Women and debt litigation in seventeenth-century Scotland : credit and credibility
Many scholars suggest that credit networks were fundamental to the operation of early modern towns. Unfortunately, the majority of this scholarship ignores the role of women in the debt and credit system. The legal position of early modern women and the nature of the available sources mean that women’s experiences are generally not documented in any significant numbers. Historians are therefore forced to speculate on how women might have been involved in borrowing and lending and often end up writing as though the female experience of credit was identical to men’s experience of the system. The records of the Baillie Court of Aberdeen, Scotland offer a glimpse at women engaging in debt and credit transactions in large numbers and pursuing transactions that went awry. This study looks at 671 debt cases brought before Aberdeen’s court system in two years in the late seventeenth-century and reveals that women participated in 46% of these cases. Similar studies, focusing mainly on England, have found female participation in debt and credit to hover closer to the 15% range. While there are some unique characteristics that might explain how Aberdeen would see more women becoming involved in the court system, there is little evidence that Aberdonian women were unusually active in the debt and credit system as a whole, in comparison to the rest of early modern Europe. Instead, Aberdeen’s court records reveal what was likely a very common, but undocumented, experience in the rest of the pre-industrial world. As a result of this unprecedented level of documentation, we see women involved who would otherwise be invisible to us. The Baillie Court shows married women involved in far greater numbers than either single women or widows, a fact which goes against the traditional image of single and widowed women as the only ones involved in the credit system through their roles as moneylenders. Instead, we find another level of women using debt and credit to secure goods for their households and participating in the economy of the town. We find that, although women were heavily involved in borrowing and lending, their experience of that system was significantly different than that of early modern men. The causes of debt and the amounts for which people would both sue and be sued were substantially different depending on one’s gender and marital status. While the statistics that come out of this study are impressive, the human stories are even more enlightening. By examining individual cases, we can see how women negotiated the debt and credit and how they shaped that system to their own needs.
credit networks, gender, law, separate spheres
Master of Arts (M.A.)