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19.12.12 Reyerson, Women's Networks in Medieval France

19.12.12 Reyerson, Women's Networks in Medieval France

On April 5th of 1342 Agnes de Bossones of Montpellier produced her final will and testament. Clearly ill at the time, she died a few days later. We don't know her age at the time of her death, but she was at least in her sixties and perhaps into her seventies. She had been a widow for over 40 years, as her husband died sometime between 1294 and 1301. Agnes and her will are the focal point of Katherine L. Reyerson's Women's Networks in Medieval France, from which radiates a complex and detailed picture of the communities and networks through which the female inhabitants of pre-Black Death fourteenth century Montpellier circulated. Reyerson draws on an impressive array of notarial records--from wills to contracts to legal accounts--to identify and trace both horizontal and vertical networks which Reyerson argues were fundamental for the urban society of Montpellier, particularly its economic infrastructure. For women, who were frequent and active participants in the commercial activities of Montpellier, "such connections were doubly important in a society that favored men" (67).

Reyerson begins with the person of Agnes de Bossones, a life that only becomes part of the historical record after her husband's death. Her first appearance in the notarial record is in 1301, as she faced a number of legal difficulties pertaining to her late husband's estate and her role as guardian of their three daughters. While Agnes is identified as the daughter of the late merchant Raymundus Peyrerie, we know nothing else of her own family origins, including the date (even roughly) of her birth. In the first chapter, Reyerson uses what little information can be gleaned from her will and other legal documents to place Agnes within her social and economic circumstances in Montpellier. In an approach Reyerson employs throughout the book, the minimal hints attainable through the notarial records allow for Reyerson to draw on significant secondary sources to fill out the limited narrative of wills and court records. This chapter is entitled "Agnes de Bossones' Origins, Marriage, and Litigation," a somewhat clunky-sounding title but also indicative of what little the records tell us about her life in of themselves.

In the second chapter Reyerson investigates Agnes's descendants primarily traced through her will. At the time of her husband Petrus de Bossones's death, the couple had three living children, all daughters. At the time of Agnes's death, only one of those daughters was still living, but the other two had both married and had large families, and so Agnes had fifteen living grandchildren in all. A significant focus of this chapter is the marriages of her daughters and granddaughters, as marriage created networks "that enhanced the influence of families on social, economic, and political levels" (24). According to Reyerson, Agnes's daughters made "splendid" marriages and "several granddaughters made impressive marriages" (25). The will makes no mention of any grandsons marrying; some were still studying but this also might reflect the general trend towards later marriages for young men. For members of the economic elite, like the Bossones family, marriage was a means to create and maintain ties across professions and among generations, that enabled families to increase their political and economic capital within Montpellier.

The third chapter traces Agnes's real property throughout Montpellier. Agnes's will designated three groups of universal heirs: her remaining living daughter, Raymunda; Johannes Bon Amic, son of her eldest daughter Johanna; and Petrus and Raymundus Seguerii, sons of her daughter Agnes. We learn from her will that Agnes held numerous properties that she divvied up between her universal heirs, with each group receiving one third of her estate. Her other grandchildren not named as universal heirs also received individual bequests of varying amounts. The family home was left to Johannes Bon Amic, son of her eldest daughter; many of the numerous other properties designated in the will were rented out. The amounts of monetary gifts varied by recipient, but, as is common in wills, no explanations are provided about why who got what, but it appears that the Bon Amic branch received more in individual bequests than the Seguerii branch. Speculating on this disparity Reyerson suggests that "[a] motive for Agnes's support of the Bon Amic grandchildren may have been that both parents were dead, whereas in the Seguerii branch, the father survived" (38).

