Winner of the Ronald S. Love Prize (2009)[2]

Credit is the lifeblood of economies, and the pre-capitalist economy of eighteenth-century rural France was no exception. Credit was fundamental for peasants in conducting their daily transactions. In this article, I investigate the system of credit in a rural area in northeastern France during the eighteenth-century and analyze not only the patterns of capital circulation and investment, but also and more importantly for my purposes, women's role in credit markets. Through quantitative and qualitative analyses of the extant notarial records, I seek to examine the mechanisms of the credit market in order to discern a general pattern in the local economy. The result is a social and economic perspective on credit history through the prism of gender analysis.

Despite the huge number of loan contracts in French archives, especially for the eighteenth century, historiographical lacunae still exist concerning the activities of both peasants and women in the credit market.[3] Some economic historians have studied early modern loans for cities such as Paris, and a few have focused their attention on small villages.[4] Finally, historians have analyzed specific features of the credit market, such as patterns of capital circulation and investment, for instance, but have remained silent about women's participation in this system.[5] Julie Hardwick focuses on notaries in Nantes and comes to significant conclusions about women in the notaries' families.[6] She has also analyzed the social aspect of the credit market among the urban workers in Lyon and Nantes.[7]

Many specialists argue that pre-capitalist societies were necessarily patriarchal mostly because the means of production and organization of labor were owned and controlled by male heads of the household.[8] This theoretical model implies that domestic labor confined women to the home. Therefore, so the theory goes, this pattern of labor separated both women and men into two antithetic and supposedly hermetically sealed spheres, private and public. Because it has long been assumed that patriarchy was maintained by male monopolization of the "public" sphere, and therefore of market relations, demonstrating the existence of significant female activity in the latter would prompt a re-thinking of the reach of patriarchy in real lives. In early modern Europe, patriarchy is usually described as a social organization marked by the supremacy of the father and husband in the family, the legal dependence of wives and children and even younger men, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line. Here I challenge this model by showing that a close association between men and women based on relatively equal terms in the credit market was the basic mechanism of social interaction in the village. [9]

The primary goal of this article is to examine the link between the credit market and female peasants, combining economic perspectives and gender analysis. How did marital status influence capital investment? How did women manage to invest their money in the credit market, and why? Who were the female borrowers, and what led them to borrow money from their neighbors? What does the credit market say about women's place within the society and their own community?

Female Peasants, Patriarchy, and the Rural Credit Market

The Sample

I have examined 1,801 loans contracts in the two seigniories of Delle and Florimont. The registers exist almost continuously from 1733 to 1789,[10] and they are very well preserved. I have studied all the loans available in the notaries' records for this period. In each seigneurie, there was only one notary or tabellion during the eighteenth century. Tables 1 and 2 provide general information about the documents; "percent of exchange" refers to the volume/proportion of money exchanged in the credit market. Therefore, this sample is quite comprehensive. Each contract usually contains the names of the borrower(s) and the creditor(s), their places of residency, any family relations, the date of the contract, the size of the loan, its duration, mortgage, guarantors and collateral—if any—and, finally, the interest rate. These kinds of contracts, called obligations, are generally short and rarely reveal the purpose of the loan or the occupation and age of the signatories.[11] The deed signed at the notary office represents a written guarantee for the lender that he or she has lent a certain amount of money with interest that could be binding in court in case of default.[12] Both parties kept a copy of the deed, as did the notary. I focus specifically on obligations here as apparently they were the most common.[13] It does not appear that peasants, both female and male, whether in Delle or Florimont used rentes. I found a few for the period just after the Thirty Years' War mixed in with other documents, but I did not find complete and significant registers. The number of rentes was too small to constitute a significant sample.

