- Mother and Sons, Inc.: Martha de Cabanis in Medieval Montpellier by Kathryn L. Reyerson
This book will be of great interest to scholars interested in practical evidence for women's exercise of agency in the late Middle Ages, and for how women negotiated the limitations placed on them. It is also an illuminating example of how relatively technical primary sources can be synthesized to create a case study of a particular social and economic setting, that of an 'urban merchant family of the 1330s and 1340s' (p. 7).
Martha de Cabanis (c. 1295/1300–c. 1348) belonged by birth and marriage to Montpellier's mercantile elite. The early and unexpected death in 1326 of her husband, a mercer, left her with three young sons to provide for and a business to manage. It is precisely because of this that Martha left a much greater documentary trace than would otherwise be expected, with several hundred Cabanis contracts from 1336 to 1342 contained in a single notarial register. In Mother and Sons, Inc., Kathryn Reyerson draws on those records to reconstruct Martha's business and real estate transactions on her sons' behalf as their guardian and eventual business partner, as well as on her own account. As such, this book functions as a companion volume to Reyerson's Women's Networks in Medieval France: Gender [End Page 239] and Community in Montpellier 1300–1350 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), which looked at the life and business dealings of Agnes de Bossones, a contemporary of Martha de Cabanis.
Reyerson has specialized in the social and economic history of Mediterranean France in the late Middle Ages, usually taking a localized and particular focus, such as trade, or banking. In Mother and Sons, Inc. she uses Martha's case to consider how far gender constrained women as economic and legal actors but also how women could be mobilized in families' interests. Chapter 1 sets the scene for Martha's life, with an overview of fourteenth-century Montpellier's political situation, layout, population, trade, and economic resources. Chapter 2 deals with Martha's family background and with the kind of childhood, education, and marriage arrangements she was likely to have had. Chapter 3 introduces Martha's husband's family and uses that context to explore how, in the absence of genealogical information, a family's history can be reconstructed through evidence of housing proximity and their business alliances and professional and legal ties. Chapter 4 draws on sources on urban domestic architecture and material culture to reconstruct the Cabanis's likely domestic setting. The notarial corpus that is Reyerson's main source cannot supply much detail about Martha's life beyond business, so chapters 2 to 4 are necessarily more speculative than they would be if Reyerson had also been able to draw, for instance, on letters or family chronicles. Chapters 5 to 8, focused on business, benefit from being able to make detailed use of the notarial records.
Chapters 5 and 6 explore the responsibilities that fell to Martha after her husband's death and the legal capacity she had to meet them, in theory and in practice. Widows like Martha enjoyed a privileged status vis-à-vis other women, particularly in southern France, but Reyerson cautions us against taking for granted the 'privilege' of agency for such women (p. 89). She also shows how notarial documents, which capture the interaction of customary and Roman law in practice, offer an excellent guide to a region's 'living law' (p. 87).
Chapter 7 gets to grips with the detail of the Cabanis's dealings in silk, linen, and mercery, examining their business strategies such as partnerships and use of credit, and Martha's role in these, especially before her sons could act independently. Chapter 8 covers similar territory but in relation to real estate, and here Martha is more visible as an investor in her own right. The chapter considers the reasons for women's...