This general overview of women working in trade in the early modern Netherlands shows that, although there were some restrictions, women were able to become active in trade on different levels, and in diverse products. The examples mentioned above show that even married women could act as independent traders.
Women and work in the early modern Netherlands: women’s work in trade
Danielle van den Heuvel
“He’s blessed with fat.”
“I know that you’re an Anabaptist and therefore prey to all manner of all strange fancies, as well as the everlasting hellfire, but that is a strange comment, even for you.”
“All I meant, Frau Cornieliuszoon, is that without the extra armor of his fatty gut, Mynheer Crossby’s bowels would have surely been pierced. And then death would have followed, sure as salvation is a matter of Free Will. If all my years of patching the wounded have taught me anything, it’s that.”
“I take your meaning, Doctor. It is indeed a blessing.”
“And armorial padding is not the only use for gut fat. Why, I recall one time in Muenster, during the siege, when I was one of Jan of Leyden’s child judges – “
“Enough! I have told you before, no more tales of Muenster and the evil that befell it. Now take your leave of us. You have my thanks, Doctor, for without your skill, Mynheer Crossby would have not survived. Go back to Grotius and tell him to wait word from me.”
“Your servant, Frau Cornieliuszoon.”
Footsteps moved away and a door closed.
“You can open your eyes, Nick. I know that you’ve been awake and listening some moments now.”
Nick opened his eyes and looked at ‘gritte. “Had I not heard Piet, that shambles-handed chirugeon nattering on about my gut, I would think I was in Heaven, beholding an angel of mercy.”
He liked the way she became coquettish, smiling and lightly blushing, at his blandishments. She looked very nice, standing there in the sunlight coming through the window. She was dressed for a usual business day, nothing too fancy, but everything of good quality. Over her shoulders, she was wearing her sleeveless green partlet, the one with the ruffled collar in the back, which came together in a v-shape down across her bosom and was buttoned just above the laces of her gown. Her gown was also green, matching her partlet, and was split front and back. It showed off her white kirtle, the one with the gathered sleeves, to its best advantage. Both gown and kirtle were cut low across her bosom, exhibiting a nice expanse of pink cleavage. She had braided her blonde hair and gathered it in a caul, one of the embroidered sheer linen caps that were popular just then.
Her grin slipped and she became serious. “What happened, Nick?” She pulled a chair close to his bed and sat down.
“Twas my own carelessness. I should have been keeping a weather eye out but wasn’t. Two deserters, Italians, maybe, tried to give me the business out by the stables near the Antwerp gate. I ended them but not before one of them marked me.”
“Why come to me, all this way and bleeding? Why not go to Hugh Owen, since you’re his man?”
“You were foremost in my mind, I reckon. With me taking messages for Owen up north to Zutphen and beyond, it’s been some time since I last saw you. So when I was badly bleeding, I thought of you, ‘gritte, for succor.”
“You are a silver tongued rascal, Nick. Those that say the English are a cold people have never met you.”
Nick reached out and took her hand in his. “’Tis you that inspires me to poetry. And what of you? How have your affairs proceeded since I saw you last?”
Her mien sobered and the astute businesswoman appeared. “Things have become very changeable. The Republic has moved against the Spanish in their campaigns this spring. You’ve heard of the fall of Breda?”
“Aye, taken by surprise and trick.”
“Just so. In past years, the Spanish would have marshaled troops, called up levies, and begun attacking north. This year, very little of that. And the news from France is bad.”
“What have you heard?”
“Open war between Guise and Navarre and the defeat of the Guise at Ivry.”
“Aye, I’ve heard the same. Religious war what with Navarre being a Protestant and claiming the French throne and the Guise family being staunch Catholic nobilty. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre writ large. Could get very ugly indeed. But why so downcast, my love? If the Spanish are not campaigning in the north this year, then you should be able to accomplish your business with ease.”
“War is good for my business. The chaos and lawlessness of war allows us smugglers to slip easily through the cracks and makes many people willing to pay greatly for what I move. If there is no campaigning in the north, then open trade will be possible and it won’t be worth my while to move goods across the lines.”
Worry lines appeared between her brows. “That’s why I’m keeping the men close here in Brussels. I want to see which way this falls, before I commit them. But I needs must commit them soon before their bills for food, lodging, and wenching beggar me.”
Nick carefully shifted his bulk over to the far side of the bed, mindful of his stitches, and gently tugged ‘gritte’s hand. She moved to the side of the bed and sat down. Her mouth quirked in recognition of Nick’s intentions but her eyes remained serious and her brow troubled.
“Have you sent someone south to suss things out?”
The fingers of her free hand worked her worry beads. “Done some time back. Yet another thing I must wait on, Philippe’s return.” She huffed in exasperation. “All these years of creating friends in the north, building the net of routes that take my goods past easily bribed guards. And now this! Peace!”
