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The Benefits and Drawbacks of Femme Sole Status in England, 1300–1630

  • Marjorie K. McIntosh
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1 Bateson, Mary, ed., Borough Customs, Publications of the Selden Society, vols. 18, 21 (London, 1904, 1906); Abram, Annie, “Women Traders in Medieval London,” Economic Journal 26 (1916): 276–85; and Clark, Alice, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Erickson, Amy Louise (1919; London, 1992).

2 For a fuller discussion, see McIntosh, Marjorie K., Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge, 2005), chap. 2b.

3 Barron, Caroline M., “The ‘Golden Age’ of Women in Medieval London,” Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989): 3558, esp. 40, and “Women in London: The ‘Golden Age’ Revisited” (an unpublished manuscript that Barron kindly shared with me); see more generally her London in the Late Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500 (Oxford, 2004).

4 Goldberg, P. J. P., Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy (Oxford, 1992).

5 See, e.g., Lacey, Kay E., “Women and Work in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century London,” in Women and Work in Pre-industrial England, ed. Charles, Lindsey and Duffin, Lorna (London, 1985), 2482; Fleming, Peter, Women in Late Medieval Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets, Pub. 103 (Bristol, 2001); Laughton, Jane, “The Alewives of Later Medieval Chester,” in Crown, Government, and People in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Archer, Rowena E. (New York, 1999), 191207; and Kowaleski, Maryanne, “Women's Work in a Market Town: Exeter in the Late Fourteenth Century,” in Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, ed. Hanawalt, Barbara A. (Bloomington, IN, 1986), 145–64.

6 Maryanne Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town”; Bennett, Judith, “Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide,” in Culture and History, 1350–1600, ed. Aers, David (London, 1992), 147–75, Theoretical Issues: Confronting Continuity,” Journal of Women's History 9 (1997): 7394, and Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600 (New York, 1996). See also Mate, Mavis E., Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death (Woodbridge, UK, 1998), and Women in Medieval English Society (Cambridge, 1999).

7 Bennett, “Medieval Women, Modern Women.”

8 Mendelson, Sara and Crawford, Patricia, Women in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1998); Laurence, Anne, Women in England, 1500–1760 (New York, 1994); and Eales, Jacqueline, Women in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (London, 1998).

9 For those used by women in the Court of Requests, see Stretton, Tim, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998).

10 McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, esp. chaps. 1–2.

11 Though the contract still bound the girl or boy legally to both the woman and her husband, it specified that the young person was to learn the wife's craft.

12 Being a femme sole did not, however, give a woman the right to make a will, bequeathing her own property as she chose, nor in London did it bring the additional economic and social rights that derived from being a freewoman or the trading advantages of being a merchant.

13 Caroline Barron has found that half of those described as femmes soles in fifteenth-century-London Mayor's Court bills were working as hucksters, while some others were the wives of important men; see “The ‘Golden Age.’”

14 Fleming, Women in Late Medieval Bristol, 10; Clark, Working Life of Women, 152–53; Barron, “The ‘Golden Age’”; Laughton, “The Alewives of Later Medieval Chester”; and Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town.”

15 Salmon, Marylynn, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1986), 4449.

16 Wiesner, Merry E., Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1993), 3132.

17 Kathryn L. Reyerson, “Women in Business in Medieval Montpellier,” in Hanawalt, Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, 117–44; cf. Reyerson, , Business, Banking and Finance in Medieval Montpellier (Toronto, 1985).

18 Wiesner, Merry E., Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, NJ, 1986), esp. 26–31. Martha Howell has suggested that it might be the husband who initiated a request by his wife to separate her business assets from his; see Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago, 1986), 1516.

19 The missing document is known as “Darcy's Custumal.” The fullest surviving copy is contained in Ricart's Kalendar of Bristol records, compiled in 1479; it is not clear whether the London custumal was taken to Bristol in the 1330s–40s or in the fifteenth century. Most of Darcy's text was copied by John Carpenter into London's Liber Albus around 1419. See Thomas, A. H.'s introduction to Calendar of Early Mayor's Court Rolls of London, 1298–1307 (CEMCRL; Cambridge, 1924), xxvxxvii; Kellaway, William, “John Carpenter's Liber Albus,” Guildhall Studies in London History 3 (1978): 6784; Barron, “The ‘Golden Age’”; and Smith, L. T.'s introduction to The Maire of Bristowe Is Kalendar, by Robert Ricart, Camden Society, 2nd series, vol. 5 (London, 1872).

20 Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis: Liber Albus, Liber Custumarum et Liber Horn (MGL), ed. Riley, H. T., Rolls Series, bk. 3, pt. 1, 204–5 (London, 1859–62), using Barron's translation in “The ‘Golden Age,’” 40.

21 MGL, 205–6, 218–19. An older translation is by Riley, H. T., Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London (London, 1861).

