Streets Full of Suitors

Jonah Miller

  • BuyCity Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London by Eleanor Hubbard
    Oxford, 297 pp, £24.99, September, ISBN 978 0 19 872204 5
  • BuyWomen, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London by Tim Reinke-Williams
    Palgrave, 225 pp, £60.00, April, ISBN 978 1 137 37209 3

Is it not a prettie thing to carry Wife, Mayde, and Widdow in your pocket, when you may as it were conferre and heare them talke togither when you will? Nay more, drinke togither: yea, and that which is a further matter; utter their minds, chuse Husbands, and censure Complections; and all this in a quiet and friendly sort, betweene themselves and the pinte-pot.

Samuel Rowlands’s Tis Merrie When Gossips Meete (1602) tells the uneventful story of three women going to a pub: a wife, a maid and a widow. They drink, gossip (‘What is become of Jane?’ ‘Oh, she is gone to dwell by London-wall’) and reminisce (‘But, Lord, the prankes that we mad-wenches playde’), especially about drinking (‘No Musique in the evenings we did lacke,/Such dauncing, Coussen, you would hardly thinke it/Whole pottles of the daintiest burned Sacke,/T’would do a Wench good at the hart to drinke it’). They spend some time discussing who has the best lot: the maid has ‘sutors with gifts continuall’, the wife ‘Vertue in mine Apron-strings’, while the widow stays conspicuously quiet. As promised, they ‘censure Complections’ – ‘Ile never trust a red-hair’d man againe,’ one says – and debate wealth versus looks. The target audience is male, and Rowlands presents a fantasy of what women did when men weren’t around, but there are hints of lives and identities beyond marriage. The wife has to be persuaded by the widow to come to the alehouse rather than mind the shop, and at the end, when they leave in a huff, the widow declares: ‘We have some credit where we dwell’ and ‘We are London Gentle-women borne.’

Both Eleanor Hubbard and Tim Reinke-Williams emphasise that ‘sexual behaviour was not the only activity which determined female identity and reputation.’ They use court records to examine the lives of 17th-century London women who married and raised children but also worked and socialised. Poor and middling women are given the most space, partly because they show up more often in legal records, and partly because there were so many of them. Reinke-Williams is interested in what it took for a woman to gain a good reputation, through her conduct in and out of the house; Hubbard offers a ‘composite biography’ to describe the stages and challenges of a typical adult life. It goes something like this.

In her late teens or early twenties, a London woman tried to find work as a maidservant. She needed connections: family or former neighbours from her county of origin – most of the capital’s growing population were migrants – would find a household they approved of and give references to potential employers. Those without contacts were at the mercy of ‘woman brokers’, who were often suspected as bawds and, even if they weren’t, would rarely be able to place a maid as well as friends or relatives could. The work was hard and constant: cleaning, cooking, childcare, minding the master’s shop, shopping with the mistress, repairing clothes and doing the laundry. If she was thrifty and diligent, a maid could build a reputation which would help her to the next job; but if she stole, invited strangers (especially young men) into the house, antagonised or brought shame on her employers, she’d be thrown out. One maid, accused of setting fire to her master’s house, called witnesses who defended her ‘very good reputation’, said she had been ‘well educated in the Protestant religion’, and backed up her alibi: she ‘had been that day with her master and mistress at Church’. Another, on trial for theft from three employers, was found to have impersonated more reputable maids to get each job.

The worst thing a maid could do was get pregnant. In 1600 there were more men than women in London (though by 1700 that was no longer the case): the street was full of potential suitors, as were the alehouse, church and household. Susan More, servant to a bookseller, was seduced by Thomas Creede, a married printer who did business with her master. He ‘began to praise the handsomeness’ of More: ‘I will give her a pint of wine,’ he said, ‘for that she is so like my first wife.’ His flirting continued: ‘He asked Susan her name, and when she told him, exclaimed that he had a sister by that name.’ Eventually he persuaded her to go to the King’s Head on Redcross Street, respectably accompanied by her master and mistress, and stole a moment to promise her he’d ‘come again and … give her as good a breakfast as ever she had in all her life’. Susan told her mistress, who ordered her ‘not to go to him nor with him if he came’. But one morning soon afterwards the mistress came downstairs to find Susan gone. The pair were discovered back at the King’s Head and rebuked. But Susan continued to disappear for drinks with Thomas and, one midsummer night, had so much wine that she ‘was drunk and sick withal’, whereupon he took her to an alehouse run by ‘widow Grimes’, laid her on a bed to sleep and ‘had the carnal knowledge of her … body’.

From then on he sent boys to lure her away from her work, and became angry when she resisted. When she told him she was pregnant he rejected her: ‘Go seek you another father to your child if you will, for I mean not to father it. I will shift it off well enough, and my wife will help to clear me of this matter and to shift it off as she hath shifted me of such matters as this is before now.’ Susan was packed off home to Cambridge, but the winter cold made the journey by wagon unendurable so she stopped at Ware. Few would take in a solitary pregnant woman, but ‘one old Mother Cop’ put her up for five nights until word got back to her mistress and she ‘got herself secretly away’. She ‘walked up and down the streets one night’ and ‘could not get a place to lie in of a great while, but lay abroad in the streets’, eventually returning to London. Thomas, hearing she was back, ‘began to swear a great oath’; when confronted by Susan’s mistress he said ‘I will not be gulled!’ and refused again to have anything to do with her. Susan was lucky. Her employers, together with Thomas’s wife (who despaired of her husband’s philandering), took him to court and forced him to cover Susan’s costs for a month before and after the delivery, and to pay for the baby to be put out to nurse in the country. He tried to blame Susan’s master (‘Do not thy master love thee? His wife is a foul sow and if I had so pretty a wench in my house as thou art I must needs love her’), but when she named Thomas as the father ‘in her greatest pain and extremity of childbirth’, the case was settled. She doesn’t appear to have been whipped as a bastard-bearer, and found service with a stationer once she had recovered. Thomas Creede was prosecuted for bastardy.

Most women were able to find better suitors. The most useful assets were looks, health and a dowry. For many, the dowry consisted of little more than their clothes, but clothes could be valuable and allowed women to display their eligibility – fine clothes were often sold off when a couple actually married. Men were expected to make the first move, but maids found time and place for private meetings; couples ‘walked abroad in the fields together, drank wine in taverns, and stole moments here and there for whispered conferences’. The men would hand over gifts – knives, gloves, purses – and eventually couples made a contract, exchanging rings or splitting a piece of gold. Parents and employers assessed the finances and reputation of the bride or groom to be, but arranged or forced marriages were rare at the lower end of the social scale: clothes and a few shillings were changing hands, not swathes of land. Complications arose when a maid fell for an apprentice, since he couldn’t marry until he gained his freedom (some apprenticeships lasted seven years or more) and would have his apprenticeship terminated, a disaster for his career, if found to be romantically involved. Some maids simply couldn’t wait, not least because marriage was the only respectable way out of service; some apprentices backed out for fear of discovery. Almost all London women managed to marry eventually (in the countryside as many as one in five didn’t); the few who remained single often ended up on the margins of society, perhaps becoming ‘woman brokers’, drifting in and out of prison and living ‘idly and carelessly up and down’.

Marriage brought respectability – ‘Vertue in mine Apron-strings’ – but also responsibilities which, if they weren’t effectively managed, could damage a woman’s status. Wives were expected to defer to their husbands, but also to advise, and to reform men who overspent or slept around. They had the support of the community, since husbands who spent their money ‘abroad’ or committed adultery threatened to burden the parish poor rate with their families or bastard children, but the line between ‘gentle advice’ and scolding was thin. The statutory punishment for scolds, the cucking stool, a kind of see-saw with a chair on one end in which a woman would be held up for public humiliation before being dunked in water, was rarely used, but men accused of wife-beating defended themselves in court by accusing their wives, in turn, of scolding or shrewishness. Men who were bossed around by their wives (those who ‘went britchless’ in their own homes), or had been cuckolded, were sometimes mocked in ‘ridings’ or ‘skimmingtons’ – noisy parades in which neighbours expressed their moral disapproval by banging on pots. A wife was expected to be a good hostess and welcome guests warmly, but overfamiliarity could breed suspicion. She should drink in moderation to be sociable, but too much might lead to what could be seen as lewd behaviour. She should kiss men to greet them, but what kind of kiss?

The idea of the good wife was closely related to that of the good mother: a woman who risked her life in childbirth and raised her children to be virtuous; a respectable figure whom others might call on to arbitrate in neighbourly disputes and who would intervene in the lives of her children when they were older to deal with difficult employers or provide refuge from a bad marriage. Yet, as Reinke-Williams says, ‘approximately a quarter of all marriages in early modern England were childless.’ Male impotence was a common theme in popular literature, but in practice women were usually held responsible. Being a ‘barren bitch’ meant being associated with adultery, and women often took extreme measures to prove their fertility. In 1677 a London midwife tried to fake pregnancy ‘by wearing a small pillow’. She acquired a child’s corpse (no questions asked), feigned labour and produced it as her own. She wanted ‘to satisfie her husband … who was very impatient to have a child’.

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To make ends meet many women needed to work, typically as retailers: those who told the courts they were entirely maintained by their husbands were proud but rare. Some ran stalls in the designated market areas, but many hawked their wares informally, marching through streets and squares shouting (‘Hot grey pease, and bacon!’). The civic authorities tried to outlaw street-selling or control it through licensing, and the women involved were often accused of vagrancy, theft, prostitution, alcoholism, spreading disease, blocking the streets or general ‘gadding’. It was important to be careful about one’s appearance. Flirting could help business: Samuel Pepys went to the New Exchange off the Strand ‘to see handsome faces, and did see several’, and bought ‘a pair of gloves trimmed with yellow ribbons’ for twenty shillings from a woman ‘so pretty, that, God forgive me I could not think it too much’. On the other hand, making oneself alluring suggested infidelity and wasteful spending of household resources on frivolous clothes.

Some women worked in alehouses, running their own premises or working for husbands and masters. The alewife was a complex figure, crucial to a neighbourhood’s social life, but too close to drunkenness and its attendant sins for comfort. Mother Bunch, a cheap print character famed for her joke-telling, appears in one book as ‘dainty welfavoured, well proportioned, sweet complexioned’, the ‘most delightfull hostesse of England’, ‘an excellent companion … sociable … very pleasant and witty’; a few sentences later she brews ale that makes young women pregnant and blows up Charing Cross with a fart. Women who ran alehouses or took in lodgers were responsible for what young women did under their roofs. A good reputation could be made by the matronly oversight of chaste, hardworking girls who went on to marry respectably, but a single misdemeanour by one of her charges could lead to her establishment being compared to ‘widow Grimes’s’ brothel.

Although a desperate few did turn bawd, most widows were able to survive by legal means: they ran their late husbands’ businesses, worked as charwomen or reluctantly returned to the subordination of service. Twenty per cent of English widows remarried, either to widowers as wealthy as themselves or to bachelors who might give them a little more authority – though sad stories circulated of wild young men sleeping around and frittering away in a week what their older wives had saved in a decade. High mortality rates meant there were many young widows, who were likely to remarry: turnover was especially rapid in Whitechapel and Stepney, where the wives of sailors found themselves widowed again and again. Taking another husband was sometimes construed as a betrayal of the dead one, or as a sign of lasciviousness, but since pauper widows burdened the poor rates it was usually accepted as a necessary evil. Women with new husbands could gain and lose reputations in much the same way as marital novices.

Hubbard argues that the community’s ‘economic order’ was very often prioritised over ‘sexual order’. The civic authorities, the courts and informal neighbourhood arbiters wanted to keep parish poor rates low, not least because the wealthier and middling sorts of men who worked in the courts and arbitrated locally were the ones who paid those rates. The best way to reduce costs was to minimise the number of dependents on parish charity. Hubbard says this could work in women’s favour: women with illegitimate children were a serious burden, as were those whose husbands failed to support them, so spendthrift, violent and adulterous husbands were frowned on, work outside the home was tolerated as a necessary evil and men who fathered bastards were forced to pay for their upkeep. But if rape didn’t lead to pregnancy it was rarely prosecuted, and reconciliation was favoured over separation from even the most abusive husbands.

Women’s reputations were double-edged. Reinke-Williams defines ‘what it meant to be an honest woman of worth, credit and good repute’:

a ‘fruitful’ mother who ‘gave suck’ to many children; a ‘loving’, ‘provident’ and ‘careful’ wife … who was ‘skilful in buying anything in the market’; ‘a very great painstaker’ who ‘rose very early in the morning and sat until it was very late at night’ to ensure the success of the household economy … and who was ‘of honest name fame and reputacon’.

Each of these images could easily be inverted, and the dark side was inevitably sexual. The London woman was hemmed in by thin lines, across which she was always in danger of slipping. The ubiquity of the word ‘whore’ in court records is not misleading: good sexual behaviour may not have been the only feature of a good reputation, but sexual misbehaviour would destroy that reputation instantly. Tis Merrie When Gossips Meete ends on a sour note. The three women realise they are being laughed at: ‘Talke not so loude, what will folke thinke that heares?/The very Vintners Boy laugh’d when you spake.’ The widow is furious and tries to reassert her status – ‘Wee’le pay for what we take … know smooth-fac’d Knave, I am your Mistresse fellow’ – but the damage is done. They leave, their fragile private idyll undermined by a male observer who thinks, like the author and his intended male readers, that women talking and drinking together are a comic spectacle.