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Mother and Sons, Inc.

In the late 1320s, Martha de Cabanis was widowed with three young sons. Mothers and Sons, Inc. shows how the widow Martha maneuvered within the legal constraints of her social, economic, and personal status and illuminates the opportunities and the limits of what was possible for elite mercantile women.

Mother and Sons, Inc.
Martha de Cabanis in Medieval Montpellier

Kathryn L. Reyerson

2017 | 264 pages | Cloth $69.95
History / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Chapter 1. Montpellier in the Time of Martha
Chapter 2. Martha, Her Family, Their Social Rank, and Political Influence
Chapter 3. Marriage, the Groom, and the In-Laws
Chapter 4. The Cabanis House: Domestic Space and Possessions
Chapter 5. Guiraudus's Death and the Beginnings of Guardianship
Chapter 6. The Widow's Legal Position as Guardian
Chapter 7. Guardianship in Practice: Commerce and Industry
Chapter 8. Real Property
Chapter 9. Collaboration: Mother and Sons, Inc.

1. A Note on the Sources
2. Naming Practices
3. A Note on Money


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This is the story of Martha de Cabanis, a medieval woman of the mercantile milieu in the southern French town of Montpellier, a large commercial center of coastal Languedoc. Martha married, as did most of her contemporaries, but she was widowed early in the 1320s and left with three young sons, aged eleven, eight, and four. The extant written evidence records her actions as a widow and a guardian to her children and offers a window on the world of such a woman in that time and place.

Mother and Sons, Inc. falls within the wider historiography on medieval widows. In 1989, the Settimana di Studi of the Istituto di storia economica F. Datini in Prato, Italy, had women in the medieval economy as its theme. Odile Redon and others bemoaned the lack of focus on women as widows. In the ensuing decades, the situation has changed dramatically. Many of the newer works on women focus on the fate of medieval widows. Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Crown of Aragon have seen studies that deal, among other issues, with the role of the widow as guardian of her minor children and with the economic agency of widows. These works represent a useful continental counterpoint to the impressive literature on women in medieval Britain.

In the course of the present study, I will compare Martha's experience with that of widows and wives who have enjoyed detailed development in recent monographs and articles. From my own pen on the history of Montpellier, there are the elite widow Agnes de Bossones, guardian of her three young daughters, traceable through a lengthy widowhood; the real estate rentier and widow Maria Naturale, an in-law of Martha; and Maria Lamberti, another elite widow and guardian of her son, faced with financial challenges at her husband's death. Also treated is the married in-law of Martha, Bernarda de Cabanis, a mercer. Rebecca Winer has brought to life the experience in the town of Perpignan in Roussillon of the elite woman Raimunda de Camerada, widow of Pere, vicar, royal bailiff, and king's lieutenant, in lengthy litigation after her husband's death, and Sança, widow of Duran de Pererar. Marie Kelleher has written of Romia, widow of Pere de Grenolosa, stripped of the mas (rural estate) under her control at one point in her widowhood, and Blanca, widow of Guillem des Prat, in litigation over her late husband's estate. For Marseille, Susan McDonough has given us Silona Filholine, often in court to defend her assets. And in a northern European comparison, Shennan Hutton has traced the career of Mergriete Scettorf of Ghent, first as the wife of Frank van der Hamme, a well-to-do baker, then as a widow, and finally after she remarried.

Much of our knowledge of medieval women comes from normative sources, legal codes and treatises, royal and municipal legislation, and prescriptive works, that is, literature that laid down authoritative rules or directions for how things should be done. These sources paint a somewhat negative view of what women could do in what was undeniably a man's world, the patriarchal and patrilineal society of the High and Late Middle Ages. But is this the whole picture? Documents of practice in notarial registers give us a window on daily life that requires revision of that rather stark portrait. This book traces the activities of one woman, Martha de Cabanis, wife and then widow of the merchant and mercer Guiraudus de Cabanis, using notarial evidence. Much of the past is unrecoverable, but occasionally there remain rich pockets of information that help us see a bit more clearly. It is important to complement the information from normative sources through examination of documents of practice. This case study of Martha attempts to do that through the invaluable legal and economic sources that have survived to shed some light on the urban inhabitants of Montpellier.