22 Calendar of Letter Books of the City of London, Book E, 1314–37, 200, as cited by Lacey, “Women and Work,” n. 157.

23 See the examples in Secs. II and III. For what is probably an early attempt by a female merchant to claim the benefits previously assigned only to femme sole traders, see Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls of London (CPMRL), 1437–1457, 35–36.

24 Journal [of the Common Council] XI, 367, as cited by Abram, “Women Traders in Medieval London,” 280. For the Bankruptcy Act, see Sec. III.

25 Bohun, William, Privilegia Londini; Or, the Laws, Customs, and Privileges of London (London, 1702), 124–25, as cited by Mendelson and Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, 330.

26 Pulling, Alexander, A Practical Treatise on the Laws, Customs, and Regulations of the City and Port of London (London, 1842), 178–79, 484–85.

27 For example, all the cases from the Mayor's Court of London mentioned in the next few paragraphs were indexed under femme sole in the printed calendars, intermingled with those that refer more technically to femme sole status for married women.

28 For use of this strategy in pleadings before the Court of Requests, see Stretton, Women Waging Law.

29 CPMRL, 1364–1381, 213. The accusation was made by a city official or presentment jury, not in a private suit.

30 Public Record Office (PRO), C 1/211/42.

31 See, for an early example, Corporation of London Record Office (CLRO), Miscellaneous Roll CC, m. 12d, from 1320; CPMRL, 1413–1437, 144; and CPMRL, 1437–1457, 101–2.

32 CPMRL, 1364–1381, 67, 294.

33 Fleming, Women in Late Medieval Bristol, 7, 12.

34 Goldberg, P. J. P., ed., Women in England, c. 1275–1525 (Manchester, 1995), 189.

35 Sutton, Anne F., “Alice Claver, Silkwoman (d. 1489),” in Medieval London Widows, 1300–1500, ed. Barron, C. M. and Sutton, A. F. (London, 1994), 130. Barron says that one had to pay to register anything in the city's records in this period (personal communication).

36 CLRO, journal 6, f. 182v, 28 October 1457. For another silkwoman who went through a similar process a few weeks later, see CLRO, journal 6, f. 184, 15 November 1457 (I am grateful to Caroline Barron for both these references); cf. Lacey, Kay, “The Production of ‘Narrow Ware’ by Silkwomen in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century England,” Textile History 18 (1987): 187204.

37 PRO, C 1/201/32.

38 See the appendix for what types of legal action these were. Pulling says that the common law side of the Mayor's Court had sole jurisdiction over the city's customs, of which femme sole status was one (A Practical Treatise, 178–79), but that statement is not accurate for the period under discussion here. As Penny Tucker has pointed out to me (personal communication), the Mayor's Court had exclusive jurisdiction over breaches of city ordinances, i.e., regulatory activities, but not over city customs.

39 Tucker, Penny, “London's Courts of Law in the Fifteenth Century: The Litigants’ Perspective,” in Communities and Courts in Britain, 1150–1900, ed. Brooks, Christopher and Lobban, Michael (London, 1997), 2542, and “Relationships between London's Courts and the Westminster Courts in the Reign of Edward IV,” in Courts, Counties and the Capital in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Dunn, Diana E. S. (New York, 1996), 117–38.

40 For Chancery, see, e.g., Tucker, Penny, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery: A Comparative Study,” English Historical Review 115 (2000): 791811; for Requests, see Stretton, Women Waging Law.

41 For a fuller discussion of equity court petitions and their use, see McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, chap. 2.

42 CLRO, Miscellaneous Roll CC, mm. 13d. and 22r.

43 CPMRL, 1364–1381, 23.

44 CLRO, MC1/3. This sale occurred in the parish of St. Mary Aldermanbury. For similar cases, see John Lovell's suit from 1444 against Edward Frank and his wife Katherine, who traded sole as a brewer, for a debt of 10s. 10d. which she owed to John for four barrels of beer; and the action of Henry Overbath, a German merchant, against William Sergeant and his wife Katherine in 1441 concerning furs he had delivered to Katherine for subsequent sale (ibid.).

45 CEMCRL, 214–15.

46 PRO, C 1/64/883.

47 The question of whose goods were being pleaded against was likewise at the core of a case heard initially in the Sheriffs’ Court but then removed into the Mayor's Court in February, 1409. In this suit, William Yrby and John Corner, merchants, pleaded against John Frenssh, goldsmith, and his wife Katherine for a debt of £42 12s. stemming from the sale of unspecified goods. Katherine was described as “trading sole as a merchant.” A haberdasher said that the goods in question were his property, not either John's or Katherine’s: he had owned them while a servant to John Frenssh; see CPMRL, 1381–1412, 297.

