By P.J.P. Goldberg
Introduction: Writing in 1995 on the theme of women’s history and economic history, Pamela Sharpe argued:
Immense strides have been made in the last 20 years in establishing women’s economic importance in the past. We must now rewrite economic history texts to reflect a different set of priorities. In doing so we no longer need to be hampered by overarching narratives of ‘continuity’ versus ‘change’. Both are keeping women in a contingent position. In a multi- faceted economy like that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some women’s lives saw continuities, others changed. What must concern us now is understanding these individual experiences within the broad framework of the economic past. In doing so we will certainly learn more about the complex characteristics of the economies and societies in which women – and men – lived and worked.
Sharpe’s chronological focus was on the pre-industrial and early industrial eras, but her words have pertinence for medievalists. On the one hand, her characterisation of scholarship on women in the economy as being focused on continuity versus change very much applies. On the other, her call for a fresh approach remains largely unanswered. The focus on recovering individual experience is, of course, not one the medievalist can easily accomplish, nor is it an invitation for articles on Margery Kempe or the Wife of Bath as exemplars of female business acumen in the late fourteenth century. This paper attempts to locate the study of women in the later medieval English economy within a wider historical context, drawing attention to the significant pioneering scholarship of numbers of women scholars associated with the London School of Economics in the earlier decades of the last century. It suggests that there is much to learn from their example and agrees with Sharpe’s conclusion about the ultimate sterility of some of the debates over the past twenty years or so. The way forward, it is suggested, is in moving away from analysing that which is measurable, and so supposedly objective, to attempting a more nuanced understanding of the cultural context in which women and the economy operated. En passant some observations will be made about recent trends in the UK higher education system and how these have impacted on scholarship.