The Prospect Before Her: a History of Women in Western Europe Volume One 1500 - 1800
London, Harper Collins, 1995, ISBN: 978067945030X; 638pp.; Price: £50.00
University of Sussex
Date accessed: 24 March, 2023
The title was inspired by the birth, during the writing of this volume, of a child named after the author. A second volume will bring the survey to the present and to some glimpses of that young woman's prospects. The prospect presented here is that of the sleepy young knitter of the 18th century pictured on the cover and of generations before her.
One of the stranger characteristics of the historical profession is the still widespread conviction that the synthetic survey is an inferior form of output to the monograph. Constructing a narrative and an analysis from a body of primary sources is entrancing, but not difficult for a trained historian. Constructing a narrative and an interpretation out of a large, conflicting, uneven body of monographs - striving to deal justly with all one reads, always conscious that something important may be overlooked and of the need, not always evident to writers of monographs, to be accessible to inexpert readers, yet also helpful and interesting to the expert - is very difficult. Monographs provide the basic building blocks of history, but someone has to relate them to the large historical questions - design and build the building. Syntheses, like monographs, can be sloppily executed; when, like this one, they are superbly done, they are wholly invaluable.
Olwen Hufton starts by describing the massive expansion of women's history since the late 1960s. Not long before, Keith Thomas, characteristically, had been rash enough to offer a series of lectures on 17th-century women to Oxford undergraduates. Equally characteristically, 'His colleagues found the subject bizarre and the students simply did not turn up'. Hufton approves of this expansion but not of all its features. Especially in the early modern period women's history has been dominated by cultural history, influenced to varying degrees by Foucault, anthropologists such as Geertz or sociologists such as Elias, concerned with 'mentalites', beliefs, attitudes, representations of gender roles, often on a micro-level. This, as in the work of Natalie Zemon Davis, can be exciting and illuminating, but a strong theme of Hufton's book is that it leaves a lot out:
First, it has proved difficult to transfer this approach to a broader canvas without straying into the realm of conjecture; for many social historians the attempt has carried the risk of over-speculation, the erection of the theoretical or 'generic' woman and man, versions of womanhood and manhood, at the expense of what was, as far as one can discern, the experience of real people. Secondly, in some cases the search for gender attitudes, and the belief that individuals were made not born, have tended to discount biological differences between women and men and to insist on gender as a cultural construct alone. The English and American women's movements have since the beginning of the century seen biological arguments as a way of denying women equality of opportunity. In the twentieth century these arguments have much to recommend them, but they remain problematic. In the early modern period, biology has to count for something. No one, for example, could plough a five-inch furrow in a condition of advanced or even early pregnancy. Thirdly, in attempting to understand the significance of rituals and cultural rules, insufficient attention has been given to the material condition of the lives of the vast majority of people.
This is to throw down the gauntlet to currently influential approaches: to accept such categories as 'experience' and 'real people'and the capacity of the historian to discern them in the past. It is to assert, without redundant polemic, that historians engage less naively with their sources than is sometimes thought, and that the role of the historian in seeking to reconstruct a sense of the past from a range of sources is different from that of the literary scholar engaging with a text, and not to be judged by the same 'theoretical' rules.
Throughout, the volume engages refreshingly, with big issues and Big Historians and other scholars who have generalised about history. She is never nasty, but she has an impressive line in sharp asides reserved for what she perceives as sloppy scholarship e.g. 'At the very bottom of the social scale in Britain there existed a practice ... about which claims have been made on very sparse evidence - that of wife sale'.
