Tuesday , April 16 2024
"Come on, Nell, what shall we have Goodwife Bird and you fall out for a few babbling words?"

Book Review: City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London by Eleanor Hubbard

Since Laura Gowing’s Domestic Dangers, there’s been something of a surge of books exploring women’s “ordinary” life in early modern England through court records, of which City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London by Eleanor Hubbard is one of the latest.

That’s a demonstration of just how a rich a source these records are; the material can be approached from many different directions – whether to study the (alleged) deviance for which the court hearing took place, or to understand the assumptions about “proper” or “ordinary” behaviour that lay behind them. The latter approach is that taken by Hubbard on the London consistory (religious) court records between 1570 and 1640, with due notice of the fact that the ordinary life, of a maidservant, wife, widow or daughter of course would never appear before the courts.

The date limits are set by the records – when they become fairly regular, to when they fall apart before the Civil War. Hubbard also adds in other records and recent research to provide as complete as possible a picture of the life-cycle of a London woman – arriving around age 12-14 from the countryside, going into service, getting married around 24-26, then quite likely widowed and running a household after around 15 years, possibly for many years, or, more likely, remarrying.

The cases fall into two main groups – defamation charges relating to claims falling under ecclesiastical sway – mostly sexual, and those affirming and dissolving marriages (not divorce as we understand it, but “separation from bed and board”, the right to live apart). Usually men claimed adultery, women cruelty.

Hubbard tells us that the defamation cases mainly come from the poorer end of the “middling sort” – “they were not too dignified to wash their dirty laundry in public, but could afford to at least pay the fees to begin a case”. Those involved in marriage cases were richer individuals – the cases were expensive to prosecute and at stake were often portions or alimony of some size.

This is very much an academic monograph, but for its breed a very readable, jargon-light one – entirely of interest to the general reader who wants to get under the skin of early modern London. It would make a great source for anyone wanting to collect real life detail or minor characters for historical fiction.

So we learn that the wages for maidservants were usually around 30 shillings a year – but the quality of food and lodgings, and the wealth of the family, might matter more – with gifts and tips from visitors, the possibility of a little casual theft, and the chance of gifts or legacies. So around the middle there’s Elizabeth Chatfield, the wife of a tailor, who in 1613 reported that she paid her servant Anne Clare 40 shillings a year “beside her vails which are ordinarily worth 20 shillings per annum”.

Hubbard notes, interestingly, that maids would typically have moved quite a lot around London – so by the time they married they’d probably have a pretty good “map” of the city in their head. Partly, Hubbard says, this was because poaching a neighbour’s maid was bad form, partly because they were always on the trawl for marriage opportunities. She notes that in 1572 Elizabeth Doughty, 30, broke her contract with her existing family to move to the household of William Brown, a middle-aged tailor with neither wife nor children. After a few months she married him.

When the maid stepped up to be a wife, Hubbard explains, she was taking on risks certainly, of what we’d now call domestic violence, or abandonment or financial disaster, but there was also the expectation that within her own sphere of her household, she was expected to be sovereign. But there was no sense of being captive within the home – socialising with the neighbours in local alehouses and standing chatting in the street were normal behaviour (although maids visiting alehouses was less reputable. So when Katherine Ward and her husband on midsummer Sunday were in an alehouse, they witnessed two female neighbours who had been at odds being brought together for a reconciliation, the husband of one saying “Come on, Nell, what shall we have Goodwife Bird and you fall out for a few babbling words? I will make you friends if all the ale in this house will make you friends.” He then called for drink, and everyone did – an important part of the ceremony being that everyone drank to the bottom of their glass – symbolising the end of the ill will.

Hubbard moves on through widowhood and remarriage with a great wealth of similarly detailed material – we worry today about privacy, well for widows and widowers there was none such. In 1625 Joan Neville, a widow, kept a cook shop at Pye Corner, with two rival suitors for her attraction. James Edwards, a clothworker, the wealthier won out, as his rival understood when he saw them both at a victualling house in Windmill Court nearby, “sitting close together”, clearly with “love and goodwill betwixt”. The shoemaker whose wife ran the alehouse held their hands together, saying “God give you joy, and God bless you together.” An oysterwoman offered to be a bridesmaid, and onlookers escorted the couple to Joan’s house, where more beer was consumed by all, and Edwards announced they’d consummate the union that evening. A friend visited the next morning and found that certainly so, with Joan sitting on Edward’s knee.

City Women provides a reminder of the long-term nature of the capital – I’m not a fan of psychogeography, but there’s a sense in which places have a natural demographic and cultural shape that very much still applies to London – 77% of the women in Hubbard’s cases were immigrants, and Hubbard notes that many of the defamation cases in particular arose from a fluid society in which jostling for status was a perpetual state. Not so different to today then.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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