Credit Networks of Married Women in the Early Modern Rural Economy
When I was invited to contribute to the workshop ‘Networks, Behaviour and Strategies in Early Financial Markets’ at Stockholm University I was in the midst of research, reading thousands of depositions from church courts in the north, east and south west of England. At the time I had just finished reading a detailed case outlining the financial networks of a professional money lender, Thomas Emmenson, an official in the church court in the bishopric of Cleveland in north east Yorkshire who I have written about on this blog series before; Money lending; ‘a notorious usurer’. Emmenson had lent large sums of money at interest and had been facilitated in his lending by other professionals in the court; public notaries and curates. The depositions were detailed and recalled the interest charged, the relationships forged through kin networks and the location of creditors and debtors. Buoyed with confidence I felt sure the depositions would produce multiple Thomas Emmensons and a network of creditors operating in the credit economy would emerge in the project database. Yet Thomas Emmenson was a unique case in the court records. Aside from a handful of incidental mentions of money being ‘bought’ for a ‘groat more than its value’ or claims to having money out on loan for interest there are, in the database, few mentions of professional money lenders or the networks through which they operated. The project, ‘Forms of Labour; Gender, Freedom and Experience of Work in the Preindustrial Economy’, now has a database that has amassed a total of 9,650 examples of work described in the depositions recorded following a verb oriented method; 2115 associated with commerce, 331 relating to financial management and 77 instances of pawning. (More about the project and our research can be found here) What then could the database tell us about credit networks in rural early modern England?
I began trawling through the categories of commerce, pawning and financial management in the database, identifying all those instances that were explicitly conducted on credit. Out of 2115 commercial work activities just 108 were settled using credit. It is likely that our evidence under represents the prevalence of credit in the rural economy. Depositions recall transactions completed in coin as deponents justified their ownership of objects they were accused of having stolen. In these instances the objects were claimed to have been purchased using coin and usually from an unknown seller; introducing a degree of anonymity to protect the accused. Coin also appears more prolific in our data as it was more prevalent in crimogenic spaces, incidental mentions of purses and coins going missing in marketplaces are likely linked to thefts in and around the market. When Marie Reed sold black thread from her apron she placed her hand into her purse to give some change only to find her purse had been stolen. We only learn of this small change and the purse as the theft was central to the case. But the database does record the work associated with the management of debt and the pawning of objects for credit. In these categories women dominated as creditors, making up 41.2% of creditors in the category of financial management and 78.8% of creditors in the category of pawning. For those transactions conducted on credit what can be said of the financial networks that facilitated commerce in rural economies and in particular what were the gendered differences in credit networks? Gender divisions of creditors and debtors show women made up 46.4 % of creditors and 32.9% of debtors yet the sums they borrowed and lent were smaller than male creditors and debtors and less than the average value of the consumer goods they bought. Women engaged in credit close to home. Female creditors lending to female borrowers did so within their own parish whereas men travelled longer distances, with a range of 0-78 miles and an average of 5.5 miles. Men’s near monopoly of droving and buying and selling livestock at markets appears tied to their larger credit agreements and the greater distances recorded between creditor and debtor. Droving and selling livestock increased the credit networks of men as their commercial activity brought them out of the bounds of their parish and into interconnected markets.
Whilst the database does not allow us to map out credit networks onto geographical spaces, it does reveal some of the overarching trends in rural credit economies and the gendered patterns of borrowing and lending. The methods behind the project also contribute a unique perspective to our understanding of localised credit economies. Collecting evidence from deponents has identified evidence of the commercial work and the borrowing and lending patterns of married women. These women often preclude studies of credit. We know far more about the borrowing and lending patterns of never-married and widowed women through studies of probate that show them to be prominent lenders in their local communities. Civic courts too heard from female litigants acting independently to pursue unpaid debts but married women had limited access to legal restitution as independent plaintiffs through the practice of coverture and appear as femme sole only in central urban courts. The sampling of depositions from rural courts used in the project has captured the work of married women in local credit networks that has remained hidden from records of probate and debt litigation. Collecting evidence from across jurisdictions also presents a study of credit unbound by the limits of administrative jurisdictions and presents a study of rural credit outside the borough courts of urban centres. Like so many conference papers, the paper I presented at the workshop was not the one I had originally intended. But I think in many ways it is more insightful than any discussion of the ‘Thomas Emensons’ operating in the rural credit economy. Married women were known to have managed household budgets and by extension the credits of their household and wider family but their credit activity has left little in the written record. Here in this research we see them borrowing and lending smaller sums and within their local parish. We see them working as independent creditors and as partners to their husband managing and mediating debts contracted by their household. Ellen Rowlinson stood in the alehouse of Richard Hatton in Sandbach, Cheshire ready to pay the debts of her husband with her coin ‘in the crown of her hat’. Whilst there she was approached by Thomas Gennis who handed her coin that he had borrowed from Raph Kennerly in order to pay an outstanding debt to George Moore. Thomas Gennis bid her to pay his borrowed coin to George Moore and to ‘take a discharge from Master Moore when she had paid it’ as proof of payment. Married women were well established creditors and were trusted to manage the finances of their husband. When we captured evidence of work it was not with the intention to map credit networks, but the database is a valuable store of detailed information pertaining to daily life that has potential to be mined for a multitude of research questions. The paper I presented was an experiment in how we might use our data to explore other facets of the rural economy. It is not a study of credit networks as we know and understand, mapped out and interconnected, but the paper contributes an important set of data to our understanding of rural credit networks- one that attributes agency to married women and places them at the centre of local networks of credit.
The proceedings of the conference are intended to be published in an edited volume in 2023.