than to his mother (92). In 1512, Agnes Delfe held a bond for a debt owed to her for over nine pounds. The debtor, a draper named Henry Palmer, failed to pay, so Agnes took him to court, winning her claim, with damages. When Henry still failed to pay, Agnes attained a writ of capeas against Henry. At first, the sheriff of Coventry acted in compliance with the writ, throwing Henry into jail, but he then assisted Henry in leaving the county with his personal goods and three cartloads of merchandise (92).

In her introductory section (chapters one and two) McIntosh discusses the historiography of women and work in England and highlights the ways in which her book provides new material and analysis, thus expanding our understanding of women's contributions to the economy. Especially important are her discussion of women's roles as providers of lodgings and credit, and the fact that her book bridges the late medieval and early modern periods. McIntosh's discussion of the historiography highlights two schools of thought among historians now working in the field: those (such as Jeremy Goldberg and Caroline Barron) who stress a golden age for women in the period after the depletion of the labor pool by the onset of the Black Death, and those (such as Maryanne Kowaleski and Judith Bennett) who emphasize that women's legal and social disadvantages always tended to push them to the bottom of the economic hierarchy. McIntosh agrees with both schools: women were always at a disadvantage, but in the period after the onset of the Black Death more opportunities were available. In chapters three and four McIntosh discusses women who provided services--live-in servants, providers of room and board, sex workers, health care providers, providers of credit and rental property. Regarding servants, the equity court cases add nuance to the previous historiography of English servants, which has stressed that service was a form of life-cycle employment, in which young women worked for several years before marrying. In the equity court cases McIntosh finds that there were also women who remained single and in service throughout their adult lives, and that others returned to service as widows. In late sixteenth-century Ealing (a suburb of London), fifteen percent of women described as servants were 30-49 years old (47).

McIntosh's discussion of women as providers of credit is especially rich, because, as the equity cases reveal, credit was a potential aspect of virtually every kind of financial transaction, and the lender could even be the less wealthy person. By entering into contracts of service, which delayed payment for a year or more, servants lent money to their masters, and they could add to that "loan" by entrusting inheritances and possessions to the masters for safe keeping. Similarly, virtually every retailer extended informal credit to his or her customers. In all cases, McIntosh argues, the ability to gain credit (or employment) rested upon an individual's "social credit," which was a matter of reputation and trustworthiness. Married women were disadvantaged in this sense because they could not legally enter into contracts without their husband's permission; however some husbands (and wives) were able to manipulate this legal ambiguity, refusing to pay debts to which the husbands claimed they had not given consent (24, 105). Erika Rappaport has highlighted a similar pattern of legal manipulation in nineteenth-century London (Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End [Princeton University Press, 2000], chapter 2).

The equity cases reveal a variety of ways in which informal credit ended in broken relationships of trust. Sometime around 1600, for instance, Maryann Finckle worked as a servant for a woman named Elizabeth, to whom she entrusted a five-pound inheritance that she received from her father. When Elizabeth died, Maryanne claimed, Elizabeth's son, John Hosier, delayed payment on the five pounds, and borrowed another fifteen pounds from Maryann. When John died, his widow claimed she had already repaid the five pounds that Maryann had entrusted to her original employer, and she denied owing the additional fifteen pounds, claiming instead that Maryann could never have accumulated such wealth working as a servant, and that it was she, widow Hosier, who had helped the other out financially (104). In chapters 5-8 McIntosh discusses women as producers and sellers of goods. Here the arguments are largely similar to those of earlier scholars. Nevertheless, her examination of women and drink work, which draws on the new evidence from the five market towns, adds nuance to Judith Bennett's chronology of the decline of women's role as brewsters in the later middle ages.

In a few places, McIntosh's discussion reveals a deeper understanding of the early modern period than of the medieval. In a discussion of health care providers, for instance, she argues that in the sixteenth century, as a result of new concerns about poor relief, communities began to hire poor women to care for sick people in their homes (84). However, she provides no discussion of the women--both professed religious and married--who provided nursing care in medieval hospitals (a good introduction to medieval hospital nurses who took vows of chastity is that of Carol Rawcliffe, "Hospital Nurses and their Work," in Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Richard Britnell [Sutton Publishing, 1998], 43-64; Sharon Farmer has discussed married women who worked in continental hospitals: "The Leper in the Master Bedroom: Thinking Through a Thirteenth-Century Exemplum," in Framing the Family: Narrative and Representation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, ed. Rosalynn Voaden and Diane Wolfthal [Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005], 79-100). Similarly imbalanced is McIntosh's suggestion that owning and renting out property emerged as a new pattern among well-to-do urban women in the sixteenth century (114). Medieval scholarship as far back as that of Sylvia Thrupp (The Merchant Class of Medieval London [University of Chicago Press, 1948], 118-130) has highlighted bourgeois men's and women's investments in annuity-producing properties in the high and late Middle Ages.

These are, however, only minor omissions from a book that makes a valuable contribution to the field. McIntosh's keen analyses and new sources, which provide "on the ground" evidence for the world of working women, assure that this book will be read by specialists, and her broad synthetic discussion, clear prose and lively narratives will be welcome in the classroom.