One big issue is that of continuity or change. She comments that most writing on women's history in the Anglo-Saxon tradition since the 1960s has focused on change, and for the worse: 'It is a saga of discontinuity or of descent from a paradise'. It is a paradise of gender equality which medievalists have failed to detect. Hufton comments that it is an illusion driven by awareness of women's predicament in the twentieth century. But the reality of continuing inequality in the present need in no way imply that things were once better. They may indeed, as the book implies, have been even worse, or, very often, bad in different ways. To an historian of the twentieth century, such as myself, one of the great virtues of this book is that it dispels many of the myths about the pre-industrial past which linger in the writings of those who come to modern women's history with no knowledge of a longer past. It should be compulsory reading for all who write on modern women's history.
Hufton is dealing with Braudel's period, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, valuing his work but critical of his picture of an 'almost motionless Europe', in which rural life is immobile, peasant experience and mentality missing from his account, whilst activity is concentrated in urban islands mobilised by trade. As she insists most people in Europe throughout her period were peasants and their lives were not static.
Running through the volume is a parallel vein of criticism of another influential interpretation, that of Norbert Elias. She is sceptical that the origins of the "civilising process" can be traced to the court at Versailles or that it flowed so smoothly as he suggests, especially into the lives of women e.g. those of all classes abused by drunken husbands in the nineteenth, or the twentieth century. One of the strengths of the book is the use of women's history to engage with influential interpretations, demonstrating that it does change how we see the past.
A more important theme is Hufton's concern (in my view wholly justified) that historians have too often confused the content of prescriptive writing with representation of reality. As others, such as Linda Colley, have pointed out, it may be the opposite: prescription may be at its most insistent when it supposed norms are being challenged. This is so of much writing about 'separate spheres' in the 19th century, and about the importance of the stable family in the late t20th. This is not, of course, to say that such writing has no value, but that it must be read with care and tested against other sources, as Hufton does throughout. The book 'is about the interaction between beliefs about what was appropriate to men and women and what occurred in the practices of everyday life'.
She is concerned with western Europe over the three centuries. Most material is drawn from Britain and France. They after all contained one-third of all women in the region throughout this period; and more has been written about them than about women in other countries, especially those of eastern Europe. Unavoidably the book is shaped by what remains an uneven historiography .Other countries are woven into the story whenever possible. Germany figures most strongly in discussion of witchcraft (reasonably enough, almost a third of all known witch prosecutions occurred there) and deviant aspects of marriage. The Netherlands features most in its seventeenth century golden age. Hufton argues that her geographical span is justified because there was much in common, as well as much variety, in the experiences of women within it, so far as they are known. Without disputing this, I wish she had discussed further the implications of the differences which emerge throughout the book between north-western Europe and the Mediterranean south. In the latter codes of honour kept women's lives more constrained within the home, family structures were larger and more dominant. How much did this matter ? The historiography of women is not only geographically uneven. Witches and nuns have always excited historians more than 'spinsters' and Hufton cannot go beyond the work she and other historians have done. The result is excellent chapters on the relationships of women with the devil and with god. But difficult as it is to find work on unmarried women, there is surely enough to justify more than four pages and other occasional references devoted to this numerous group? Even cross-dressers merit two and a half and, intriguing though they are, they weren't so numerous.
But what Hufton does write about is more important than what she doesn't. From the start we can never forget the material reality, especially of the poor, of the worlds she describes: where ease was described as having enough bread for the household's survival, clothing was second, third or fourth hand and shoes an expensive luxury (as was still the case in poor urban and rural areas in early twentieth century Europe); ill-health, early death and deformity were normal - 'a man or women who was not pock-marked, suffering from vitamin deficiency diseases, congenital defects or industrial malformations counted as handsome'. Fear was all-pervasive: of harvest failure, pestilence striking animals or humans, and much more. For most people these fears diminished though for many they did not disappear over these three centuries. One thing that did not change was the rarity with which people washed. The difficulties of doing so for many are obvious, but it still comes as a surprise to learn that Louis XIII did not have his legs washed ('with tepid water') until he was five, in 1606, and did not have his first bath until two years later. Bathing was more common by the later 17th century.