Still, the documentary record for Martha disappoints. We do not have Martha's marriage/dowry contracts or her last will and testament or the will of her husband Guiraudus, though we know he wrote one because there remains the trace of a receipt for payment of a testamentary bequest. Beyond this, we do not know the terms of Guiraudus's will though it is likely he named Martha as guardian of their three sons. She held that role two years after Guiraudus's death in 1326, when she appeared in the documents in 1328, the 1330s, and into the 1340s.

There remain no letters or diaries for Martha. The ricordanze of Florence come the closest to diary-like family records for the Middle Ages. One wishes for a counterpart to the Paston letters of fifteenth-century England or to those of Margherita Datini to her husband Francesco di Marco in the late fourteenth century, but there are none.

However, comparatively speaking, in terms of survivals of evidence for other medieval women, there remains considerable information about Martha's activities, particularly in the area of business, commerce, and real estate. What has survived for Martha are formal contractual documents, most of them surviving in one notarial register of 1336-1342, written by Guillelmus Nogareti, and a few scattered in other registers of Johannes Holanie. Like legal records, economic records tend to be formulaic, terse, and impersonal. Yet it is possible to tease out something of Martha's personality from the contracts that survive. For her family life and her personal possessions, the general historical context can provide insights. Her spiritual life remains an unknown.

The story of Martha de Cabanis fits within the legal culture of the kingdom of Aragon/Majorca and of southern Europe, specifically within the region of Roman law/written law that was the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity. Medieval society was a patriarchy, whether for peasant women or for urban women like Martha. Judith Bennett drew on Adrienne Rich and Allan Johnson for meaningful definitions of patriarchy. Rich saw it as "a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male." For a more recent definition of patriarchy, Bennett quoted Johnson: "A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered." The challenge of medieval women was to maneuver within the constraints of their society to achieve their aims. For the south of France, the particular brand of patriarchy owed a lot to Roman law heritage, but its influence was not universal.

While Roman law did not readily allow a widowed mother to be the guardian of her children, in Montpellier such was often the practice. One of the most prominent capacities in which women such as Martha appeared in business transactions was as guardian (tutrix) of younger children (under fourteen) or curator (curatrix), in the sense of advisor and caretaker, of older children. In this role and as executors of their husbands' estates, women were involved in the payment of debts, acquittals, real estate acts, in commerce, in finance, and in the apprenticeship of their children.

Martha encountered several challenges as a widowed mother with young children for whom she would act as guardian. Crown of Aragon scholar Marie Kelleher has outlined three choices a widow faced on the loss of her husband. One, she could enter a new marriage or join a religious community. Second, she could leave her dowry and dower in the marital estate for entry into her husband's lineage, deepening her links with his family. Third, she could set up an independent household. Regardless of her choice, Kelleher emphasized, "a widow had a legal claim to the ownership and management of her dowry and dower [in Montpellier termed augment] after her husband's death." Martha appeared to operate independently after her husband's death, but there is reason to believe she stayed in the family home. When we come upon her two years after her husband's death and then more consistently ten years into widowhood, there are no male relatives surrounding her. Those relatives I have hypothesized in Chapter 3 did business with her sons but were not involved in her household. As a result, it is likely that Martha was the head of household. She would never remarry.

This book is the story of what Martha did and what she may have done. Like many historians, I am fond of notarial registers because they contain a wealth of information about life in the Middle Ages. My study examines Martha in her various roles as daughter, wife, mother, and widow. Her challenges would be many: to raise and train her sons to carry on their father's business; to preserve that business until they were ready to take over; and to invest for herself. For this study of Martha's life, however, I will need to go beyond the notarial evidence, to speculate a bit, to contextualize, to recreate the urban setting in which she lived, with as much depth and complexity as possible for areas of her life that escape us. Martha's experience provides valuable information on the world of elite mercantile women in fourteenth-century Montpellier.