Credit, Patriarchy, and Gender

Money, investment, and negotiations are terms usually associated with the public sphere, which is commonly believed to have automatically excluded women. However, we find women taking part in the credit market, and not just wealthy widows, as we might expect. In theory, women were under the authority and protection of the head of the household, that is, their fathers or brothers and, later, their husbands. In both the Florimont and Delle seigniories, women reached majority at twenty-five. If by that time they were not married, they could, in theory, manage their property independently.[14] Married, they were under the authority of their husbands. However, their lineage property could not be alienated without their consent. Thus, the ability of married women to act for themselves economically was restricted, but we will see that they occupied a very strategic position as an economic partner. Nothing in customary law prevented women from borrowing and lending money, and women, whatever their marital status, appear to have been very active in the credit market. One notes, for example, that the percentage of women involved in the credit market as debtors increased throughout the period in both seigniories (see Tables5 and 6). The percentage of female creditors was also significant, but was more likely to change over time. Despite the lack of study of women's role in the credit market, women as debtors or co-debtors appear to have been key to credit market vitality. Indeed, the results of this study show that women contracted alone or with others more than half of the loans in the records I have analyzed—especially married women (Graphs 1 and 2).

A married woman apparently had no obligation to sign a loan along with her husband, despite the community property instituted by marriage. However, the wife's presence on the deed offered more guarantee to the lender since loans had to be paid even after death. If the husband died first, his widow and/or his children would still have to repay the lender.[15] The wife's signing gave more confidence to the lender that he would recover his money, thus encouraging him to provide capital to a couple. Julie Hardwick suggests that a female's participation added their lineage property to the assets against which an unpaid debt could be recovered.[16] Therefore, as a couple, such borrowers could have access to cash and increase the household capital and asset value while enhancing their dependency on each other. Yet it was also risky if they could not meet the deadline for repayment; Hardwick implies that women could lose their lineage property.[17] However, a wife could seek the separation of her property from her husband's before a judge and thus spare her own capital. A husband acting alone could also contract loans, but he would have to repay on his own and, in theory, could not pretend to include his wife nor her lineage property in the deed.

The proportion of married couples borrowing money increased surprisingly throughout the eighteenth century. This suggests not only the importance of guarantee, but also the crucial role of wives.

The percentage of married couples that borrowed money increased at the end of the eighteenth century mostly because the mechanism of the credit market changed. Indeed, at the beginning of the period, the data show that money was lent with large mortgage guarantees, mostly specific pieces of land. At the end of the period, land value did not seem as attractive as before, mostly because, I argue, much of it had been already mortgaged.[18] In the 1730s and 1740s, most of the contracts contained specific mortgage guarantees while at the end of the period, the notary noted laconically, on most contracts that the debtor(s) would mortgage "tout ses biens tant meubles qu'immeubles." This does not necessarily mean that borrowers stopped putting their land on the deed as a mortgage guarantee. Rather, it indicates that the contracts became vague and, more importantly, borrowers had to bring a third-party underwriter with them. After the decade of the 1760s, most of the deeds mention a third party underwriter. In case of no repayment, justice would intervene and sell the property until the debt was repaid and would likely turn to the collateral to secure repayment as well. After 1760, most of the contracts specify the name of an underwriter, a member of the family, or a neighbor, and stop specifying which land would be mortgaged. Perhaps debtors had no more property to mortgage or not enough to match the amount borrowed, or maybe the creditor wanted more guarantee in case of no repayment, as the justice records indicate an increase in the number of non-repayment cases.

On the other hand, collaterals and guarantees offered by women's lineage property were in high demand because, in case of no repayment, the creditor could have access to other sources of liquidity instantaneously without having to cope with land deflation or already mortgaged property. In addition, the loans contracted became bigger, and borrowers did not perhaps have enough property to match the amount of money lent.

As Graphs 3 and 4 indicate, women's lineage property became interesting to creditors. We should note that the switch in guarantee pattern was abrupt and sudden. Something critical was happening around 1760. The economy of the two seigneuries had mutated. The demographic pressure was more intense and the price of la quarte de blé médiocre increased (1760, 55 sols la quarte; 1770, 110 sols la quarte), and the lands had already been mortgaged.[19] The structural economic patterns had changed, and this was expressed directly in the credit market: Mortgaged lands no longer represented enough guarantees, and married women's property (mostly plots of land) now represented a better guarantee.

