Thursday, 6 October 2016

Women in early-modern England

I have consulted these (and other) books for this post.

Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480-1750 (Clarendon Press, 1998)
Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe (HarperCollins, 1995).
Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History (Phoenix, 1994)
Rafaella Sarti, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 2002)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)


Women carding and spinning
Women’s work was essential to the economy though frequently under-reported. It was ‘was arranged informally and rarely involved contact with official bodies. The work above all associated with women was spinning. Women were continually spinning and the spindle and the distaff were the signs of the hard-working woman (The distaff was probably given such significance because it was possible to spin in intervals between other tasks or even in carrying out other tasks – or in the evening while being courted.)

Inside her home

It was assumed that women’s work would take place above all in the home. The early- modern home was meant to be self-sufficient and keeping house required a range of skills that had to be learned over time. The housewife was a manager and the home was a place of intense work. Thomas Tusser’s poem Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1580) gives a highly comprehensive list of the activities for a woman wealthy enough to employ servants. You can read an earlier version of the poem here.

Outside her home

This historian Olwen Hufton has pointed out that the job of the mother was to give the daughter survival skills and to start her on the path of capital accumulation.   In England as in most of northern Europe this usually meant leaving home between the ages of 12 and 14, almost invariably as a domestic servant. This was a broad term encompassing farm servants as well as household servants, and would involve residence as a respectable girl had to live under someone’s roof. The demand for domestic service was enormous as the first luxury any family permitted itself was the services of a maid of all work to take on the drudgery of carrying water coal or wood, going to market, or performing laundry services. Country girls employed in domestic service in the towns were a significant long-term feature of the labour market.

As Hufton notes:
‘With certainty one can say that the twelve or fourteen year old girl had before her a service stint of a further twelve to fourteen years, her lifespan over again.’  
As a servant she acquired a wide range of useful skills, which would improve their marriage prospects, especially in the dairy farming regions.  After a few years she might take her career into her own hands and proceed at the relevant time of year to a hiring fair, usually held at Martinmas (11 November). At the end of the period of service many girls returned to their home villages with their accumulated earnings.

According to the Statute of Artificers (1563) women could be gaoled if they did not go into service.

As well as being housewives and domestic servants, women were also midwives, healers and market traders.   


Marriage was the norm even though many women, perhaps 20 per cent, never married.   A high proportion of them were widows. The characteristics of marriage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conform to what is called ‘the western European marriage pattern’. The mean age for marriage for women was at least twenty-six and twenty-eight for men. Only 15 per cent of married women were under twenty-four.  This had an impact on family size and population growth.

Since the age of marriage was high, there were few teenage pregnancies and most women had six or seven full-term pregnancies. When Lady Margaret Beaufort gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of thirteen, she was unusual.  Noble women, who married young, were more likely to spend much of their married life pregnant and so were more exposed to death in childbirth.   Working women spent a much smaller proportion of their lives pregnant. Two years could elapse between the first and second births – perhaps because of lactation, perhaps because of poor diets. A range of herbs was used to procure abortions.  

Pregnancy and childbirth

Pregnancy was always an anxious time. Elizabeth Joceline (d. 1622) secretly ordered a new winding-sheet as soon as she knew she was pregnant.   The problems of childbirth arose less with the birth itself than with complications. In Britain on average probably about 25 women in a thousand died in childbirth. Birth was more dangerous for the child than the mother, with perhaps one in three pregnancies in England ending in a miscarriage or stillbirth

In large households the birth occurred in a warm, darkened room with a blazing fire. In all households, childbirth was a communal and a strictly female event – friends, neighbours and relatives came before the midwife arrived. The licensed midwife was a person of good repute. After the birth villagers called bringing cake and eggs or a caudle drink. The childbed helpers were called ‘gossips’, though the term also applied to godparents. A christening was a time of celebration and thanksgiving and friends and neighbours were invited to the feast. But the infant’s mother would not be present. 

Life expectancy

In spite of deaths in childbirth  women tended to live longer than men. The overall life expectancy at birth for men and women together ranged between thirty-two and forty but the figure was pulled down by high infant and child mortality rates.  Those who survived the early years, and women who survived childbirth, had a respectable chance of living at least into their late forties and neither men nor women were considered old until they had reached their sixties. 

A remarkable example of longevity was Mrs Mary Honeywood
(1527-1620). She was the daughter and co-heiress of Robert Waters of Lenham in Kent. She was married in February 1543 to Robert Honeywood and had sixteen children. During her lifetime 114 grandchildren, 228 great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren were born.

Women’s bodies

In medical terms male sexuality was the baseline for any perception of human sexuality and the female sex organs were regarded as the male turned inside out. This meant that there was no precise nomenclature for some female genital parts. The female body was regarded as imperfect and incomplete, female humours were viewed as cold and moist rather than hot and dry, and women were seen as more prone to disorders such as hysteria.

Rights in law

Throughout Europe a person’s legal status depended on gender.  Both tradition and common practice gave a commanding role to the husband and the model wife was the obedient wife. Women were disadvantaged in the transmission of property. When a woman married, her property passed into the management of her husband – unless a trust fund was set up to secure it. The laws of primogeniture passed the estate down the male line only. When feudalism broke down many aristocrats entailed their estates through a single male heir in order to keep the estate intact.

However, English customary law gave more rights to women than the Roman law practised on the Continent. In English law the widow had a right to whatever she brought into the marriage (the dowry) or to the income from this sum. She could also claim the clothes, jewels and furniture she brought with her and whatever her husband had settled on her at marriage, a third or half of what they had communally owned and anything else the husband cared to bestow on her in his will. 

Under English law it was normal for the widow to be seen as the natural guardian of the progeny until they were of age. The death of a husband often brought financial hardship and widows were more likely to be dependant on charity than married women.  But among the wealthy, widowhood could be an economic advantage:  propertied women could receive back their dowries and invest them as they chose - see the remarkable example of Bess of Hardwick.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
with the initials E.S. (Elizabeth Shrewsbury)
This comparative freedom could be reflected in social practices. Foreign visitors to England were often struck by what they saw as the surprising degree of freedom allowed to English women, in marked contrast to the seclusion of women in the Latin countries. Common law seems to have offered women a better deal than Roman law.

A contemporary proverb described England as the paradise of women, the hell of horses, and the purgatory of servants.

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