48 The English Reports 79:661–62. Emily Allen-Shaw kindly drew this case to my attention. The case was eventually settled and compounded, with no judgment given.

49 Bohun may have used this case in his 1702 treatise, Privilegia Londini.

50 For fifteenth-century petitions submitted by London women who claimed they were not femme sole traders but had wrongly been arrested for their husband's debts while the latter were out of the country in the service of the king of England or the duke of Burgundy, see PRO, C 1/47/91, C 1/64/434; see also Sec. III.

51 During the discussion, “the custom of London” was read and entered into the record, which explains the judges’ use of phrases drawn from Darcy's Custumal, probably via London's Liber Albus.

52 CPMRL, 1381–1412, 19–20.

53 The case dragged on until 17 July 1382, and eventually John failed to appear to prosecute his case. He was therefore fined and William freed from the charge.

54 PRO, C 1/689/20.

55 PRO, C 1/110/125.

56 Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town.”

57 Laughton, “The Alewives of Later Medieval Chester,” esp. 203.

58 PRO, C 1/64/1140.

59 PRO, C 1/32/344.

60 PRO, C 1/9/472.

61 PRO, C 1/1406/99–103.

62 PRO, REQ 2/26/145.

63 Baker, J. H., ed., Reports from the Lost Notebooks of Sir James Dyer, Publications of the Selden Society (London, 1994), 2:466.

64 We cannot assess how many women were trading femme sole but never came before the courts. Thus, we know that Isabel Norman traded sole as a silkwoman in 1422 only because an inquest was taken before the mayor and aldermen of London to determine whether foreigners had been acting as brokers without official permission. Among those reported was David Galganete, who had negotiated the sale of thread known as “gold of Cyprus” worth £8 between Ivo Catayne and Isabel; CPMRL, 1413–1437, 145–46. Exchequer references from the 1440s–1450s to an Isabel Norman who was married to an alderman may refer to the same person; see Lacey, “Production of ‘Narrow Ware,’” app. A.

65 For a description of how this sample was generated, see McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, app. 1.1. Of the full sample, 53 cases are from 1470 to 1499, 53 from 1500 to 1559, 62 from 1560 to 1599, and 63 from 1600 to 1619. One hundred and one cases came from London or its immediate suburbs, most of them appeals against judgments made by London courts; of these, eight concerned femme sole issues.

66 See, e.g., Mendelson, and Crawford, , Women in Early Modern England, esp. chap. 6; and Earle, Peter, The Making of the English Middle Class (Berkeley, 1989), esp. chap. 6. The history of femme sole after around 1600 needs further research.

67 PRO, C 1/64/1131.

68 PRO, C 1/113/76.

69 PRO, C 1/64/607.

70 CLRO, MC1/3A/263, from the parish of All Saints the Great.

71 PRO, C 1/64/78.

72 PRO, C 1/1468/47.

73 PRO, C 1/657/33.

74 PRO, C 1/403/52.

75 PRO, C 1/414/7.

76 PRO, C 1/958/25.

77 Statutes of the Realm, 4:539–41. For a different interpretation of the act, see Allen, Emily, “Bankruptcy, Law, and the Economics of Gender: The Act against Bankrupts of 1571” (unpublished MA thesis, Utah State University, 1999).

78 This account draws heavily on the information generously provided by Penny Tucker (personal communication) and her “London's Courts of Law” and “Relationships between London's Courts and the Westminster Courts.” During the late medieval period, the commissary court of the bishop of London also heard some debt cases, prosecuted as breaches of faith but seldom involving pleas of 40s. or more. This jurisdiction had died out by around 1520, replaced by London's more efficacious secular courts; see Wunderli, Richard M., London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation (Cambridge, MA, 1981), 104–8.

79 Personal communication with Tucker, and her “London's Courts of Law.”

80 The first roll includes also one case from 1318. Survival is better for 1596–1721.

81 For example, in the mid-1450s, a file of bills from the court includes 264 petitions, whereas the memoranda rolls record just a single bill. Only a third of the bills submitted actually led to any action on the court's part, and fewer than a tenth came to a determination; see Tucker, “Relationships between London's Courts and the Westminster Courts.”

82 Such activity is consistent with other evidence that widows in medieval London freely used the courts to pursue claims to dower property. See Hanawalt, Barbara, “The Widow's Mite: Provisions for Medieval London Widows,” in Upon My Husband's Death, ed. Mirrer, Louise (Ann Arbor, MI, 1992), 2145, and her “The Dilemma of the Widow of Property in Late Medieval London,” in The Medieval Marriage Scene: Prudence, Passion, and Policy, ed. Cristelle Baskins and Sherry Roush (forthcoming).

83 This survey focused on the parties and primary issues in the cases: detailed examination of the pleadings might reveal some additional cases in which femme sole issues were mentioned as part of the secondary context.

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