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Eleanor Hubbard, City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). ISBN 978-0-19-960934-5, 320pp. HBK. £68.00.

Reviewed by Tim Reinke-Williams


[1] Nearly two decades after Laura Gowing used the rich depositional evidence of the church courts to discuss how attitudes to sexual behaviour shaped the lives of London women in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, City Women returns to these records to investigate the ‘struggles, aspirations and preoccupations’ of women in the capital between 1570 and 1640. For Eleanor Hubbard economic rather than sexual issues determined the treatment of women in the capital during these decades, and since the gender imbalance in London favoured women prior to the civil wars, she argues that the primary motive for women to come to the City was the presence of a large number of single men who provided a pool of potential husbands.

[2] Chapter One examines the arrival of female migrants and their quests to acquire employment. Most arrived in the city during their teens or twenties, primarily from the Home Counties, the Midlands, and the north-west of England, and once women acquired a post in service most tended to stick with it, leaving and crossing parish boundaries to look for potential husbands as much as for new employers. Chapter Two shifts attention to courtship, beginning with a lively discussion based on conduct literature and ballads as to what a woman looked for in a good husband. Hubbard shows that London women married earlier than the national average, and tended to make good marriages, despite the difficulties in acquiring a portion. The chapter concludes with a series of case studies detailing women’s agency in the process of courtship, as well as how issues such as financial inequality alongside interference by family and friends prevented marriages from taking place.

[3] Chapter Three discusses the difficulties and abuses faced by women with regard to pregnancy outside wedlock. Downplaying the significance of the sexual double standard and emphasising the importance of economic issues, Hubbard argues that many pregnant maidservants went unpunished if they were able to find fathers for their children in the form of men who were willing to take on the financial responsibilities of keeping the child. Such men did not have to be the biological fathers of the children – wealthy men paid to have a child fathered on another man, whilst pauper fathers with few or no ties fled their responsibilities. If a father could not be found a woman might attempt to abort the child by consuming ‘physic’ or a purgation’, or abandon or murder the newborn.

[4] Chapter Four covers the duties of household mistresses. One of the key arguments is that wives were encouraged, through sermons and cheap print, to ensure that their spouses behaved appropriately by conforming to patriarchal ideals of the sober and hard-working husband and in separation cases wives contrasted their hard work in maintaining the household and providing for their children with the profligacy of their husbands. Chapter Five explores women’s interactions with their neighbours in local communities. Many women spent time talking with their neighbours whilst seated at the doorsteps of their dwellings, and whilst this sort of sociability was perfectly acceptable, a balance had to be struck between good neighbourliness and gadding abroad. Women cemented good neighbourly relations by drinking together and assisting each other in childbirth, as well as intervening to protect battered wives from violent husbands. They intervened against their own sex too, exposing adultery and competing with other women over dress, household cleanliness and the behaviour of children.

[5] Chapter Six provides a wide-ranging survey of women’s work, including useful tables on how women identified themselves by occupation when deposing before the courts. Women worked in streets, marketplaces, shops and public houses of the capital, and Hubbard stresses that, despite the attempts of civic authorities to restrict the activities of female traders in the later sixteenth century, selling goods was an acceptable form of female employment. The chapter also includes novel material on charwomen, as well as discussion of marginal ‘body’ work such as nursing and prostitution. The final chapter explores the fates of widows, many of whom remarried, often to younger men. Widows had greater freedom in courtship than maids and some had high hopes of their new husbands, but not all second marriages were successful and the alternative of remaining single was no guarantee of happiness. Widows with significant financial resources might make good lives for themselves, but others remained reliant on wages until decrepitude prevented them from working, at which point they became reliant on the kindness of neighbours.

[7] This is a beautifully written and wide-ranging monograph with useful new quantitative and qualitative material on various aspects of women’s lives. Yet in some ways it feels almost too broad, with multiple topics being touched on rather than a handful being explored in depth. Rather than discussing well-worn topics such as defamation and prostitution, Hubbard might have written more about dress, cleaning, public houses and female apprenticeships (both women’s clothes and women’s work deserve their own monographs). Moreover, considering her emphasis on the importance of courtship and marriage, there is relatively little on motherhood, an experience and role few married women could avoid in an age before the widespread availability of reliable contraception. The most forceful and well-supported arguments Hubbard makes are those relating to women’s motives for coming to London, and the gender balance of the capital, but by relying so heavily on the consistory courts her findings leave room for other voices on these subjects. Overall the major weakness of City Women is also its supreme strength; it leaves the reader wanting to know more about the lives of early modern women.

University of Northampton, May 2013