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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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