Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview

they were able-bodied but had 'no art, land, or master'.205 Some were committed to Bridewell where they were expected to work. In London in 1642 the Lord Mayor sent Martha Maddoxe to labour at Bridewell because 'she is a vagrant woman is out of service and can give no good account'.206 Some Bridewell women were put out to service; four girls were apprenticed to a knitter in 1598, and in 1604 a haymaker was to have six boys and girls to work for 2d. per day. In the 1570s, Maryon Colley was ordered to keep the poor in Bridewell at work and to teach them card making.207 Destitute women begged on the streets of towns and cities. By definition, they were not fulfilling any of their expected roles. Although they might find charity, they also risked punishment, usually a whipping.208 Yet they may have had no other option.


CONCLUSIONS

The early modern period has been seen as a time of major economic upheaval, but little changed in the working lives of poor women.209 Women who were born into labouring families, whether in the town or countryside, spent most of their lives labouring in turn. With minimal training and skin, their employment was in low status jobs. Whether single or married, they were chronically underemployed; little of the work which might have paid them better was available. Sometimes they could get no work at all. Vulnerable to a range of economic fluctuations and personal misfortunes, and lacking resources to see them through the bad times, labouring women could be reduced to indigence very quickly.

The 'family economy' was not a universal system of production through early modern society, yet the very concept worked against poor women. So far as the overseers of the poor were concerned, 'the family' provided for all of its members. Officials refused to recognize that not all women were married, or supported by their husbands. Poor women usually lived in smaller households than those of prosperous members of society, and so were less able to absorb economic or personal crises. If a single woman was

____________________
205
West Riding Sessions Records 1611-1642, ed. J. Lister, "Yorks". Archaeological Society, 54 ( 1915), 62-3.
206
Guildhall, Microfilm 515, Bridewell Royal Hospital, Court Minutes, vol. 8, 1634-42, p. 25.
207
Copeland, 'Extracts from Bridewell Court Books', Under the Dome, 11 ( 1902), 83, 86; 12 ( 1903), 3, 72.
208
Norfolk RO, Mayor's Court Book, 1624-34, fo. 64.
209
Cf M. Kowaleski, "'Women's Work in a Market Town: Exeter in the Late Fourteenth Century'". in B. A. Hanawalt, Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe ( Bloomington, Ind., 1986), 155-7.

-298-

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