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Journal of Women's History 13.2 (2001) 58-79

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From Mere Survival to Near Success:
Women's Economic Strategies in Early Modern Portugal

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira

Abstract: This article looks at the varied ways in which women in early modern Portugal dealt with regulation of their trades. Using archival sources from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century municipal collections that cover the area from Aveiro to Porto in northern Portugal, the present study shows that women did not always allow city ordinances to go unchallenged. In fact, evidence suggests that many women were prone to transgress or circumvent local laws to maximize their profits. Although the records only refer to those caught by municipal officials, the great number of infractions recorded in municipal books on an almost weekly basis reveals that the market woman of early modern Portugal--the regateira--proved more troublesome to local authorities than historians have acknowledged in the past.

IMAGE LINK=As was the case in most of Western Europe, women in early modern Portugal rarely obtained positions of public authority. Portuguese women did not, for instance, hold office in town or city councils, the government bodies whose decisions most directly affected the early modern urban population's daily lives. A select number of men made the official decisions, yet the application of their decrees was often a troublesome exercise. In matters of regulating the local economy, officials could not count on strict adherence to or general acceptance of their policies. As workers and consumers significant to the local economy, women were at the forefront of the often contentious relationship between the governor and the governed. Municipal records indicate, in fact, that although Portuguese women were excluded from officialdom, they were rarely intimidated by it.

Intimidation, in certain instances, propelled women to higher levels of confrontation. One such example is the case of Maria Rois, a cod merchant from mid-seventeenth-century Porto. 1 In 1648, she took Porto's town officials to court in Lisbon over a cargo of 943 quintals of cod that William Grim, English master of the ship called Hope, had brought into Porto from Newfoundland. 2 Rois had had a contract with the city to merchandise a portion of this cod, but officials canceled her contract after they received another merchant's higher bid. After several rounds of talks in Porto failed to resolve the problem, Rois proceeded to the capital city's high court, and on 17 August 1648, the court ruled in her favor. 3 Although the transaction between town officials and Manoel Rois Hisidro, the competing merchant, [End Page 58] had been formalized and entered in customs books, a subsequent note written in the margin indicates that Rois had won the contract. 4

Rois was not a typical seventeenth-century woman, in the Portuguese context or elsewhere. Little is known about her personal life--nothing on her marital status or family connections has been uncovered--but official documents suggest that she was a prominent wholesale cod merchant. Customs books show her dealing with large fish cargoes during her forty-year career between 1639 and 1679. In her 1648 legal challenge, she had dealt with 10 percent of the cargo, or just over 94 quintals of cod. But on a couple of occasions, the entire cargo of fish arrived under her name, including a shipment of 680 quintals of cod in 1658, worth approximately 1,822,400 réis (£860). 5 For mid-seventeenth-century Europe, this was a substantial volume for any merchant, male or female.

If Rois's business was atypical, so was her battle with Porto's city council. The majority of disputes recorded in municipal records involved merchants at the retail level, petty traders who hawked everything from wafers for the Eucharist to milk and eggs from neighboring farmers. In those cases, we get a glimpse of the constant struggle between authorities wanting to maintain certain standards and small-scale dealers trying to eke out a living, reflecting Portugal's heavily regulated local economy. Officials were especially concerned with inadequate...


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