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The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300-1500.

The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300-1500. By Martha C. Howell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xv plus 278pp.).

Historiographical debate in pre-modern European history has recently centered on whether women's historical experience differed substantially between the medieval and the early modem periods--on whether there existed a "great gap" dividing the two. In this work, Martha Howell comes down firmly on the side of those arguing in favor of such a hypothesis.

Howell's work challenges that of French legal historian R. Jacob, who maintains that the reformation in marriage practice is tied to the relationship between social position and legal preferences. Like Jacob, Howell focuses specifically on the marital property regime in Douai, a city currently part of northern France, but historically linked to the Low Countries. In the fourteenth century, the marital property regime was governed by custom; by the mid-sixteenth, custom had been replaced by contract. But as she explains it, marriage practice was embedded in the economic and social conditions that characterized the city. It was commerce that sustained the city, and property in Douai was both diverse and impermanent; business was conducted on a credit basis, which left the city's economy vulnerable to fluctuations. Residents were understandably concerned with the orderly transmission of property, particularly movables, upon the demise of the holder. Custom focused on the immediate preservation of assets, and pr operty management correspondingly centered on the conjugal couple. By the sixteenth century, with the supplanting of custom by contract, lineal descent (which Howell assumes to be inherently more stable [73]) had replaced the survivor of the conjugal couple as the prevailing focus. To be sure, contracts protected a widow's assets, but whereas in customary practice, widows retained-Howell uses the word "assumed" (41)--managerial control over the conjugal fund, the contractual regime deprived them of it.

Howell attributes the increasing preponderance of contractual over customary practice to a desire on the Douaisians' part for legal reform. She maintains that the change had little to do either with the crises of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or with outside coercive forces, arguing that it resulted from internal adjustment between the logic (or illogic) embedded in the customary system and the alternative logic of the contractual one. Gender conceptions lay at the heart of this reform. Customary practice conceived of women as on a par with men, at least as providers of wealth. Howell maintains that authority and power nevertheless resided in the male, and that he assumed headship of the household on that basis. This contradiction is claimed to have resulted in a peculiar practice whereby a woman remained "dumb" during the marriage but became "savvy, speaking" (120) upon entering widowhood. The alternative logic was associated with a shift from wealth in movables to wealth invested in land, fosterin g increased concern for the conservation of assets along a vertical dimension; the eventual domination of contractual law actualized the social logic embodied in this shift. A concomitant to this development was the reduction of women from the status of creators and managers of property to mere carriers of it.

Howell's command of the documentary evidence from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is masterful. Her crisp and succinct discussion of dowry is sure to remain the classic analysis of this subject. Her analysis of the material from earlier centuries is less sure. Testamentary practice and aldermanic proceedings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries attest that married women were by no means silent partners in marital property management. The customary preservation of marital assents along the horizontal dimension argues that after the death of their spouses, women retained (not merely "assumed") control over property. Custom thus did not involve any social illogic.

The claim that change primarily resulted from an impulse toward legal reform is problematic. The role of any such intention must be weighed against that of simple social evolution. While evolution may result from hundreds of people making hundreds of similar choices, the fact of those choices does not add up to the conceptually and consciously driven change in social practice that terms such as "legal reform" imply. An evolutionary perspective would moreover suggest that an array of influences was at work. One may well have been a desire to secure property by using written records. The explosion in the number of documents of all kinds from the last third of the fourteenth century onward testifies to this possibility.

Once people began choosing to write down their preferences, moreover, they came under a more pernicious influence--that of the authorities whose participation in the process lent force and legitimation to the written word. In the thirteenth century, the countesses of Flanders usually did not interfere in the mundane management of civic affairs by city aldermen. Douai began the fourteenth century, however, not as a Flemish town, but as a French one, and remained under French political and cultural influence throughout the period under discussion. Aldermanic power, as Georges Espinas has demonstrated, inexorably waned, and by the end of the fourteenth century, it had been replaced by regional Burgundian (essentially French) authority. Douai did not escape French cultural influence; the shift from Picard to Parisian French in the documentary record is a fairly obvious example, and the penetration of Roman law is another. Change in the marital property regime may therefore have resulted from a combination of con tinuous pressures (social and cultural as well as political) to bring Douaisian practice into line with that of Paris.

These points are, to be sure, debatable. On the whole, Howell has convincingly demonstrated that the shift from custom to contract in the marital property regime also meant a shift to meeting the demands of patriarchal transmission of goods. As such, the work represents a further solid contribution to the ongoing debate over this watershed period in the social history of the Low Countries, a region which, despite its pre-eminent place in the history of medieval and early modern Europe, has been woefully underrepresented in historical scholarship.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kittell, Ellen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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