Mortgage guarantees decrease after the 1760s and relate directly to the meaning of the household and husbandry. Indeed, after 1760, peasants not only had to add their wives' lineage property to the deed, but also had to find, in most cases, a third-party underwriter. The lands were already mortgaged, and the creditors needed guarantees to secure their transaction. Males were no longer in command of their households. Their guarantors possessed external control over the household's husbandry, and their wives had to play a more critical role in the household's management. From then on, economic partnerships between spouses became even stronger.

Consequently, men had to establish a better partnership with their wives and manage their household conjointly. A married woman could decide to oppose the signature of a deed and, in theory, she could not be compelled to sign. If the deed became too risky, she had the option of withdrawing her lineage property and seeking a separation of property from her husband's. The fact that her lineage property and assets were at stake did not represent a reinforcement of patriarchy, but rather a breach in it.

Women as creditors

On 7 May 1743 Margueritte Dermineur married her neighbor Jean Pierre Monnier, thus strengthening the ties between two important peasant families in the area.[20] Margueritte was the daughter of Pierre Dermineur, mayor of the village of Puis while her groom was the son of Jean Pierre Monnier, mayor of Suarce. Together, Margueritte and Jean Pierre would have five children, three daughters and two sons, before Jean Pierre died during the summer of 1754 at the age of forty-four. Margueritte's father died three years before her husband, leaving her part of his patrimony. Her father-in-law also died the same year as her husband. She alone was in charge of her household and her five children, and possibly she possessed sufficient resources so that she did not have to remarry.[21] We do not know when she died, but she appears to have been very active until at least 1783. Margueritte Dermineur was one of the most active female creditors in the seigneury of Florimont. She lent money to her friends, neighbors, and relatives for a total of 3152 livres, a very significant amount. All the contracts she signed show that she was clearly in charge of her household. On 7 April 1755, she lent 144 livres to her neighbor Henry Moitrissier, a young man who wanted to buy two new steers. He agreed to pay her back in two years and mortgaged some of his lands to secure Margueritte's transaction. On 12 February 1763, she agreed to lend 370 livres to her neighbor Henry Werther. He would pay her back in four years with interest. Ten years later, she lent 468 livres to a married couple of her village, Nicolas Frelin and Marie Voelin, stipulating that the money had to be repaid within two years. Her father, Pierre Dermineur, had already lent them money twenty years earlier. She trusted them and continued to maintain the link between their two families. On 10 September 1780, she lent 500 livres to one of her neighbors, a single woman named Catherine Grimont. On 2 April 1781, she lent 400 livres to a relative living in her village named Jean Pierre Fleury. Finally, on 15 January 1783, she lent 770 livres to one of her husband's relatives, Jean Jacques Monnier, which he would repay within three years with interest.[22] Her network of clients shows that she was involved in her community. She belonged to a network of sociability in which family relations (even in-laws), neighborhood, and friendship mattered. She lent significant amounts of money to people whom she knew, people from the village and family members. She was not ignorant of economic strategies as she negotiated all the deeds she signed (interest, mortgage guarantee, repayment schedule, etc). She represents perfectly female peasants who were involved in the credit market.

Female peasants could acquire property in two different ways: They could inherit from their parents or husbands (as Margueritte Dermineur did) and through their own labor (especially as domestic servants before getting married). The power to manage their property differed according to their marital status. In theory, single women had to be twenty-five-years-old to sign contracts and, therefore, be able to sell or rent their patrimony. Many of them would prefer to keep their small savings in favor of an imminent wedding and therefore attach their capital to their new households and to appear to prospective husbands as valuable matches in the local marriage market. On the other hand, spinsters who aged without marrying and thus had no children might decide to invest their modest assets in the credit market, perhaps to secure their old age.

