The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Karras, Ruth Mazo
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Hanawalt, Barbara A.
Accession Number: 230778721
Full Text: The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London. By Barbara A. Hanawalt (New York: Oxford University press, 2007. xiv plus 317 pp. $99.00 cloth, $19.00 paper).

Barbara Hanawalt makes two distinct, although interrelated, arguments in The Wealth of Wives. First, she argues that wealth in late medieval London circulated via women; in this way women contributed to capital formation and the development of London as a center of international trade. Second, she argues that women themselves played a significant role in the economy. It is crucial not to confuse these two points. There are societies in which women acted as a conduit for the transfer of wealth between lineages of men, without ever exercising control of it. In such societies women could be valued, but essentially as placeholders rather than actors. Hanawalt argues that the situation in London was different. Women did not just bring wealth from their fathers' household to their husbands' through dowry; they controlled a great deal of it because of the dower system, which gave widows a third of their husbands' wealth during the widows' lifetime.

Thus it was especially as widows with capital that women contributed to the economy. Unlike, for example, Florence, where a woman brought a dowry to her marriage, acting as a conduit of wealth from her natal to her marital family, but where the control of that dowry went to her children if she were widowed, the London dower system postponed the heir's full inheritance until the death of the widow (who might be the heir's mother, or who might be a younger second wife). The widow, in fact, could take that wealth into a second marriage where her new-husband would have control over it, unless he granted that control to her. This created, in Hanawalt's phrase, a "self-limiting patriarchy" (12), in which wealth did not remain within lineages but moved more fluidly, especially within guilds.

Hanawalt begins with chapters about daughters and about the education of girls. She draws on the legal sources that describe transfers of property as well as other issues--wills and court cases--but also uses a variety of other sources that can complete the picture. The last four chapters deal with the experience of marriage, and with women as consumers, entrepreneurs, and laborers and servants. The meat of the book, however, comes in the third through fifth chapters, which deal with the financial arrangements surrounding marriage and widowhood

Hanawalt's evidence points to a relatively early age of marriage for women, although not for men, among the families of wealthier merchants and craftsmen; in fact, the age differential at marriage may resemble that found in Italy, although Hanawalt recognizes the limits of her data here (52). Families were expected to provide dowry for their daughters. As elsewhere, this transferred wealth to the husbands, although the amounts did not put the same strain on the natal families as they seem to have done in Florence. Like other towns in northwestern Europe, London had partible inheritance, so daughters might receive additional property besides the dowry. This led, Hanawalt relates, to a system of horizontal ties among Londoners, rather than the vertical ties that were more typical in lineage-based Italian cities.

London law also differed from that in most Mediterranean towns in the reservation of a third of the husband's property as dower to the widow: she was to have for her lifetime not only the dwelling in which the couple had lived together, but additional real property, not just cash or jewelry. The specific property making up the dower was promised at the time of marriage, or later by will or contract, and the city authorities were assiduous in enforcing it. Women often initiated lawsuits over dower and navigated the legal system themselves; they do not seem to have relied on their fathers or second husbands to do so (98). The way property was handled during the husband's lifetime, with women often sharing in control and decision making, no doubt contributed to their ability to handle it after his death. (120)

When widows remarried, they could bring a sizeable influx of capital to their new husbands, and hence, Hanawalt shows, they were in demand on the marriage market in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The man who marries the rich widow to finance his business is not a novel type, but Hanawalt provides hard evidence for the practice in late medieval London, particularly marriage to the widow of a fellow guild member. If the widow had children, the stepfather could be made their guardian, and thus have control of their third of their father's property as well until they came of age. But remarriage could favor women as well: they too could accumulate wealth, and a husband could bolster a widow's personal reputation. London widows had more control over their children's wealth than did widows even in other Northern European towns. Hanawalt attributes the decreased importance of patrilineage there to the strength of the guilds.

The demonstration that women were active in the economy, whether as investors, entrepreneurs, or laborers, is not entirely original to Hanawalt; many others have demonstrated that English women, and women elsewhere in Europe, were economically active during the later Middle Ages. Hanawalt provides fresh evidence, and is judicious about the claims that she makes. This was not a Golden Age, though it allowed women more control of wealth than did the period that followed. While women did run businesses, they did not enjoy the same opportunities men did. They were always limited by what Hanawalt does not hesitate to call "patriarchy." But, as Hanawalt points out, patriarchy takes many forms, and this is a full and complex view of London's particular form and the role women, especially widows, played in it.

Ruth Mazo Karras

University of Minnesota
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