While the second and third chapters focus on the networks traceable within Agnes's will, in chapters 4 through 8, Reyerson broadens her framework. Agnes might be the focal point of the book, and it is her networks with which this analysis begins and ends, but as Reyerson circles outward from Agnes de Bossones, Reyerson draws on the notarial evidence from other individual women or groups of women. These other women, who become case-studies in a book that is framed by Agnes de Bossones, might be personally linked to Agnes, but more often they are linked through shared status or simply as part of the web of economic activity that connected many women inside and out of Montpellier. This radiating web begins in the fourth chapter with marriage, and while Reyerson had discussed the marriages of Agnes, her daughters, and her granddaughters, in this chapter Reyerson "explores marriage as a catalyst for network formation more generally across the whole spectrum of urban society of Montpellier" (41). There are no surviving marriage contracts for Agnes or her daughters, but Reyerson draws on a collection of 132 marriage contracts dating from the late thirteenth century to the first half of the fourteenth along with a collection of 160 wills from the same archival fonds. Of particular note are marriages between Montpellier residents and foreigners. Twelve grooms in the collection took immigrant brides, while innkeepers who were "often of foreign extraction married daughters of merchants, notaries, and silk merchants" (51). For these inn-keepers these marriages were a step-up the social ladder, but Montpellier was a town that attracted immigration, and marriage was a way for immigrants to become part of the town fabric. These marriages also connected residents of Montpellier with communities elsewhere. The ties established by marriage were significant, and few Montpellier residents appeared to have married more than once; in this perhaps Agnes de Bossones in her long widowhood was representative.

If "[m]arriage offered one avenue of social ascension and assimilation into the local society, apprenticeship [offered] another" (68) and this is the focus of chapter 5. There is no evidence of Agnes or her daughters taking on apprentices or being apprenticed, but women did participate in apprenticeship in a variety of ways, despite them being excluded from the guilds of Montpellier. Of the 208 apprenticeship contracts that Reyerson analyzes, women are involved in only 30 yet there are some intriguing bits of evidence that Reyerson uncovers that suggest the ways in which women were connected to the economic framework of the city. For example, Montpellier was home to metalwork as well as fabric trades, and the spinning of gold thread was a connection between these two industries established primarily by women. In one contract described by Reyerson a silversmith sent his daughter as an apprentice to a gilder, so that she could learn how to spin gold thread from the gilder's wife. Girls were usually apprenticed to women, although in four instances a husband and wife took on an apprentice together. In these instances, Reyerson suggests there was "a coincidence of occupation between husband and wife" (88). A coincidence because, presumably, husband and wife often practiced different trades. While there is very little regarding Agnes de Bossones and her offspring, Reyerson argues that marriage and apprenticeship functioned similarly in building ties within the communities of Montpellier.

In chapter 6, Reyerson explore connections between Montpellier and its surrounding rural areas. Again, Agnes de Bossones is not an important factor in this chapter; although many urban elite women held rural property (particularly vineyards), beyond a complex in the suburbs that included an orchard Agnes does not appear to have held any rural properties. Reyerson observes that women were involved in the selling and buying of rural properties and that women often purchased agricultural commodities, particularly grapes and grains, for the purposes of resale. The connections between city and countryside are also evident in the lending of money, and both female lenders and borrowers came from diverse occupations and backgrounds, and indeed "[a]gricultural and artisan/service backgrounds were more heavily present among women lenders than among men. Although women of modest means would have had few resources available to lend money, they were doing so in Montpellier" (98). In this chapter, Reyerson includes a case study of Bernarda de Cabanis, a woman of elite status who lent money to numerous rural women. Bernarda was involved in the mercery trade; she lent money to rural women and couples, she sold products in Montpellier, and she also apprenticed daughters of rural families to be trained in the production of mercery. Through Bernarda's financial activities we see rural/urban economic ties. Such ties might provide some benefits to rural women who could contribute to their household economy. However, Reyerson cautions us against viewing these actions in some sort of altruistic light, pointing out that "Bernarda's intentions and motivations are more difficult to interpret. She may have been a proto-capitalist entrepreneur, driving a hard bargain with vulnerable women from the agricultural milieu, who were always short of funds" (107).

