Women's Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England: A Sourcebook.
In 1705 Mary Astell observed that, since men are the historians, "they seldom condescend to record the great and good actions of women"; and when they do take note of them, she writes, they would prefer to have readers think that it was not "women who did those great actions, but that they were men in petticoats!" (263). Astell's critique of male-biased historical writing is included in Women's Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England--a collection that furthers the work of writing women into history by making available documents culled from a wide range of sources that reveal the everyday lives of ordinary early-modern women. The editors note that, within the last twenty years, new sources have become available and the innovative work of feminist historians has established new ways of reading familiar kinds of records "to uncover women's lives and to make gender a primary category of historical analysis" (1). They suggest, however, that much of this work has focused on male-authored "prescription for and description of female behavior" as well as the writings of elite women (1). Women's Worlds is unique in that Crawford and Gowing present source materials that focus on "the experiences of women, rather than on cultural representations of them," and make accessible "the words and experiences of ordinary women" (1). Without having to travel to libraries and archives in England, students and scholars of the early-modern period may experience something of the thrill of reading the examination of women involved in court cases as well as the letters and personal writings that describe women's feelings about work, politics, sex, marriage, motherhood, beliefs and spirituality, friendships, dreams, and visions. Unmediated by the obfuscations of much academic writing, the volume documents the similarities and the differences between its readers' own life experiences and those of early-modern women who exchanged recipes and medicinal remedies that frequently reveal just how "magical" their thinking could be: for male infertility ("barrenness by enchantment"), Jane Sharp advises a man "to thread the needle," that is, "to piss through his wife's wedding ring and not to spill a drop and then he will be perfectly cured" (33).
In the Introduction to the collection, the editors describe the book's organization, discuss the basic material condition of women's lives between 1580 and 1720, describe the different categories of sources (including unpublished archival materials), call attention to ways source materials change over the period in question, and identify some strategies for reading particular kinds of documents. Basic data on life expectancy, age at marriage, number of births, wage rates, employment conditions, and the high percentage of single women in the population provide a necessary interpretive framework for reading the documents. The editors describe two categories of documents: records made by women themselves and those, more numerous, created by others. The political, social, and economic changes that occurred between 1580 and 1720 made it possible for an increasing number of women to leave records about themselves. Not only were literacy rates increasing, but Protestant reform movements that encouraged self-reflection, as well as greater access to print, encouraged more women to write and publish. However, for the bulk of the population, male and female, who left little trace of themselves in personal writings, legal records (which began to be kept fully and methodically from the 1580s) provide some of the fullest sources. The editors foreground issues of interpretation in presenting the documents: they urge readers to remember that court records call attention to negative life experiences and, in the headnotes to documents, they helpfully signal some of the narrative conventions women used in witness testimonies and defense speeches to frame their experiences for male listeners. Because the editors foreground issues of interpretation in presenting the documents, readers are led to understand that the past does not speak itself but is spoken by individuals situated within specific episodes and practices that require careful analysis.
Divided into ten chapters, the book is organized around a number of overlapping themes: body and soul, private and public lives, material and mental worlds, individuals and families or communities. The editors carefully point out that the distinctions we use to understand the world (distinctions reflected in the chapter headings) do not always make sense in the early-modern context: "Bodies and minds were interconnected; religion and politics were inseparable; the individual was embedded in the community; business and social lives were often the same" (2). Inevitably the documents cross-reference one another, revealing interesting relations between realms of early-modern experience. Biographies also may be constructed from the documents. There are, for instance, four letters in the collection written by Ann Dormer that relate to her health, her troubled marriage, and her family relationships. In a letter to her sister in 1688, Dormer describes the stress of having to answer her husband's irrational suspicions about alleged premarital indiscretion (the couple had been married twenty years). In 1691, she writes to her son Jack from Tunbridge Wells, where she is taking the waters to recuperate from living "so many years with very little sleep." Her husband is dead, and she advises her son to "never afflict a wife that loves thee nor make her suffer what I have undergone" (232). While the close relationship Anne obviously enjoys with her son cannot erase the distress she experienced during marriage, the series of letters illustrates the reserves of patience and strength she possessed.
