The Early Modern Precariat: Women in the Precarious Household Middling

*Trigger Warning: mentions of coercive control and financial abuse*

Woman with Broom. Dummy Board at V&A. Although this image is of a wealthier woman than our examples, she is said to represent ‘industry’ by her broom. Women of precarious middling status were certainly industrious! For a discussion of these kinds of images see: Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2017), p.228.

Women in early modern England occupied positions across the “middling” scale.  There was no singular “female experience” in this period, but a rich and varied spectrum—one in which women suffered at the hands of patriarchal ideologies but in which many women still had degrees of economic independence and cultural and sexual agency. 

This blog explores the complexity of two women’s experiences of their social worlds and the precarity of their positions.  Precarity was a fundamental feature of early modern social status, with individuals socially mobile both upwards and downwards.  Young individuals could be well-poised to establish themselves in a trade or profession, but their advancement was by no means guaranteed. Similarly, in a period in which credit and reputation was all-important, few were ever entirely safe from social and economic deterioration.

Our social groups calculator, launched last week, sets out new social status categories for early modern England. In compiling it, we took into account different gendered experiences as well as different life-stages: things were complicated in the period because a young apprentice (ostensibly in the “latent/emergent category”) might come from almost nothing, or they might be the younger son of gentry parents who had helped start him in a powerful and potentially lucrative trade (such as merchant or haberdasher).  Similar complications exist within the “precarious household middling”: individuals in this category had the run of their own household and likely had an income derived from their trade or other practices, as well as through domestic production of foodstuffs or goods. 

Such a position was not always dependent on a male head of house or a “nuclear family.”  Certain widows and older, socially-established single women sometimes fell into this category.  They held property (either owned or rented), derived an income (from land, some form of trade or production, or taking up a late husband’s trade and/or his apprentices or shop, or other small inheritance), yet their independence was not future-proof. Various factors, including legal costs, rent, wages or trade disputes, and reputational damage, could jeopardise a woman’s station.

This blog introduces two examples emerging from Middling Culture’s archival research that demonstrate the real-life consequences of social and economic precarity for those within the “precarious household middling” group.  It looks at two means of precarity for the women in question: i) marriage coercion and ii) wage holding and worth.

1. Marriage Coercion in Yorkshire: Hanson and Turnar

In 1568, Isabelle Hanson was subject to a marriage validity suit before the Consistory Court of York (an ecclesiastical court that dealt with “spiritual” infringements, including behavioural offences such as adultery or marriage disputes) (CP.G.1406, 975, 1008).  The testimonies, known as depositions, from such courts are not straightforward or direct examples of words spoken by the individuals in question; rather, they were generated “collaboratively” by the subject, scribes and clerks, and/or legal intermediaries.  Yet they can be treated as examples of real actions, situations, and sometimes of quoted speech.[i]

 In Hanson’s case, the court wanted to establish whether she and George Copley were legally married—something that could occur in this period without a formal church wedding but via a “contracting” or “handfasting” in pretty much any location, provided sufficient witnesses were present and the correct words were spoken and tokens exchanged.

Although a singlewoman, it seems Hanson had some stable living, including a “farmhold” (a small piece of farming land) which she used to make money, on top of other unstated forms of income.  It is possible that this financial situation led Hanson to value her independence or for her to wait, as we might put it now, for the right man to come along—or no man at all.  In any case, her testimony in the court suggests she was in no rush to settle into a marriage: she claims she had previously “contracted” herself to another man (Stephen Trygot), who then promptly disappeared for some months.  Convinced he would not return (and seemingly relieved at the fact), Hanson perhaps thought she was free of undesirable couplings.  But she explains that her uncle then impatiently forced her hand in marriage, declaring his insistence (perhaps as someone with financial and/or familial authority over her as guardian or head of household) that she marry George Copley. 

Despite the “handfasting” ceremony having gone ahead, the Consistory Court process allowed Hanson the chance to revisit the “oaths” sworn.  She and her representatives understood the dynamics of the court; Hanson undermined the validity of the contract by explaining that she was “soo constreined by her said uncle” when she spoke the words of marriage, suggesting they were not spoken freely and willingly.

