The beliefs and practices of the sixteenth-century were very hostile to women. Woman was blamed for the fall of man and medicine and political science asserted her unreliability, and her unfitness to exert authority. At the same time, however, female saints figured largely in popular culture and in the real world women did not always live according to the prescriptions in the text books and conduct books.
Women’s work was essential to the economy though frequently under-reported. In Martin Guerre's village of Artigat women hoed, trimmed the vines and cut the grapes. They rented the land, sheared sheep and took cows and calves in contracts. They were also midwives and healers and market traders.
The job of the mother was to give her daughter survival skills and to start her on the path of capital accumulation. In most of Europe (though not in Italy, Spain and Portugal) this usually meant leaving home between the ages of 12 and 14, almost invariably as a domestic servant. This was a broad term encompassing farm servants as well as household servants, and would involve residence as a respectable girl had to live under someone’s roof. The demand for domestic service was enormous as the first luxury any family permitted itself was the services of a maid of all work to take on the drudgery of carrying water coal or wood, going to market, or performing laundry services. Country girls employed in domestic service in the towns were a significant long-term feature of the European labour market, accounting for 13% of the population of any city north of the Loire. Though they were excluded from most professional activities by the guilds, women’s work was vital in other aspects of the urban labour market. In the textile town of Leiden in the 1580s 10% of the labouring population were independent women workers and a further 20% were women in menial employment.
As Olwen Hufton points out, the twelve or fourteen year old girl had before her a service stint of a further twelve to fourteen years, her lifespan over again. As a servant she acquired a wide range of useful skills, which would improve their marriage prospects, especially in the great dairy farming regions of Britain, the Netherlands, Flanders and northern and western France. In Britain after a few years she might take her career into her own hands and proceed at the relevant time of year to a hiring fair, usually held at Martinmas (11 November). At the end of the period of service many girls returned to their home villages with their accumulated earnings.
In the early modern era women were continually spinning. In many areas the spindle and the distaff were the signs of the hard-working woman. The distaff was probably given such significance because it was possible to spin in intervals between other tasks or even in carrying out other tasks – or in the evening while being courted.
Artistic representations of women underplayed their work and emphasized instead the importance of matrimony. Marriage was the norm even though many women never married. In the ‘northwest European pattern’ a high proportion of females, possibly up to a fifth, abstained from marriage. A high proportion were widows (see below) and in Catholic countries a large proportion were in convents.
In medical terms male sexuality was the baseline for any perception of human sexuality and the female sex organs were regarded as the male turned inside out. This meant that there was no precise nomenclature for some female genital parts. The female body was regarded as imperfect and incomplete, female humours were viewed as cold and moist rather than hot and dry, and women were seen as more prone to disorders such as hysteria.
Rights in law
European law was either church law, Roman law or customary law (often a mixture of all three). Roman law was especially strong in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France south of the Loire, and it became stronger still as Roman law was revived among jurists. But throughout Europe a person’s legal status depended on gender. Both tradition and common practice gave a commanding role to the husband. In 1587 a jurist of Tours commended ‘domestic discipline where the father is as a dictator’. Husbands and fathers were responsible for the conduct of their womenfolk. This included the husband’s legal right to chastise his wife, though in north-western Europe a beaten woman could call her husband to account. In general, women had more rights in the areas of customary law and this could be reflected in the social mores. Foreign visitors to England were often struck by what they saw as the surprising degree of freedom allowed to English women. This was in marked contrast to the seclusion of women in the Latin countries.
The model wife was the obedient wife. The double standard of morality was condemned by the church but recognized in law. In the criminal codes based on Roman law, a woman taken in adultery by her husband could be killed by him in the spot. But the state was ceasing to tolerate the power over life and limb that husbands had once exercised over their wives. Community pressure was also brought to bear on husbands that were seen as cruel or unreasonable.
The law also confirmed the idea of woman as the more lustful sex. Under most European codes a woman could not claim that rape was responsible for her pregnancy since it was assumed that conception could not occur without her active consent.