Married women and widows had the same means to acquire property, but they also had a share of the possessions acquired during their marriages, that is, the acquêts regulated by marriage contracts.[23] In theory, their dowries would also revert to them if they survived their husbands. They could, therefore, participate in the circulation of money and capital, thus contributing to local economic growth. But on what scale and in what proportion?[24] The management of their own properties would likely lead them to the credit market. We might assume that lending money was an activity of the male public sphere, especially in rural areas where patriarchy was supposedly omnipresent and strong. Yet female creditors provided almost 24 percent of the total exchanges in Florimont and 22 percent in Delle. In Delle, 23 percent of the creditors were women. Hoffman found similar results for Paris: 23 percent of lenders were female, and they provided 20 percent of the credit volume. Most of them belonged to the upper class or the nobility, though, and thus had a wider access to capital.[25]

Lending money in Delle and Florimont appears to have been a public activity within a small community. Indeed, considering the patterns of high endogamy and the fact that everyone knew everyone else, credit relations were highly personal and familiar. People in Suarce, for example, certainly knew that Margueritte Dermineur had sufficient resources to lend money. This local knowledge gave large lenders a certain authority and power within their own community. It is not unusual that wealthy people holding village offices (mayors, jurymen, bourgeois) are well represented among the top creditors of their seigneuries. This reflects clientelism. The credit market created a network of sociability in which strong ties of mutuality and dependency were established between debtors and creditors. Thus, creditors had a network of clients, and this network was useful to gain and exercise power within the community.

Here I must stress a particularly significant aspect of this rural credit market, that is, the situation of single women. They represent 11 to 12 percent of the credit market (in volume) as creditors. Indeed, they represented 11 percent of the total lenders in Delle and 12.2 percent in Florimont, and they averaged overall about 10 to 11 percent of the credit volume in both seigneuries. Usually their money came from their work as domestics or as part of their parents' inheritance. Banks did not exist in the countryside, and keeping large amounts of money at home, even hidden under the bed, was not safe. The alternative was making short-term loans, for perhaps a few years before getting married. Marie Margueritte Beune lent 512 livres in May 1745 to three different creditors, thus diversifying her investment. In November 1747, she married Antoine Betevy. When she married, she could count on the money she had invested in the credit market plus the interest. She brought to her new household a secured dowry, which had grown even larger thanks to the interest. Therefore, her assets remained safe and possibly generated a small profit.[26] In Florimont, to increase the safety of their investments, single women preferred to lend money to married couples. Pauline Vaicle signed twenty-one deeds between 1769 and 1783. Her investments enjoyed dual protection: she lent money to people living in the same village as her (eighteen contracts), and she mostly entrusted her funds to married couples (thirteen contracts). Pauline Vaicle was willing to lend money only to one other single woman from her village.

Surprisingly, widows were not among the most numerous female creditors as is commonly asserted.[27] Indeed, they represented only 6 percent of the lenders in Delle and 7 percent in Florimont, lending respectively 6 percent and 8.5 percent of the total amount of credit. Nevertheless, some of them accumulated significant capital, and one finds some of them, such as Margueritte Dermineur, ranked highly among the top creditors of both seigniories. As noted previously, Dermineur lent significant sums of money to people she knew and could perhaps enjoy their services and friendships. Over many years, she reinforced not only her own network but the one she inherited from her father. She was able to do so because she was better off, which was not the case with most widows.

To summarize, widows and spinsters had different sources of the capital that they could invest in the credit market. Widows invested money in the credit market because of their lineage property and property that they had inherited. It was also legal to inherit loans and interest as a creditor. Indeed, many marriage contracts mention obligations as gifts for future spouses, especially brides. In contrast, spinsters invested their savings and the fruit of their labor in the credit market.

Scholars such as Julie Hardwick have asserted that the presence of women in the credit market could threaten the patriarchal order of the society.[28] Peasants used the rural credit market to locate available funds in case of need, to save money for a while, and above all to help each other and to strengthen their networks. Rural communities in the eighteenth century offered a pattern of cohesion and solidarity that only started to break down in the last decade of the period studied as the credit market experienced a certain gentrification, that is, the appropriation of networks of clients and capital by the petty rural bourgeoisie.[29] In this context, women do not appear to have threatened men, but served as an additional guarantee for repayment of their debts and as an equal financial partner to their husbands. They were a threat to patriarchy inasmuch as they became equal economic partners.