Chapter one examines how women were represented in visual, literary, dramatic, didactic, medical, legal and other sources, beginning at the beginning. Popular depictions of Eve, in collusion with a snake with the face of a seductive woman, as responsible for the Fall of Man from the state of perfection, women responsible for the plight of helpless Man, appropriately open an ironic and elegant survey of a discourse largely constructed by men. Yet alongside models of passive womanhood conveyed in much solemn writing and enshrined in legal codes were the attractions of the Wife of Bath and her analogues in Dutch visual imagery. Though Shakespeare runs a genre of images of clever women, such as Portia, outwitting men, the complex images conveyed by those writers whose popularity has survived, suggests that they may have spoken to the complex consciousnesses of successive generations. An ideal was always set before women, but it was not universal, and we cannot judge the variety of ways in which they received it.
An important component of the ideal was marriage and motherhood as woman's destiny. For this younger women prepared. Trained in the home if they were better off, or through work if they were not; work in the household in southern Europe, in the north in paid work, often domestic service which also enabled them to save for marriage which customarily occurred in the mid-twenties (but much earlier in the south, at least in the early part of the period). Hufton well describes the complex world of women's paid and unpaid work, and the clear and early established gender division of labour in both.
She conveys the variety of reasons to marry - financial security, dynastic arrangement, need for care in sickness and much else but finance over-rode all. And the variety of relationships within it. The 'economy of expedients' in which the poor perpetually struggled might necessitate flexibility. Hufton gives an example of a family in late eighteenth century rural Wales, following terrible harvest. The wife told her husband:
I'll make a bargain with thee: I'll see to food for us and both the children all winter if thou, in addition to looking after the horse, the cattle and pigs, wilt do the churning, wash up, make the beds and clean the house.
He did, she knitted wool and they survived. The vivid, well-chosen example is an important and effective component of Hufton's technique.
Few married women could be idle, save, if they chose, at the highest social levels. If they could afford servants for housework, running the household was to participate in running the business enterprise of an artisan or farmer. If they could not, domestic work was heavy and time consuming:
By the end of the eighteenth century a working class woman in cities and towns would spend up to two hours a day queuing for water and carrying the pails home...Mediterranean women waged a continuous battle against bedbugs and insects were everywhere..simple meals could demand abundant ingenuity and even keeping the fire fuelled was another time-consuming task.
For poor women this did not change until well into the twentieth century. Modern studies which seem to show that women spend as much time on housework as they ever did take too little account of how its nature has changed.
In the nature of things not all marriages were even tolerable, but lived out 'in an unremitting hell' from which the relatively high probability of widowhood was a relief. The near impossibility of obtaining divorce - enforced by men who had never been abused or suffered an unwanted pregnancy - is vividly surveyed. So is the legal treatment, and glimpses of popular perception of rape, prostitution and extra-marital sex in the 'guilt culture' which officially pervaded early modern Europe.
The chapter on witchcraft cuts with characteristic sharpness and clarity through the clichés about witch persecution as a sexual power struggle in which powerful women were crushed by men, drawing a no less dramatic but more complex picture in which the shifting obsessions of the Church inter-related with local and personal conflicts.
For me however the most powerful and original chapter concerns the relationship of women with the churches - though as a modern historian there may be things that I have missed. Without question religion framed the lives of everyone. The churches worked hard to regulate gender roles as they sought to regulate everything and did so in such a way as to ensure the subordination of women. At this general level Protestants and Catholics differed little. Yet Catholic convents offered women an alternative to marriage and childbirth and the opportunity to develop scholarly and artistic skills. Women formed orders, such as the Ursulines which enabled them to work out in the world as teachers and social workers. When the Ursulines were confined in convents from 1612, another order the Sisters of Charity soon emerged to take on their role and grew rapidly. Through the Roman Catholic church large numbers of women initiated and participated in a highly professional way in a range of essential charitable initiatives, with which married women, who were not members of religious orders might be associated. In France from the late 17th century single women were trained by the Church as beates, to live alone in villages as ancillaries to the priest providing social work and religious instruction apparently successfully. Hufton points out that by the Revolution about one in 120 Frenchwomen was committed to a life demanding celibacy and charity and involving a clear social purpose. Florence Nightingale commented that if Britain had admitted the Sisters of Charity her own efforts would have been unnecessary.
