Family Strategies in Medieval London: Financial Planning and the Urban Widow, 1123-1473
Steuer, Susan M. B.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 12 (1995)
In the Middle Ages, as today, the family was a varied and vital structure which functioned to serve its members in a variety of ways. The family was the basic financial unit, providing food, clothing and shelter. It also served as the social and spiritual base for the individual. Yet, like today, the family unit sometimes broke down, or was not willing or able to provide for all of its members. Being on one’s own was problematic for anyone, but particularly for women, who were more physically and legally vulnerable. In these cases, the church often stepped in, offering aid to women who did not have a family infrastructure to support them.
In London, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was one institution which offered such aid to women. Though we know that St. Bartholomew’s offered help to single and married women from its foundation book, these individuals are virtually invisible in the property records that survive. Widows are the most prominent group of women in hospital records, appearing as one of the major actors in at least 90 of the approximately 1650 transactions in the cartulary, because of their financial and legal responsibilities. Upon the death of her husband, a woman controlled substantial family property, often for the first time in her life. In London, this usually included the dower, consisting of at least one-third of the marital property which was to provide for the widow for the duration of her life. Widows were also allowed to remain in the homes they had shared with their husbands until they remarried or died; this right was known as free bench. It is these property responsibilities which make widows stand out in the records of St. Bartholomew’s. Such assets could give a woman greater freedom than she had ever experienced. On the other hand, they might prove to be a burden to women with little experience managing assets on their own, who were in ill health or who had large debts or family problems. Some widows appear to have turned to the hospital for help. In this paper, I will make some preliminary interpretations of transactions by widows recorded in the Cartulary of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.