When I began reading the collection, I thought that the thematic organization might obscure important distinctions of chronology, place, and, perhaps, social class. Instead, the mixture of different kinds of documents relating to women across the class and chronological spectrum opened questions and provided insights about women's experience that familiar analytical categories obscure. The documents in the marriage chapter, for example, raise interesting questions about a woman's agency, achieved in limited and ad hoc ways, within a relationship that determined her identity in social and legal contexts. In the chapter introduction, the editors suggest that a woman's freedom to choose her partner was class-specific: "couples at the lower end of the social scale had a good deal more freedom" than gentry or noble couples (163). Once married, however, the documents suggest that a woman's freedom to speak her mind and to act independently had little to do with her class. In the chapter, we meet Anne Younge (a woman of the laboring class married to a tailor), who sued for separation in the London Consistory Court. The couple's female lodger offers an eye-witness account of seeing Anne "so beaten and bruised and swollen about her head face and body that she was not able to speak nor go nor stir any of her limbs to help her self" (173). Margaret Bonefant also provides secondhand reports of neighbors who note the husband's pattern of cruelty in order to prove that Anne was in "lethal danger" (necessary to win a legal separation). It is curious that Anne does not speak of her own experience (the editors neither explain her silence nor indicate the court's decision). The selected documents indicate that, although among the gentry marital breakdown was just as common, gentlemen were more likely to abuse their wives verbally or by means of financial manipulation. Even in letters that give evidence of happy marital relationships among the gentry, like Peregrina Chaytor's to a husband who writes to her "more like a lover" (177), women appear hesitant to reveal their deepest fears to men: Peregrina does not discuss her fears of dying in childbirth but exchanges social gossip and the details of estate management instead. Expressions of deepest feelings are shared more often with women friends: Mary Stuart, wife of William of Orange, in letters to her close friend Frances Apsley refers to Frances as "her husband" (238). The documents indicate that, when compared to marriageable spinsters or wives, widows had much more power to determine their fates due largely to their economic independence. Katherine Austen decides against remarriage in a letter to her suitor in which she reasons that she may be "useful to more than one" if "married in the dearnesses and usefulness and benefits of friendship" (184).
In several important areas of early-modern experience, the evidentiary traces expand the conceptual resources we have to understand seventeenth-century experience. The documents indicate that we need to broaden our notions of literacy, occupational identity, and political action. Women "who were literate--in the broad sense of `knowledgeable'--in non-alphabetic bases of information (medicinal plants, for instance)" made contributions to their communities that remain unrecognized, if we equate literacy with writing (Margaret Ferguson, "Renaissance Concepts of the `woman writer,'" Women and Literature in Britain, 149-50). Documents in "Politics and Protests" are arranged chronologically to illustrate that women identified themselves as citizens (with rights and duties) and participated visibly in the Civil War conflicts. In the chapter "Work," the editors explain that, while the courts describe women by their marital status as "wife" or "spinster," "women themselves spoke of their art or profession" (72). In addition to illustrating the range of work identities that women created for themselves, the documents record their struggles to participate in the commercial world.
Information about women's working lives, Gowing and Crawford tell us, often comes from reading "apparently unprepossessing material" more deductively than we might otherwise. A sample of the witness statements given by married women in church court cases, for example, reveals that many women supplemented their household incomes by keeping a seamstress shop, starching (at home and abroad), teaching children to work with their needles, scouring at men's houses, mending stockings, washing, winding raw silk, and keeping shop for their husbands. It is important to note that they understood their work as an occupation: "a cheese-maker's wife described herself as a `butterwoman by profession'" (72). Conflicts arose when women attempted to move out of more servile kinds of employment to become traders in their own rights. While many wives and servants gained skills in particular crafts, without a formal apprenticeship or, in other cases, a license, they were unable to set up their own businesses. The documents relating to Elizabeth Wheeler's work history suggest that conflicts with the authorities were more likely to occur if the aspiring businesswoman's occupation was not specifically designated female (midwifery and wet-nursing) and if the woman was single. Wheeler had learned the trade of linen drapery from her two aunts, Jane and Alice Zains. When the aunts died, Elizabeth inherited the shop and shop goods, as well as the position of linen draper. After being in business for only three months and paying an exorbitant Stall and Art fee to trade, she was indicted for "practicing the trade of a linen draper ... which is illegal since she never served a formal seven-year apprenticeship in this trade" (88). Married London women might have an easier time using their competencies (with or without apprenticeship or license). There is no evidence that schoolteacher Dorothy Traske, who charged fourpence per week to teach children to read, was licensed as a teacher. Other London women doing "women's work" sought official recognition as a kind of job security. In documents relating to Margaret Neale's application for a surgeon's license, she acknowledged (as part of proving her competency) that she would let blood and pull teeth free of charge for her neighbors and only desired a license "for her better security for any peevish disturbance" (95).
Surprisingly, Hannah Wolley, who published a domestic advice book for women of middling status in 1670, is the only example of a woman who capitalized on her literacy and access to print to turn the customary female knowledge of medicine and household work into a distinct work identity. Wolley effectively licenses herself with a description of learning physic while in service to a noblewoman who enabled her to buy ingredients to make medicines for the assistance of her neighbors; and her book not only gives useful advice but functions as an advertisement for her teaching services: "for if my pen can teach you well, how much better would my tongue and hands do?" (106). An account of women's participation in food riots in Essex in 1629 indicates that many women took their domestic duties as seriously as other kinds of work. With market prices skyrocketing beyond the ordinary woman's buying power, grain intended for export and those planning to ship it were targets of resentment. Women boarded ships owned and operated by men whom they regarded as criminals (privateers) and took the corn they needed to feed their families.