For all the limitations the Catholic Church provided women with roles which women 'seeking to maintain a dignified single state' in Protestant Europe might well have envied. Protestantism rejected convents and celibacy. It offered some women other opportunities in particular encouragement of literacy and self-expression often through writing. The Dutch Calvinist church admitted women as deaconesses and after 1630 they could preach. Some English sects encouraged assertions of female equality (early evident among the Levellers). The Quakers in particular encouraged philanthropic work. So even the Churches played a more ambiguous and more positive role than might be expected in the complex changes that affected women in early modern Europe.
Hufton also discusses women as writers and as rioters, always making us hold on the our sense of proportion when other historians are losing theirs: pointing out for example that although it is very easy to become entranced by the pervasiveness of 'riot' when that is what you study, the vast majority of Europeans lived their lives without encountering one. She concludes by tracing the involvement of women in the French Revolution: initially supportive and hopeful, in the end resistant to the failures of the Republic for attempting to destroy the certainties of their lives whilst replacing them with nothing. For this 'women' were blamed for undermining the Revolution, as male Republicans displaced from themselves blame for the mess they had made of the republic. Once again, remarks Hufton, Man blamed Eve for shutting him out of the earthly paradise. There is a parallel in the habit of left politicians, historians and sociologists in twentieth century France and Britain of blaming female conservatism for electoral failures, which more often than not are the result of the blunders of politicians.
Having started out with criticism of sweeping narratives of progress or decline, Hufton is, in the end, properly cautious. It is too complicated a story to be encased in simple interpretative boxes, and too much is not yet known. But the volume certainly does not fall apart into random anecdotalism but greatly enriches our understanding of gender relations over time. The bibliography will need tidying up in the next edition, and the chapter called 'Parenthood' in the reference section appears, more accurately, as 'Motherhood' in the text .But these are minor problems. Above all, it is very enjoyable.
It is very gratifying to respond to Pat Thane's very positive review of my book because she has raised issues that I considered very important and captured what I intended to be the spirit of the work. My purpose when I embarked on the enterprise reflecte d my own personal predilections as to the kind of history I wanted to write. My book on women would be one which located them in a particular material world, one whose members, perhaps divided by class and to some extent by generation, were endowed with a particular intellectual baggage, and so I would explore the limits of the possible for women in particular, but obviously to an extent for men too, within that context. A fundamental point of departure for me was to convey a multiplicity of experiences t hus avoiding any notion that any woman could represent all women. I wanted to capture some of the negotiations implicit in human existence: or "the interaction between beliefs of what was appropriate to men and women and what occurred in the practices of everyday life".
I also engaged in an attempt to bring together the work of several generations of scholars from different countries and blend them into a continuous narrative, distinguishing the usual from the unusual, and trying to balance continuities with change. O bviously, then, this work aspires to be something of a state of the art book as well as the work of someone who has worked in crime records and more obviously socio-economic data but it owes much of its content to archival work done by past generations of historians of both sexes. Some of the works were not necessarily specifically dedicated to the history of women.
For example, the work would have been impossible without some demography or without the incredibly rich studies of family life generated by Lawrence Stone, or Jean Delumeau's works on fear and sin and guilt and my debt to Braudel is patent. Whether or not women are absent from his grand narrative and his works are concerned with the stomach rather than the mind, he endowed my book with the material context it needed and made one think about Time and Times and by extension generational experience which could differ whilst the overarching conditions remained the same. I have consciously endeavoured to integrate Big issues and the Big Historical Interpretations of such scholars into my interpretation because I believe the time has come (and there are so me very gratifying signs if one looks to religious history or the history of industrialisation, that this is beginning to happen ) for the history of women to enter the grand narrative of history and if this work advances this process I shall be well pleased. However, and in no way secondary, the book does also draw upon a new and fertile imput by women historians and I hope that my rather long opus is a celebration of that endeavour. What has been done was crucial to the enterprise.