Other individuals who testified in the case shed some more light on Hanson’s situation.  Copley was the servant of a seemingly unscrupulous local landowner, Gervaise Bosvile, with whom Hanson was presently at suit over her farmhold.  Copley himself told the court that she held the lease from Bosvile, who was her “Landlord,” and that there was “a suit made by … Mr Bosvile against her for a farmhold (and that rightfully).” He minimises the significance of this legal clash by suggesting that the farm in question is “but a small part of her living.”  In other words, she could do without the extra income because she had, he stated, “living elsewhere.”

Copley’s words paint a fascinating, if enigmatic, picture of Hanson’s social situation. According to him, she had a “living” (perhaps an allowance or inheritance, or perhaps a trade), happily supplemented by the profits of agricultural land rented from a local gentleman.  Her situation seems almost comfortable.

Other comments paint a different picture.  Although Copley minimised the significance of the legal suit over the farmhold, numerous depositions imply that Bosvile was blackmailing Hanson into marriage by using her lease to the farm as leverage.  Bosvile had repeatedly approached Hanson trying to broker a marriage with his servant Copley (for what reasons remain unclear).  Hanson’s interrogatories (the list of questions posed on her behalf to deponents—those testifying) suggest she was “afraid.”

These claims of fear would mean Hanson was hardly financially stable and suggest that she required the farm’s income to stay afloat.  Perhaps Bosvile knew this.  Hanson’s uncle told the court that once she and Copley were married, “Mr Bosvile said that he would discharge her of all suits and other troubles.”  This implicitly-detectable economic abuse indicates how single-woman-run households could be capable of a comfortable “Living” (as Copley puts it) but equally how such comfort or security remained contingent upon patriarchal power structures and institutions such as marriage.

Other examples of economic marital coercion arise from the York Consistory Court.  Most egregious is the case of Christina Turner of Hutton Cranswick in 1593 (CP.G.2671 & A).  Turner explains that she and her late husband were tenants of “a cottage in Fosen belonging to Christopher Bell, father of … Richard [Bell]” at the time her husband died.  They “had no interest therein but at the good will and pleasure of the said Christopher, under whom they held the same from year to year.”  This married couple were part of the “precarious household middling,” with no long-term claim or contract to their place of residence, though they seemingly ran their own house and presumably paid rent.  Within three days of her husband’s death, Christopher Bell came to the house and “discharged her of the same and cruelly threatened her that she should not tarry there except she would grant her good will of Jane Stocke[r], her daughter, to Richard Bell [his son].”  This court case appears several more times in the records, with both Christina Turnar and Jane Stocker herself insisting that the landlord exploited the newly-widowed Turnar’s precarious position in order to manipulate her daughter into marrying his son.

This case demonstrates how it can be difficult to place women who occupied a grey line between “precarious household middling” and “dependent poor.”  Turnar and her husband remained vulnerable to the caprices and abuses of their landlord.  Their precarity also had an effect on others associated with the household, in this case on the young woman Jane Stocker. 

Yet the case also shows the complexity in questions of marriage and social status and the room for agency among those on the lowest rungs of the middling.  It is perhaps unlikely, given her mother and father-in-law’s financial position, that Jane Stocker had a significant dowry; however, because her mother had remarried it is equally possible that Stocker’s late father had a portion aside only for Jane; this would offer a further financial motivation for the Bells’ interest in a marriage.  In any case, the prospect of marrying the son of a substantial landowner could well seem an appealing prospect.  Yet Stocker prizes other questions, not least that of consent, above the match.  Her own deposition (included in an appendix here[ii]) is testament to the agency women sometimes displayed in the ecclesiastical court, using otherwise largely patriarchal legal structures to resist those with whom they did “utterly dissent a match.”  Although the outcomes of this particular case and Hanson’s above have not remained on the record, there are numerous examples where women who insisted upon their lack of true consent to a contract successfully had their marriage dissolved or annulled.

