Women of England

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In all ages and in all countries




Of Western Maryland College


Copyrighted at Washington and entered at Stationers’ Hall, London,
and Printed by arrangement with George Barrie’s Sons.

After the painting by W. P. Frith, R. A.

Pepys in his Diary, says: “Mr. Pierce, the surgeon tells
me that, though the king and my Lady Castlemaine are
friends again, she is not at White Hall, but at Sir D.
Harvey’s whither the king goes to her; but she says she
made him ask her forgiveness upon his knees, and promise
to offend her no more so, and that indeed she hath nearly
hectored him out of his wits.”


It is no slight task to follow out the windings of a single thread in the infinite weave of society and by loosing it from the general mesh to show how dependent is the pattern of life and custom upon its presence. Such a task was presented in the endeavor to trace along from remotest times to the present day the influence of woman upon the life and character, the efforts and ideals, of that race which has come to be known as English, although this name may not properly be used until time has spun into the vista of the past peoples as vigorous, if not influential, as the one that stands, the inheritor of their virility, at the apex of modern civilization, whose women, clasping hands throughout the British Empire, form a splendid chain of hope for womankind in all the world.

Whether or not continuity and sequence, relation and effect, have been maintained in the retraversing of the footsteps of woman in all ages of the history of those isles where femininity has flowered in the most gracious blossoms, it remains for the reader to say. Certain it is that unaffected pleasure has been afforded the writer in his attempt to draw aside the curtain that the muse of history jealously employs to shut from view the inner sanctuary in which she preserves those vital relics, the destruction of which by some inconceivable iconoclast would bring death to the world for lack of materials for reflection and inspiration. In treating of the prehistoric periods, although the brush necessarily has been laid broadly upon the canvas, fancy has been kept in the leash of fact, and imagination given no more play than its legitimate function. Still, the results of inquiry into the status of woman at this far remote period furnish a fulcrum upon which to rest the lever of investigation, in order to lift into view the strata of undoubted history of the periods immediately subsequent.

As fast as the widening of social interest afforded the materials for use, the writer sought to employ them, until, like a mountain rivulet, ever widening until it reaches the plain, he found himself embarrassed by the wealth of fact that told the marvellous story of the most notable emancipation in the history of mankind,—the complete separation of English woman from the trammels, inherent and environmental, imposed upon the sex. If the successive chapters disclose the philosophical relations of woman in society, it will be because the reader has not failed to grasp the fact that in any such theme as the one treated mere continuity of subject matter would constitute a chronicle and not a history; and that the writer, while seeking not to make obtrusive the connective tissue, has nevertheless given ample scope for the reflective mind to see that which has ever been present to his own.

As to the actual materials employed in constructing the book, it is sufficient to say that no important writer upon any period of the history of the British Isles or their people has been overlooked, and that the passing over of the political and constitutional phases in order to select the purely social has been an endeavor much furthered by the writers to whom reference is made in the body of the work, and many others who could not be mentioned without burdening the text. Each fibre of the thread of interest has been taken hold of at the point of its appearance, and then not lost sight of until the end. So that if one is interested in the subject of costume, he may find a full and accurate description of dress from the time when tattooing was deemed largely sufficient up to the period of the present, when the variety of feminine attire baffles description. But more serious subjects, such as woman’s rights, from the recognition of primal rights in her person to the setting forth of the modern programme under that description, are consecutively treated through the chapters.

A debt of gratitude cannot be discharged, but some recognition may be made of the author’s sense of the service rendered him in the writing of this work by Dr. John Martin Vincent, associate professor of history in Johns Hopkins University, whose courses in the social history of England furnished the first incentive to range in that field and a guide through the labyrinth of manners and customs of the English people. Thanks are due to Mr. J.A. Burgan, whose close and careful reading of the proof is not the least factor in the presentation of the book free, as the writer believes, of the errors that only eternal vigilance may exclude.

Bartlett Burleigh James.

