Aug 1, 1994
Continuity and Change
The legal framework encouraged female testators from higher-status groups who owned a large number of movable goods or economically active single women. Thus, probate evidence probably presents a skewed sample of Yorkshire society, with economically active women appearing more frequently than other women and with a higher proportion of economically active women appearing than was the case among married women. In common with some other historians, Goldberg seems to see marriage as the end of the woman's life as an economic agent. It is highly questionable whether marriage was regarded as such in the middle ages, let alone by the people who appear in the cause papers. There is abundant evidence that women did not necessarily become economic non-persons when they entered marriage. It is clear, then, that despite many years of study, we are still no closer to an understanding of the content of medieval marriage. It is true that there may have been changes in the numbers of people marrying and in the use people made of the courts, but little attention has been paid to the fact that a married couple is a different entity from two individuals. Their choices, economic and social, were different from the choices that faced the single person, but it is not a useful distinction to say, as Goldberg does, that marriage became a necessity for women due to economic recession. It is just as likely that other factors influenced women and men to pool their resources together and reap the benefits of large-scale production and possibly lower maintenance costs. Despite the reservations expressed above, I do not know of a better book than Goldberg's study for an overview of the current debate and a more stimulating study of women's role in the Northern economy will be hard to find.