Saturday, October 31, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Women and Witchcraft in Historic England

There is one aspect of women’s relation to the Church in the period under review which cannot be passed over without some brief notice, although any detailed examination of the subject would be impossible in a book of this scope and purpose. The subject of witchcraft, which has filled so many hundreds of volumes, is, after all, only a branch of a still larger subject—superstition. The beliefs of one age are the superstitions of the next, but it is sometimes difficult to say where the dividing-line should be drawn, for while a belief is not necessarily a superstition, a superstition has frequently the force and reality of a belief. The belief in witchcraft was very slow in passing into the phase of a superstition. Both the Catholic and the Protestant Church for many centuries denounced witchcraft as one of the greatest forms of evil, to be withstood by every possible means. To doubt its reality was to doubt one of the articles of faith. At certain periods in history, the persecution of witches broke forth like one of the great physical plagues that from time to time scourged Europe. The belief in witchcraft was a moral pestilence, insidious, far-reaching, and deadly in its effects.

Magic and sorcery have been believed in from the earliest times of recorded history. But although, in the first centuries of the Christian Church and throughout the Middle Ages, there was a dread of the black art, and those who practised it were liable to numerous punishments, and to death itself, there was, curiously enough, far less persecution than prevailed in later and more enlightened periods. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were worse than the sixth, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were far more persecuting periods than the twelfth and thirteenth. Michelet, writing generally of the fourteenth century, says the witch saw before her—
“a horrible career of torments lighted up for three or four hundred years by the stake. After 1300, her medical knowledge is condemned as baleful, her remedies are proscribed as if they were poisons.”
With the uprising of the Protestant Church in the sixteenth century came a great wave of superstition. In the reign of Elizabeth, Bishop Jewell, preaching before the queen (1568), said—
“It may please your Grace to understand that witches and sorcerers within these few last years are marvellously increased within your Grace’s realm. Your Grace’s subjects pine away even unto the death, their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their knees are bereft. I pray God they never practise further than upon the subjects.”
There was no doubt about the sincerity of the bishop’s belief. “These eyes,” he said, “have seen most evident and manifest marks of their wickedness.” The reformers were the strongest believers in and the bitterest persecutors of witchcraft. Not even Innocent VIII., who, in 1484, promulgated a Bull against witchcraft and heresy, and thereby gave a great impetus to the persecution on the Continent, was more virulent against witches than Luther. “I should have no compassion on these witches,” said Luther, in a discussion on witchcraft. “I would burn all of them.” And he adds, “Witchcraft is the devil’s own proper work.”

In Scotland, where the Reformed Church exercised great sway, the persecution was much keener than in England.
“When a woman had fallen under suspicion, the minister from the pulpit denounced her by name, exhorted his parishioners to give evidence against her, and prohibited any one from sheltering her.”
In the seventeenth century the belief in witchcraft was much fostered by the Puritan party, who were the bitterest of persecutors. The Puritans were diligent students of the Old Testament, and doubtless considered that they had full warrant for their action from certain much-quoted passages in Scripture. The Puritans, like the Fathers in the Early Christian Church, had a very real belief in and horror of the power of supernatural evil; and, like the Fathers, they too believed that women were more inherently wicked than men—that they were more liable to assaults of Satan, and more easily drawn into communion with evil spirits.

Numerous as were the punishments inflicted upon sorcerers and magicians, the persecution of witches was far greater. King James I., in his “Demonology,” asks, “What can be the cause that there are twentie women given to that craft where there is only one man?” And he gives as his reason that women are frailer than men, quoting the fall of Eve as the beginning of Satan’s sovereignty over womankind. There was, however, a more obvious reason for the fact that women were so much more frequently denounced than men for practising the black art. The chief doctors and surgeons in former times were women. There was no formulated science of medicine down to the seventeenth century, but certain persons, generally women, acquired a large amount of knowledge of the properties of plants useful for healing, and methods of distilling and mixing vegetable juices. The healing art, like nursing, fell into the hands of women, and herbal lore was transmitted from mother to daughter, just as skill in cookery and in special kinds of needlework was handed down. Deftness, appreciation of detail, quick observation, and patience supplied the place of written knowledge. The conditions of life during the Middle Ages, and even down to the last century, were such as to afford plenty of scope for the exercise of practical ability. The women who had the greatest knowledge of the properties of plants were, naturally, those most dependent on nature—women of the poorer class, but women endowed with a greater share of insight, and larger brain power than their companions. The “wise women,” who usually dwelt alone in some humble dwelling remote from their neighbours, and “lived on their wits,” were naturally regarded with a tinge of awe by the ignorant, and were credited with some supernatural power. Their appearance and their habits—the result of poverty and loneliness—caused them to be looked upon with suspicion. To a wrinkled, repulsive visage was frequently united a temper equally obnoxious, and which was embittered by the gibes and sneers which were freely cast at the “old hag,” whose weapon of defence was her tongue. The curses which she poured forth on her tormentors inspired dread, and if by chance some bodily affliction attacked the cursed ones, it was invariably attributed to malevolence. All sorts of ills were ascribed to the spite of these outcasts of society: the maiming of cattle, the withering of pasture, diseases bodily and mental, misfortunes of every kind. The witch was never a bringer of good; she was always thought to be working evil, with or without motive. Women have been credited, not only by the ignorant multitude, but by philosophers, with the power, at certain seasons, of turning milk sour, making dogs savage, and effecting other things, by their mere presence.

It is not until the twelfth century that there is any definite mention of witchcraft in England. This seems strange when it is remembered that in the time of the early Britons what was known as magic or sorcery was practised by the wives of the Druid doctors. These women were noted for their skill in herbal medicine, and even credited with the power of causing evil as well as healing wounds. But the term “witch” does not seem to have come into use until the period mentioned. The twelfth century has been described by Mr. Lecky as the turning-point of European intellect. The first glimmerings of incredulity were showing forth. The Church became aware of some opposing force, and assumed the offensive. Circumstances that had hitherto passed unnoticed were regarded as danger-signals. Any evidences of unusual capacity for controlling physical forces, such as the “medicine women” showed, were regarded with hostility. Their power implied converse with Satan, for by no other means was it supposed that such knowledge and skill could be obtained. There was at that time a widespread belief in the supernatural, in the presence of evil spirits who infested the earth in all sorts of shapes to torment and deceive men. The theory that the wise woman was an emissary from the Prince of Darkness accorded with the popular delusions. The witch gradually became a distinct personality, a figure which troubled every society. Diseased imagination united to ignorance of physical science caused the belief in witchcraft to become a terror for centuries.

Witchcraft offered a solution of the problem of evil. How otherwise to account for the ills which beset humanity? It is difficult for us to realize the panic which took possession of people’s minds at the appearance of misfortunes such as plague, famine, drought, floods, and the like. The terrible pestilence, for which we can now to some extent account, appeared like a visitation of Providence or the direct work of Satan to an age which knew nothing of the laws of health, of the courses of disease, and very little of the structure and functions of the bodily organs. As time advanced, the belief in the power and malevolence of the women called witches increased. The Church, following in the steps of those Fathers who had credited women with being endowed with special capacity for evil, commenced a virulent persecution of witches. In the reign of John a woman was tried for witchcraft, but there was little detailed mention of such trials until the fourteenth century. In the year 1324 there was a celebrated case in Ireland, and this, the first trial of which we have any full account, was not that of some mis-shapen, miserable old woman living in a hovel, but a woman of good social rank and possessed of wealth, Lady Alice Kyteler, of Kilkenny. The lady’s troubles arose partly out of her excessive liking for matrimony. She had four husbands, and the principal count against her was that she had made away with these husbands by magic. There was at this period in the Papal chair a pope who held strong views on the subject of sorcery, Pope John XVII., and who issued the first Bull promulgated against it. Through the instrumentality of one of his Irish bishops, Lady Alice Kyteler and others were denounced as sorcerers, the Lady Alice being accused of causing the death of her various husbands, and having converse with evil spirits. The arbitrary action of the ecclesiastical authorities excited so much dissatisfaction that even the Lord Chancellor expostulated with the bishop, but received as reply that the Church was above all law. The Lady Alice, after being excommunicated, finally escaped from the priestly meshes, and retired to England, where she died. During the trial a woman, who declared she had received instruction in magic arts from Lady Alice, was flogged six times by order of the bishops.