The most privileged status for medieval women was that of widow. For the first time in their lives, women were freed from the oversight of male family members, husbands and fathers, in particular, though male relatives could continue to offer advice. Widows might rely on others to represent them and to advise them in economic matters, but the decisions were theirs. Widows of Martha's station, the urban mercantile elite, could, if they chose, in the first half of the fourteenth century, be actively involved in the world of business. Just how the widow Martha maneuvered within the legal constraints of social, economic, and personal status lies at the heart of my investigation. The present study addresses the life of Martha, with attention to the broader historical context, and in comparison with men, in order to analyze and interpret her experiences and to take account of gender differences.

Martha enjoyed many advantages, as her late husband, Guiraudus de Cabanis, was a mercer and merchant who belonged to an extended merchant family and was a successful businessman. Guiraudus very likely thought enough of Martha's abilities to make her guardian of their sons in his will. She would serve in the capacity of guardian while her sons were under fourteen, the practical age of majority in the south of France, and then as curator until they were in their early twenties. Guiraudus had a well-structured business entourage and loyal partners Martha could rely on. Guiraudus's colleagues shared his confidence in Martha's abilities, and they clearly respected and supported her. As the widow of a prominent merchant, she profited from her high status but also from her engagement in the world of business.

Martha's life falls squarely in the first half of the fourteenth century, long after the center of gravity shifted from towns in the south of France dominated by noble courts of the dukes of Aquitaine, the counts of Toulouse, the viscounts of Narbonne, and the lords of Montpellier to an urban civilization of non-noble townspeople, still open to the cosmopolitan influences of the Mediterranean world but without the glamorous noble men and women of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries who figured in the historical documents as well as the legends of epic, romance, and lyric poetry. For Montpellier, there was a long line of seigneurial ladies, the dominae of the lordship of Montpellier (Ermessendis of Melgueil, Sybilla de Mataplana, Mathilda, duchess of Burgundy, among them), climaxed by Eudoxia Comnena, daughter of a Byzantine emperor and wife of the last Guilhem lord of Montpellier, Guilhem VIII, and later rejected by him. Their daughter, the tragic Marie of Montpellier, was abused by three husbands, the third being Peter II of Aragon, whom she rebuked roundly in her heart-wrenching will before her death in 1213. Women of the urban elite like Martha could look back on the heritage of these noble women.

Martha lived a century and more after the illustrious women above. When prescriptive literature emerged in the later Middle Ages, a domestic focus for married women of the urban elite was preeminent. Women of more modest social strata were also subject to the strictures of a society that, in assumptions and practice, privileged men. Older scholarship on women of the urban mercantile elite saw them essentially confined to household oversight and management, with little economic independence. In contrast, case studies of documents of practice such as that on Ragusa by Susan Mosher Stuard and recent studies on the Crown of Aragon and southern France have demonstrated that, even in the most patriarchal societies, women had options.

Revisionist studies have called into question the degree and nature of women's perceived inferiority in the Middle Ages, though in some respects medieval women are still a mystery after decades of modern scholarship. Medieval England is the site of the most focused debate about the handicaps for women resulting from patriarchal strictures. Marjorie McIntosh, who occupies a middle ground favoring greater agency for women, has usefully rehearsed the debate. Caroline Barron and Jeremy Goldberg take a rosy view of women's situation, maintaining that women electing femme sole status in England had an identity separate from their husbands and an independent economic and legal situation, with some limitations. On the other side of the debate, Maryanne Kowaleski and Judith Bennett see a continuous pattern of under-rewarded work for women with essentially no independent occupational identity. In her study of women in medieval London, Barbara Hanawalt finds wealthy women had considerable agency, while definitively putting to rest any fiction of a golden age. Scholarship on the Crown of Aragon and southern France has begun to engage with these questions, though from a less polemical standpoint, as the following chapters will show. Marie Kelleher and Rebecca Winer have confronted both the statutory prescriptions regarding women and their actions in practice.

The story of Martha is a history of women informed by but not focused on gender, one important aspect among several of significance for the study of women. Class and economic status mattered greatly as well. The field of women and gender has opened up a reconsideration of the paradigms for women's experience in the medieval era, particularly the patriarchy/patriliny paradigm that views the Middle Ages as a society where men controlled property and held power. Judith Bennett's History Matters argues for a continuing patriarchal equilibrium across all time from data based on wages and work. Bennett, among others, makes the case that medieval society was heavily patriarchal and women suffered from very serious disadvantages (social, economic, and legal) that meant that they played a limited role in society. I have argued that, while women were hardly equal to men, they could and did do a great deal more than many historians (and others) have thought, especially under particular circumstances, such as coming from wealthy families and being widowed. My study asserts that Martha was an impressive businesswoman as well as the head of a large mercantile household. Martha's lived experience in the first half of the fourteenth century will illustrate just how much women could and did do. Only with a body of case studies can we expand our understanding of the significance of wealth, social status, and gender for urban women in medieval Europe.

This book has three main goals. It seeks to demonstrate the "realized potential" of Martha de Cabanis's agency as representative of elite urban women, particularly as widowed guardians. Martha may have been extraordinary in her business acumen, but she was a woman of her time. The second aim is to offer the reader an entrée into the world of the urban merchant family of the 1330s and 1340s. The crises of the late Middle Ages had begun, but Montpellier still enjoyed a mature medieval urban economy prior to the arrival of the Black Death in 1348. And the third is to help the reader imagine the life of an urban mercantile woman in a large medieval city. Women often worked behind the scenes, escaping notice in the documents, but in the case of Martha we have significant details of her business involvement once a widow and as guardian of her sons.

Throughout the following chapters, politics, economics, and crises will be evoked as they fit into the chronology. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the town of Montpellier and the region in which Martha lived. An introduction to Martha, her family, and her early years with attention to her maternal and paternal lines will follow in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 deals with her marriage to Guiraudus de Cabanis and with her Cabanis in-laws. Chapter 4 evokes the family home, domestic space, and personal possessions. Chapter 5 focuses on Guiraudus's death in the tumultuous 1320s and the beginnings of Martha's widowhood. Chapter 6 addresses Martha's challenge as a widow in the context of the medieval legal environment, examined through statutes and a legal treatise, and sets the scene for her actions as guardian of her sons and on her own. The legal constraints on women's activities provide a context for Martha's actions as widow and guardian, with a resulting dialogue between legal prescriptions and actions in documents of practice. Chapter 7 deals with her role as guardian in actual business practice. Chapter 8 focuses on real property matters. Martha's dealings in real property on her own behalf and as guardian of her sons take us into the creation and maintenance of a landed fortune and her sons' expansion of their real property holdings. Chapter 9 traces the evolution of Martha's role from guardian to collaborator with her sons in business and as the mastermind of commercial, industrial, and real property investments. The medieval luxury trade in textiles was a Cabanis specialty. Martha's engineering for herself and her sons of the acquisition of bourgeois (burgensis) status in the Bastide de Beauvais near Toulouse represented a significant coup and a sign of major expansion of Cabanis business in southwestern France in 1342. Throughout the book and in conclusion, I will consider Martha in light of Montpellier women and medieval European women.

The decades of the 1320s, 1330s, and 1340s were a final moment of prosperity for the mercantile classes of Montpellier and a last gasp of women's agency before the onset of the late Middle Ages and early modern era, a contested period for women that saw the expansion of Roman law. We lose track of Martha and her sons in the mid-1340s, just prior to the Black Death of 1348 that caused the town to lose upward of three-fourths of its population. Were they its victims? No information survives to inform us. This book will tell Martha's story as it illuminates the limits of what was possible for elite mercantile women in the context of a patriarchal society, and that was a lot in the period prior to the plague of 1348.

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