Chapter I

The Women of Prehistoric Britain

It is to the unpremeditated contributions of savage and barbarous conditions of existence that we must look for those primal elements of social order which became fundamental in English life and character. Insomuch as those contributions are intimately connected with woman’s life and work, they must be sought out and set in order if we are to trace the development of the status of the women of Britain. In doing this, the confines of history proper must be disregarded and the inquiry commenced at the earliest period at which the student of the geology of Britain has been able to discover evidences of human occupancy of the country. If a consecutive account of the history of woman in Britain were intended, we should be content to begin the story with the woman of the Neolithic or Polished Stone Age, for to such remote times may be traced the stream of life and institutions in England; but, as we shall aim not solely at consecutiveness, but at completeness as well in our record of woman’s life in the British Isles, it will be necessary to go back even further into the geologic ages, when Britain was still a part of the mainland and its inhabitants the same roving savage tribes that wandered over all central Europe.

From those barren ages of the Pleistocene era, which were cut off from the Neolithic by great stretches of time that cannot be certainly calculated, and during which there was a lapse in the human occupancy of the country, little of value can be derived. Their chief worth for our purpose is the picture which they present of the initial stage of human organization, the study they afford of woman in her relations to a thoroughly savage stage of society, an era of hunting—that of the Paleolithic or Rough Stone Age, when there was fixity neither of residence nor of relations, and when man’s contest with savage nature about him was dependent in its issues upon the slight advantage furnished him by the rude weapons that he fashioned from flint flakes. During the Polished Stone era, when inhabitants are next met with in Britain, the social organization presented is that of the pastoral stage, which marks a great advance over the hunting.

In all the progressions of uncivilized life, woman is but a part of the phenomena of her times, but in the history of English civilization she appears as one of its most active forces. These, then, are the two correlated views of woman in the history of English life that will be constantly held in mind during our whole study,—woman as a social fact, and woman as a social factor; showing her as a product, as affected by the customs, laws, or manners of a given time, and again as an influencing factor in the institutions or the manners of those times. Had her life been as circumscribed as that of the women of a cultured people, English civilization would not owe to woman the recognition which is her due as a creative force in the arts, in science, in literature, in religion, and in all the ever-widening circle of human interests. An understanding and estimate of her influence in these more conspicuous relations will depend upon a proper appreciation of the English home as the principal source of the English woman’s dignity and power. Much that has entered into the ideals of the English race can be fully accounted for only in the light of home ideals. By such considerations, then, as have been thus far set forth, we shall be guided in our endeavor to tell the story of woman’s life in the ages of Britain’s history.

The people of the earliest part of the Pleistocene age had no real home life, nor was there any social organization excepting that into which men were forced by the necessity for mutual aid in the struggle with the forces of savage nature. This element of self-protection was the only factor that entered into the organized life of those earliest inhabitants of Britain,—the people of the river-drift and the caves. In this combat between savage man and savage beast were produced the first instruments pointing to civilization,—weapons for defence and offence.

The life of woman among the men of the river-drift was of the most debased order. The only employment of the men was hunting the gigantic savage beasts that ranged through the forests. While the males were in pursuit of the rhinoceros, the lion, the hippopotamus, and the great antlered deer that were a part of the fauna of the whole of that section of the continent of Europe of which Britain in those remote times formed a part, the females roamed through the densely wooded forests whose only clearings were those made by the ravages of fire. Clad in the skins of beasts but little lower in the scale of being than themselves, and with their naked offspring about them, they wandered about in search of berries or, with no better aids than sharpened sticks, dug up the roots which they dried and stored for the days when the results of the chase fell short of the needs of the people. On the home-coming of the hunters to the place where, in their nomadic wanderings, they had erected temporary shelters, the women prepared the miserable meal. By skilfully rubbing together pieces of hard wood, a fire was soon obtained; if fortune had attended the chase, the hastily skinned animals were cut up with flint flakes, and the meat was thrown upon the stones placed in the fire for that purpose. There were no niceties of taste to be considered, so the half-cooked and badly smoked flesh was snatched from the fire and eaten with no more decorum than might be found in the meals of the cave-hyena that, under the shadows of night, skulked through the underbrush and noisily devoured the remnants of the hunters’ feast.

On the day following the hunt, the women undertook the arduous work of curing the skins of the slain animals. In the initial stage of the process they used stone scrapers, sharp of edge and probably set in bone handles. Hundreds of these implements have been found. The women acquired great dexterity in this, one of their customary employments; and while the men lounged about, resting from the fatigue of the hunt, or occupied themselves with painting their bodies with ochre, or tracing, with a splinter of stone, rude devices on pieces of polished reindeer antler, the work of the women went industriously on.