There were, however, no regular enactments against witchcraft until the reign of Henry VIII. Up to that time, unless the supposed sorceress was also accused of the crime of poisoning, she was not condemned to death. But in 1541, conjuring, sorcery, and witchcraft were all put together as crimes for which capital punishment could be inflicted. Statutes against witchcraft were also enacted in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

John Wier, a physician of Cleves, wrote a treatise in 1563, in which he described witches as lunatics labouring under Satanic influence. All women he considered to be peculiarly subject to delusions created by malignant agency, and witches he regarded, in fact, as exaggerated examples of the inherent moral weakness of the female sex.

With the rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth century came a second great wave of superstition. The stern theology of the men of the Commonwealth was embittered by the darkest of beliefs. They were always looking for direct manifestations of the power of evil. It was their conviction that Satan was embodied in the persons of the unhappy women who were called witches, and that to hound them to death was a religious duty. The Puritans held with great firmness that a curse rested on womanhood. They found it quite easy to believe that certain women were specially chosen instruments of evil, for the whole sex they regarded as created for the trial and temptation of men. Undoubtedly the Puritans did much to enforce respect for women at a period when licentiousness was rife. They had an honest desire to raise the standard of public morals, and preserve order and decency. But they were actuated more by a desire to guard men from evil than by a reverence for womanhood. Though individually they made good husbands and fathers, their theology was a relentless creed, which permeated their lives with hard, unsympathetic views, and condemned sinners without mercy. The intense vitality of their belief in the omnipresence of evil clouded their perceptions and blurred their judgment. Hence their readiness to believe in witchcraft, and the savagery of their persecution.

Scripture, they said, was on their side. They pointed to the Witch of Endor, and to the declaration, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” All sorts of gruesome ideas had grown up and been handed down as to the power of witches, and became more widespread and intensified by the fanatical zeal of the Puritans. It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that the full fury of the persecution blazed forth, though previously there had been frequent trials and executions. Thus in the early part of the reign of James I., who was responsible for much of the persecution, a woman was tried and hanged at King’s Lynn. A sailor had thrown a stone at her boy, whereupon she cursed the sailor roundly, and hoped his fingers would rot off, which happened two years later. Then she got into a quarrel with a neighbour, who was seized with violent pains, and felt the bed rocking up and down. The woman was denounced as a witch and condemned to death. Like other innocent persons accused of crime, she at last got to believe what her enemies said of her, and actually brought herself to confess that she had practised unholy arts.

In 1645 there was a great outbreak of persecution in Essex. In 1664 occurred the celebrated trial of witches at Bury St. Edmunds. There were living at Lowestoft two lone women whose temper and demeanour caused them to be disliked by the inhabitants of that little fishing hamlet. From the children they endured much petty persecution, and were treated as outcasts by the adult population. Nobody would even sell them fish. The two victims, who were inappropriately named Amy and Rose, cursed and prophesied evil things. Some children were seized with fits, during which they declared they saw the two women coming to torment them. After eight years of accusations, the women were brought to trial. Sir Matthew Hale presided, expressing his belief that the Scriptures proved the reality of witchcraft. The women were hung, which was the common mode of dealing with them. In Scotland they were usually burnt.

There is no need to multiply instances. During the sittings of the Long Parliament, as many as three thousand persons are said to have been executed, exclusive of those who were “done to death” by enraged mobs. In 1640 a witch is described in a contemporary publication as—
“the devil’s otter-hound living both on land and sea, and doing mischief in either; she kills more beasts than a licensed butcher in Lent, yet is nere the fatter; she’s but a dry nurse in the flesh, yet gives such to the spirit. A witch rides many times poast on hellish business, yet if a ladder do but stop her, she will be hanged ere she goes any further.”
The last judicial execution took place in England in 1716, when a woman and her daughter, aged nine, were put to death at Huntingdon, accused of selling their souls to the devil. But years after this date the persecution continued, and women were assailed by the rabble as witches, frequently dying of the injuries they received. The penal statutes against witchcraft were repealed in 1751. This, however, did not do away with the belief which was held by people in various classes of life. John Wesley was perhaps the last noted person who clung to what eventually became a mere superstition, which only survived in obscure places.

After the Restoration came in a different temper and view of life. On the one side were the gay and274 frivolous, who mocked at the grim Puritan with his terrific beliefs; on the other were the philosophers and the intellectual world, who explained by natural causes the so-called supernatural appearances. The Anglican Church held a middle course between the sceptics and the fanatics. There were some, like Joseph Glanvil, who, in 1681, took up the defence of witchcraft; and there were bishops who promulgated persecution. The clergy had a strong leaning to superstition, and inclined to the side of the fanatics; but they were restrained from the greatest excesses of the Puritans by the influence of the educational portion, whose learning and enlightenment reflected credit on the Church at a period when it greatly needed strengthening.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents A Glimpse Into The Lives Of The Great Ladies of the Seventeenth Century

When with the Renaissance old habits of thought changed, the horizon of domestic life was enlarged. The great lady appears in a different light. She is no longer merely the loaf-giver and spinster, sitting in the shadow of her lord. With increased means of comfort, with the spread of knowledge, life became much more complex. The conditions of life did not permit that the great lady should herself take such an active part in all the domestic industries and arts which were carried on in a large household. She had other occupations. It was the steward who saw to the providing of the household stuff, to the payment of servants’ wages, to the almsgiving, and even to the furnishing of the wardrobe.

Although needlework still filled a large and honoured place in the lives of women of high station, it was rather an exercise than a necessity. Girls were taught to spin, to sew, and to embroider; a great lady might assist in the devising and making of her own apparel, but more commonly she left it in the hands of the tailors and sempstresses, and when she busied herself with plain needlework it was for the poor. Great families in the country would, for ordinary purposes, employ a local tailor, who would come and do his work at the house. Lady Elizabeth Howard, of Naworth Castle, who lived in the seventeenth century, and was one of the greatest ladies of her time, with a rent-roll of £1040 a year of the money of that period, was satisfied to have the plain serge gowns which she wore for common use made by the country tailor. The flax for the household linen was spun at home and sent to a country weaver. Lady Elizabeth was a woman of simple tastes, too much engrossed with practical affairs to care for display.

The curious commissions which great ladies in the seventeenth century gave to their male friends abroad, and the presents exchanged among members of noble families, show that many ordinary articles now in domestic use were then luxuries. In 1679, or thereabouts, the Countess of Sunderland writes to her brother, Mr. Sidney, envoy to Holland, in the following terms:—
“I desire you to lay out £20 for me in Dutch wax candles, which my Lady Temple says are very good. I would have them four to the pound, three parts, and the fourth part six to the pound; and some tea if you love me, for the last you gave was admirable.”
One would like to know what quantity of candles Mr. Sidney was able to buy for £20, which represented a much larger sum then, and whether the countess kept a private cupboard in which to lock up these precious articles.

Lady Chaworth, in 1676, writes to her brother, Lord Roos, at Belvoir Castle, to thank him, among other things, for a present of some oat-cakes and a pie. She sends him in return a peck of chestnuts and five pounds of vermicelli, some portion of which, she says, is of the same quality as that supplied to the king, who had a consignment of three hundred pounds’ weight. This seems a prodigious quantity, when it is remembered that farinaceous foods were not a staple article of diet. She also sends Lord Roos comfits, which she is pleased to hear that he likes, for she tells him—
“There is four pound of them, and made fresh for you of the purest sugar, though I gave a little more for them.”
Lord Roos had a sweet tooth, evidently, and it is to be hoped as sound as sweet, for our ancestors took very little care of their teeth. In 1650 we find Sir Ralph Verney sending to a friend at Florence a present of “teeth-brushes and boxes,” which were new-fangled Parisian articles, described by Sir Ralph as “inconsiderable toyes.”

