Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

If one could bequeath ones experience to those one leaves behind one, it would be the best legacy one could give, and was that, I remember, I wished my grandmother could have left me when she died though she had not given me a farthing besides . . .

Mary Clarke to Edward Clarke, 29 October 1697

Mary Clarke, recounting to her husband the occurrences of everyday life, was conscious of the inestimable value of female experience.1 But unlike lands and goods, which can be traced directly by historians, the legacy of women's lived experiences in past ages is not easily recovered. While a few educated women (like the author of our epigraph) had both the desire and the ability to reflect on their existence in their own words, the vast majority can be glimpsed only fleetingly, through an entry in a parish register, a few fines recorded by the clerk of a court, or a passing mention by fathers, husbands, or sons.

This book originated as a series of questions, all of which could be summed up in one overarching question: what was women's experience of life and the world in early modern England? As historians, we believed we knew a great deal about men's fives. But our knowledge of ordinary women, of the majority of the female populace, was relatively limited.

Our shared search for the legacy of women's lives was inaugurated early in the 1980s. Although we were determined to write a collaborative, feminist history of women in early modern England, we felt isolated at the time, for there was no 'field' to speak of. While the 1970s had seen great strides in studies of medieval and nineteenth-century English women, research into the intervening centuries seemed to lag behind, leaving the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the neglected Dark Ages of women's history. The bibliography of secondary sources about ordinary women consisted of Alice Clark's Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century ( 1919), which had

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1
Som. RO, Clarke Letters, DD/SF 4515/124, Mary Clarke to Edward Clarke, 29 Oct. 1697.

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