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Female Merchants? Women, Debt, and Trade in Later Medieval England, 1266–1532

  • Richard Goddard

Abstract

This article examines English women who were engaged in wholesale long-distance or international trade in the later Middle Ages. These women made up only a small proportion of English merchants, averaging about 3 to 4 percent of the mercantile population, often working in partnership with their husbands. The article systematically quantifies, for the first time, women's penetration into this male-dominated trade and adds new perspectives to our understanding of women and trade in the Middle Ages by using both debt and customs records. It poses important questions about women's economic roles, the nature or distinctiveness of their businesses, and the ways that their actions fitted within mercantile activity more broadly. It examines the extent to which wives acted as equal economic partners with their husbands and also assesses the extent to which women's economic potential or agency in wholesale trade was shaped, or indeed constrained, by economic and patriarchal forces. It concludes by arguing that patriarchy certainly limited female access to wholesale markets, particularly after 1300, along with other linked features that also shaped women's economic trading endeavors. These features included status, access to capital, and the advantages to working within dynamic, extensive, and busy markets such as those found in later medieval London.

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1 Abram, A., “Women Traders in Medieval London,” Economic Journal 26, no. 102 (June 1916): 276–85.

2 Abram, “Women Traders in Medieval London,” 276–77, 280.

3 Abram, 276–77.

4 Power, Eileen, Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1975), 7.

5 Power, Medieval Women, 56. These pioneering works included Marian Dale's eminent study of London's fifteenth-century silkwomen in 1933, which did not, however, discuss female merchants. See Dale, Marian K., “The London Silkwomen of the Fifteenth Century,” Economic History Review 4, no. 3 (October 1933): 324–35.

6 Power, Medieval Women, 56.

7 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; Kowaleski, Maryanne, “Women's Work in a Market Town: Exeter in the Late Fourteenth Century,” in Women and Work in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. Hanawalt, Barbara (Bloomington, 1986), 145–64; P. J. P Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women and Work in York and Yorkshire, c. 1300–1520 (Oxford, 1992).

8 Lacy, “Women and Work,” 53–54; Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town,” 155; Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, 125. Many of Abram's and Lacey's examples are reiterated in McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge, 2005), 124–25.

9 Goldberg, P. J. P., “Female Labour, Service, and Marriage in the Late Medieval Urban North,” Northern History 22, no. 1 (January 1986): 1838, at 34.

10 For example, see Stratford, Jenny, “Joan Buckland (d. 1462),” in Medieval London Widows, 1300–1500, ed. Barron, Caroline M. and Sutton, Anne F. (London, 1994), 113–28 at 113, 121, 123–25, 156, 203; Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Working Women, 92–94, 123–26.

11 Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, 125–27.

12 For women's limited access to capital in the later Middle Ages, see Bennett, Judith M., Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600 (Oxford, 1996), 5255, 88–92, 150, 154.

13 Bateson, Mary, ed., Borough Customs, 2 vols., Selden Society 18 and 21 (London, 1904–1906), 2:227–28.

14 The National Archives (hereafter TNA) C 241/178/133; TNA C 241/190/27; TNA C 241/212/26; TNA C 241/178/12; TNA C 241/228/30.

15 For definitions of what merchants did, see Basile, Mary Elizabeth, Bestor, Jane Fair, Coquillette, Daniel R., and Donahue, Charles, eds. and trans., Lex Mercatoria and Legal Pluralism: A Late Thirteenth-Century Treatise and Its Afterlife (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 36; Goddard, Richard, “The Merchant” in Historians on Chaucer: The “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, ed. Rigby, Steven and Minnis, Alistair (Oxford, 2015), 171–74.

16 Barbara A. Hanawalt, “Peasant Women's Contribution to the Home Economy in Late Medieval England,” in Hanawalt, Women and Work in Pre-Industrial Europe, 13–17; Hutton, Shennan, Women and Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent (New York, 2011), 43, 6365, 93–97, 106–10.

17 Goddard, Richard, “High Finance: Women and Staple Debt in England, 1353–1532,” in Women and Credit in Pre-industrial Europe, ed. Dermineur, Elise (Turnhout, 2018), 1943; McIntosh, Working Women, 125, 135, 252–53, Bennett, Judith M., History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester, 2006), 7779, 80–81.

18 Sharpe, Reginald R., ed., Calendar of Letter-Books Preserved among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall: Letter-Book A, circa A.D. 1275–98 (London, 1899); Sharpe, Reginald R. ed., Calendar of Letter-Books Preserved among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall: Letter-Book B circa A.D. 1275–1312 (London, 1900). These rolls have no connection with the rolls of recognisances kept by the city under the provisions of the Statute of Acton Burnel that are found in the London Metropolitan Archives, Recognizance Rolls 1–12, 1285–1392.

