London women and the economy before and after the Black Death

London women screenshot

The twelve-month project aimed to shed light on the transformation of women's status and economic importance across the later Middle Ages. Rapid population growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries resulted in high population density, labour oversupply, and low wages, and as consequence most women enjoyed few personal freedoms and low status. In the mid fourteenth century successive outbreaks of epidemic disease reduced the English population by 30-50 per cent over the years 1348-9 and 1360-1. As a result, it has been suggested, acute labour shortages in urban and rural areas afforded women new opportunities as workers, increasing their social standing, particularly in the period 1380-1430. The abundant judicial and testamentary records of medieval London were used to compare the status and roles of women in the city economy of the 1320s, a period of labour-oversupply and low wages, to the 1420s, a period of labour shortage and high wages. This involved quantitative analysis of litigation in city and royal courts, as well as qualitative examination in the two sub-periods of the roles and status of women in the society and economy of London. Articles arising from the project have been submitted for publication. The project was graded as 'Outstanding' by the ESRC.

In the course of the project, the only surviving London Sheriffs’ Court roll, dating to Trinity term 1320, was re-discovered. This unique document details over 500 London civil disputes, 38 per cent of which involve London women, making it an unparalleled early source for the study of ordinary, lower class, London women as well as an important early legal record for the city of London as a whole. A translated transcript of this document is now available on British History Online. An index of the detailed cases from this roll has been deposited at the UK Data Archive under Study no. 6574.

Data collected in the course of the project from cases heard in the Court of Common pleas have been incorporated into the database created by an earlier AHRC-funded project, 'Londoners and the Law' . This dataset is now accessible via British History Online, the Institute of Historical Research's digital library of sources for British History.  'Court of common pleas: The National Archives CP40: 1399-1500'  consists of summary translations of pleaded cases, involving London litigants or disputed events supposed to have taken place at London, heard before the Court of Common Pleas in the years 1399–1409, 1420–1429, 1445–1450, 1460–1468, 1480 and 1500 (all dates inclusive). In total it contains approximately 6,300 pleaded cases, involving over 30,000 individuals and 8,000 events.


End of Award Report


M. Stevens, 'London Women and the "Golden Age": A Quantitative Analysis of Female Litigants in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, The London Journal 37.2 (2012), 67-88; M. Stevens and C. Beattie (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013); M. Stevens, 'London's Married Women, Debt Litigation and Coverture in the Court of Common Pleas', in M. Stevens and C. Beattie (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge, 2013), pp.115-132.

Project details

Researcher: Matthew Stevens, B.A., Ph.D.
Grant Holder: Professor Matthew Davies,
M.A., D.Phil.
Funded by: Economic and Social Research Council (Award Ref. RES-000-22-3343) (1 February 2009-31 January 2010)
Amount Awarded: £81,349