As manners improved there was less separation of the sexes and more family life. In the absence of the husband, the lady of the manor, as she may still be called, for she often enriched her lord with the broad acres of her own inheritance, was much occupied with the management of the estate. The Lady Elizabeth Howard, already mentioned, who brought as her dowry the extensive Dacres property about which there was so much litigation, always attended to the business relating to the manors during her husband’s absences in London, whither she herself rarely travelled. Anne, daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk, being burdened with a husband very deficient in mental and physical parts—“Little John of Campes,” fourteenth Earl of Oxford—took the control into her own hands of all the affairs of the household and the estate. She corresponded about her difficulties with Wolsey, who advised her to return with her husband to her father’s roof, paying the duke a reasonable sum for the accommodation. The countess, who had no children to aid her, was sorely beset, after her husband’s death, by rapacious relatives, whom during his lifetime she had contrived to keep at bay. She complains that her park, and even her house, were broken into and her servants maltreated, and that, although the justices issued a writ against the offenders, it was not put into execution, and “doth nothing avail.”

Anne Countess of Warwick, wife of the king-maker, was shamefully robbed of her possessions by her sons-in-law, the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, and was obliged, she tells us, to write many letters with her own hand, in the absence of clerks. She finally got back all her property by Act of Parliament, but she did not keep it. She was either cajoled out of her estates, or her attachment to the king, whom her husband had assisted to the throne, was all-powerful; but, whatever the cause, she passed over one hundred and eighteen manors by private compact to Henry VII.

Another great lady, Margaret Countess of Salisbury, grand-daughter of Richard Earl of Salisbury, had a great deal of trouble in keeping a hold of her possessions. She was engaged in a suit against Henry VIII. to recover a yearly income of 5000 marks from certain of her manors. The rapacious king appears to have yielded, and she afterwards generously presented him with a year’s revenue as an aid in the prosecution of his wars. A revengeful lover whom she had rejected did his utmost to deprive her of her estates by filling the king’s mind with suspicions as to the legality of her claim. She also suffered much annoyance from marauders, who broke into her domain and cut down her woods.

Women of property were very liable to be preyed upon by grasping sovereigns and unscrupulous ministers like Wolsey, who actually led Elizabeth Dowager Countess of Oxford to endanger the cliff at Harwich, which formed part of her estate, in order to supply him with stone for his new college at Ipswich.

The famous Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke and Dorset, after struggling with James I. over her inheritance, found plenty of occupation in going to law with her numerous tenants, in building, in causing “bounds to be ridden,” and courts to be kept in her several manors. She seems to have divided her time pretty equally among her northern castles, travelling in state in a coach and six from Pendragon Castle to Appleby, and thence to Skypton and Brougham. She describes her tenants as frequently obstinate and refractory, and evictions were sometimes necessary. However, in the midst of these unpleasant processes, she was building brew-houses, bake-houses, and stables, repairing decayed mansions which had not been inhabited for years, and establishing fresh almshouses for the poor.

The Countess was very tenacious of her rights, and refused to yield at any cost when it was a question of principle. On one occasion a rich clothier of Halifax, one of her tenants, would not pay the one “boon hen” which traditional custom demanded from the holder of a certain tenement. The Countess took the case to the law courts and recovered the hen, but at a cost of £200 to herself and the same amount to her adversary. She much resented interference, and when Cromwell sent down a commission to compose some differences between herself and her people, she politely but firmly refused to let the commissioners deal with the matter at all, saying she preferred to leave it to the decision of the law. As a landlord she did all she could for her county by buying everything from her neighbours and tenants, very rarely sending to London or elsewhere as other great folk in the country were in the habit of doing, and as a mistress she was very kind to her attendants.

Anne Clifford was not singular in her taste for litigation. Walter Cary writes, in 1626—
“These three which have turned things upside down and strangely altered our estate are suits of law, suits of apparel, and drunkennesse.”
With regard to the last two particulars, Anne Clifford was certainly blameless, and though she moved about in her own part of the country, she did not waste her substance on journeys to London, as Cary complained the country gentlemen were in the habit of doing. In former times, he says men
“did not long for their neighbours’ land, neither sold of their own, but keeping good hospitality and plainly ever attired were very rich.”
The celebrated Bess of Hardwicke, who made her first marriage in 1532, and was a widow for the fourth time in 1609, after the death of George Earl of Shrewsbury, spent much of her time and money in building. It was a passion with her to repair and to erect magnificent piles. She persuaded her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, to begin the building of Chatsworth, which she completed after his death. Near the old home of her childhood she erected a second Hardwicke Hall, and also built a mansion at Oldcote. She has been described by her greatest detractor, Lodge, as “a builder, a buyer, a seller of estates, a money-lender, a farmer, and a merchant of lead, coals, and timber.” She also built herself a magnificent mural monument in All Saints’ Church, Derby. It was her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had for a long time the custody of Mary Queen of Scots, of whose supposed influence “Bess” was so jealous. A significant remark which she made to Queen Elizabeth caused the Earl to be deprived of his fair charge.

The great lady in her own home appears to far better advantage than her compeers at court, who are thus caustically described by a writer of the second half of the sixteenth century—
“The women of the Courte have also their vices. For alwaie we see manie endowed with goodly giftes of the body, fayre, preatie, handsome and comely. Moreover, richly attired in purple, golde, jewels, and ryches: but all men cannot see what filthy monsters do often lurke under those faire skinnes....

“They have mouthes armed for all kindes of clattering trifles with which they utter idle and foolish communication, and oftentimes displeasant to those that be compelled to heare them. For what shoulde we thinke them to speake emong themselves so many howers, but foolish and idle thinges: as how the heare should be dressed, how it should be kembed, how the heare should be coloured, how the face should be rubbed, after what facion the garment should be playted, and with what pompe they should go, rise and sit, and what attire they should weare, to what persons they should geve place, with how many bowinges salute, what women, and whome they should kisse or not kisse, what women ought to ride upon an asse, horse, seate and be carried in a chariote or couche: what women maie weare golde, pearle, corall, chaines, ringes hanginge at their eares, bracelets, ringes and tablets and other trifles of Semiramis lawes.

“There be also ancient matrons whiche tell how many wowers they have had, how many giftes thei have receaved, with how many flatteringe wordes they have benne wowed: this woman talketh of him whome she loveth, that woman cannot skantly forbeare to speake of him whom she hateth, and every one thinketh that she speaketh with the admiration of other women, sometimes they maintaine talke with fonde quippes or very impudent lies. There wante not emonge them cruell hatredes and eger brawlinges, malicious detractions, backebitinges, false accusations and whatsoever be the vices of a naughtie tongue.”
All the blame is laid upon the wives by this moralist, and the husbands he depicts as long-suffering martyrs—
“O how sorrowful do thei make their good husbandes when continually they objecte to them their lineage, dowrie, beautie, and other mens mariages, and with scoldinge and tauntinge do weary their husbandes, they alwaies lamente, whilst they dispise housholde and temperate fare, and twite their husbandes with the courtly excesse and being enured in pleasant fantasies and gloriouse ostentation do consume theire riches upon superfluous ornamentes, they bring houses by ruine, sometimes they enforce their miserable husbandes to dishonest and naughtie gaines.”
Lady Brilliana Harley, who lived through the Civil War, stands out in pleasing contrast as a quiet domestic character, a model housewife. While her husband, who was actively engaged on the Parliamentarian side, was away from home, she watched over the family interests with the greatest solicitude, and seems to have been her own housekeeper and man of business. At one time she was busy with repairs and alterations to the house, and mentions having to pay five shillings a day to plumbers and five shillings a hundred to them in addition for “casting lead.” She was constantly sending provisions to her son at Oxford University, and sometimes to her husband, and describes with such minuteness the contents of the pies that one feels she must have assisted in the making. Very big pies they were; a couple of chickens would be added as a kind of make-weight, and one of these pasties contained two whole turkeys. As this was a present to her son at Oxford, it may be supposed that Lady Brilliana had hospitable thoughts for the other undergraduates.