Pat Thane says I "throw down the gauntlet to currently influential approaches", that is to those who would urge a more "theoretical" approach and insist a literary text and a historical text can be subjected to the same rules of analysis. That was les s my intent than to raise questions about how far such an approach can take the historian who wants to answer the kinds of questions I raised - questions such as the nature (possibly changing) of work, the human repercussions of slump, the evolution or c ontinuity of attitudes as revealed, say by large numbers of trial records, rather than by merely the legal treatise or the dissection of a single case. There is always room for debate on history and theory and indeed quite a lot of it has already taken p lace on the relationship of history to literary and gender theory with protagonists such as Joan Scott, Louise Tllly, Michelle Perrot and Eleni Vrikas. My stance is simple: I confess to discomfort if I am not able to talk of human "experience" or "real pe ople" and regard myself as under no compulsion to write history to conform to any particular theory. I cling firmly to the principle that there is no single way to write history or that any single, obligatory theoretical schema can perpetually sustain a d iscipline whose very strength and fascination and ultimate readability is its diversity. That said, I do think social and cultural history ( and I do regard my book as both) has profited considerably from the "linguistic turn" of the past decade in that a consciousness of language which define and constructs has added an important tool to the historian's equipment. I consider, for example that some of the work of Lyndal Roper and Laura Gowring and of young historians such as Ulinka Rublack and Monika Mom merz on early modern German lawsuits owe much of their originality to their concern with the language of the trials. I also welcome the bridge that literary theory has helped build between History and Art History. If a picture can be read it becomes a hi storical document - "only connect" as John Shearman said. An appreciation of the iconography of Charles I has for example added a new dimension to that monarch's ideas of absolutism. I do not think that I could have written the first chapter of this book "Constructing Woman" without the kind of awareness of visual and linguistic representation generated over the past decade.
However, I think it important to distinguish between notions of womanhood in word and image and actual experience. To conflate the exhortations of prescriptive literature (thou shalt and thou shalt not) and the practises of everyday life is a distortin g exercise. The Introduction to the Devout Life Of Saint Francis of Sales (l6l9),for example, one of the most persistently reproduced good conduct works up to the 20th century, was allegedly written for a court lady who circulated in an environmen t of intrigue, lust and vaulting ambition - subsequently described in Saint Simon's Memoires. At the other end of the social scale , the cautionary tales embodied in popular prints may have been intended to warn against fornication and vanity as th e path to hell but they hardly eliminated these very ordinary vices. Yet this is not to deny the interest of prescription, its contribution to the history of the consumption of print : its endeavour to give people something to aspire to as well as its con tribution to a guilt culture.
My time frame was very broad. In the relatively "immobile" world of the early modern period this seemed desirable in order to have any idea of continuity and change. Pat Thane pointed out that the synthesis is regarded as a lesser art these days and t he short range monograph more appropriately the historian's task. Perhaps the historical world should be examining the consequences of "over focusing" and the abandonment of the long chronological spread even in much undergraduate teaching at the British University has followed the American example of modularity. Furthermore, under the pressures of research evaluation based on publication, intense focus can be the wise person's salvation. It does however, reduce a sense of perspective and can give rise t o unsound generalisation on what went before.
