Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.09.29 Dermineur (ed.), Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial Europe

19.09.29 Dermineur (ed.), Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial Europe

Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial Europe examines the roles of women, the frequency of their participation and the specific credit instruments they chose in the pre-industrial credit market, from 1400 and 1800 across western Europe. The recent historiographical trend to investigate women's operation in and significance to developing medieval and early modern credit markets has offered historians a fruitful new approach to assess the roles of women in the premodern economy, as well as structures of actual practice and everyday life. This volume, edited by Elise M. Dermineur, makes a ground-breaking contribution to this historiography by focusing on empirical data based on largely careful studies of notarial and judicial records. Many of the articles specify the number of female creditors and debtors, with associated demographic factors such as marital status, and the financial tools they used, as well as highlighting qualitative case evidence and the significance of their credit activities. The focus on this valuable and elusive empirical data should make this volume particularly significant for economic historians, as it offers numerical evidence to support the significance of gender analysis to those interested in economic history.

Dermineur organizes the chapters in chronological order without thematic subdivisions. The initial group of four articles consider the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Three of them focus on England, but on records from different types of courts. Richard Goddard researches the English Staple Courts, which handled large transactions associated with foreign trade. He found that women appeared in 3% of the cases and most often acted with a family group. This contrasts, he notes, to women's involvement in 16% of the cases before the Court of Common Pleas, studied by Matthew Stevens, and between 7 and 17% in the borough courts studied by Teresa Phipps. Both of those courts handled debts of much smaller monetary value than the English Staple Courts. Goddard's argument that married women were not legally constrained by coverture in the staple courts is situated within his illuminating discussion of the wider legal context. For London's Court of Common Pleas from 1320-1500, Matthew Stevens finds that credit- and debt-related litigation predominated in the 16% of cases with female litigants, who appeared at all stages of the life cycle, with and without male litigants. His fine-grained analysis shows that women who acted alone were more likely than men to take advantage of the trend toward hiring attorneys. The highest differential was between male and female defendants. As female defendants acting alone were most often widows, he posits a "confidence gap" may have existed (62). Teresa Phipps studies three borough courts, in Nottingham, Winchester, and Chester. She finds a significant difference in the level of women's participation between Nottingham, where there were more female creditors suing and more of those creditors were married women, while there were far few married women creditors and fluctuating percentages of female creditors (changing over time) in the other two boroughs. Phipps interprets the intriguing variations to local interpretations of the limits of coverture, a compelling argument that shows the similarities of the English case to continental medieval practice. Jaco Zuijderduijn takes advantage of the fortuitous inclusion of the buyers' ages in records of annuity purchases in late-fifteenth-century Haarlem to ascertain if the life-cycle position affected the distribution of female buyers. His conclusion that there were no significant links between life-cycle events and women's investments offers a cautionary note to the often-repeated assumption of historians that women bought annuities to amass a marriage portion or retire securely depending on their position in the life-cycle.

In another English study, of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lincolnshire, Judith Spicksley examines probate inventories to assess never-married women as creditors. Over the period, never-married women increased both their lendng in the formal credit market and the amounts they loaned. Their participation was striking; more than two-thirds of the urban women whose wills were probated engaged in formal lending. Spicksley argues that the causal factor was institutional legal changes that increased gifts of cash to daughters and protected their assets in the credit market. James E. Shaw probes the legal construction of the dowry system, as he concludes that "how dowry rights functioned in practice was a matter for negotiation" (177). These negotiations could give married women some financial agency as well, as records of litigation reveal. Dowries gave women capital that they invested in business contracts, public debt, and a variety of credit contract forms that contributed to the savings revolution. Men often invested for women, but when women did control their wealth, they preferred safer investments with lower returns. Shaw's useful summary of existing studies on Italian cities from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries helps to ameliorate the paucity of Italian chapters.

Two chapters--and Laurence Fontaine's conclusion--explore the cultural and discursive meanings of credit and debt and their connection to emotions. In her microhistory of Eva König, a German widow dealing with debt-ridden businesses, Eve Rosenhaft points out the entangled commercial and emotional meanings of the word "friend" in the late eighteenth century, as it was losing its commercial association to acquire a narrower connotation in the context of bourgeois sentimentality. Drawing on records from the eighteenth-century London Court of Exchequer, Margaret Hunt shows that women (who initiated 20% of equity court cases) reconfigured into commodified terms status contracts, defined as contracts between parties of unequal status which conceived labor and compensation in terms of rights and responsibilities. In a persuasive and insightful chapter, she argues that even relatively poor women were "discursively entangled in the world of debt and credit" (297) and able to articulate the value of their labor. Laurence Fontaine's informative conclusion to the volume discusses the gendered nature of the construction of trust, as women were more likely than men to loan and borrow in institutional systems and make safe investments, and creditors harbored more distrust of women as borrowers. She points out that the articles show the resistance of men and institutions to the protection of women's lineage property, the avenues women exploited to maximize their chances of success in court and business dealings, and the emotional aspects of credit relationships.