This study shows how the credit system worked in a specific region of eighteenth-century France and what role women played in it. It has shown how female peasants invested their savings in the credit market and contributed to its vitality despite the weight of patriarchy and the dominance of their male counterparts in the public sphere. Before the rise of capitalism, women played a significant role in the circulation of credit in rural areas. A useful line of research would be comparing this analysis with research on the rural credit market in the nineteenth century to see how the mechanisms of credit and capitalism affected women's role and place.

Beyond the role of women in the credit market, some important patterns about the meaning of community and pre-capitalism are highlighted. The credit market offered a safe place to invest money with a small reward at the end. People in need could count on their neighbors and relatives to locate available funds. This early modern credit market was not impersonal. It tied people together and people knew where their capital was. They identified the reason why someone needed liquidity as well as solidarity and sometimes charity as the central pillars within this small community. Rural credit markets had particular characteristics that had nothing to do with larger credit markets such as the one described by Hoffman operating in eighteenth-century Paris. Capitalism in the nineteenth-century would change the characteristics of the credit market and women's role in it, and peasants would have to deal with impersonal banks.

    1. The author would like to thank the Department of History at Purdue University, the Purdue Research Foundation, and the Benhamou family for their financial support and their generosity. The author also wishes to acknowledge a particular debt to the work of and communications with James R. Farr, Julie Hardwick, Philip Hoffman, Melinda Zook, Amy Rogers Dean, and Jessica Nelson. In addition, the editors thank Philip M. Katz for assistance with the tables and graphs.return to text

    2. The Ronald S. Love Prize is awarded to the best paper presented by a graduate student at the annual conference on the history of France and/or connections between France and the wider world in the period before 1800. Made possible by a generous bequest from Melissa Stock, it commemorates Ron's dedication to nurturing the talent and development of new scholars, as well as his many contributions to the WSFH. return to text

    3. See B. L. Anderson, "Money and the Structure of Credit in the Eighteenth Century," Business History 1, issue 2 (1970); Laurence Fontaine, L'économie morale: Pauvreté, crédit et confiance dans l'Europe préindustrielle (Paris: Gallimard, 2008); Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, eds., Priceless Markets: The Political Economy of Credit in Paris, 1660–1870 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Phillip R. Schofield and Thijs Lambrecht, Credit and the Rural Economy in North-Western Europe, c. 1200–c.1850 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009); Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (London: Basingstoke, 1998); Gilles Postel-Vinay, La terre et l'argent: L'agriculture et le crédit en France en XVIIIe au début du XXe siècle (Paris: A. Michel, 1998); David W. Sabean, Property, Production, and Family in Neckerhausen, 1700–1870 (Cambridge: 1990). return to text

    4. Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, "Rural Credit Markets and Aggregate Shocks: The Experience of Nuits Saint Georges, 1756–1776," The Journal of Economic History 54, no. 2 (1994): 288-306; Postel-Vinay, La terre et l'argent; Pfister Ulrich, "Le petit credit rural en Suisse au XVI–XVIIIe siècles," Annales HSS 6, vol. 49 (1994): 1339-57; G. Postel-Vinay, L. Fontaine, J-L Rosenthal and P. Servais, eds., Des personnes aux institutions: Reseaux et cultures du Crédit du XVIe au XXe siècles en Europe (Louvain: Bruylant-Academia, 1997); Lambrecht, Credit and the Rural Economy. return to text

    5. For two two synthetic accounts of women and the credit market, see James Collins, "The Economic Role of Women in Seventeenth Century France," French Historical Studies 16, no. 2 (1989): 436-70; William C. Jordan, Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). return to text

    6. Julie Hardwick, The Practice of Patriarchy: Gender and the Politics of Household Authority in Early Modern France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).return to text

    7. Julie Hardwick, Family Business: Litigation and the Political Economies of Daily Life in Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).return to text