My canvass was very broad-extending, as far as I could manage, to western Europe, given the constraints of historiography. As I wrote, the wealth of publications produced was quite astonishing. When I first conceived the idea of writing such a work t here was next to nothing on prostitution: now there are significant particular studies. There was hardly anything on widows, mere fragments on domestic service and so on. The context in which I wrote the book was Florence, as an employee of the European U niversity where scholars of all the member countries of the Union meet, and where the wider Florentine community of women early modernists, annually inflated by visitors to the Villa i Tatti makes for an interesting mix. The book incorporates some of the magnificent writing done in the past decade in Italy on women which was new to me and which I have found very fresh and stimulating. Pat Thane (and also Anthony Fletcher in the TLS) regretted that I had not expanded on the implications arising from diffe rence between North and South (he spoke I think of 'polarities') for women. I prefer the word "differences" to polarities but even so setting North against South entails the question which North and which South ? The Mediterranean world is not one but hea vily regional. The dynamic of my narrative sought similarities and patterns and used contrasts, one of which was sometimes but not invariably, those between some northern and some southern examples. The histories of the women of the separate member states share much that is common - the Christo Judaic inheritance, that of the classical world which bequeathed legal, medical and literary conditions. In particular the great civic cultures throughout Europe had elites and working populations whose life styles and ways of thought were as conspicuous for their similarities as for their contrasts. Climate and physical geography were very different. Water management and the maintenance of terraces may have multiplied the load carrying done by women. Nevert heless, the labouring lives of peasants in areas or regions of mountains or heathland whether in North or South had something in common whether we speak of the Tras os Montes, the Tuscan Maremma, the French Massif, the Pyrenees (both sides) Kerry, Connaug ht and Donegal, the Scottish Highlands in that they were poor areas which produced migrants (over varying distances) who left their wives to cope with the farmstead while they were away. The strategies of survival, the economy of expedients, l'arte di arriangiarsi , as the Italians say when describing the multiple recourses of families using temporary and season migration, cottage crafts and begging rituals or forms of assistance which helped them to survive the year, could take different forms and have different constituents but usually at the centre and arranging her activities and those of the children was a mother. Neither straight geographical or national lines are invariably helpful. It seems to me that one can only speculate on differences i n spousal relationships attributable to Roman Law or practises. What is evident is that towards the end of the early modern period the economy of parts of Europe was changing at different speeds and a female labour market in conformity with the one visibl e in England, Holland and France, based first on domestic service was just beginning. On the other hand textile production on a putting out system certainly figured in certain Mediterranean cultures and in the case of Bologna, Florence and many areas in I taly produced the highest grade textiles ,before any competition from the North. Any comparison of North and South deals in phase differences as much as anything else.
I regret if my treatment of spinsters seemed a bit parsimonious. But it was a bit longer than four pages if one takes into account a long section on nuns as well as on women writers who turned to print to eke out a livelihood. Moreover, it is much more important for the question of the "woman alone" to be taken as a whole. Spinsters had much in common with widows as Mrs. Gaskell knew well (dependent on class of course) One of the main problems of separating out the historical spinster from the histori cal widow is the evidence. Demographers, usually helpful, are not of great assistance. They identify "a never married person" usually defined as someone over the age of fifty dying unmarried: they identify those who married twice making it clear how much easier it was for a man to remarry than a woman and hence suggesting some imbalance of opportunity. However, what they cannot do is tell how many of those dying unmarried had a long term relationship with a man and hence were not strictly alone or those w ho had a very short term relationship With a man who could de facto be in the same straits as the spinster. At the bottom of the social scale in the towns and yet more in the cities there were masses of cohabiting persons some of whom could not afford the costs of a wedding or, not having a dowry, thought it worth their while. One can identify the unmarried in domestic service and as family helpers and ultimately as recipients of charitable handouts. Lyndal Roper has pointed out that in Augsburg a single woman had to be under the protection of a man but cannot , or does not, say how this worked in practise. In fact, one has to wait for the nineteenth century for spinsterhood - the surplus woman question - to get a proper airing and the middle cl ass spinster will certainly figure prominently as actor in the next volume: so much I promise.