Lady Lucas, mother of the learned Duchess of Newcastle, was “very skilful in leases, setting of lands, court keeping, ordering of stewards”—useful talents, seeing that she married a rich husband. After the Civil War, her daughter, who presumably inherited some portion of the property which her mother had so carefully guarded, was reduced to great straits. The Duke of Newcastle’s estates were sold by the Commonwealth, and, the Duke being made a delinquent, his wife was deprived of the usual allowances. She retired to Antwerp, but returned to England and spent a year and a half unsuccessfully trying to obtain some compensation. However, as her chief interest lay in literature, the absence of outward show in her surroundings did not greatly affect her, and she bore her losses very philosophically.

Dependent as has been woman’s position up to the present century, in all the important relations of life, she has always been called upon as a great lady to bear responsibilities and fulfil duties of no light character. In mediæval times they were chiefly domestic, but none the less weighty, for the health and comfort of the household depended upon the “bread-giver.” As social conditions altered, we see the great lady extending her duties outside her own walls, and engaged in what is almost public work. She is frequently drawn into the current of political life, and her position is considerably affected by the religious changes in the country. She comes into prominence as an independent actor in the drama of history, forced oftentimes to stand alone, and beset by trials and cares which only belong to those who have much to lose. In times when the power of the sovereign was more absolute, the position of persons of property and influence, whether men or women, was less secure, and they were liable to a rise or fall of fortune according to the caprice of the monarch. A great lady in the present day could not be brought into collision with the sovereign over the rights of property, as were Margaret Countess of Salisbury and Anne Countess of Pembroke. There is no longer that intimate personal relation between the sovereign and the subject.

The hereditary right of succession to titles of nobility granted by the Norman kings, without distinction of sex, greatly affected the position of women among the higher classes. They acquired a dignity and importance in the eyes of rulers which otherwise they would not have possessed. An heiress who could convey a title and lands to her husband was a personage to be reckoned with and considered. There are numerous instances of men claiming titles and privileges by virtue of their wives’position. Richard Neville gained the earldom of Salisbury, and his son that of Warwick, by marriage with heiresses. But while a woman could thus confer advantages of a substantial kind upon her husband, she still lacked that control over her own property which characterized the position of a wife until recent times. Women’s marriage portions were denounced by writers in the seventeenth century as the cause of wedded misery and sin—
“men and women, being byassed by interest in marriage and not having that firm friendship and love for each other, do seek for a greater happiness abroad.”
Marriages were arranged among people of good estate and condition with a very frank display of mercenary motives. For instance, we find various relatives of the excellent Sir Ralph Verney anxiously engaged in helping him, after his wife’s death in 1656, to find an heiress for his son. One, Mrs. Sherrard, writes that she has discovered a lady whom she thinks would be a suitable mate for young Edmund Verney—
“Her father will give her five thousand pounds, and hath but on dafter more, and she is sickly and never licke to mary, and if not shee will have more than enouf, for it is beleved that her father is worth above thirty thousand pounds, and dooth daily incres in welth. I hear shee is not but of a very good disposition.”
Another relative writes—
“Here is a match for your sown, Mr. Wilson’s daughter of Surrey (formerly a cittizen) that I think worthy yur consideration; they offer £5,500.”
People used plain language in the seventeenth century, and when a match was proposed it was in out-spoken terms. The young people were treated as pawns by their respective guardians, and instead of lawyers settling matters, it was the parents who wrangled over property and drove bargains. There is little difference in this respect between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the following letter of Lady Katherine Berkeley, though it belongs to the Tudor period, might well have been written a hundred years later. Lady Berkeley was wife of Henry, first Lord Berkeley, to whom she was married in the reign of Queen Mary. She is writing to her confidential man of business, John Smyth, about her son’s marriage.
“I have received your letter, but doe not think good to show it to my lord least hee should leave his suits in law whereof I have soe good hope to a dangerous event, with an imagination that out of his own judgment hee could conclude a profitable end upon the overture now made. These imaginations you know have not produced the best effects. If the motion for my son’s marriage proceed I doe then believe the politicke lady will bee glad to come to an end; yet doe I fear her proffer rather proceeds of policy then from sincere meaning. I have observed that when she sees anything bending to our good, then shee proffers an agreement, and yet proceeds in lawe with all extremity.” She concludes by requesting that “whosoever intends to match with my son shall only deale with my lord and mee.”
This really meant with Lady Katherine herself. She had but a poor opinion of her husband’s ability, and was exceedingly anxious to keep him by her side. She does not at all approve of his going to London by himself to negotiate marriages or any other business, being confident that he will only lose his money.
“At London younge crafty courtiers will lay baits which will bee swallowed with danger; the safest way is to keep him from London.”
Many romances have been written on the carrying off of heiresses by bold suitors. During the Commonwealth some effort was made to prevent scandals of this kind and save women from being married against their will. There was one case that excited a good deal of attention in October, 1649. Mistress Jane Puckeringe was abducted from Greenwich Park while walking with her maids, close to her own house. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Puckeringe, and an heiress. The abductors were some people named Walsh, a Worcestershire family. Joseph Walsh and his friends seized Mistress Puckeringe, mounted her on a horse, and, having a hoy in readiness, went across to Dunkirk. Thence they went to Nieuport, in Flanders, and shut her up in a religious house. As soon as the affair was made known, there was a great stir in the official world, and warrants were issued for her recovery and for the punishment of Walsh and his companions. Walsh maintained that there had been a marriage ceremony performed. The Spanish ambassador was appealed to, and steps taken that every one concerned in the affair might be arrested. The Council of State in England sent over a Mrs. Magdalen Smith, armed with letters of authority, to seek for the lost heiress and bring her back; and a ship was ordered to go to Nieuport to be in readiness to receive her. The English agent at Brussels, Peter Thelwell, was told to turn his attention to the matter. Still, the winter sped away and Mistress Puckeringe was not restored to her friends, so in March the Council of State again took action and wrote to the archduke. Mr. Peter Thelwell, on his own responsibility, appealed to Prince Charles, which was distasteful to the officers of the Commonwealth, who were not disposed to have any dealings with the Cavalier party, and at last in June, some eight months after the abduction, the lady was sent back to England in a man-of-war, and her captors were surrendered to the English authorities and indicted for felony, the supposed marriage being set aside.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Education Or Lack Thereof of Ladies In the Seventeenth Century

After the sixteenth century the lamp of learning flickered a good deal. The air was very unsteady; winds came blowing from all quarters. There was the adverse gale of the Civil War, which was a great peril to progress. And what followed was almost equally disastrous. Neither the austerity of the Puritans nor the licence of the Royalists was favourable to the arts of peace, and when political passions were dividing the country, it was no time for poring over books, and holding commune with philosophers and poets. Religious enthusiasm thrives by opposition, and the purity of principle has often been maintained by persecution. It is otherwise with learning and culture. They need encouragement and tending in order to blossom and bear fruit. From a variety of causes, a period of reaction set in after the vigorous and healthy awakening in the time of the Tudors. The fault of the seventeenth century was its lack of earnestness about intellectual matters. It combined all the faults of all the ages—laxity of morals, indifference to high aims, combined with religious fanaticism and a lack of appreciation of knowledge and learning. The Puritan party were so much engrossed with religious dogmas, that they had little time to spend on purely secular thought, which they considered a frivolous if not a sinful exercise. The Royalists loved pleasure too well to give more than passing attention to serious studies. The period of the Restoration is thus described by a writer in the next century—
“Religion which had been in vogue in the late times was now universally discountenanced; the name of it was hardly mentioned but with contempt, in a health or a play. Those who observed the sabbath and scrupled profane swearing and drinking healths were exposed under the opprobrious names of puritans, fanaticks, presbyterians, republicans, seditious persons.”
The advantages to be derived from intellectual liberty were not appreciated. Charles II., joking with the Royal Society, to whom he loved to propound insoluble problems, reflects the attitude of the aristocracy towards science and literature. By that time Shakespeare was considered a little out of date and vulgar by an age of fops and élégantes who could read Wycherley without blushing. There was a quiet cultured set, such as Evelyn and his friends. Evelyn’s daughter Mary, who died at the age of about nineteen, was a most accomplished and studious girl, and shared her father’s literary labours and enjoyments. But the seventeenth century was not favourable to the production of scholars. As the intellectual horizon widened learning became less profound. Women’s education was pursued on somewhat different lines. There was less scholarship among the best-educated women. We do not hear of ladies corresponding in Greek or translating from the Hebrew. The classics no longer held the chief place in the curriculum. Literature was multiplying in English and other living languages, and music and painting were more cultivated.