19 Great Britain, Statutes of the Realm, 11 vols. (London 1810–1828), 1:53–54, 98–100.

20 These are held by the National Archives under the class marks C 241 and C 152/65; see Goddard, Richard, Credit and Trade in Later Medieval England, 1353–1532 (Basingstoke, 2016), 45, 12.

21 For Yorkshire, see Kermode, Jennifer, “Merchants, Overseas Trade, and Urban Decline: York, Beverley, and Hull, c.1380–1500,” Northern History 23, no. 1 (January 1987): 5173; Kermode, Jennifer, ‘“Money and Credit in the Fifteenth Century: Some Lessons from Yorkshire,” Business History Review 65, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 475501.

22 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 9–11.

23 Beardwood, Alice, ed., The Statute Merchant Roll of Coventry, 1392–1416 (London, 1939); Coventry Record Office BA/E/C/7/1-35; on recognisances, see Goddard, Credit and Trade, 7–8.

24 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 85–95.

25 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 6; Bland, A. E., Brown, P. A., and Tawney, R. H., eds., English Economic History: Select Documents (London, 1914), 213.

26 Briggs, Chris, “Empowered or Marginalized? Rural Women and Credit in Later Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century England,” Continuity and Change 19, no. 1 (May 2004): 1343.

27 Stringham, Edward Peter and Zywicki, Todd J., “Rivalry and Superior Dispatch: An Analysis of Competing Courts in Medieval and Early Modern England,” Public Choice 147, no. 3/4 (June 2011): 497524, at 511.

28 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 96.

29 Bonds used to pay money owed to the London Commonality; bonds concerning land or property transfers or rent disputes; bonds used to pay wages; penal bonds (recognisances used to guarantee behavior); or bonds used to pay damages in trespass cases have been excluded; see Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 124, 132, 136, 168.

30 Beardwood, The Statute Merchant Roll of Coventry; TNA Coventry Record Office BA/E/C/7/1-35.

31 Stevens, Matthew Frank, “London Women, the Courts and the ‘Golden Age’: A Quantitative Analysis of Female Litigants in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” London Journal 37, no. 2 (July 2012): 6788, at 73–79, 81–82.

32 See Goddard, “High Finance.”

33 Klerman, Daniel, “Women Prosecutors in Thirteenth-Century England,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 14, no. 2 (January 2002): 271319, at 317; Bennett, Judith M., Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague (New York, 1987), 194–95; Briggs, “Empowered or Marginalized,” 16, 19; Erin McGibbon Smith, “The Participation of Women in the Fourteenth-Century Manor Court of Sutton-in-the-Isle,” Marginalia 1 (2005), http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/05margins/smith.php.

34 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 23. For other examples, see Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 26, 164, 222.

35 Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 78.

36 Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 151.

37 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 106; Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 58, 60; TNA C 241/12/81. For other examples, see Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 100; Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 165, 176, 231–32.

38 Broadberry, Stephen et al. , British Economic Growth, 1270–1870 (Cambridge, 2015), 12; Clark, Gregory, “The Macroeconomic Aggregates for England, 1209–1869,” in Research in Economic History, vol. 27, ed. Field, Alexander J. (Bingley, 2010), 51140.

39 Britnell, Richard H., The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000–1500 (Manchester, 1993), 228; Britnell, Richard H., Britain and Ireland, 1050–1530: Economy and Society (Oxford, 2004), 71, 82, 118.

40 Langdon, John, “Minimum Wages and Unemployment Rates in Medieval England: The Case of Old Woodstock, Oxfordshire, 1256–1357,” in Commercial Activity, Markets, and Entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Richard Britnell, ed. Dodds, Ben and Liddy, Christian D. (Woodbridge, 2011), 3840.

41 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 52–53.

42 TNA C 241/147/54.

43 TNA C 241/147/54. For other examples, see TNA C 241/192/26; TNA C 241/275/131; TNA C 241/275/131.

44 Tables 1 to 3 display the number of recognisances and certificates involving women, rather than the aggregate number of women in the credit market.

45 Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 210.

46 TNA C 241/145/84. For similar examples, see TNA C 241/204/29. From the Coventry recognisances, see Beardwood, Statute Merchant Roll of Coventry, 8, 58.

47 Hanawalt, Barbara A., The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London (Oxford, 2007), 161, 170, 180–81, 190, 276; Sutton, Anne E., Wives and Widows of Medieval London (Donnington, 2016), 27.

