Published by EH.Net (January 2020)

Elise M. Dermineur, editor, Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial Europe. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Pulishers, 2018. xi + 364 pp. $130 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-2-503-57052-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ann M. Carlos, Department of Economics, University of Colorado Boulder.

For all who work on pre-industrial Europe, there is so much that we wish we knew and so much that we don’t know. This collection of essays, introduced and edited by Elise M. Dermineur (Umeå University), enhances our understanding of how women interacted with the credit market, while generating, as should all good work, new questions and avenues for further research.

This fascinating study lays out the very many different avenues by which women accessed credit in Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. The volume comprises thirteen chapters in addition to an introductory chapter by Elise Dermineur and a concluding chapter by Laurence Fontaine. Four chapters cover late medieval England with nine chapters focusing on the early modern period, two chapters on England and one each on the Low Counties, Sweden, Italy, Germany, France, Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. One of the strengths of this book is that the essays span both the late medieval and early modern period and cover a range of countries in Europe, allowing (generally implicitly) for intertemporal and cross country comparisons. Additionally, the papers highlight the wide range of sources that can be used to examine how men and women accessed credit from the many courts that handled litigation over debt conflict, especially in England — staple courts; court of common pleas; town courts; London court of the Exchequer — to the use of probate inventories, investments in life annuities in the Low Countries, pawnbroker records (Sweden and Barcelona), dowry registration in Italy, personal letters (Germany), notarial records in France and official records in Galicia.

The volume also highlights how we should understand the term “credit” not merely as the lending of or borrowing of money between two parties but how credit itself is constructed in society. One theme recurring through the volume is that of trust; how is trust imagined; whom can one trust; how is trust generated; when might trust be violated; and how can trust be made more secure? The role of the official registration of credits and debts reduces the role of trust between individuals but imposes costs, whereas the use of official sources of recourse when trust is violated might attenuate the bonds of trust because courts can be accessed for redress. Formal registration such as the use of notarial records (Dermineur) and the use of formal written records (Juliet Gayton) reduce risk. How women used courts when they believed that trust had been violated is one theme in Margaret Hunt’s paper where she discusses cases of women who brought suit in the Court of Exchequer claiming that social contracts (such as the belief in a promise of marriage) had been violated and requesting recompense for prior unpaid work or time. Matthew Frank Stevens elaborates on women’s access to legal advice and lawyers as another means of accessing the court system showing that the increase in lawyers in late medieval England reduced the cost of legal advice for all and Richard Goddard provides two centuries of evidence of women’s use of staple courts in late medieval England, noting the ebb and flow of the use of these courts by both men and women.

In trying to address the question of women in credit markets, the volume elucidates why it is so hard to discuss women and credit markets. Who is a woman may be a matter of name and gender but that there is no representative agent woman becomes clear in the dichotomies raised throughout the volume: rich/poor; old/young; men/women; urban/rural; married/unmarried; England/Europe; common law/Roman law; creditor/debtor. How women interact with the credit market whether as a creditor or as a borrower depends on their wealth and socio-economic status, their marital status, where they are in their life cycle (single, married, widowed), what assets they may have access to and rule of law in the region. Wealthier women, for example, might be more involved as creditors (James Shaw) while poor women might often be involved as debtors. Yet servants who saved their wages were in a position to make small and sometimes bigger loans in their communities (Dermineur). For women in more impoverished circumstances, the repeated pawnbroking of items such as pieces of textiles is a necessary component of their budgetary mechanisms (Maria Ågren, Montserrat Carbonell-Esteller, Francisco Cebreiro Ares).

Women’s access to assets is not just a function of family wealth but also of time and place. One theme that runs through this volume is to distinguish between law as it is formulated on the books and its practice such as in the ways in which coverture is applied. Teresa Phipps discusses this issue in her chapter on women in town courts in three late medieval towns in England. Women’s access to credit markets can also be determined by changes in inheritance patterns. A shift in seventeenth century England for fathers to leave daughters money rather than moveable goods and to let them access capital prior to marriage (Gayton) made it easier for them to be active in the credit market, for instance to buy annuities to increase their dowries or to provide for old age (Jaco Zuijderduijn) or securities or lottery tickets (Judith Spicksley). Another example comes from Galicia with the rise of the use of mellora or an inheritance system, which gave a greater proportion of inherited assets to the child (son or daughter) who remained in the parental house taking care of persons and property (Cebreiro Ares). Important too in thinking about women’s access to assets is the role of male migration from a region. As Cebreiro Ares argues, a pattern of semi-permanent male migration from a region means that women have to make decision about family budgets and assets. Such patterns of migration are to be found in regions other than Galicia through the early modern and industrial period.

This volume brings a wide perspective to the issue of women and credit. Each of the chapters brings insightful and thought provoking issues to the fore. At the same time, I found it interesting that the quantitative analysis provided in most of these chapters show similar levels of female to male participation regardless of region or time period — somewhere about twenty percent or less of those named were women, although the absolute numbers in some cases were very small. There are a range of ways in which women can access credit markets as shown in this volume. This raises the question of how we are to compare a woman who buys a stock in, say, the Bank of England with a woman who is in the mortgage market with a woman who is accepting some items in pawn. The issue of risk and levels of risk acceptable to women are touched on by many authors as is the emotional impact of risk, which is not often considered but is laid out by Eve Rosenhaft in her case study of the widow Eva König.

In summary, this is a fascinating volume covering both the late medieval and the early modern periods and in doing so covers over four centuries of history. Obviously, the chapters are not all encompassing but they do show us what can be done. The volume asks us to be cognizant of the role of the local environment, of the fact that the legal practice itself can shift even without any shift in the underlying laws, and also of how growing mobility of people from rural to urban or of the migration of men out of region can fundamentally change women’s access to assets and credit markets.

Ann M Carlos’ research areas include early modern English capital markets with a focus on the stock market and women’s participation in that market. She also works on the impact of a commercial fur trade on indigenous communities in sub-Arctic Canada in the eighteenth century.

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