But there was little attempt, in the seventeenth century, to provide substitutes for what women had lost by the dissolution of the convent schools. For accomplishments, such as singing and dancing, wealthy families engaged special masters—generally French—and the domestic chaplain sometimes acted as tutor for the more solid parts of education. Among middle-class families, however, whose means did not allow of private tuition, the girls came off badly, there being very few schools of any sort, and very scanty supplies of literature in the home.

The seventeenth century was a great period for famous painters, and the presence of numerous excellent foreign artists in England influenced the attitude of society among the higher classes towards art. It might have been thought that, with a professed pedant like James I. following the learned Queen Elizabeth, there would have been a renewed impetus towards the profounder studies. But James I. was deficient in real strength of character, and was not an intellectual force. He might have played a very fair part among a knot of schoolmen disputing over theological points, but as a sovereign his talents did not show to good advantage. Moreover, he was in every way adverse to the progress of women. He treated them as inferiors, with a ponderous levity, and nothing was further from his mind than giving any encouragement to the cultivation of learning among the ladies of the court. Under Charles I. culture would have had a fair chance in England had not political trouble intervened, and during the remainder of the century society underwent a series of changes inimical to learning.

Women’s education in the seventeenth century, among those sections of society where learning was cultivated, seems to have taken a more feminine tone. Accomplishments were sought after rather than solid acquirements. There was a leaning to lighter pursuits, to what were quaintly called “virtues,” such as instrumental and vocal music, dancing, and needlework. There was a dash of fine ladyism in it all. At the same time there was a parade of education. It was customary, among the families of the nobility, for the daughters to have tutors for reading and writing (which are specified as distinct subjects, not included, as now, under a general term), French, Latin, and perhaps Italian. Mrs. Hutchinson tells us that she had as many as eight tutors when she was seven years old, but she was exceptionally well instructed.

Lucy Aspley, as she was then, was a child of extraordinary abilities, of which her father was very proud. At four years old she could read English perfectly. Her brothers at school, finding she was outstripping them in Latin with her tutor at home, tried to emulate her zeal. She cared for none of the feminine accomplishments, such as needlework and dancing, and always preferred the company and conversation of older people, even as a child. With all her precocity, and in spite of the fact that she was treated as the literary light of the family, she grew up unspoiled by flattery, and developed into one of the noblest women of her age.

Lady Anne Halkett, the daughter of Thomas Murray, preceptor to Charles I., was probably better taught than most young women of the time. She herself lays stress on the pains bestowed upon her education by her parents, but there is no mention of any profound study. She had masters for French, for writing, for dancing, and for the practice of the lute and the virginals, and a gentlewoman was employed to teach her needlework.

Mrs. Alice Thornton, who lived between 1626 and 1707, and whose family on the father’s side was related to the Earl of Strafford, says that in 1632, while living in Ireland, she had—
“the best education that Kingdome could afford, having the advantage of societie in the sweet and chaste company of the Earle of Strafford’s daughter, the most virtuous Lady Anne, and the Lady Arbella Wentworth, learning those qualities with them which my father ordered, namelie—the French language, to write and speak the same; singing, danceing, plaeing on the lute and theorboe; learning such other accomplishments of working silkes, gummework, sweetmeats, and other sutable huswifery, as by my mother’s vertuous provision and caire, she brought me up in what was fitt for her qualitie and my father’s childe.”
Presumably, spelling formed one of the subjects of education; but the extremely faulty orthography of female letter-writers, even among the cultured classes, in the seventeenth century, points to a haphazard method of teaching this branch of knowledge. After making due allowance for the unsettled state of the language, and the want of uniformity in good authors, the letters of women of high rank show an extraordinary licence in orthography, which appeared to be a matter regulated by individual fancy.

Mrs. Makins, writing in 1673, says—
“I verily think women were formerly educated in the knowledge of arts and tongues, and by their education many did rise to a great height in learning. Were women thus educated now, I am confident the advantage would be very great.” She adds, “I am very sensible it is an ill time to set on foot this design, wherein not only learning but vertue itself is scorn’d and neglected as pedantic things, fit only for the vulgar.... Were a competent number of schools erected to educate ladyes ingeniously, methinks I see how asham’d men would be of their ignorance, and how industrious the next generation would be to wipe off their reproach.”
One of the most celebrated women of learning in the early part of the century was Margaret Lucas, afterwards Duchess of Newcastle, and she seems to have acquired her knowledge chiefly by her own efforts. Sir Charles Lucas had tutors for his daughters, but half the year the family spent in London, enjoying all the diversions the capital could afford, and study was not at all strictly enforced on the girls. The Duchess wrote numerous poems and prose works of a philosophical character, and was, she tells us herself, a very rapid composer, her ideas outrunning her hand. Judged by the standard of to-day, her works seem like the voluble outpourings of a curious fancy. Her ideas are interesting rather as giving us a glimpse of the thought of her day, than valuable for intrinsic merit or freshness; but in her lifetime she was applauded by scholars with lavish adulation, partly, no doubt, on account of her rank. The heads of the University of Cambridge were full of wonder that a woman should be able to compose such works, and many scholars from other parts wrote in terms of respectful admiration and astonishment. The fulsome flatteries poured into the ears of the duchess were unworthy of their authors, but there is no doubt that her productions appeared sufficiently remarkable to her contemporaries. More than one scholar to whom the duchess sent her books, remarks on the proof her Grace has given that women are as capable of intellectual acquirements as men. One writes that she has confirmed the statement of an old author, that women excel men; and another, that she has clearly decided the question of mental equality between the sexes.

In watching the evolution of women in regard to learning, the general estimation in which learning was held in those days has also to be noted. Gentlemen might certainly be scholars, but scholars were not considered gentlemen. The study of books, more especially the writing of them, was thought a laborious occupation unfit for those who could sit at ease and enjoy the world.
“Neither do our Nobilitie and Gentry so much affect the study of good Letters as in former times,” wrote Henry Peachman in 1638, “loving better the Active than the Contemplative part of Knowledge, which in times of the Monasteries was more esteemed and doated on than now.”
One scholar, writing to the Duchess of Newcastle, speaks of authorship as an “inferior employment” unmeet for the rank and qualities of a lady like her Grace.

Another element that has to be taken into account was the change which came over social life in the upper ranks of society. There was more going to and fro between London and the country. Formerly, people stayed quietly in their own homes from one year to another. But as travelling became more general, the custom grew up for families of rank and wealth to spend half the year in London—the winter half—and the other half in the country. This greatly altered the conditions of family life. The season in London was a period for amusement, for seeing sights, receiving company, and going to balls and masks. There was not much time for serious studies, and the more frequent intercourse with society encouraged young daughters in a family to cultivate such accomplishments as music and dancing, to study French and Italian rather than Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to generally avoid subjects that demanded much patience and assiduity. There were women clever and brilliant, and noted for their versatile talents. Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, was one of these. She was certainly a good Latin scholar, had many accomplishments, and was a friend and favourite of the learned men of the day. Lady Wroth, niece of the celebrated Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was another patroness of the learned, and seems to have inherited some of her aunt’s ability. But we have to wait until the middle of the next century before we find any coterie of learned women, comparable with the scholars and students of the Tudor Period.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Charitable Works of Ladies In Medieval Times

In the days preceding the poor law—that is, before the dissolution of the monasteries—charity to the poor was regarded in much the same light as hospitality among equals. Just as it was an unwritten law that strangers on all occasions must be entertained, so it was an accepted rule of life for the wealthy to support their poor neighbours with doles in money and in kind. The monasteries were the great dispensers of alms; but every nobleman’s or gentleman’s house had also a number of poor who looked to it for support. The feudal system was in a great measure responsible for this feeling of dependence. Nobody under that system stood alone. The poor were bound to the soil, and their lives were inextricably woven—not always for their good—into the lives of those above them. With the dispensation of doles and the care of the poor the ladies in the households of the nobility were much concerned. It was the business of the mistress to see that the sick were cared for, the needy visited, and that the aged had their wants supplied. Charity was less far-reaching, and had no pretence at organization; it was a part of domestic life, not an outside business to be taken up and laid down at will. What is now done by means of paid officials was then all accomplished by the donors themselves. The charity which now passes through numerous channels before it reaches the recipient went then by a comparatively direct route.

