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What Wills Can Tell Us About Women’s Lives

Monday, July 22, 2019 - 07:00

I picked this book up more for general background research on women's lives and expectations, but since I'm doing a thematic run of publications on singlewomen and on social and economic contexts in which women had the possibility of living lives independent of marriage and patriarchal control, it fits in well enough to include.

Reading through the details of what daughters were inheriting, how those inheritances reflected their life expectations, and how they fit into the social and economic structure of the time, we can easily construct a number of scenarios in which a woman could establish and enjoy a stable, comfortable life, with family bonds and positive community relationships, without ever marrying a man and--here's the key element--without that state being considered unusual, scandalous, or suspicious. And given the structure of households, she would almost certainly share her life with other women: with unmarried sisters or more distant relatives, with female servants, with apprentices (or apprenticed to someone), or even with "very dear friends" who preferred not to live on their own.

You don't need to require your lesbian protagonist to reject her family. To leave her community. To be an outcast or considered "peculiar" if she lives on her own without marrying. Have her parents leave her a few income-producing tenements. Perhaps a house with a "rent" shop attached to it. Her brother and married sister expect that the property will make a good dowry some day, but if she isn't that "lucky" then at least she won't need their charity. Maybe she feels underfoot in her sibling's house and chooses to live on her own. She's learned a trade and maybe even has an apprentice or two of her own. She'll hire a few servants and be very combortable in that house. And the young widow who's set up shop in the "rent" is industrious and friendly and...lonely. There's your premise. Go write!

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Staples, Kate Kelsey. 2011. Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 978-9004203112

This book is a study of inheritance patterns for women as their parent's daughters (as opposed to inheriting from more distant relations or unrelated persons), based on a collection of London wills dating to 1300-1500. Within this historic context (i.e., 14-15th century London), 15% of women never married. So although Staples doesn't have a way of correlating her data against the eventual life-pattern of the beneficiaries, I read the text always keeping in mind that greater than 15% of the daughters being discussed (because married daughters were often omitted from wills due to having aready received a dowry) were potentially using that inheritance to establish themselves in a life independent of heterosexual marriage. Even in the case of inheriting daughters who eventually married, there is a usefulness to consider how they used that inheritance in the period before they did so.

The study covers 3000 wills, mentioning 1500 daughters and 1800 sons. The author notes a common assumption that daughters would inherit moveable property (household goods and furnishings, money) while sons would inherit real estate (houses, shops, lands, rental property). But this assumption is contradicted in this data set, with both daughters and sons inheriting both types of items.

There are some large-scale shifts in inheritance patterns (some of which are not reflected in the data set covered here), such as a shift in the 12-13th century towards focusing more on primogeniture (a preference for the eldest son, rather than all children sharing more equally). There were also changes aimed at putting more control of family property into the hands of male heirs, such that family wealth would be kept "within the family" and passed along as a cumulative whole, as well as a tendency for the property women brought into a marriage to come under her husband's control.

But urban patterns were often different from rural ones, and even at this earlier period could sometimes favor women's control of marital property in specific cases, even while downplaying the role of women as "economic producers" in marriage. London in particular has its own patterns, especially with regard to real estate held by burgage tenure (a type of tenure also found in other towns). While the types of land tenure prevalent in rural areas normally came with obligations for providing military service (or equivalent) and required the lord's permission to sell or divide the property, burgage tenure allowed for unrestricted sale or transfer of the property and came with no similar service requirements. These features combined to make it more likely that urban daughters could inherit real estate along with moveable property. Urban families were more likely to follow "partible" inheritance (i.e., equally to all children) rather than focusing on consolidation and transmission of undivided lands. [Note: although the author doesn't explain this specifically, one practical economic reason for this is that there were economies of scale in agricultural lands. At a certain point, inheriting an equal share of a very small amount of land requires more work than it produces value. Whereas inheriting an equal share of an income-producing piece of urban real estate still provides an income, however small.]

London wills clearly show the intent to leave both domestic and commercial real estate to daughters along with sons, and not only to married daughters. The nature of this data confines it to families who did own property. The very poor did not leave wills of this type. And wills don't necessarily mention all the children in a family, only those receiving bequests. So it isn't possible to reconstruct the complete family situation. A son or daughter who had already left the family home and established their own household at the time the will was drafted--quite likely receiving financial support to do so--may not be mentioned at all.

The set of wills studied here (based on a particular registering office) are primarily of wealthy artists and merchants. The wills are primarily drawn up by men (88%) as ownership of property within a marriage devolved on the man. The wills by women are mostly from widows. The categories of beneficiaries (and there was usually more than one) were 25% non-family friends and associates, and roughly equal percentages (ca. 20% each) for wives, daughters, and sons, with sons being slightly more often represented than the others. The remainder of much small categories include siblings and more distant relatives.

Bequests might include conditions for what happened to the property after the initial beneficiary died, such as property left to a wife with the condition that it go to the children after her death, or for "cross-inheritance" by siblings, where the survivor would receive property of a sibling who pre-deceased them. Other specific conditions might be imposed on inheritance especially, but not only, for daughters.

A detailed example: The will of Thomas Curteise (1349) made his daughter Alice his main beneficiary. She received a tenement (see explanation below) for her lifetime and a collection of brewing equipment, presumably with the expectation that she would engage in that business.

The daughters of noble, professional, and artisan families were more likely to receive real estate than the daughters of government officials or merchants, but this is only a general pattern and not an absolute rule.

Among the testators (i.e., the persons making the will), 69% of female testators are identified as widows. (The number may be higher, but these are explicitly identified as such.) Less than 5% of women are identified in the document as a wife with the husband still living who gives permission for the bequests. More than 10% of female testators mention no husband, living or dead, although this isn't absolute proof of never-married status.

Bequests sometimes included restrictions and conditions. A common one was that part of the income from a piece of real estate be used to fund religious commemorations for the soul of the testator after death. (Charity and gifts to religious institutions also made a significant proportion of bequests.) Alternately, the condition might be that the recipient perform some act regularly, like praying or burning a candle for the soul of the deceased. As a general pattern, sons were more likely than daughters to have pious requirements placed on their bequests.

Less common requirements included provision for the support of relatives, use by daughters as a marriage portion, restrictions on marriage portions regarding the timing of marriage or choice of spouse (including a couple of instructions forbidding marriage to a named individual), or the use of funds for schooling (generally sons) or apprenticeship (most often sons, but also some daughters). It's unclear what happened to a bequest earmarked for a marriage portion if the daughter never married [but I've seen mention in other publications that she would gain legal control of is at the age of majority].

Only 7% of daughters mentioned in the wills are described as married (as comparison, less than 1% of sons are described as married). [Note: as mentioned above, part of the context here is that sons and daughters who had already married at the time the will was made may have already been provided for at the time of marriage.]

Women's wills slightly favored female recipients for moveable property and tended to favor sons for real estate, while men's wills were roughly even-handed with regard to the gender of beneficiaries of real estate. But overall these differences are slight.

Looking specifically at daughters as beneficiaries, what did they receive? 78% received some amount of real estate (compared with 86% of sons receiving real estate). The types of real estate are distributed as follows:

  • 46% tenements (a vague general term, but probably mostly indicating residences that could be rented - left to daughters and sons roughly equally)
  • 14% commercial property (shops, brewhouses, inns, bakehouses - more likely to be left to sons)
  • 14% "rents" (in theory, any commercial property, but often used specifically for a street-facing commercial space attached to, but not part of, a dwelling -- left to daughters and sons roughly equally)
  • 11% other
  • 10% houses
  • 4% dwellings and halls

Sometimes sons received real estate with the requirement of providing an annuity to a sister until she married or entered a convent. This served the purposes of providing for both while not dividing the property. Alternately, a son might be given real estate with the requirement that he provide a marriage portion for his sister(s). [Note: one can see the potential personal drama given that the inheriting son has control over the money flow, though the sister(s) had the option to take him to court to collect per the terms of the will.]

A daughter might receive real estate as a direct bequest ("in fee tail") or only as a secondary heir in the case that her brother(s) died without issue. Property in fee tail could be left to anyone, not only blood relatives. But there were many other variants of types of tenancy that included restrictions on who real estate could be left to. Some types specified that if the recipient died without legitimate heirs, the property could only go to another family member. [Note: historical fiction fans maybe familiar from a much later date with property left "in tail male" or "entailed on the male line" in which real estate could only go to the nearest male heir, no matter how distant. This was only one particular restriction and far from universal.]

Types of restrictions placed on inherited real estate include those designed to keep property associated with a married daughter, both during the marriage and in widowhood, or to ensure it went to her children, rather than giving her husband the right to dispose of it at will. English law in this regard differed from that of southern Europe (as a general pattern) in that never-married women enjoyed full legal control over their property rather than requiring a male relative (or other male associate) to act for them.

While inheritance of real estate was important for financial stability and independence, bequests of moveable property can also give us an image of what daughters' lives and expectations were like.

