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The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy…

The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London

by Barbara A. Hanawalt

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In The Wealth of Wives, Hanawalt examines women in 14th and 15th century London in terms of their economic activities and opportunities. Hanawalt's argument is that women had an economic importance which has previously gone unrecognised—that they were "conduits of capital" because of the money and property that passed through their hands as participants of the consumer economy, as small traders, but most particularly as heirs, and as recipients of dowry and dower. The laws of dower and inheritance which developed in London were different to those of much of continental Europe, and so encouraged the development of "horizontal" rather than "vertical" inheritance of wealth, with property circulating among a particular social grouping rather than passing along patriarchal primogeniture lineages.

Hanawalt's study is based on careful examination of a wide swathe of records, largely legal, and she has a good eye for the illustrative example which is tempered by an awareness that an anecdote can only be extrapolated so far. There are a couple of moments where the editing has gone a little awry—one individual's dates of marriage and death are over a hundred years apart, which seems unlikely—and there are occasionally sentences which make one blink a little, like "The figures on age are few and come from cases in ecclesiastical courts, but they indicate that young women tended to be in their late teens or early twenties." (186) I get what she means here, but it's also unintentionally amusing. ( )
  siriaeve | May 24, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195311760, Paperback)

London became an international center for import and export trade in the late Middle Ages. The export of wool, the development of luxury crafts and the redistribution of goods from the continent made London one of the leading commercial cities of Europe. While capital for these ventures came from a variety of sources, the recirculation of wealth through London women was important in providing both material and social capital for the growth of London's economy. A shrewd Venetian visiting England around 1500 commented about the concentration of wealth and property in women's hands. He reported that London law divided a testator's property three ways allowing a third to the wife for her life use, a third for immediate inheritance of the heirs, and a third for burial and the benefit of the testator's soul. Women inherited equally with men and widows had custody of the wealth of minor children. In a society in which marriage was assumed to be a natural state for women, London women married and remarried. Their wealth followed them in their marriages and was it was administered by subsequent husbands. This study, based on extensive use of primary source materials, shows that London's economic growth was in part due to the substantial wealth that women transmitted through marriage. The Italian visitor observed that London men, unlike Venetians, did not seek to establish long patrilineages discouraging women to remarry, but instead preferred to recirculate wealth through women. London's social structure, therefore, was horizontal, spreading wealth among guilds rather than lineages. The liquidity of wealth was important to a growing commercial society and women brought not only wealth but social prestige and trade skills as well into their marriages. But marriage was not the only economic activity of women. London law permitted women to trade in their own right as femmes soles and a number of women, many of them immigrants from the countryside, served as wage laborers. But London's archives confirm women's chief economic impact was felt in the capital and skill they brought with them to marriages, rather than their profits as independent traders or wage laborers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:10 -0400)

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