Great families sometimes marked the Church festivals by special almsgiving, and would celebrate marriage anniversaries in the same way. This was the custom in the family of Lord William Howard at Naworth Castle. The giving away of money at other times seems to have been rather spasmodic. The steward of the Howard family frequently records: “To my Lady to give away 20/-.” Besides what was dispensed in that way, there were lists of doles to the poor, such as sixpence to a poor woman; sixpence to a poor leper boy; “To the poor at Armathwate 6d.” (which shows how much more sixpence was worth then); “To the pore at Carlyle 1/6.” There was giving at funerals too; the steward records, “Bestowed in bread and beer at the buriall of the plumber 5/-,” among the extraordinary payments; where we also find items for shoemending recorded, such as, “Mending a pair of shoes 4d.” It was customary for a person who had any property at all to leave a sum of money to be given to the poor on the day of his or her burial. Thus Mrs. Susannah Eyre, a widow of substantial means who lived in the seventeenth century, left twopence a piece for the poor who should attend her funeral, besides a bequest of goods and chattels to be distributed among the poor of specified districts.

Great ladies usually recognized their duties among the poor, not only by giving doles, but by founding almshouses. There were, probably, not many who actually maintained a number of poor within their own walls like Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. This celebrated lady used to maintain twelve poor people under her roof when she retired to her manor of Woking, where Dr. John Fisher acted as her confessor and almoner.

Nearly every lady of distinction did something of a permanent nature for the relief of the poor. The famous Bess of Hardwick, in the midst of her building of palaces, did not forget to erect and liberally endow an almshouse for the poor at Derby. The Countess of Pembroke not only built an almshouse, but procured a patent by which it was turned into a corporation. Various are the charities bequeathed by noble ladies in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries for the relief of the poor. Lady Gresham in 1560 left tenements in the city, the rents of which were to be used for the poor, partly in money and partly in coals. Mrs. Frances Clark left £200 to the Skinners’ Company to pay £10 a year for the poor of St. Thomas’s, Southwark. Dame Isabell Gray, of Ogle Castle, Northumberland, left a sum of money for the poor, to be given at the day of her burial. Instances might be multiplied, such as the bequest of Lady Middleton in 1645, of Viscountess Conway in 1637, of Lady Mico in 1670, of Mrs. Ridley in 1716. Money that is now given to societies was then left to individuals.

The care of the poor from the days of Dorcas downwards has always been deemed women’s special work, but it has been largely controlled by the church. In olden times a great lady would choose for her almoner a monk, or at least a priest. The Church has endeavoured to maintain its authority in this respect down to the present day. A large portion of the ancient endowments and funds for the relief of the poor is in its hands. Great ladies and women in all ranks still frequently allow their charities to be filtered through the medium of the Church. The visiting of the poor is carried on under ecclesiastical guidance. The Church in modern times has striven to become the fountain and head of all benevolence, and, as a great organized institution, discourages outside efforts. Women in country districts dispense most of their charity under the direction of the priest, except where there happens to be a great lady who chooses to assert her independence, and is powerful enough to act alone.

In large towns, the whole social life being so complex, there is more scope for individuality in work. The Church is less dominant, being brought into rivalry with lay organizations. But in secular work there is a tendency for women to run in a groove. The immense gain that accrues from combination in work, the pernicious effects of indiscriminate charity, and the impossibility of dealing with a huge floating population of indigent persons except by well-organized methods, have a tendency to convert hundreds of women workers into mere automata, obeying the behests of some central authority.

The whole conception of almsgiving has changed. In the Middle Ages, and for a considerable period after, it was regarded as a soul-saving process, of much the same value as saying masses or practising mortifications. Sovereigns were frequently expected to honour the festivals of the saints by entertaining immense numbers of indigent persons, and the royal munificence was often severely taxed. That a woman should be bountiful to the poor, according to her means, was a cardinal virtue which ranked with truth and chastity.

The support of the poor has now become a social rather than a personal obligation. It has been converted from a pious duty into a State practice. The religious element, in spite of the influence of the Church, has much diminished. Charity still covers some of our sins, but not the multitude it was wont to envelop. Souls are no longer saved by a distribution of loaves and blankets, or weekly doles to the poor. The element of personal service, which was once thought essential, has also faded into comparative insignificance. Charity may be done by deputy, by a stroke of the pen. It cannot, of course, be supposed that great ladies in former times did not exercise a good deal of benevolence by indirect means; but it may be affirmed that a mediæval gentlewoman who did not perform some personal office for the relief of the poor, would have been severely censured for her neglect and impiety unless she silenced the priests by exceptionally large gifts. Now a lady may walk through life unrebuked, though she has never with her own hands performed a single act of charity.

In former days noble ladies—that is, those of a pious disposition—occupied themselves largely in making garments for the poor. Queens, princesses, and ladies of rank would toil for hours at a time, and give up a portion of each day, to the conversion of coarse cloth into suitable apparel for their humble neighbours, who counted upon this charity. Each lady, assisted possibly by her maids, provided for the wants of those who were nearest at hand. Needlework, which since the introduction of machinery has fallen to a lower level of repute, was formerly the occupation most highly esteemed among women. It was not only a duty, but a pious exercise. While some salved their consciences with elaborate embroidery for church purposes, others were contented to plod along the homely seam, to fashion smocks and cloaks for the toilers, and bed-linen and blankets for the sick.

In the present century needlework has received an impetus from the formation of gilds and societies. Nearly all the work for the poor is done in this associated manner. The workers, instead of distributing their productions personally, send them more often to some centre to be dispensed in an organized fashion. It is curious to note how, in spite of the invention of the sewing-machine, the women of the middle classes cling to the old methods. A dozen to twenty ladies will meet together at regular intervals for four or five hours to accomplish what a quarter of their number could do with machines in a tithe of the time. If working parties had no other object than the ostensible one of providing raiment for the poor, or clothing savages, they would not continue to flourish.

In olden times great ladies sat in their tapestried chambers, toiling painfully to convert the coarse cloth spun in their own households into smocks and gowns for dwellers in the windowless, smoke-begrimed hovels of the neighbouring hamlets. The great ladies of the present day, from their cosy boudoirs, issue schemes for the enrolment of women all over the country into gilds and societies for providing clothing for the poor. Instead of working singly, they co-operate. The names of H.R.H. Princess Henry of Battenberg, H.R.H. the Duchess of Teck, and Lady Wolverton will occur readily as leaders of needlework gilds.

