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LHMP #346 Mikalachki 1999 Women’s Networks and the Female Vagrant: A Hard Case

Full citation: 

Mikalachki, Jodi. 1999. “Women’s Networks and the Female Vagrant: A Hard Case” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Mikalachki, Jodi. “Women’s Networks and the Female Vagrant: A Hard Case”

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Mikalachki’s introduction to this article focuses on the difficulty of the topic: inter-personal alliances among female vagrants in the early 17th century. The difficulties rest on a number of factors; the relatively small proportion of vagrants (i.e., people with no fixed abode and no or minimal employment) who were female, the interference in the historic record from fictionalized images of vagrant counter-cultures, largely created by authors in the legal establishment whose interactions with vagrants occurred within the context of legal proceedings, and the lack of female voices within that historic record. Within this context, Mikalachki takes one narrative—recorded in the context of legal testimony—that suggests either the reality or the fantasy of alliance networks among female vagrants, and lays out the larger background and concerns involved in interpreting it.

The stereotype of female vagrants was of a woman who rejected patriarchal control in favor of an independent, self-reliant, and sexually licentious life. In reality, vagrancy (and begging) were most often generated by localized economic depression and crop failures. With no regular work available, or the failure of family support systems, there were few viable options. Migration to areas with more job availability was one option, but if the job evaporated or did not exist in the first place, the migrant automatically became a “vagrant”. And once in that status, recovery was nearly impossible.

[Note: I have only a passing familiarity with the legal context of vagrancy, but one aspect was that charity for the destitute was the responsibility of the local parish. But the parish typically looked for reasons to be absolved of responsibility. One common argument was that the parish was only responsible for those who were residents. Thus a vagrant—someone who was not living in their parish of origin—fell outside the available options for support. In some cases, they might be forcibly deported to their parish of origin, which presumably still contained the reasons that they had left in the first place.]

When individual stories can be traced, women rarely became vagrants by their own choice. More typically, poverty would result in some sort of petty crime such as theft. This might result in unemployability, but it could result in being offered a sort of plea bargain where the charges were dropped if the woman agreed to leave the parish. The resistance to vagrancy can be seen in the number of women who initially accepted this exile but then reappear in local records for further offenses. Once separated from both family and parish ties, women had almost no licet way to re-enter the workforce. “Living out of service” was itself a legal offense. Arrest records of groups of vagrant women might suggest ad hoc communities, but when examples can be traced for specific individuals or localities, there are no identifiable stable groups within them.

The reputed sexual license of vagrant women is likely the flip side of a harsh reality: that prostitution was one of the few economic opportunities for her, despite the hazards of potential pregnancy. The woman in the narrative that Mikalachki studies had at least two out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the first laid at the feet of her employer at the time and the precipitating cause of her loss of employment, the second proving fatal nine years later.

The remainder of the article discusses the portion of the woman’s testimony that echoes language and themes strongly connected with fictionalized “vagrant pamphlets”. Mikalachki speculates on the authenticity of this narrative, with one possibility being that the woman was “performing” a theatrical and fictionalized version of vagrancy for the benefit of her audience (the legal authorities) who in turn were lenient to her for the sake of that performance.

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