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Widows in European Economy and Society, 1600-1920

Author(s):Moring, Beatrice
Wall, Richard
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Beatrice Moring and Richard Wall, Widows in European Economy and Society, 1600-1920. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2017. xiii + 327 pp. $120 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-78327-177-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.
While many books have been written on the role of women in economic history, few have focused on widows. Consistently ten to fifteen percent of adult women are widows. Moring (University of Helsinki) and Wall (University of Essex) examine widows, and encourage us to reassess our assumptions about them. The argument of the book is that the typical widow was not lonely and destitute, unable to find a man willing to marry her, but was in fact economically active and living with family. The book focuses on three main themes: poverty, property, and demography.

The book includes a wide variety of data. There are 67 tables in the main text, and an additional 17 tables in the appendices, presenting averages and percentages that describe the lives of widows. Sources include poor law, tax and court records, probate inventories, wills and censuses. Most of the primary data are from Britain and the Nordic countries, since Moring specializes in Finland and Scandinavia, and Wall specializes in Britain. The authors do a good job of supplementing their own research with secondary material from other countries, to provide comparisons across Europe. For example, the authors discuss what portion of property the widow had a right to inherit in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy as well as Britain and the Nordic countries, and they compare co-residence with children in Britain, Germany, Norway, France, and Italy.

While there certainly were poor widows, the typical widow was not poor. Poverty was slightly higher among widows than among men, but widowhood did not necessarily make a woman poor. Only a small minority of widows (less than 20 percent) were on poor relief, and those that were received only a minority of their household support from poor relief payments. Widows were not idle, but their earnings were low. In Britain widows on poor relief earned about two-fifths of their household earnings from their own work. Poor relief provided only about one-fifth of household income, and the remainder came from the earnings of their children. The authors note that poor relief was never meant to provide a widow’s entire income: “the intention was to augment the economy of the widow, not to support her” (p. 37). Often widows were not given money or food, but inputs that enabled them to be productive. For example, a Scandinavian widow received the “use of the field and potato patch she has been using until now. She can keep a cow and five adult sheep in the summer on the village grazing grounds” (p. 41).

Many widows had substantial assets. In most countries the widow was legally entitled to somewhere between one-third and one-half of the estate. Widows often inherited the family house. Many widows were wealthy enough to pay taxes; across Europe between 4 and 25 percent of taxpayers were women. While widows had on average fewer assets than men, the typical widow was not destitute. Nordic inventories suggest that the average widow held about half as much property at her death as her husband had at his death, a reduction which makes sense because children had a right to half of the property. Often the farm was not split, but the widow owned only part of the farm, and part was owned by her children.

In many parts of Europe, widows might have a “retirement contract” which gave ownership of the land to the son, but specified that the widow be given food, lodging, and other goods such as firewood, until her death. In Finland about one-fifth of widows lived under such contracts, and in parts of France up to 60 percent of couples had such contracts. Sometimes the contracts were quite specific, specifying the amount and quality of specific grains. The contracts were written so that even if the son were to lose the land to creditors, the new owner would still have to support the widow.

Most widows were economically productive. Inventories of widows’ property include goods that demonstrate economic activity, such as fishing boats, shoemaking tools, and shop merchandise. Most guilds allowed women to continue in their husbands’ trade, and typically around ten percent of urban traders were widows. Even widows living under “retirement contracts” received goods suggesting that they remained economically active. For example, a Scandinavian widow received “A quarter of the cowshed and the old stables for a barn, the right to use half the hayloft and half the storage shed” (p. 136), rights which would not have been particularly useful if she were not engaged in animal husbandry. Another widow received “a cabbage patch 5 yards long and 3 yards wide and the space to sow flaxen in suitable soil” (p. 137), which suggests not only gardening but also textile production.

Since census records are not sufficient to answer questions such as the typical length of widowhood, the authors use a technique called micro-simulation to estimate the age distribution of widows and the average duration of widowhood from known demographic data. The typical widow entered that state around age 50, and remained a widow approximately 18 years. About twelve percent had no children at the time they were widowed. The European Marriage Pattern of northern Europe is said to be characterized by nuclear families and limited inter-generational cooperation. Moring and Wall question this claim, noting that the majority of widows lived with their children in both northern and southern Europe.

This book leaves us with a picture of widows as active and empowered rather than lonely and dependent. Men were more likely to remarry than women, but we should not necessarily interpret this as a sign of the widow’s weakness; perhaps women enjoyed the autonomy that came with widowhood and did not wish to remarry.

Joyce Burnette is currently working on examining the gender gap and peer effects among Swedish workers c. 1900 and absenteeism among nineteenth-century U.S. workers.

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Subject(s):Business History
Household, Family and Consumer History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII