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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe

Author's response


The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe. Volume One, 1500-1800

Professor Olwen Hufton
Harper Collins 1995

Professor Patricia Thane

University of Sussex

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 reflected 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 thus 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. Obviously, 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 less 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 continuity 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 place 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 people" 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 discipline 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 Mommerz 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 distorting 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 environment 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 the 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 the 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 to unsound generalisation on what went before.

My canvas 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 there 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 University 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 difference 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 heavily 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. Nevertheless, 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, Connaught 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 in 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 visible 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 Italy 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 historical 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 who 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 practice. In fact, one has to wait for the nineteenth century for spinsterhood - the surplus woman question - to get a proper airing and the middle class spinster will certainly figure prominently as actor in the next volume: so much I promise.

June 1996

Original review

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