There were gendered differences in what types of movables sons and daughters inherited, but contrary to stereotype, daughters weren't limited to "domestic" goods (i.e., furnishings, kitchen equipment, etc.). English tradition held that a man should leave movable goods in three equal portions: 1/3 to the wife, 1/3 to the children, and 1/3 distributed as alms. This distribution  system was adjusted if the testator lacked either a wife, children, or both.

But not all goods would be described and specified in the will, so named items provide only part of the picture. Sometimes wills describe only the proportions. "Movables" included money and annuities and similar fixed incomes. Sons and daughters received monetary inheritances in roughly equal proportions. Sometimes (as with income from real estate) there were restrictions or specifications on use, such as dowries for daughters or apprenticeship fees for sons. Daughters could also receive money earmarked for apprenticeship. One will specified that a daughter could use the money either as a dowry or for an apprenticeship. Annuities were counted as disposable "property" and were a common choice to leave to daughters who had entered convents.

Concrete goods could include household furnishings, but also crops in the field or other commercial inventory and livestock. Certain types of goods were much more likely to be left to sons: commercial goods, sailing vessels, armor, books. Goods given to daughters could indicate a specific trade she was expected to engage in, such as candlemaking or brewing. Often these were types of trades expected to supplement household activities rather than with the expectation of it being a full-time profession. The occupations indicated by these goods often straddled the division between personal consumption and commercial production, such as brewing, making clothing, and spinning.

Household goods could also serve both as useful objects and as a reserve of wealth. Silver spoons were often mentioned in bequests, along with other types of silver household goods which could be easily sold at need.

The broad overlap in types of goods given to sons and daughters weakens the "separate spheres" concept held to by many historians that see medieval lives as sharply separated according to gender. What do these bequests tell us about the assertion that women passed from the authority of fathers to the authority of husbands? For one, daughters who left their parents' households were provided with property not only for domestic life but for commercial income. At least some subset of these inheriting daughters had the option of establishing their own households without the need for marriage.

How did the presence of siblings affect what people received? Statistically, women were more likely to receive real estate if a brother was also mentioned somewhere in the will. And sons were slightly less likely to receive real estate if a sister was mentioned. [Note: no speculation is made on what would motivate this.] In a number of cases--contrary to stereotype--daughters received real estate (houses, rents, lands) while their brothers received money and household goods.

The question arises, to what extent did these daughters manage their own real estate? Across northern Europe, we have tax and census records showing unmarried women pursuing occupations and inheriting businesses. There were women's professional guilds in trades that were dominated by female workers. (Although in other cases, women might be barred from guild membership in their own right despite dominating the profession.) And when wives shared a profession with their husbands, their participation in the trade may be obscured in the records due to the husband being the legal point-of-reference for taxes.

As trades moved out of being practiced within the household environment (and into separate physical spaces) there was a tendency for them to become professionalized and male dominated. By 1600, many women had been pushed out of higher-paying trades. But in the London wills studied in this book, it's clear that daughters were expected to participate in and benefit from property-based income sources.

Even in southern Europe, we find medieval women participating in investment and property management. They may have had fewer opportunities, but the opportunities were still available. Property rental seems to have been commonly available to women as a trade throughout medieval Europe. Often the women would have significant personal freedom in managing that property, even when married, although married women might officially require a husband's permission to actually sell the property out of the family.

In many ways, daughters of urban middle-class families had more expectations and more control over their property and lives than the daughters of the landed nobility.

Even in rural areas, during exceptional times such as after the 14th century plague, daughters can be found as landholders on their own, but this changed once the population recovered. In general rural families were more likely to leave real estate to sons than daughtes.

While customs differed from town to town daughters in many urban areas could inherit property as we've seen them do in London, whether they married or not. Conversely, in some urban areas, married daughters were assumed to have already received their share of the family wealth and do not appear in wills as beneficiaries.

In London and other towns, daughters could apprentice to crafts and could trade as "femme sole" (single woman) merchants whether married or not. (If a married woman was acting as a femme sole, she would need to state this explicitly in legal contexts.) And unmarried women had even more freedom as economic actors. In an early 16th century census of Coventry, singlewomen made up 43% of the female population. Two centuries earlier, in a poll tax of 1377, singlewomen made up around 30% of the female population. (In both cases, these proportions probably included widows.) Overall, women in towns were less likely to marry than rural women. So daughters in London and other towns must have had some expectation that they would use their inheritance to establish a life that did not involve marriage.

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