Female City Dwellers of the GDL from the middle of the 17th century to the 18th century

The situation of the female city dwellers in GDL society, just as that of noblewomen, was determined by their gender, laws and tradition. Despite the numerical superiority of women (especially in larger cities), men were always more active and more important. It was only male city inhabitants that were elected chosen for city council institutions, took up wholesale trade and large financial operations, and became members of guilds, and officers. Female city inhabitants participated more than noblewomen in the economic sphere, for example they were active in retail trade, however most often they were most noticeable in the home and dealt with family issues. These female city inhabitants occupied a middle ground between city noblewomen and city peasant women: they were inferior to the former and superior to the latter.

The limits of the family framework

The legal situation of the privileged female city inhabitants of Lithuanian cities (Vilnius, Kaunas and other autonomous cities) was set out by the articles of the Magdeburgian rights. They set out the age limit for minors. For girls, this was set at 13 years of age by the Magdeburg rights, and 14 years of age by the Kulm law. For boys, it was set at 13 years of age and 14 years of age, respectively. Men and women were adults when they reached 21 years of age. In a case from 1676 concerning the marriage of the children of wealthy advisor, Vilnan P. Procewicz, it is mentioned that his son had reached 18 years of age, but that his daughter was not yet 10 years of age, thus her age was not considered suitable for marriage. However, it was only male city dwellers who became adults that received all rights. In the case of women, age changed very little. An adult female could get married, but only to a man chosen by her father or her guardians. She could take back inherited property from her guardians and be brought to trial for offences. A married girl would receive a dowry from her parents or guardians. It was important not only for the daughters of the ruling elite, as this symbolic contribution would be of considerable help even for a servant girl that married. Girls that were dependent on their parents’ economic wealth would receive things for personal use and property or money (known as a pasogos in dialect) as a dowry. Men would bequeath the part of their property to their wives, which they could not control without the permission of their wife.

Do You Know?

Beggars and prostitutes were on the bottom rung of urban society. There were always a number of them during all periods in GDL cities – in 1562 Kaunas prostitute Elena Andrejova, who was hired to sail on a ship, even translated from Ruthenian into Lithuanian and Polish for sailors.

The family became the most important sphere for married female city inhabitants. From the second half of the 17th century to the 18th century, the families of city dwellers generally were comprised of two generations, with up to 10 people on average. Wealth families together with their hired helped and servants could reach 20 people. Both the husband and the wife’s joint interest was the raising of their children, and the creation and preservation of prosperity.

“Male” and “female” trade

The economic activities and influence of female city inhabitants was multi-faceted, which was determined by the specific social and economic situation of women. Some could be the wives of a merchant or wealthy artisan, while others could be poor female city dwellers. The wealthier female city inhabitants would organise trade with their spouses, or even independently. Wives and daughters would sell guild products.

Though men dominated in wholesale trade, female city inhabitants expressed themselves more in retail trade, especially in food products.

Books of income and expenses of the city of Vilnius from the second half of the 17th century to the 18th century show that women sold food products like oil, fish, bread, grain, poultry, and vegetables in Town Hall Square and other stalls. Sometimes they had their own small shops. For example, in the grocery shop of Katerzyna Lidertowna, the wife of a merchant, there were a few scales, an iron grater, and various pots. A Muscovite mirror was mentioned as an interior detail in the shop of Mariana Szydlowska, the wife of a merchant, where she sold various grocery products and sugar. Katerzyna, the wife of merchant Symon Narutowicz, sold things for men, including pistols, holsters for them, bullet pouches, bows, items for horse riding, and scythes.

Women’s professions: from small trade to prostitution

Among the female city dwellers, there were inn owners, even money lenders. Women often were involved in activities that were tied to the production of alcoholic beverages and their sale or trade.

As long as their husband was alive, a female city inhabitant generally did not have the right to involve herself in business and artisan issues, though there are cases that are known where the husband was only in the owner in theory, while his wife dealt with the business.

Upon becoming widows, these female city dwellers had a big role in the sphere of guilds. They were a kind of guarantee of the existence of the artisan’s family. In guild statutes it was usually denoted that the widows of artisans received the right to participate in the economic activities of a workshop and lead them. Sometimes time limits were introduced, for example, needle-makers allowed a childless widow to expand business for one year and six weeks. The posthumous inventories of the property of female Vilnans from the end of the 17th century to the 18th century show that some of them took over the workshops of their deceased spouses and led them, for example, Ana Fombegena managed the production of jewellery for 6 years at the end of the 17th century, while widow Konstancja Honorska was mentioned along the goldsmith artisans in the middle of the 18th century. Three such female artisans are known from the 18th century.

The poor female city dwellers were resigned to the fate of being hired help. From childhood, they carried out work needing the lowest qualifications, working as servant girls and hired help, receiving a roof above their heads, enough to live and a small salary. The somewhat better-off women were hired as cooks and assistants or hospital nurses, for example, in the 18th century Vilnius resident Anastazja Gilewiczowna was taken care of for many years by a “Ms. Michalowna.” Sometimes they, like wet nurses and nannies, were sometimes paid generously for their faithful service, i.e. receiving a dowry.

Beggars and prostitutes were on the bottom rung of urban society. There were always a number of them during all periods in GDL cities – in 1562 Kaunas prostitute Elena Andrzejowa, who was hired to sail on a ship, even translated from Ruthenian into Lithuanian and Polish to sailors.

The Right to Sue

Female city inhabitants could participate through representatives in court proceedings, raise claims and be defendants (concerning violence or material loss), choose a desired representative if she was a widow. It seems that different than in Poland, GDL female city dwellers were rarely guarantors, executors of wills, or the guardians of small children. Only in special cases did GDL female city dwellers represent a spouse in court, or other male relatives. For example, in 1552 the wife of Vilnius advisor Łukasz Markowicz Mundyus addressed the lawyers chosen by the Vilnius voivode. She specified that her husband had departed for the ruler’s court, which is why she herself “wants to inform Vilnius city officers about some issues and request records from city books.” The woman promised to pay for the records. She took care that a court bailiff would be appointed to her.

Due to the legal and commercial realia of cities, it was usual to formalise the relationship between trade, property and hired help made in an urban setting and decided upon in city institutions. It was favourable for female city inhabitants who wanted to become involved in public life.

Literature: J. Karpavičienė, Moteris Vilniuje ir Kaune XVI a. pirmojoje pusėje. Gyvenimo sumiestinimo atodangos, Vilnius, 2004; V. Leonovič, Vilniaus miestietės kasdienybė XVII a. antrojoje pusėje XVIII a. (pagal pomirtinius turto inventorius), MA thesis, advisor dr. Aivas Ragauskas, Vilnius, 2010 (printed).

Aivas Ragauskas