    8. Mary Murray, The Law of the Father?: Patriarchy in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism ( New York: Routledge, 1995), 7.return to text

    9. For example, Sarah Hanley, "Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France," French Historical Studies 16, no. 1 (1989): 4-27.return to text

    10. We do not have records of loans (obligations) for the seventeenth-century in either seigniory. The records begin in 1731 for the seigneury of Delle and 1740 for the seigneury of Florimont. Archives Departementales du Territoire de Belfort (hereafter ADTB) 2E4/155-59, 2E4/194, 2E4/222-23, 2E4/245-46, 2E4/257-58, and 2E4/279-80 for the seigneury of Delle and ADTB 2E4/408-10 and 2E4/443-46 for the seigneury of Florimont. return to text

    11. When the occupation of either the borrower or the lender was peasant, this was never specified in the deed, except for the rare case of laboureur. return to text

    12. Certainly, peasants could find other unofficial ways to locate available funds, but it seems that most of them preferred to sign a deed at the notary's rather than to lend money from hand to hand. return to text

    13. I found few rentes but they seem to be very marginal for these two seigneuries.return to text

    14. However, they had to be accompanied—in theory, at least—by a male relative while signing any kind of contract. Édouard Théodore Bonvalot, Coutumes de Haute Alsace dites de Ferrette publiées pour la première fois avec introduction (Colmar, 1870). return to text

    15. With the death of the male head of the household, the patrimony and debts were divided among the widow and the heirs. In Florimont and Delle, women inherited a third of the assets and children the other two-thirds. However, there was a change in marriage contracts in the eighteenth century: patrimony was divided by two no matter the gender of the deceased spouse. This meant that women could claim more inheritance than before but also more debts, if any. See also Claude-Joseph de Ferrière, Dictionnaire de droit et de pratique, troisième édition (Paris, 1771), 283.return to text

    16. Julie Hardwick. The Practice of Patriarchy: Gender and the Politics of Household Authority in Early Modern France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 183.return to text

    17. Ibid.return to text

    18. Both seigniories are small, and many properties had been mortgaged in the 1730s and 1740s, according the deeds. I contend that many of them remained mortgaged ten or even twenty years later. return to text

    19. Yvette Baradel, Belfort au XVIIIe siècle, 116-17. return to text

    20. ADTB, Registre paroissial de Suarce ADTB E dépôt GG 1-5. The author is not related to this person; the surname Dermineur is quite common in this area.return to text

    21. Ibid. return to text

    22. ADTB 2E4/444 and ADTB E dépôt GG 1-5. Margueritte Dermineur's father, Pierre Dermineur, married Madelaine Frery on 11 November 1706. Therefore, Jean Pierre Frery was a relative on her mother's side. return to text

    23. In Delle and Florimont, local customs specified that, in case of husbands' deaths, widows would only get a third of the community property. Bonvalot, Coutumes de Haute Alsace, 189-210.return to text

    24. Growth was, in fact, very low, though Hoffman argues that agricultural growth did exist in eighteenth-century France. Philip T. Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450–1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).return to text

    25. Philip Postel-Vinay Gilles, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and Philip Hoffman, "Private Credit Markets in Paris 1690–1840," Journal of economic history 52 (1992), 300.return to text

    26. A.D.T.B. 2E4/ 157.return to text

    27. Scholars have asserted for years that widows had the monopoly over the credit market compared with other women. See Collins, "The Economic Role of Women in Seventeenth Century France"; B. A. Holderness, Pre-Industrial England Economy and Society, 1500–1750 (London: Dent, 1976), 105 ; Julie Hardwick, "Widowhood and Patriarchy in Seventeenth Century France," Journal of Social History 26, no. 1 (1992): 134.return to text

    28. Hardwick, "Widowhood and Patriarchy in Seventeenth Century France," 134.return to text

    29. See Jean-Michel Boehler, La terre, le ciel et les hommes à l'époque moderne: Des réalités de la plaine d'Alsace aux horizons européens (Strasbourg: Société savante d'Alsace, 2004).return to text