ABSTRACT

In all three classes of industry women were employed as their husbands’ assistants or partners, but in the middle ages married women also engaged in business frequently on their own account. This was so usual that almost all the early Customs of the Boroughs enable a woman, when so trading, to go to law as though though she were a femme sole, and provide that her husband shall not be responsible for her

debts. For example, the Customs of the City of London declare th a t: “ Where a woman coverte de baron follows any craft within the said city by herself apart, with which the husband in n.o way intermeddles, such woman shall be bound as a single woman in all that concerns her said craft. And if the wife shall plead as a single woman in a Court of Record, she 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. If a wife, as 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 there­ of. . . . Where plaint of debt is made against the husband, and the plaintiff declares that the husband made the contract with the plaintiff by the hand of the wife of such defendant, in such case the said defendant shall have the aid of his wife, and shall have a day until the next Court, for taking counsel with his wife.” 1

The Customal of the Town and Port of Sandwich provides tin t “ if a woman who deals publickly in fish, fruit, cloth or the like, be sued to the amount of goods delivered to her, she ought to answer either with or without her husband, as the plaintiff pleases. But in every personal plea of trespass, she can neither recover nor plead against any body, without her husband. If she be not a public dealer, she cannot answer, being a covert baron.” 2 Similarly at Rye,

“ if any woman that is covert baron be impleaded in plea of debt, covenant broken, or chattels with­ held, and she be known for sole merchant, she ought to answer without the presence of her baron.” 1

In Carlisle it was said that “ where a wife that haith a husband use any craft wi,hin this citie or the liberties of the same besides her husband crafte or occupation and that he mel not wth her sayd craft this wife shalbe charged as woman sole. And if the husband and the wife be impledit in such case the wife shall plead as woman sole. And if she be condempned she shall goe to ward unto she haue mayd agrement. And the husband nor his guds shal not in this case be charged. And if the woman refuse to appeare and answere the husband or servand to bryng her in to answer.” 2

Though examples of the separate trading of women occur frequently in the seventeenth century, no doubt the more usual course was for her to assist her husband in his business. When this was transacted at home her knowledge of it was so intimate that she could successfully carry on the management during her husband’s absence. How complete was the reliance which men placed upon their wives under these circumstances is illustrated by the story of John Adams, a Quaker from Yorkshire, who took a long journey “ in the service of Truth ” to Holland and Germany. He describes how a fearful being visited him by night in a vision, telling him that he had been deceived, and not for the first time, in undertaking this service, and that all was in confusion at home. “ The main reason why things are so is, thy wife, that used to be at the helm in thy business, is dead.” Thoroughly alarmed, he was preparing to hurry home when a letter arrived, saying that all was well,

“ whereby I was relieved in mind, and confirmed I was in my place, and that it was Satan, by his trans­ formation, who had deceived and disturbed me.” 1

The understanding and good sense which enabled women to assume control during the temporary absence of their husbands, fitted them also to bear the burden alone when widowed. Her capacity was so much taken for granted that public opinion regarded the wife as being virtually her husband’s partner, leases or indentures were made out in their joint names, and on the husband’s death the wife was left in undisturbed possession of the stock, apprentices and goodwill of the business.