Chapter 7 examines women's networks within the marketplace, and more specifically in the market square called the Herbaria. In this chapter, Agnes de Bossones is present yet distant from the action. The Bossones clan owned a number of buildings on the square that were rented out, and these renters in turn or the family directly might rent stands in front of these buildings to market resellers, many of whom were women. Thus "Agnes was at the top of a hierarchy of economic linkages that extended down to the simple market sellers themselves" (111). Among the archival records Reyerson uses to examine these vertical and horizontal ties within the marketplace are court records stemming from lawsuits, some of whom involve Bossones family members. In one lawsuit against the Bon Amic branch brought by the town consuls the list of witnesses testifying on behalf of the Bon Amic family included fifteen women, mostly market resellers who rented stands from the family. In their testimony, these women also named other women, particularly their mothers, to emphasize the long-standing nature of their relationship with the Bon Amic family. But from this testimony we can glean the existence of a "community over several generations of women" (117). Indeed, the picture that one takes away from Reyerson's analysis of the marketplace is a community dominated by women.

From the market sellers and resellers of chapter seven, in chapter eight Reyerson focusses on a particularly marginal community, one of prostitutes. Reyerson analyzed a collection of unpublished notarial registers that provided evidence of a community of about 25 women who worked as prostitutes in the suburban neighborhood of Campus Polverel. The evidence suggests that these women worked out of a cluster of houses on a few adjoining streets. These women are not identified as prostitutes in the records, but this "is consistent with the notarial practices of omitting occupational designations for women in general" (135). A number of these women are identified as "inhabitants" of Montpellier, meaning a non-native resident. Some of these women owned their houses while others paid rent, and two men whom Reyerson identified as "auctioneers" are often identified as landlords in the records. Reyerson explicitly refuses "to criminalize auctioneers as pimps and women house owners as madams because of the medieval southern French tendency to legitimize prostitution in the later Middle Ages" but Reyerson is also not clear if these auctioneers and women house owners necessarily functioned in such a capacity (131). Other than real estate, a number of records related to this community involve the buying or selling of chests, some quite luxurious, which perhaps reflect the transient nature of this community. Despite the limited information that can be garnered from these financial transactions, the existence of these records suggests that women who worked as prostitutes were "enmeshed in the culture and economy of Montpellier" (144).

In the final chapter Reyerson returns to Agnes de Bossones and her will, this time focusing on her philanthropic efforts. Through her charitable initiatives, we see the ways in which Agnes was tied in different ways to the women in the marketplace and even women like those in Campus Polverel. This chapter includes both bequests to religious communities and institutions, which not surprisingly make up the bulk of her philanthropic bequests, as well as to hospitals and to fund dowries for poor girls. Among the religious bequests, communities of repentant sisters were particularly well represented. While supporting former prostitutes was particularly popular in the latter Middle Ages, Reyerson also points out that Agnes had requested burial in a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen, and she herself is named for Saint Agnes, a Roman virgin banished to a brothel. These personal connections along with her charitable bequests to repentant women "provide a pattern of devotion suggesting Agnes's interest in the redemption of prostitutes" (161). Agnes was also involved with a charitable organization called the Ladies of Wednesday; wealthy women who collected and distributed alms to the poor hospitals of the Montpellier. Agnes's charitable activities through the Ladies of Wednesday as well as through her final will reveal larger networks of philanthropy through which Montpellier's wealthy citizens supported the poor and the city's many religious communities.

The paths of market women or prostitutes might never have crossed directly with the wealthy Agnes de Bossones, but they are linked through their economic participation within Montpellier. Agnes' experiences are central to this book and function as Reyerson's "narrative thread" (xxi) not because her own experiences and networks were typical (some were; other times the evidence is simply lacking) but rather because of the analytical connections and paths her archival remnants enable. To these remnants, Reyerson adds other notarial collections, but this is not so much a collective biography but a connected biography. This approach provides plenty of analytical threads for future research within the context of Montpellier, as well as in other medieval urban centers. The book concludes with five appendixes containing a list of women market sellers, the names and notarial details of the prostitutes of Campus Polverel, bequests to both the Dominican and Franciscan houses, and finally a transcription and translation of Agnes's will itself. An appendix that would have greatly benefitted the reader might have listed and identified the various notarial collections and registers and how they are used in the book. For this is a monograph of impressive investigative detail that is also full of tantalizing suppositions that beg to be further investigated.