Ann Johnson, Testamentary Case, 1629

Ann Johnson was a widow and woman who sat on the wavy line between the dependent poor and the precarious household middling. The company she kept—of shoemakers, clerks, stationers, and clothiers—was solidly middling; she was able to live by her ‘handie labour’ in the service of one Thomas Deane and ‘hath wrought for day wages over fower yeares & […] her work is commonly stock cardinges’; she also had at least some furniture, ready money of around £3, a brass pot, and bonds in writing. However, she was keenly aware that this if she lost favour with Deane that she ‘might goe a beginge’.[iii] At the end of her life, Ann had the vestiges of what would have been a solidly middling married life – a chest, a coffer, a brass pot, bonds owed to her, and paperwork – but, she rented a room in a house and lived with some need to earn a wage to avoid falling into poverty, which was more akin to a wage labourer.

Ann’s master, Thomas Deane, went to Chester’s Consistory Court to dispute the distribution of Anne’s belongings at her death. The court wished to uncover whether Ann had been coerced into leaving her goods to her master, Thomas Deane, and whether she had made any kind of nuncupative will (a will declared by speech rather than formally written and signed). Thomas Deane, the master of the workhouse where Ann worked, claimed that she left all of her money and possessions to him, to the great distress of her family, and the detriment of her great-niece Margaret Plombe was the other possible beneficiary of Ann’s goods. The depositions given by witnesses on both sides of the argument give a fascinating insight into what the end-of-life of a precariously middling woman looked like: vulnerable and independent, but with enough stuff to be fought over.

Thomas Deane claims that in the presence of him and Gwen Evans, one of his wool carders, at his work house, Ann said that she would ‘leave all of her goods unto Thomas Deane […] wishing him to give something hee pleased unto Margaret Plombe daughter of Phillip Plombe’ and that ‘she uttered these words in earnest but whether to please […] Thomas Deane or not he cannot answere’. Gwen Evans, confirms this, saying that Ann:

divers times betwixt Christmas last and the time the decedent died […] Ann Johnson, being of perfect sence and memory did say & affirme that her master Thomas Deane should have all that ever shee had and wished that hee would give something what hee pleased unto Katherine’s Wench, meaneinge Margaret Plombe daughter unto Plombe, conditionally that he should keepe what hee gave her in his hands & not give it to her mother for she would spend it.

Her colleagues, then, were very certain that Ann intended to bequeath her possessions to her master, Thomas Deane, and that she spoke ‘in earnest’ and repeatedly whilst at work.

However, the court wanted to establish whether Ann was coerced by Thomas Deane, and responses to questions posed to other witnesses suggest her vulnerability. Elizabeth Quaile, another of Ann’s colleagues, says that ‘she is a hired servant’ to Deane and that she is:

uncertaine whether the decedent did speake in earnest […] & saith the occasion that moved her to utter the words predeposed […] was that [Thomas Deane] asked her to whom shee would leave her goods & asked her what shee would leave to divers of her frends nameinge them & she said shee would leave all shee had unto him & none other.

Elizabeth illustrates a power dynamic between Thomas Deane as workhouse owner and Anne, which suggests the coercion Thomas Deane had over Ann’s public declaration of her wishes.

Those that socialised with Ann also told a similar story, with Alice Lea, who encountered Ann before the fire at the home of her niece Kathryn Plombe in St Mary’s parish, chester, believed that Thomas ‘hath not or ought not to have any of the goods of the decedent […] either by any pretended will or otherwise reference’. She’d heard Ann say that Margaret ‘shall have what I have’ but that she ‘did not desire them to be present as witnesses’. Thomas Fletcher, shoemaker, also present by the fire, agreed with Alice’s details, adding that Ann ‘confessed the said Deane had money of hers in his hands and yf shee shold take it out of his hands hee would let her have no worke & then shee said shee might goe a beginge’. Ann’s financial situation, however, remained murky, with others, who read her paperwork to her, claiming she had money owed to her too. Richard Moreton, a stationer who lived in the same house as Ann often ‘reade over the writings and bonds the decedent had for what money was owing unto her’ and often heard Ann say before him and his wife that Margaret should have her ‘brass pot’ and ‘all her goods’ and William Price, another literate man, provided the same reading service for Ann so that she could plan ‘when the sum was due’. Ann was, then, likely short on ready money but wealthier than her material circumstances showed, due to the debts owing to her.

