Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague

Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague

Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague

Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague

Synopsis

Unlike most histories of European women, which have typically focused on the 19th and 20th century elite, this study reconstructs the public lives of peasant women and men during the six decades before the Black Death of 1348-49. Drawing on the extensive records of the forest manor of Brigstock, Judith Bennett challenges the myth of a "golden age" of equality for medieval men and women. Instead, she ably shows that women faced profound political, legal, economic, and social disadvantages in their dealings with men. These disadvantages stemmed more from women's household status as dependents of their husbands than from any notion of female inferiority; consequently, adolescents and widows participated much more actively than wives in the public life of Brigstock. Women in the Medieval English Countryside demonstrates not only how enduring the subordination of women has been throughout English history, but also how firmly that subordination has been rooted in the conjugal household.

Excerpt

Historians who study European women typically focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Motivated by both feminism (the importance of explaining the current circumstances of women) and practicality (the archival abundance of recent centuries), these scholars usually recount how the dramatic changes of modern times have altered the lives of women. the burgeoning literature written on women during the last two centuries covers a wide variety of subjects, but particular attention has been paid to the working lives of women and the experiences of the poor and underprivileged; numerous published studies now detail, for example, the early effects of industrialization on working-class women, the growth of prostitution in nineteenth-century cities, and the movement of working women into the service sector at the turn of the last century.

The history of women in preindustrial Europe not only is more modest but also takes a different direction. Because of archival constraints, historians of medieval and early modern women generally examine the elite and the literate-the feudal ladies of courtly romances, the nuns and saints found in religious literature, the bourgeois wives who left diaries and letters. Although such studies greatly enhance our understanding of elite and religious culture in Europe before 1800, they seldom complement modern studies of the experi-

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