The only chapter I found somewhat disappointing was "Poverty and Property." The strict division between the propertied and propertyless fails to recognize competing, class-specific definitions of property. Throughout the seventeenth century, "property" signified that which was one's own--that to which one properly had a claim. Although either property or propriety (the words were interchangeable) signified a possession (something owned), just as often it referred to a process or relationship that legitimized ownership. Members of the laboring class, for instance, regarded skills and competencies that placed them in their communities as property (for instance, Elizabeth Wheeler inherited her aunt's occupational role as well as her goods). Despite the chapter's potentially misleading thematic division between rich and poor, the documents speak to the fact that "popular perceptions of ownership did not strictly adhere to legal definitions" (Garthine Walker, "Women, Theft and the World of Stolen Goods," in Women, Crime, and the Courts in Early Modern England, ed. Garthine Walker and Jenny Kermode , 83). Theft by servants was a common phenomenon, and we are just beginning to understand that servants perceived petty theft of household stuffs and even clothes as a form of wage compensation. Elizabeth Warde acknowledges her theft of some old clothes from her employer "which she saith she took for want of clothes, having but eight shillings a year wages" (108). The examination of Elizabeth Stevens for theft gives us insight into the way second-tier commerce operated through the circulation of stolen goods: apparently a pawnbroker, Elener Daniell, urged her to have her husband "steal away a dozen and half of yarn" from one Mr. Mitchell of Aurington and "bring it her [Stevens]." Daniell "further told this informant they were fooled if they would want as long as they could have it" (108).
Because legal records are such a pervasive class of document in Women's Worlds that raise questions about women's criminality indirectly throughout the book, I thought that the editors might have included a chapter on crime. Aspects of criminal process that reveal major contradictions in the social system require sustained attention. A case in point is the "married spinster" identity invented to prosecute women whose married status made them technically unindictable. Many lower-class women, who constituted the poorest group in society, turned to petty theft or receiving stolen goods to supplement meager incomes; some viewed their activities as commercial rather than criminal. A chapter on crime might have included women's experiences negotiating legal loopholes, imprisonment, transportation to the West Indies, and execution. While male felons throughout the century could have sentences for a range of crimes pardoned or mitigated, women were not allowed to read for their lives until 1692 (for theft of goods exceeding ten shillings in value) but could "plead the belly" (claim to be pregnant). It seems to me that the experiences of felons who pled the belly as well as the juries of matrons appointed to determine whether or not a woman was quick with child ought to be represented in Women's Worlds.
This omission does not detract from a wonderful book that makes a valuable addition to the published sources we have that document seventeenth-century Englishwomen's lives. Students will find the experience of reading the words of "real" women exciting and thought-provoking; I can certainly imagine myself using the source book as a primary text in courses I teach on early-modern women writers. For scholars already familiar with early-modern women's history, the range of archival materials presented is bound to suggest many new avenues for investigation. The editors provide further guidance for readers interested in pursuing topics and questions suggested by the documents with their useful list of "Further Reading" that catalogs "General Works on Early Modern Women," "Guides to the Records," and "Modern Publications of Women's Non-fictional Writings," as well as published books and articles relating to each chapter.
In the introduction, Gowing and Crawford remind us that any writing seventeenth-century women undertook "raises questions about how women found a voice within a society whose language was male, and where the author and reader were `he'" (9). In so many different ways, the documents they have collected show women finding modes of self-expression within constraining forms and institutions. I will end with a final example of the discoveries to be made in this fine volume. Susan Lay was indicted and tried in 1650 at the Essex Quarter Sessions for stealing two geese with another woman. In her testimony, she tells a story far from what the justices expected to hear: Susan speaks of being sexually abused by her master, Francis Beauty, and his son but feels she caused her mistress's death by giving birth to two bastard sons. At the climax of her narrative, she describes seeing her mistress's ghost which "appeared to her all in white in her master's barn where she lay, and having appeared to her three nights, the third it called to her Sue, Sue, Sue" (282). Careless of the geese which she admits to having taken and eaten, Susan Lay uses her opportunity to speak publicly before authorities to divulge more pressing matters than petty theft: her abuse at the hands of Francis and William Beauty as well as the moral culpability she feels for Priscilla's death. The editors tell us that for stealing the geese, Susan Lay was "committed to the house of correction for a year" (281). Through their work, we can finally hear all the questions her story raises.
Mary Jo Kietzman University of Michigan-Flint Flint, Michigan
Mary Jo Kietzman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint. She has published articles on Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Carleton. She is currently finishing a book manuscript on the life of Mary Carleton, Restoration author, actress, criminal, and advocate for women's economic liberation.
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|Author:||Kietzman, Mary Jo|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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