The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place, and Gender in the Cities of the Low Countries, 1300-1550.
Martha Howell is really concerned with one big question in her new book: How do changes in attitudes toward property relate to other concurrent social changes? Her focus of historical inquiry is the Flemish town of Douai, primarily during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In choosing this declining cloth-making center of about 20,000, she hopes to discover in particular, if not the origins of early modern patriarchalism, at least the ways in which concepts about property and gender were intertwined and influenced each other. The facile interpretation, of course, would be that bad economic times brought on greater restrictions for women as property-holders, craft workers, or free legal agents of any sort. Howell, however, perceives something much less straightforward going on and has undertaken to make sense of the tangled strands of legal customs, property transfers, and social mores involved.
The central primary sources of the study are various small samples of the over five thousand Douaisien marriage contracts preserved from roughly 1300-1550. Howell meticulously contextualizes her material - including lengthy legal and economic discourses - and shows considerable skill in communicating its nuanced significance. Rather then impute motives to the various writers of marriage contracts, she instead seeks to describe how attitudes towards marital property changed in Douai and in the process "to tease social and gender meaning out of the legal sources" (10). The "how" of the transformation may be simply summarized: incrementally, inconsistently, and very slowly. The change was, moreover, a universal phenomenon among Douaisiens and not instigated or legislated by the richest among them. The "social and gender meaning" of this transformation is somewhat more complicated.
To understand the foundation for Howell's subsequent conclusions, it is necessary to grasp what she calls "the social logic" of customary legal change. Here she is at her most adept in both recognizing the limitations of her sources and in transcending them. For though sources such as marriage contracts cannot tell us the intentionality of their authors, they can tell us something about their authors' social assumptions. For instance, during the boom times of the high Middle Ages, Douaisiens - much more than their rural counterparts according to Howell - tended to think of all wealth in fluid terms, treating real estate as transferable assets and generally storing wealth more in movable objects. Significantly, this tendency was apparently even more pronounced among the women of Douai, who "had a different relationship to property than men did" (153). The byproduct of this social logic, Howell argues, was a customary marital regime wherein communal property was the norm and both spouses were considered producers as well as managers of wealth. With the onset of economic decline in the late fourteenth century, Douaisiens did not abandon or reverse their customs but rather began to gradually modify them through marriage contracts. "Slowly, hesitatingly," the male line of descent became more pronounced as a way of consolidating property in the midst of worsening economic conditions. At the same time (i.e., over the course of two centuries), gender was "rewritten" in Douai and the role of women as passive carriers of wealth gradually prevailed. For similar reasons, Howell proposes a simultaneous increase in affective familial ties (based on increased references to "love" in official documents).
This is an ambitious argument by any measure and probably difficult to prove regardless of the evidence at hand. It is a tribute to the author's scholarly even-handedness that all of her theses are repeatedly qualified and at times even undermined. The "aggressively egalitarian and conjugal" marital regime of medieval Douaisiens, for instance, is later in the book downplayed to "economic mutuality" (so as not to convey a false sense of gender equality), while the relative distinctiveness of Douai's marital property customs fluctuates throughout the text (9; 116). Howell's forceful assertions about marriage, the affective family, and even the "two different gender imaginaries" (235) all experience similar downgrading, often immediately after their loudest assertion. Indeed, the more she protests that she is not proposing patriarchalism simply as an economic reaction, the more the reader is forced to wonder what other explanation has been offered. For while Howell very effectively demolishes crude, functionalist notions of the same, it really is property that she is interested in and other factors (most notably religious ones) do not get very much airtime. So whether the shift in the entire "definition of womanhood" was "subtle" (150) or "dramatic" (233), whether the transformation of Douai's marital regime was indirect or direct, the underlying source of patriarchal restructuring of property remains... patriarchal restructuring of property.
Such reservations should not minimize Howell's achievements, especially given the loftiness of her goals. She has endeavored to describe large-scale evolutionary developments while still conveying the active "rethinking" of individual agents within this process. She has attempted to stimulate an imaginative reconceptualization of the interactions of economic and other social changes, particularly on the elusive question of gender roles. And she has striven to communicate numerous difficult legal concepts and definitions with both precision and lively illustrations. In all of these objectives she has succeeded admirably. Though most students are better referred to her 1996 Past and Present article on the subject, scholars of various disciplines will benefit from thoughtful consideration of her arguments here.
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|Author:||Harrington, Joel F.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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