The role of women in the debt and credit relationships in early modern Scotland is one that is only beginning to be uncovered. My research uses information contained in the Register of Decreets and Deeds for the burgh of Edinburgh to bring to light the many and varied ways in which women from all stages of the lifecycle – as singlewomen, wives and widows – participated in these relationships, as well as the economic roles which compelled them to do so.
The following transcription of debt cases is taken from the cases heard by the burgh court of Edinburgh and entered into its Register of Decreets (held in the Edinburgh City Archives) on Saturday, 26 March 1631. The court typically sat three days per week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with time off during periods of public celebration or mourning.
Vigesimo sexto Martii Im vic trigesimo primo
[Penman, Cathie, Dempster] The quhilk day Andrew Sympsone baillie sittand in Judget Decernis and ordains David Cathie baxter and Christiane Dempster his spouse to pay to Rot penman in mussilburgh twentie sevin pundis in compleit payt of ye pryce of certane aill furnisht be him to yame sen michelmas last be aith ye Rot Myller offr
[Hylburtone, Dicksoune] Decernis Johne Dicksone tailyeor to pay to Jeane Halyburtone ye sowme of Twelff pundis money for ye rest of ye witsunday termes maill 1629 zeirs of ane dwelling hous occupyit be him and sett be ye said Jeane Halyburtone to him be aith ye James Cochrane offr
[Duncane, Fairservice, Baillie] Decernis Agnes baillie to pay to Peter Duncane baxter and Jonet Fairservice his spouse ye sowme of sevin pundis ten schillings for ye pryce of certane bread and aill funisht be yame to hir ane zeir syne or yrbye be aith Duncane
[Bryssone, Fische] Decernis Thomas Fische baxter to pay to Issobell Brysonne wedow ye sowme of sex pundis auchtene pennyis for ye pryce of certane bread and lent money ane zeir syne or yrbye be aith ye george young offr
[Sympsone, Bell] Decernis James Bell candlemaker to pay to Stevin Sympsone candlemaker ye sowme of fyftene pundis fyftene schillings for ye pryce of sex stane ten pund weiht of tallowe cost and ressavit be ye said James Bell fra him at Mertymes last be aith
[Sympsone, Meinzes, Guthrie] Decernis Rot Guthrie cuik to pay to agnes Sympsone and Wm meinzes hir spouse ye sowme of thrie pundis ellevin schillings aught pennys in compleit payt of certane beir and tubbacco furnisht be thame to him half ane zeir syne or yrbye be aith Sympsone ye Alexr wood offr
Out of these six cases, three involve a wife appearing as either a creditor or a debtor with her husband, one involves a widow, and two involve a woman identified as neither a wife nor a widow. Wives living in early modern Scotland seem to have been constrained under what was known as the doctrine of coverture. This applied to wives living in a number of northwestern European nations in the early modern period and meant that women who were married could not act legally (which included entering into a debt) without their husbands’ consents. As a result, the role of wives in debt and credit relationships has, at best, been only alluded to or assumed. However, with wives being named alongside their husbands in these Scottish records, their role in debt transactions is more visible and discussion of the roles they might have played in these relationships is possible.
Consider the first case entered into the records on the date above. David Cathie, a baker, and Christian Dempster, his wife, are ordered to pay 27£ to Robert Penman in Musselburgh for the complete payment of ale Robert had furnished to them. The case thus concerns the straightforward provisioning of a household, an act in which a wife was permitted – and even expected – to take part. The case between Agnes Baillie, a lone woman, and Peter Duncan and Janet Fairservice, is perhaps more interesting. In that case, Agnes is determined to Peter and Janet 7£ 10s for bread and ale. Peter is identified as a baker, perhaps indicating that Janet had been the producer of the ale that was sold with the bread. Women were often responsible for the production of ale in this period, as it was both a time-consuming and intermittent process. In the final case entered on the same date, Robert Guthrie, a cook, is ordered to pay 3£ 11s 8d to Agnes Simpson and William Menzies, her husband, in complete payment of beer and tobacco furnished by them to him half a year previous. Yet in this case, Agnes’s name appears before her husband’s in the list of creditors. Further, her surname appears first in the names of those involved in the transaction which were listed in the margin of the court book. Finally, Agnes’s testimony seems to have been accepted as proof in the case, denoted by the phrase ‘be aith Sympsone’ (by oath Simpson). In this case, therefore, it seems likely that Agnes, a wife, was the prime mover in the effort to bring the case to court.
The other two cases which involve women acting as creditors show a widow acting as a moneylender, and a woman identified by no marital status, but certainly acting singly, renting a lodging to a man. Both of these cases serve to illustrate the role of women in two important economic roles that they performed in Edinburgh in this period. Single women, whether widowed or of no identified marital status, accounted for more than twenty percent of householders in Edinburgh in the 1630s, and they often rented out rooms, shops, booths and other properties to others. Moneylending, meanwhile, was a practice undertaken by women of all marital statuses in Edinburgh in this period, although widows and female servants (who were presumably young and unmarried) seem to have been more active in this pursuit than women identified as wives.
Dr Cathryn Spence earned her PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2010. She is currently employed as a part-time lecturer at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests include women’s economic roles, gendered divisions of work, and debt and credit relations in early modern Scotland.