The articles made by these gilds are sent to the clergy for distribution among their poor parishioners, to homes and hospitals, even to prisons. There are many schools for girls of the educated classes where a portion of time is set apart for needlework for the poor, the aim being twofold: to teach the girls how to work, and to cultivate the spirit of service. The old customs are being revived in a different dress. People who are afraid that the ways of our ancestors are quite forgotten and despised in the whirl of new notions, may take comfort from the thought of how much attention is given to the serious study of homely duties. Science has been introduced into the domestic arts. The same things are being done, but in better ways. This is specially true with regard to philanthropy. Almsgiving, which was once regarded as a religious duty, has now become a positive evil. Society as now constituted, far from benefiting, suffers much from any attempt to return to the old forms of benevolence. Weekly doles of bread, and the flinging of coppers to beggars in the street, help to dislocate the social machinery. In the innumerable channels which modern charity has found for itself, the aim is to secure the independence of the recipients. Formerly, almsgiving had a double object—to benefit the soul of the donor as well as contribute to the welfare of the poor. At the present day, almsgiving, or the more cautious benevolence which has taken its place, is single in purpose, and has for its sole end the well-being of the beneficiary.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myths Presents The Role of Women In The Ancient Guilds

The records of the industrial history of England reveal one anomaly which is by no means cheering to those who are striving to improve the economic position of women. It cannot be gainsaid that in periods before the labour question began to be scientifically discussed, there was a juster conception of the relations which should subsist between the sexes in the common affairs of daily life. Men and women were treated on a par. When labour laws were enacted they were enacted for both alike; it was assumed that the sexes stood on an equality. With one or two exceptions, there was no especial legislation for women. Nor was there any hindrance, either in theory or in actuality, to women trading and engaging in industrial occupations. A woman was not debarred from any commercial pursuit simply by reason of sex. Whatever work she was able to undertake she carried through without having to surmount artificial barriers set up by prejudice and by the action of those interested in the restriction of women’s industrial liberty.

At the present day women have to fight their way into the commercial world, and every fresh step which they make towards independence is hailed as a triumph, and a hopeful sign for the future; or as a retrograde step, a deplorable and dangerous departure, according to the views of the onlookers; but in all cases as something abnormal, to be commented upon and criticized. The general opinion in the first half of this century was that women and business were things apart, and better kept separate. Either it was assumed that women knew nothing about business and could never learn, or that if they did edge their way in they would be thrusting men out.

It does not appear that in the past such views were entertained, that women were considered to be going out of their “sphere” when they entered the world of trade, or that it was attempted to deny them any of the privileges which might attach to commercial pursuits. The women took their places quite naturally side by side with the men, and no one saw anything strange in the position. They could receive apprentices; they became members of trade gilds, worked at various industries; in short, played their part as full members of the industrial community. It has been remarked that “great changes in the status of woman and in the status of labour have been correlative and often contemporaneous.” This is exemplified in the revolution brought about by the factory system, which altered the whole conditions of domestic life for large numbers of women in the lower ranks. The greater freedom which women enjoyed in olden times in regard to trading is remarkable on account of the severe restrictions applied to all forms of industry. It was not as if the worker were left to tread his own path. The relations between employer and employed were strictly defined. Hours, wages, clothing, form of engagement, manner of work, all came under legal supervision. And yet this interfering legislation did not create those differences between male and female adult workers, which have been a deplorable feature of modern times, and which faddists of a certain school are doing their best to accentuate.

It may be argued that women have perfect liberty in the present day to enter upon any commercial pursuit; that the law does not hinder them from becoming merchants, shipowners, and traders of all kinds. What the law, however, does not forbid, custom prevents. Among the middle classes it is tacitly agreed that the boys of the family must be started on a commercial career, and systematic efforts are being made towards achieving that end. A boy is apprenticed to some trade, and shown how to work his way up step by step from the bottom rung to the top of the ladder. He can enter a manufactory, a workshop, a retail business. But want of training and want of capital have militated against the industrial progress of women. There are only a few trades open to a girl, not for lack of physical strength, but because custom has decreed that certain occupations shall belong to men. Putting aside such pursuits as are obviously unsuited to girls—for in dealing with female labour it is the fitness of girls that has to be considered, since all occupations must be entered upon before adult life—there are many employments in which they are as well, if not better, fitted to engage than men and boys.

Sir John Bennett, writing in 1857, called attention to the fact that women were excellent watchmakers and might be profitably employed in England as they were on the Continent.
“Thousands of women are at this moment finding profitable employment at the most delicate portion of watch-work throughout the district around Neuchatel. The subdivision of labour is there wisely made so minute as to adjust itself precisely to the special capabilities of every woman’s individual dexterity. The watch is composed of many distinct parts; some require force and decision in the hands of the workman, while many are so exquisitely delicate that for them the fine touch of the female finger is found to be far superior to the more clumsy handling of the man.... Now, why should not our English women be employed upon a labour for which their sisters in Switzerland prove themselves so eminently adapted, and thus provide, to a large extent, a remedy for the distresses of our labouring population, and open out a new channel whereby they may elevate their condition and benefit mankind? In London 50,000 females are working under sixpence per day, and above 100,000 under one shilling per day. So long as nearly every remunerative employment is engrossed by men only, so long must the wretchedness and slavery of women remain what it is. For any man to declare, whatever his motive, that the women of London are sure to do badly what the Swiss women are now doing well, is an insult and a fallacy in which I refuse to join.

“No factory system is necessary for the successful manufacture of this very beautiful little machine. The father has but to teach his own daughters, wife, and female relatives at his own home, and then, just as their leisure suits, they can perform each her part without necessarily interfering with the most indispensable of her domestic duties. Thus the whole family is well provided for, and by the reduction of the cost of the watch, the sale would be increased indefinitely, and this increase would give additional employment to men and women in about equal proportion. Working watchmakers have no need to fear the introduction of female labour; the large demand that necessarily would ensue, when watches were materially cheapened in price, would doubtless more than compensate any loss they might temporarily sustain; the change it would effect would be found not only a moral good and an immense social blessing, but would satisfy the indispensable requirements of a strong commercial necessity.”
When people complain of women pushing into men’s occupations, it ought to be remembered how many things men have absorbed which formerly belonged as much, if not more, to women. For instance, it was the women who did the brewing, even in households where men were employed for other domestic duties. The feminine suffix in the word “brewster” is another sign that brewing was a woman’s occupation. Most of the beer-houses in London were owned by women who brewed their own beer up to the end of the fifteenth century, by which time brewing was passing into the hands of men. Women were also the principal ale-keepers, and the ale-wife was a noted character in rural England. The number of inns kept at the present day by women, in the country districts especially, shows how this old custom has held its ground.

An ordinance of Edward III. indicates the kind of trades in which formerly women were predominant. It runs—
“But the intent of the King and his Council is that women, that is to say, brewers, bakers, carders and spinners, and workers as well of wool as of linen cloth and of silk; brawdesters, and breakers of wool, and all other that do use and work all handy works, may freely use and work as they have done before this time without any impeachment or being restrained by this ordinance.”
In former times it was not felt to be unseemly for men and women to work side by side, nor are there any evidences that such a proceeding led to immoral conduct. Then it was habitual for the sexes to be associated in labour. The situation presented nothing strange, and nothing tempting; custom proved a safeguard. In spite of the improvement in manners and public conduct, the difficulty of men and women consorting for a common purpose has always been put forth in modern times as a reason why certain occupations should be restricted to men, except among the lower class of operatives who are continually under the eye of overseers, and in shops where the public act as supervisors.

There are certain departments of industry which bring out very clearly the advantages which women formerly possessed and the privileges they enjoyed. It is claimed, though on insufficient grounds, that the present trade unions are the legitimate descendants of the ancient gilds. In one respect, certainly, they are extremely unlike. The trade unions have, until quite recently, been purely men’s associations, and their formation has been a hindrance to the women working in the same trade. The gilds knew no distinctions of sex. They were formed in the interest of the trading community for purposes of mutual help, and were as much for the benefit of the “sisteren” as the “bretheren.” The attitude of the ancient gilds towards women was essentially different from that of the modern trade unions.

In the Middle Ages the influence of the gilds was considerable. Their authority was widespread, and they practically controlled the trade. It is, therefore, of importance to note their action and the rules by which they were constituted when considering the position of women in regard to industry and commerce. In nearly all the gilds there were women members, and in many cases the names of women appear as founders. Gilds were formed for various purposes. They were in the nature of friendly societies. In addition to their commercial side, they were “associations for mutual help and social and religious intercourse amongst the people,” and these associations “were almost always formed equally of men and women."