48 Hutton, Women and Economic Activities, 93–97, 106–10.

49 For married women's debt pleas, see Stevens, “London Women, Courts and the ‘Golden Age,’” 75; Stevens, Matthew Frank, “London's Married Women, Debt Litigation and Coverture in the Court of Common Pleas,” in Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, ed. Beattie, Cordelia and Stevens, Matthew Frank (Woodbridge, 2013), 115–32, at 117.

50 Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town,” 155.

51 For husbands and wives working together, see Swanson, Heather, Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England (Oxford, 1989), 74, 110, 116.

52 TNA C 241/230/102.

53 For London widows and business, see Caroline M. Barron, “Introduction: The Widow's World in Later Medieval London,” in Barron and Sutton, Medieval London Widows, xvii–xxii, xxviii.

54 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 88.

55 Du Boulay, F. R. H., An Age of Ambition: English Society in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1970), 70.

56 TNA C 241/198/77; TNA C 241/202/58.

57 TNA C 241/182/71; TNA C 241/212/9; TNA C 241/272/15; TNA C 241/186/81; TNA C 241/209/63; TNA C 241/212/13; TNA C 241/266/43.

58 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 45, 46. For other examples, see Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 57, 67, 73–74, 88, 124; Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 87, 253.

59 TNA C 241/175/99.

60 TNA C 241/282/94; for other examples, see TNA C 241/192/79; TNA C 241/281/133, TNA C 241/192/79; TNA C 241/281/133.

61 Barron, “Widow's World in Later Medieval London,” xvii–xxii, xxviii.

62 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 23; for other examples, see TNA C 241/225/4; TNA C 241/147/118; TNA C 241/183/3.

63 Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 65; for other examples, see Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 126–27.

64 Goddard, “High Finance.”

65 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 128.

66 Sharpe, 36.

67 Sharpe, 100.

68 Sharpe, 86; Calendar of Close Rolls, Edward I, vol. 2, 1279–1288, ed. H. C. Maxwell Lyte (London, 1902), 127.

69 Sharpe, Letter-Book A, 3, 7, 19.

70 Sharpe, 23, 40.

71 Sharpe, 83.

72 TNA C 241/188/17; for further examples, see TNA C 241/143/69; TNA C 241/209/23.

73 These women, despite acting alone, cite the name of their husband in the recognisance. For example, see Sharpe Letter-Book B, 37, 41, 60–61, 81, 87, 113, 114, 134, 137, 166–67.

74 Sharpe, Letter-Book B, 69.

75 TNA C 241/138/133; TNA C 241/142/12; TNA C 241/156/31; TNA C 241/158/106; TNA C 241/165/16; TNA C 241/170/23.

76 TNA C 143/427/12; TNA C 146/435. John Whaplode died in 1400; see Corporation of London Record Office, CLRO CLA/007/EM/02/I/004; CLRO CLA/007/EM/04/002/259/291.

77 TNA C 152/65/2/749.

78 Rigby, S. H., ed., The Overseas Trade of Boston in the Reign of Richard II (Woodhead, 2005); Carus-Wilson, E. M., ed., The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages (Bristol, 1937); Wilson, K. P., ed., Chester Customs Accounts, 1301–1566 (Chester, 1969); Kowaleski, Maryanne, ed., The Local Customs Accounts of the Port of Exeter, 1266–1321 (Exeter, 1993); Gras, Norman Scott Brien, The Early English Customs System: A Documentary Study of the Institutional and Economic History of the Customs from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1918); Cobb, Henry S., ed., The Overseas Trade of London: Exchequer Customs Accounts, 1480–1 (London, 1990); Hare, John and Harwood, Winifred A., “An Assessment of the Brokage Book,” in Hicks, Michael (ed.), English Overland Trade, 1430–1540 (Oxford, 2015), 169–71, maps 1–32B; Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VII, vol. 2, 1494–1509, ed. H. C. Maxwell Lyte (London, 1916); Owen, Dorothy M., The Making of King's Lynn: A Documentary Survey (Oxford, 1984); Kowaleski, Maryanne, ed., The Havener's Accounts of the Earldom and Duchy of Cornwall, 1287–1356 (Exeter, 2001).

79 Cobb, Overseas Trade of London, xxv–xxvi; Rigby, Overseas Trade of Boston, xx–xxii.

80 Wilson, Chester Customs Accounts, 50.

81 Hicks, Michael, ed., English Inland Trade, 1430–1540: Southampton and Its Region (Oxford, 2015), 28.

82 Kowaleski, Local Customs Accounts of the Port of Exeter, 20, 53, 65–66, 72, 74, 82, 88–89, 94, 104, 110, 112, 115, 117, 130–31, 133–34, 143, 152–54, 155–57, 167, 173, 180.

