Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The 'Golden Age' of Women in Medieval London (Thursday 26 October)

What would constitute a 'golden age' for economic prosperity, science, the arts, manufacturing, transport or for one group of people or another? Surely a 'golden age' would be a time when conditions were significantly better than normal.

In her lecture at the Friends Meeting House on 26 October Professor Caroline Barron will discuss why she considers the period from about the time of the Black Death (1348) until the reign of King Henry VII (1485-1509) a time of exceptional freedom and opportunity for single women, married women and widows in London. At that time the range of options and prospects for women differed only slightly from those of men whose level of prosperity they shared.

In the fourteenth century women in England had few rights and freedoms. They were somebody's daughter or somebody's wife and subject to the control of men. Widows were often better placed than married women to exercise rights over land, goods and chattels, but their position too was subject to laws instituted by men for men.

In London conditions for women were significantly better. Freemen or citizens of London enjoyed privileges not normally allowed by the common law of England. Their widows could claim a similar status, and city custom secured for a freeman's widow a home, income from property and a considerable share of her husband's movable wealth. A woman trading as a femme sole could run a business, rent a shop, accumulate money, pay taxes and train apprentices and servants. In fact single women and widows had more freedom to dispose of assets as they saw fit than did men.

A 'golden age' implies not only a beginning but also an end. Just as a diminished population following the Black Death created opportunities for women so the subsequent recovery - coupled, perhaps, with the increasing gentrification of many merchants and their wives - reduced them.

Although many women exercised economic power during the 'golden age' there is no evidence that they gained either a public or a political role.

Caroline Barron's lecture will illuminate both a time and a place experiencing economic and social change.

Mike Short