Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.05.06 Reyerson, Mother and Sons, Inc.

The Medieval Review

21.05.06 Reyerson, Mother and Sons, Inc.


The title of Kathryn Reyerson's Mother and Sons, Inc.: Martha de Cabanis in Medieval Montpellier might naturally lead readers to believe that they will find between the covers a history of urban women in Mediterranean France. Reyerson's book, however, turns out to be not so easy to categorize. Grounded in research in the notarial archives of fourteenth-century Montpellier, this accessibly written volume presents the reader with several stories woven together: of later medieval Montpellier and its social and built landscape, of the medieval merchant family as an institution, of widowhood and guardianship, and of the education and upbringing of children. At the center of all of this stands Reyerson's subtitular protagonist, Martha de Cabanis: daughter, wife, and mother, but also household manager, guardian and administrator for her sons, and negotiator and woman of business both for her family and for herself. The result is a highly readable account of an urban woman in context, not only of webworks of gender and family but also those of social and commercial networks, and of the medieval Mediterranean city.

While several of this book's nine chapters consider Martha in her own right, or even issues aside from Martha altogether, Reyerson's narrative is organized around Martha's life chronologically, with her marriage to Guiraudus de Cabanis as its gravitational center. It thus makes sense to consider Reyerson's narrative in three parts: two chapters dealing with Martha and her husband before they were married, two more covering the period of their marriage and partnership, and the remainder of the book devoted to an examination of Martha's life and activities after the death of her husband. In the first two chapters, we are introduced to the book's two main characters. One of these, naturally, is Martha herself. Martha's mother was the daughter of a grain merchant, and her father was a leatherworker who had once served on Montpellier's town council. Martha's upbringing probably would have included some formal education, and would have also exposed her to the workings of the artisanal and mercantile sectors--and for a time, the government--of the bustling and prosperous city in which she grew up. It is that city itself, not Guiraudus de Cabanis, that is this book's other main character. Though the city did not touch the sea, Montpellier's economy was more maritime than agricultural, and was a meeting place for trade from France and the Mediterranean. It was also a meeting place in the strict political sense: during Martha's lifetime, the city had a split lordship between the kings of Mallorca (who ruled territories in northern Catalonia and southern France as well as the Balearic Islands) and those of France (who had purchased the jurisdictional rights in what had formerly been the city's episcopal quarter). The city during Martha's lifetime in the fourteenth century was also proximate to the papal court in Avignon. This location at geographical and geopolitical crossroads positioned Montpellier as a nexus of both trade and finance in the early fourteenth century, providing the conditions for both Montpellier and its residents to prosper.

The next two chapters of the book move on to consider Martha's marriage to Guiraudus de Cabanis, and her life as a member of a merchant household in fourteenth-century Montpellier. The Cabanis family had been active in Montpellier since at least the 1290s, and the marriage of Martha and Guiraudus is indicative of a marriage strategy of Montpellier's urban elites that sought to make lateral connections among urban elites while strengthening the family network by marrying outside of their own narrowly defined professional groups. Moving into the Cabanes home, Martha became part of the network--one that included at least one female head-of-household to whom Martha might have looked as a model. The Cabanis home itself--or those like it--also comes in for examination, as Reyerson analyzes the domestic architecture of Montpellier's merchant class as it related to their family structure, business practices, and points of contact with both foreign merchants and Montpellier's artisan community.

By the author's own admission, "the survival of notarial evidence for Martha and her sons leaves uneven data available" (155). Due to the nature of the evidence, Martha remains slightly out of focus in the first half of the book, with the author forced to rely on contextual clues and arguments by analogy to fill in the blanks. In the book's second half, the five chapters dealing with the period in which Martha was a widow-guardian for her three sons and a visible and active manager of several of the family's business interests, her documentary presence increases, and we see Martha as a fully fleshed-out individual. In examining Martha's life, we also glimpse in passing the other women who formed a part of this landscape, especially in the context of Montpellier's silk industry. As head of the Cabanis household, Martha would have been responsible for seeing to her three sons' formal education as well as their mentoring in the family enterprise. While the family's mercery business was run by a procurator, Martha managed the family's considerable real property investments, both urban and rural, as part of a diverse investment portfolio whose profits helped to capitalize the family's merchant and lending ventures. Martha also managed her own properties, though like many Montpellier women (and in contrast to her son Jacobus, main heir to the family enterprise) she favored urban properties over rural ones, restructuring her personal holdings to this end.

Perhaps most revelatory is Reyerson's final chapter, in which she shows how Martha did not fade back into widowhood after her sons attained their majority. Rather, her role simply transformed: from guardianship of her sons' interests to active partnership with them in a collaborative family enterprise. As guardian, she had formed commercial and industrial partnerships and managed real estate holdings that helped capitalize the family business, while her sons (with the aid of procurators; later on their own) had operated the actual mercery business. The overlap between the two halves of the Cabanis family enterprise--real property capitalizing mercery and lending interests--meant that while Martha and her sons sometimes appeared separately in their own contracts, others show them working closely together. Running the family business, especially the real estate projects, required Martha to have a thorough knowledge of the city's complex jurisdictions, and an eye to which way the political winds were blowing, especially in the context of the Hundred Years' War. In 1342, Martha made perhaps her savviest move, hiring a small army of procurators to defend the business interests of the family, then purchasing resident status in the new nearby Bastide of Beauvais, which would place the family business under the jurisdiction of a commercial court, setting up future generations of the family securely.

In some ways, Martha's relative absence from the documentary record before and during her marriage, contrasted with her notable presence in those documents during (and even after) her guardianship period, supports a familiar narrative about medieval women: that their period of social and economic (and thus, by extension, historical) relevance was limited to their period as widows, and especially as widow-guardians. Historians thus often unintentionally present the agency of widows and especially widow-guardians as an anomaly. Yet Reyerson's book manages to subtly sidestep this trap in two ways in the second half of her book. First, she uses the documents following Guiraudus's death to read backward into what Martha's role would have been during her marriage, and to infer the important role that Martha played in the merchant household as her husband's partner in several aspects of the family business, a role that she carried into the guardianship period. Second, Reyerson's continued weaving of the story of Martha together with that of Montpellier itself, from its silk industry to its merchants to its notarial culture, amply illustrates that Martha was no exception to the rule for her time and place; rather, she was part of a broader pattern of women as part of the economic landscape of this bustling commercial city. These two aspects of Reyerson's approach--emphasizing continuity and situating Martha in context--transform this book from what could have been another study of the agency of the widow-guardian into something more potent: an argument for how, despite gendered legal disabilities, women were closely woven into the fabric of the city, not simply embroidered on top of it to be added and removed at will. Reyerson's approach to Martha's continued involvement in the family enterprise, and the fact that she was a part of this larger landscape, demonstrates that women were not just partners because there was no other choice; they were recognized as competent in their own right, and even essential. For the importance of this argument, as well as for the approachability of its prose and structure, this book is recommended reading for specialists and students alike.