83 Kowaleski, Local Customs Accounts of the Port of Exeter, 66.

84 Kowaleski, 134, 152, 156–57.

85 Hanham, Alison, The Celys and Their World: An English Merchant Family of the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985), 129–30.

86 Kowaleski, Local Customs Accounts of the Port of Exeter, 134, 156.

87 Kowaleski, 134.

88 Kowaleski, 130–31, 133–34, 142–43, 152–53, 154.

89 Kowaleski, 131.

90 Kowaleski, 215.

91 Kowaleski, 167–68, 180.

92 For further examples, see Charles Gross, ed., Select Cases Concerning the Law Merchant, AD 1270–1638, vol. 1, Local Courts (London, 1908), 14–16; G. O. Sayles, ed., Select Cases in the Court of King's Bench under Edward I, vol. 3 (London, 1939), 69–72; TNA SC 8/69/3405.

93 Gras, Early English Customs, 401.

94 Gras, 416; see also 434 for a similar example from Ipswich (Suffolk).

95 Gras, 409–10.

96 Kowaleski, Haverner's Accounts, 35–36.

97 Owen, The Making of King's Lynn, 274, 455.

98 Rigby, Overseas Trade or Boston, xx–xxii.

99 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 163–65.

100 Barron, Caroline M., London in the Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500 (Oxford, 2004), 91, 98, 101–2; Barron, Caroline M., “London, 1300–1540,” in The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 1, 600–1540, ed. Palliser, D. M. (Cambridge, 2000), 412–13; Goddard, Credit and Trade, 212–36.

101 For the argument that more prosperous economies resulted in higher female economic integration, see Barron, “‘Golden Age’ of Women,” 35–58.

102 Gras, Early English Customs, 460, 462, 470, 477, 487, 500. For more fifteenth-century examples, see Kermode, Medieval Merchants, 335–37, 258, 340; Childs, Wendy, “‘To Oure Losse and Hindraunce’: English Credit to Alien Merchants in the Mid-Fifteenth Century,” in Enterprise and Individuals in Fifteenth-Century England, ed. Kermode, Jennifer (Stroud, 1991), 85; Fleming, Peter and Costello, Kieran, Discovering Cabot's Bristol: Life in the Medieval and Tudor Town (Tiverton, 1998), 3839.

103 Gras, Early English Customs, 477.

104 Gras, 470, 487–88, 494.

105 See Great Britain, Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, 8 Henry VI, 23, 429–30 (1426).

106 Gras, Early English Customs, 470, 487–88.

107 Gras, 500.

108 Hicks, ed., English Overland Trade, maps 3–32B.

109 Hicks, maps 3–32B.

110 Hicks, maps 3–32B.

111 Carus-Wilson, Overseas Trade of Bristol, 210–12.

112 TNA PROB 11/4/176.

113 See, for example, Carus-Wilson, Overseas Trade of Bristol, 233, 255, 261–62.

114 Carus-Wilson, 241, 263.

115 Carus-Wilson, 227, 233, 258.

116 Carus-Wilson, 243, 263, 276.

117 Carus-Wilson, 235, 261, 278.

118 Carus-Wilson, 261–63.

119 Carus-Wilson, 261.

120 Cobb, Overseas Trade of London, 14, 26, 27, 28, 42, 61, 63, 64, 103; the Duchess of Burgundy who exported cloth, oxen and wheat, probably to supply her estates or troops in the Burgundian Netherlands, has been excluded; see 131, 136–37. For the Duchess of Burgundy's actions in war and trade, see Schnitker, Harry, Margaret of York: Princess of England, Duchess of Burgundy, 1446–1503 (Donnington, 2016), 53.

121 Cobb, Overseas Trade of London, 26, 28, 103.

122 Hutton, Women and Economic Activities, 115–18; Shennan Hutton, “Property, Family, and Partnership: Married Women and Legal Capability in Late Medieval Ghent,” in Beattie and Stevens, Married Women and the Law, 155–172, at 160; Howell, Martha C., Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago, 1986), 139–46.

123 Cobb, Overseas Trade of London, 61, 64.

124 Cobb, 63.

125 Cobb, 14, 42.

126 Cobb, 27.

127 Gras, Early English Customs, 440.

128 Wilson, Chester Customs Accounts, 50, 59, 90.

129 Wilson, 90.

130 This 4 percent figure is the mean of all the debt and customs percentages cited above. It is intended only as a general guide to overall participation rates.

131 This is suggested implicitly, but not explored systematically, in Barron, “‘Golden Age’”; Lacey, “Women and Work”; Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life-Cycle, 123.

132 Goddard, Credit and Trade, 212–36.

133 Goddard, “High Finance.”

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