“Nay, ‘tis a temporary inconvenience only, my love. Have either of us ever known a year without war? There will always be those who need precious goods brought to them by unseen routes. This peace merely means you must practice your French.”
She smiled down at him and left off her worry beads. “You have the counsel to still my worries as always. What thanks can I give for such wisdom?” She pondered, then grinned wickedly; “Oh, I think I know.”, and leaned down and kissed him.
Nick returned the kiss and reached up to cup her breast, the comforting familiar weight filling his palm. He felt his cock begin to twitch and swell underneath the shift that was his only clothing.
‘gritte leaned back out of the kiss and began to undo the buttons of her partlet where they crossed over her front. “Even after all the children I’ve nursed, you are still happy to see these appear. Surely, on your travels, you dally with enough pert-breasted whores.”
Nick slid his hand up her leg, her skirt gathering along his forearm. “Those ones with their rouged cheeks and dead eyes. Aye, their tits are pert enough but everything they are is a lie. You, my love, you are a true beauty. “
Her parlet unbuttoned and dropped on the floor, ‘gritte began to unlace her gown, her fingers moving as quickly as when she worked her abacus. “Nay, but you are kind to say so. Though you aren’t the only one. Why, just the other day, one of those artists who’s always hanging around hoping for my hand in marriage said that I would be perfect for a Madonna he was envisioning. What a limp little eel he was.” When her gown was finally unlaced, ‘gritte stood, making sure that Nick’s hand was not dislodged from her leg, and let the gown fall to the floor. She wasted no time in shrugging her kirtle off her shoulders, revealing her breasts hanging heavy behind her smock. Her nipples tented the white linen. “Yours are the hands I want on me, not the smooth fingers of some lad.“ She twisted her hips so that his questing hand slid in between her legs. His fingers found her already moist and slick. “Yes, that’s it’s. Oh, you have such cunning fingers.”
By this time his cock was a rigid length under his shift and his breath started to come heavy. From beneath heavy lids, her gaze lit upon his cock and her lips curved in a delighted grin. “Ah, now let’s see what you’ve got there for me.”
She sat on the side of the bed. Swordplay or bedplay, Nick was skilled at using both hands at once. Without pausing the action of his fingers down among her wet folds, with his free hand he took one of her breasts in his hand and ran his thumb across the stiff nipple.
Her breath was starting to come as heavy as his. She reached down to pull his shift up and her hand brushed against his belly wound. He couldn’t help but groan in pain and he jerked back in the bed. His cock wilted like an icicle in a furnace. His arm fell from under her skirt and he clutched the side of the bed.
“Oh damn me, Nick. I’m so sorry!”
He managed a rueful grin. “Nay, ‘tis no fault of yours. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I will just lie here and heal all the quicker knowing what delights await me when spirit and flesh are in agreement.”
“I wasn’t thinking. Well, I was thinking but not with my head, but rather my heart.” She smiled at him. “Well, actually, something slightly lower than my heart, if truth be told.” Her face grew grave and real concerned peered through her eyes. “I am truly sorry that my lust has caused you this pain.”
“Nay, nay, please do not trouble yourself, ‘gritte. I should have never started but my sense was quite overcome by the glory of your breasts.”
She pulled up her kirtle, obscuring those self same objects from Nick’s fond gaze, and then stooped to pick up her gown. “Well, heal up soon, or I may have to take up with some baby-faced artist or cow-eyed noble in order to scratch my itch.”
“Ah, now, my heart, you are cruel beyond belief to taunt me like that. Well, if you could send up some food, it would go far in healing me.”
She finished with her gown’s laces in her front and bent to pick up her partlet. After she buttoned it, she settled her linen cap back square upon her coiled braids. “I’ll have some beer and bread and whatever meat is available sent up. Nick, again, I’m sorry. What a tale I’ll have to tell at confession this Sunday.”
He laughed. “Be sure not to send the poor man off with apoplexy. But if you could, leave my name out of it, please, my heart?”
‘gritte bent a knowing eye upon him. “Rest assured, he’ll not know everything. I’ll tell him just enough to keep him convinced of my sinful nature. Now, rest and heal.”
As ‘gritte turned to leave, Nick made his voice serious. “Margitte, I have something to ask.” His tone and the use of her formal name stopped her, her back to him. Her shoulders set in anticipation. “I have to get out of the city. Can you help me?”
After a pause, she turned and Nick saw her consider certain questions and discard them. Her face was that of a businesswoman dealing with a matter of minor import. “How soon do you need to leave?”
Each answer revealed more. Nick didn’t distrust ‘gritte as such, but he wouldn’t tell her much. However, she hadn’t become as successful as she was by being either trusting or slow to realize what wasn’t being said. “Soon. I should be able to travel in a few days. Will you have a cargo leaving by then?”
She tilted her head to one side in thought. Her gaze never left his face. “Any preference as to north or south?”
“North to Antwerp, if it can be done.”
Her voice was as level as her gaze. “It can be done. I’ll speak to Grotius.“