- English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers
The product of decades-long research, careful thought, and wide reading in secondary literature, Barbara J. Harris’s English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550: marriage and family, property and careers is a deeply satisfying portrayal of the aristocratic women of Tudor England and the gender system of their social world. The study deploys massive amounts of empirical material with the grace of a skilled narrator but offers as well a sophisticated historical analysis. Readers will learn a lot from this book it is, to my mind, the best of its kind on this class of Tudor women and they will enjoy doing it.
The book is organized around life stage and social functions, first moving chronologically from childhood through widowhood and then following the women as they exited the domestic household, the center of their lives and the source of their power, to join wider kin networks and the world of high politics. Each of these chapters is full of fascinating, often clarifying, and cumulatively convincing detail. We are given precise accounts of women’s property rights and how they acquired them; we are shown how women protected and deployed them. We see them interacting with their children, stepchildren, husbands, siblings and patrons, and we are frequently able to hear them tell their own stories about love and friendship, enmity and revenge, ambition and success. We watch them put their social connections to work in order to advance sons or daughters, further a husband’s interest, and look after their own affairs. Despite this resolute focus on the details of individual lives, this is not anecdotal history; nor is it microhistory. Rather, the book deploys the methodological tools of traditional social history at its best, by systematically collecting, closely analyzing and rigorously ordering data. The result is a collective biography of rare texture.
Harris tends to let her material speak for itself, but she nevertheless pauses to set the record straight from time to time. Thanks to her research it will no longer be possible to argue, for example, that aristocratic mothers and fathers of Tudor England were incapable of forming strong emotional ties with their children, no matter how unlike ours their childrearing practices were and no matter how different their emotional makeup might have been. Nor will we be able to dismiss these women as frivolous adornments to (or childbearing machines for) the men who took center stage in politics. They had, she insists, legitimate careers, putting highly developed skills to useful social work and receiving recognition for their contributions. Nor will be we be able to see their marriages as oppressive and affect-less unions, however carefully arranged by families to serve their own social and political interests.
Although Harris intends to restore to these women an agency that “women-as-victim” versions of women’s history has denied them, she fully acknowledges that they were subject to a powerful patriarchy. They thus lived as what she calls “double subjects,” that is both as subjects of action and as subjects of men. Harris’s goal is not to excuse this patriarchal system but to show how it was constructed, to expose its inner workings, and to reveal that women willingly enacted its logic. She demonstrates that these women, although confined to a very particular [End Page 1105] place in society, wielded enormous influence within it. They were rich and their riches were protected by law and kinfolk alike. They were granted unambiguous authority over their huge households; they managed their daughters’ upbringing largely without male supervision and partnered with fathers in rearing sons. They made a significant impact on high politics both by manipulating personal connections and, more directly, by making their homes nodes of national politics. In short, the disabilities of gender were so nicely offset by the advantages of class that the system’s many contradictions could be safely ignored and its oppressions largely unacknowledged.
As elegantly as the book fulfills its objectives, it leaves...