Men of such undisciplined natures as those of the people of the river-drift could not exist together harmoniously; very little, indeed, was necessary to embroil them in bitter strife. Their women were a frequent cause of bloody encounters, a circumstance which was due to the fact that there was no permanence in the relations of the sexes; such rights—seldom individual—to the women as were vested in the men were always those acquired by brute force, and held good only so long as the fancy or strength of the men permitted. In such a promiscuous society there was nothing to suggest the home of civilization. To men, women simply represented their chief possession and were held by them in common, like other forms of property.

Such an age was almost as barren of material utilities as of moral conceptions; so that one looks in vain for evidence of the knowledge of such arts as are commonly associated with the life of women in savage societies. Basket work, weaving, and spinning were occupations of which, it is thought, the women of those times knew nothing. Pottery was unknown; gourds served for drinking cups and for the holding of liquids, and were used also for cooking. Among the memorials of woman of these remote times appears no trace of the charms and fetiches which usually accompany the performance of domestic duties among primitive races. Nothing lower in the scale of human existence could be imagined than the lives of these women of the river-drift, to whom nature made no appeal save that of fear of its furious moods, to whom sex meant not the possibilities of pure wifehood and motherhood, but servitude to the demands of passion. When children were not vigorous, or when for any reason their nurture became irksome, they were ruthlessly slain, even by the mothers themselves; and every woman knew that the lot of abandonment was reserved for her when she could no longer fulfil the hard conditions of her existence.

In some respects, the life of the women of the cave-dwellers of the later Pleistocene period was of a higher order than that which we have just described—not that there was any essential difference in the social grade of the two peoples, but that the cave-dwellers had learned to make better implements of the chase and to fashion more effectively all their weapons and tools. The greater security to life afforded by these improvements and the greater assurance of subsistence led to more settled living, and thereby afforded an opportunity to develop a social organization that should have for its basis something of greater permanence than a temporary need. While it would be hazardous, then, to assume too much in the way of improvement in the life of the women of the cave-dwellers over that of the women of the river-drift, yet it should be borne in mind that in states of society such as those represented by these remote inhabitants of Britain, even a slight advance in the scale of living marks an epoch of progress.

The cave-dwellers succeeded the people of the river-drift as inhabitants of Britain, and the combined occupancy of the country by these peoples covered a vast stretch of time. It is very probable that their periods overlapped, and that the later people were in part contemporary with the former. Though the people of the river-drift and the dwellers in caves may have avoided intermixture, as have the Esquimaux and the American Indians, yet there is nothing absolutely to preclude the idea that such race distinction was observed during great periods of time. So that all we have to say of the women of the cave-dwellers may be equally applied to the women of the later times of the river-drift.

The cave-dwellers, like their predecessors, were hunters. For their dwellings they chose the caves from which they had driven out the bear and the lion. These rude homes the women hung about with the skins of the horse or the wolf, and spread on the floor for couches the hides of these or of other beasts that had fallen by the arrows of the hunters or had been ensnared in their pitfalls. Here the tribe remained until the scarcity of game or the assault of enemies impelled it to migrate. Where there were no caves, huts were constructed. These were framed with the branches and trunks of trees and covered with skins and hides.

The woman of the cave-dwellers was a sturdy specimen of her sex, and the long and arduous migrations in which the burden of the work fell upon her shoulders were probably borne with little sense of hardship. We can imagine a tribe, travelling afoot, for as yet neither the horse nor any other animal had been domesticated: the men with their long fish spears across their backs, their stone arrows hanging at their sides, and their bows in hand, always alert for the wild beasts with which they waged a relentless warfare; the women laden with all the paraphernalia of their simple existence, many with a babe slung at the back, and their naked, uncouth progeny following or gambolling about them. The strange personal appearance of both men and women would add to the oddity of the scene in modern eyes, for their bodies were painted in grotesque patterns, and, if the rigors of the season made any covering necessary, a simple skin, laced about them with reindeer sinews, sufficed for clothing. On coming to a fresh hunting region, near to some body of water or flowing stream, where the game would naturally come to slake their thirst,—perhaps upon the grassy plains that still extended over what is now the English Channel and formed a part of the original land connection with the continent,—they paused for another term of settled residence. Again the caves were resorted to, or rudely thatched huts were erected. If the wild beasts pressed the wanderers too hard, they sometimes had recourse to huts erected upon rough stone heaps in the midst of an oozy swamp.

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