For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, five chapters either focus on or extend their analysis to the poorer segments of the population. While all the articles demonstrate the ubiquity of credit, Maria Ågren's chapter on Sweden hones in on this pervasive economic phenomenon through analyzing the circulation of small objects which people acquired to use as security for debts. Small debts were guaranteed by objects, while larger debts were secured by guarantors, including many wives and widows, but few unmarried women, in a system fueled by social pressure as well as trust. In an investigation of the Mont de Pietat foundation in Barcelona, Montserrat Carbonell-Esteller shows that women often borrowed small amounts secured by pawns of jewelry and clothing. In their wills, women left items that could be pawned to a wide network of women, contributing to the maintenance of survival strategies. The proportion of women borrowing fell (to as low as 10%) when the Mont de Pietat was most successful and rebounded (to as much as 80%) when the institution experienced distress. Juliet Gayton's study of copyhold mortgages in seventeenth-century Hampshire and Elise M. Dermineur's chapter on eighteenth-century Alsace examine credit and debt in rural manors. In Hampshire, women comprised 26% of the creditors for long-term copyhold mortgages and 17% of the borrowers. She argues that men participated in this market mainly to invest in business, while women's transactions were related to their marriage portions or family interests. Alsatian peasants often borrowed as married couples, which offered more security for creditors, as Dermineur shows. Although few single women or widows borrowed, they comprised 15% of the creditors. She argues that shifts in community norms signaled the beginning of the end of patriarchy. In the local credit markets (census and obligations), Francisco Cebreiro Ares also found that married couples were the largest group of debtors, as creditors shifted to encumbering the wife's dowry to secure the debt. In late-eighteenth century Galicia, he argues, the causal factors for this shift were the out-migration of men, a local inheritance form, the mellora, and inflation. Collectively, these chapters portray the development of credit institutions, reliance of families on pawnshops and small loans, creditors' preference for married couples as debtors and unmarried women as a sizable minority of creditors.

The authors' objective is the greatest strength of this volume. They choose to provide empirical data measuring the extent of women's participation in various roles, analysis of their marital/life cycle positions and identification of gendered patterns in the credit market. The contributors detail the variety of local credit forms, legal statutes, local practices and interpretations and historical contexts that affected those local markets as a whole, as well as women's participation. Rather than focusing on the more abundant early-modern sources exclusively, Dermineur chose to explore the medieval period as well, since there are few surviving sources that allow this sort of analysis before the fourteenth century. The volume therefore shows the continuity of fluctuating patterns of women's participation based on local conditions. Comparison of these studies, along with similar studies published elsewhere, will make possible the construction of a preliminary database of women's operations in the premodern credit market. Collectively, the volume also demonstrates the usefulness of the gendered lens for revealing new dimensions to economic markets.

While the range of localities and time periods is extensive, there are gaps, as the editor acknowledges. More coverage could have been given to the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, but no book can do everything. Similarly, in the introductory and concluding overviews, Dermineur and Fontaine faced the difficult challenge of synthesizing the incredibly messy diversity of premodern actual practice. Their discussions highlight significant themes, but they stop short of identifying some of the more significant findings that bear on current historiographical debates. Some findings confirm established scholarship, such as the consistent minority position of women in high and middling markets (ranging between 3 and 26%, always below that of men), the predominance of women in the poorest, survival-oriented markets, and the lack of single women as borrowers in formal markets. However, other patterns either nuance or overturn earlier assumptions. Single women (either later married or never married) predominated over widows as creditors not only in fourteenth-century Ghent and eighteenth-century Britain, but also in fifteenth-century Haarlem and London. Creditors often preferred married couples over men alone as debtors because the wife's involvement encumbered her personal property or dotal rights. Most importantly, the percentage of women in local credit markets does not follow a pattern that can be mapped either by a north-south divide or by its corollary divides, such as inheritance versus dowry regimes, customary versus Roman law systems, coverture versus non-coverture , guardianship versus non-guardianship practices, or judicial versus notarial records, even though these differences are highly significant. Whether these conclusions come to be accepted in place of older assumptions remains to be established by other historians. Nevertheless, this volume presents a body of research that will figure prominently in those future debates.