The marriage bond was not always seen as indissoluble. Like any secular contract it could be broken if the terms were not met – for example if the full dowry was not paid. In France and Spain the state and Church courts granted ‘divorces’ or legal separations when the wife could prove a systematic beating. Over 70% of the divorce petitions in the archdiocese of Cambrai in the early 18th century came from women, the majority citing marital violence as a cause.
There were two principal grounds for separation in a Catholic country: (1) if either spouse threatened the life and honour of the other; (2) if the spouse refused to give economic support. Impotence tended to be cited not in pleas for separation but in pleas for nullity.
Catholic practice was that couples might be separated but could not marry again. Protestants (except in England) gradually, though reluctantly, came to accept remarriage after divorce.
Women were disadvantaged in the transmission of property. In France, England, parts of Germany and Italy the laws of primogeniture passed the estate down the male line only. When feudalism broke down many aristocrats entailed their estates through a single male heir in order to keep the estate intact.
When a woman married, her property passed into the management of her husband – unless a trust fund was set up to secure it. In countries of both Roman and customary law the widow had a right to whatever she brought into the marriage (the dowry) or to the income from this sum. In Languedoc custom, for example, the widow was guaranteed the return of everything she had brought to the marriage as a dowry, plus an ‘increase of one third of the value of that dowry’. She could also claim the clothes, jewels and furniture she brought with her and whatever her husband had settled on her at marriage, a third or half of what they had communally owned and anything else the husband cared to bestow on her in his will.
Recent studies on men’s and women’s wills show that women had an emotional relationship with domestic furnishings and personal effects, whereas men spoke of them in a detached manner without referring to them individually. Women appear to have developed a different, more individual relationship with objects.
Noble women, who married young, were more likely to spend much of their married life pregnant and so were more exposed to death in childbirth. Working women spent a much smaller proportion of their lives pregnant. Two years could elapse between the first and second births – perhaps because of lactation, perhaps because of poor diets. A range of herbs was used to procure abortions.
Pregnancy was always an anxious time. The French proverb ran ‘Femme gross a un pied dans la fosse’. The problems of childbirth arose less with the birth itself than with complications. In Britain on average probably about 25 women in a thousand died in childbirth – the rate for France was probably higher. Three of the four wives of Philip II died as a consequence of childbirth complications.
In large households the birth occurred in a warm, darkened room with a blazing fire. In all households, childbirth was a communal event – friends, neighbours and relatives came before the midwife arrived. Depictions of the birth of the Virgin are populated with women helpers. Catholic women had a Marian girdle placed on their stomachs.
Childbirth was a strictly female event. The licensed midwife was a person of good repute. In Catholic societies the midwife bore the responsibility of baptizing a puny infant. However, although some accounts suggest midwives had high status, there were many complaints about untrained and ignorant midwives.
After the birth villagers called bringing cake and eggs or a caudle drink. The childbed helpers were ‘gossips’ in England, though the term also applied to godparents. A christening was a time of celebration and thanksgiving and friends and neighbours were invited to the feast. But the infant’s mother would not be present.
Only poor women breastfed their children. One reason for this was the belief that sexual relations had a bad effect on the quality of the milk and therefore the health of the baby. The decision to use a wet-nurse was generally taken by the father, who would negotiate her working conditions with her husband.
Because of the age difference between spouses (especially in southern Europe), women were often widowed while relatively young. Under customary law it was normal for the widow to be seen as the natural guardian of the progeny until they were of age. In Italy the widow was due nothing more than her own property, and was not regarded as the natural guardian of the children. But in his will the husband could name his wife donna e madonna of his property as long as she remained unmarried. This provision gave her enjoyment of the full usufruct of all that was left and the right to live in the marital home with the children. But if he ignored his wife in his will, she was either forced to leave the conjugal home and surrender her children, having repossessed her dowry, or she was whisked away after the funeral by her own family.
The death of a husband often brought financial hardship and widows were more likely to be dependant on charity than married women. The poorest households in towns were those headed by elderly widows. However, in parts of northwest Europe widowhood could be an economic advantage for propertied women: they could receive back their dowries and invest them as they chose - see Bess of Hardwick.