Miss Toulmin Smith says, in her Introduction to “English Gilds,” that—
“scarcely five out of the five hundred were not formed equally of men and women.... Even where the affairs were managed by a company of priests, women were admitted as lay members, and they had many of the same duties and claims upon the gilds as the men.”
The brothers and sisters all met together to transact the business of the gild. It was no mere matter of form to admit women. They were active working members, sharing in all the privileges and contributing to the funds, though smaller payments were sometimes exacted of the women. The female members, like the male, wore the livery.
“Also it is ordeyned that every suster of the fraternite and Gilde schul ben cladde in a swte of hodes, that is for to seye reed, pena 20d.”
Not only did the gild lend money to the younger members to start them in business, and succour those in distress who “fell into poverty through mishap, and not by fault of their own,” but it provided the dowerless with marriage portions, or the penniless with means to embrace a religious life. In the ordinances of the Ludlow Gild, established in 1824, was a clause that—
“if any good girl of the gild of marriageable age cannot have the means found by her father either to go into a religious house or to marry, whichever she wishes to do; friendly and right help shall be given her, out of our means and our common chest, enabling her to do whichever of the two she wishes.”
In the religious gilds, of which there were two classes, one for the clergy and one for the laity, the women were put on a par with the lay members. Any gross offence, such as drinking and rioting, committed by a priest, was punished with degradation; but if the offender were a layman or a woman, by exclusion until satisfaction was given. The clergy gilds did not admit women as members, but in one of the foreign gilds the wives of lay brothers were admitted on certain conditions at the oft-repeated request of the members.

The great companies also admitted women. The female members of the Drapers’ Company carried on business and received apprentices like the male members. “Every brother or sister of the fellowship taking an apprentice shall present him to the wardens, and shall pay 1¾,” runs the ordinance of 1503. This company was very careful to enjoin respect for its female members. It was expressly ordered that when a “sister” died she should be interred with full honours, have the best pall thrown over her coffin, and be “followed by the Fraternity to the grave with every respectful ceremony equally as the men.” After the death of a gild brother, his widow could carry on his trade as one of the gild. If a female member married a man of the same trade who was not free of the gild, he acquired freedom by the marriage. A woman who married a man of another trade was excluded from the gild. There were certain gilds of which women became free in their own right, and others where the wives and daughters of the gild brothers acquired a right to membership from their connection. In the craft gilds a member was allowed to have his wife and children and maid-servant to assist him in his work. The Clothworkers, the Fishmongers, the Grocers, all speak in their articles of brothers and sisters. Wives of members of the Grocers’ Company were admitted on their marriage.
“All women not of the Fraternity and after married to any of the Fraternity shall be entered and looked upon as of the Fraternity for ever, and shall be assisted and made as one of us; and after the death of the husband, the widow shall come to the dinner and pay 40d. if she is able.”
If she married out of the fraternity, she was not to be admitted to the feast, or to receive any assistance from the company. Within recent times women have obtained the freedom of both the Fishmongers’ and the Drapers’ Companies, but for the purpose of sharing in the charities, not with a view to trading. Since the beginning of the present century forty-two women have been admitted to the Drapers’ Company, and there are now upwards of a hundred belonging to the Fishmongers’ Company.

Formerly married women were merchants and traders on their own account. Clearly, it was by no means unusual, for in the Liber Albus of London, compiled in the fourteenth century, is an ordinance relating to married women carrying on business alone—
“and where a woman coverte de baron follows craft within the said city by herself apart, with which the husband in no way intermeddles, such woman shall be bound as a single woman as to all that concerns her said craft. And if the husband and wife are impleaded in such case, the wife shall plead as a single woman in the Court of Record, and shall have her law and other advantages by way of plea just as a single woman. And if she is condemned she shall be committed to prison until she shall have made satisfaction; and neither the husband nor his goods shall in such case be charged or interfered with.”
It was recognized that wives were independent beings responsible for their own acts. This is clearly shown by the following ordinance in the Liber Albus:
“Item, if a wife, though a single woman, rents any house or shop within the said city, she shall be bound to pay the rent of the said house or shop, and shall be impleaded and sued as a single woman, by way of debt if necessary, notwithstanding that she was coverte de baron at the time of such letting, supposing that the lessor did not know thereof.”
There was no exemption for women on the ground of sex. An enactment in the Statute of Labourers passed in the reign of Edward III. for preventing idleness expressly includes women. It provides that—
“every man and woman of our realm of England of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body and within the age of threescore years, not living in merchandize, not exercising any craft, nor having of his own whereof he may live, nor proper land about whose tillage he may himself occupy, and not serving any other, if he in convenient service (his estate considered) be required to serve, he shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require.... And if any such man or woman being so required to serve will not the same do, ... he shall be committed to the next gaol, there to remain under strait keeping, till he find surety to serve in the form aforesaid.”
When an oppressive enactment was made regulating the wages of labourers and prohibiting them from receiving anything beyond a certain sum, women were included. Their movements also were controlled. In the reign of Richard II. it was provided—
“that no artificer, labourer, servant nor victualler, man nor woman, should travel out of the hundred, rape, or wapen-take where he is dwelling without a letter patent under the King’s seal, stating why he is wandering, and that the term for which he or she had been hired has been completed. Otherwise the offender might be put in a pair of stocks, which was to be provided in every town.”
Another curiously arbitrary regulation ordained that if a girl or boy served up to the age of twelve at husbandry, they were to continue that employment all their lives, and not to turn to any craft. “Up to the age of twelve” is a significant sign of the conditions of juvenile life. Children were held as full members of the working population.

It is evident that in the eye of the law women ranked on an equality with men. Narrow as was the view taken by legislators of industrial life, and absurd as many of the enactments seem now, it was reserved for modern times to set up an artificial barrier between the sexes, to push the working woman down a step, and rank her with children and “young persons.”

The sense of the community was in advance of the legal conception which merged the personality of the wife in that of the husband. The gilds took care, by special ordinances, to remedy the defects of the law. Having admitted women to the full privileges of their order, and regarding them as workers with individual rights and duties, they naturally reasoned that women should not be exempted from the responsibilities of their own acts because they were married. In the ordinances of the Worcester Gild, founded 1467, is the following:—
“Also yf eny man’s wyf becom detto^r or plegge, or by or sylle eny chaffare or vitelle, or hyn eny house by har lyf, she to answere to hym or hur that hath cause to sue, as a woman soole marchaunt; and that an acion of dette be mayntend agenst hur, to be conceyved aftr the custom of the seid lite, wtout nemyng her husband in the seid accyon.”
It has been pointed out that under the gild system women were employed to a much smaller extent in manufactures than under the domestic system which followed. An ordinance of the fullers of Lincoln places a restriction on the indiscriminate employment of women, and limits it to the wives and servants of the masters. Whatever their position in the lower branches of trade, they had full access to the higher departments. They had governing power and the privileges which belong to members of corporate bodies. The changes that followed on the break-up of the gilds tended to throw women into the rank and file of workers and to exclude them from the more responsible posts.

The principle of equality is everywhere apparent in the ordinances relating to labour. In the reign of Edward IV. an ordinance was made in the borough of Wells, that apprentices of both sexes to burgesses would become burgesses themselves when their term of service was accomplished. No distinction was made between male and female. Statutes relating to apprentices in London and elsewhere apply equally to both girls and boys. It was taken as a matter of course that a parent might wish to apprentice his daughter just as much as his son. The proclamation in 1271, relating to the woollen industry, expressly permitted “all workers of woollen cloths, male and female, as well of Flanders as of other lands,” to come to England to follow their craft. Sometimes, indeed, the women appear to have enjoyed an advantage, as in the statute of 1363 which ordered that “handicraftsmen should use but one mystery,” while workwomen were free to work in their accustomed way. In later times a theory grew up that women were competitors, not co-workers, with men. There are numbers of people who on this ground would hinder women from engaging in commercial pursuits and earning their own livelihood. They argue that it is better for women to be dependent upon their male relatives than to make their own way in the world. That women should seek to achieve economic independence was, until recently, quite against the general sentiment. But the force of circumstances has proved stronger than theories: a surplus female population and changes in social life have upset the notion that women were created solely for family life, and that they were to be the spenders, not the providers.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915