Like Jane, it seems Ann’s position on the lowest rungs of the middling put her into a position where she was susceptible to exploitation from powerful men. She had enough wealth to make it worth Thomas’ time to fight the case to court, but not enough to live out her widowhood entirely comfortably. This tension is exposed by Alice Lea and Thomas Fletcher who demonstrate the powerful coercion Ann suffered through Thomas’ withholding of her wages; financial control therefore led to Ann’s public declaration of her wishes at work.

The last person to spend time with Ann before she died was Anne Fornby, her neighbour who recalls that, whilst she knelt by Ann’s bedside in the upper chamber of her house, she heard her say ‘good cousin Anne be good to my Peggie, meaning Margaret Plombe, a childe daughter to Phillippe Plombe & Katherine Plombe’. She also testifies to the coercion saying that Ann often promised ‘almost anybody something at her death’ and that she ‘did not with a full intent and meaning leave anything to the said Deane, but only to please him because she had work from him’. After Ann died, Fornby, being left with her keys, ‘tooke out thereof three poundes VIIIs & noe more’ from her ‘chest or coffer’ in order to keep it safe.

This is where the case ends, without a written resolution, but the fact that the dispute over Ann Johnson’s goods reached the early seventeenth courtroom is fascinating, when it was only in 2015 that Thomas’ type of coercion was acknowledged by the criminalisation of controlling behaviour. There are parallels between Jane and Ann: both were living independently and sought to maintain their status as single women; both had a small amount of wealth – enough for them to become the targets of more powerful men; both were subject to economic abuse; and their actions, words and mode of living were subject of consistory court scrutiny. Their precariously middling status, where they were able to generate enough income to live alone, also meant that they were at risk of falling into poverty, and their social networks were keenly aware of this fact in the depositions they gave. Despite this, it seems the consistory court valued and sought to establish consent—to determine whether yes really did mean yes in both cases, given the incidence of precarious, single women’s coercion in early modern England.

By Callan Davies and Hannah Lilley


[i] (For more on the evidential issues of depositions and their language, perhaps start with the work of Laura Gowing or Frances Dolan’s True Relations).

[ii] “…about a year ago, this examinant’s father-in-law died and her mother (being then left a poor, comfortless widow) was threatened diverse times by the father of Richard Bell, that unless she would maek them atch that his son Richard Bell and her daughter, [me], might be married together, he would put her forth of her house wherein she then dwelt and she would make up that match she should nto want anything that he could do for her, wherewith their said mother being moved, acquainted this respondent therewith and required her consent thereunto, whereunto this respondent did utterly dissent a match, which she altogether disliked, and told her mother that she had rather be buried quick than match that way. Whereupon her mother once or twice beat [me] very sore and said to [me] that she should have the said Richard Bell to her husabnd whether she would or not. And in so much that even this day twelve months past, the said Richard Bell’s father and Richar Bell himself and Mr Sadler, vicar of Foston, and two or three more dined at [my] mother’s house at Foston, and after dinner was done the said Bell’s father and Mr Sadler called on [me] to go with them into a lathe of Bell’s thereby, which [i] at first Refusing, [my] mother again threatened her to go with them. And thereupon she went with them into the said lathe, to whom neither before that time nor at that tyme, the said Richard Bell did ever once move a word to [me] for [my] consent or good will to marry him, until Mr Sadler the vicar commanded them to join hands…” ()

[iii] Chester Record Office WC 1629.

[iv]< https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-intimate-or-family-relationship#:~:text=or%20coercive%20behaviour%3A-,The%20offence%20of%20controlling%20or%20coercive%20behaviour,force%20on%2029%20December%202015.&gt;

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