Eileen Power, the eldest of three daughters of Philip Ernest Le Poer Power (1860–1946), stockbroker, and his wife, Mabel Grindlay Clegg (1866–1903), was born at Atrincham on 9th January 1899. Her father was imprisoned for fraud in 1891, and her mother, faced with scandal and financial ruin, moved with her daughters to Bournemouth.
On the death of her mother in 1903, Eileen, Rhoda and Beryl went to live with their grandfather, Benson Clegg, in Oxford. She attended the Oxford High School for Girls.
In 1907 she went to Girton College on a Clothworkers' scholarship, and took a first in both parts of the historical tripos. During her time at the University of Cambridge she joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. In 1910 she was awarded the Gilchrist research fellowship, and studied at the University of Paris and the École des Chartes. On her return to Britain in 1911 she was awarded the George Bernard Shaw research studentship at the London School of Economics (LSE) where she studied medieval women.
A critic of Britain's foreign policy, Power was an active member of the Union of Democratic Control during the First World War. Fellow members included Charles Trevelyan, Norman Angell, E. D. Morel, Ramsay MacDonald, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Ottoline Morrell, Philip Morrell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Arnold Rowntree, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Tom Johnston, Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Ethel Snowden, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Mary Sheepshanks, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Israel Zangwill, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville and Olive Schreiner.
Eileen Power's first book, The Paycockes of Coggeshall, was published in 1919. In 1921 she was appointed lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics. Over the next few years she published Medieval English Nunneries (1922) and Medieval People (1924). Her biographer, Maxine L. Berg, points out that the book "went into ten editions, was the culmination of the first phase of her approach to social history. Its genesis lay in her feminist and pacifist political commitment, and in the methodology she developed of history as literature. The book was a social history deploying literary devices, but even more significantly it was a social history written to spread a message of internationalism."
Kingsley Martin was a fellow teacher at the London School of Economics. He later recalled: "Eileen Power, with whom, like everyone else, I assume was more or less in love. Eileen, indeed, was one of the most attractive women I have ever known. She was good-looking, and carried her erudition as a medieval scholar with wit and grace. She wrote delightfully, her account of the domestic life of nunneries would never bore anyone, and her Medieval People showed that careful scholarship can be made popular and achieve large sales."
Dora Russell was one of her students: "Eileen Power dealt with history. She became distinguished for her fine scholarship and her utter charm, which captivated many of both sexes. We always found it a pleasure to watch her, tall and placid and very much a personality, as she came in to take her place for dinner at high table. She had very beautiful, candid blue-grey eyes."
Eileen worked closely with her sister, Rhoda Power. According to Maxine L. Berg: "With her sister Rhoda she wrote children's history books, of which the most famous was Boys and Girls of History (1926). She was part of literary London, wrote widely in the press, and was a popular lecturer. During the 1920s she also started the memorable BBC schools history broadcasts which she made with Rhoda. The international aspects of medieval history, medieval trade, comparative economic history, and world history, as well as women's and social history, which Eileen Power made her own, were always made immensely attractive and immediately accessible to broad audiences by her extensive use of literary references and personal portraits."In 1927 Power helped to establish the Economic History Review.
Power published The Goodman of Paris in 1928. Three years later she became Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics. In 1933 she joined William Beveridge in establishing the Academic Freedom Committee, an organization that helped academics fleeing from Nazi Germany. Later that year she published Studies in English Trade in the 15th Century (1933).
Power was a strong opponent of appeasement and according to Maxine L. Berg her radio broadcasts came to an end in 1936 "when she came into conflict with her producers over the political and pedagogical directions of the programmes". Power married the historian Michael Postan, who was ten years her junior, on 11th December 1937.
Eileen Power died of heart failure on 8th August 1940. Her book, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History (1941) was published posthumously. A collection of her lectures, Medieval Women, was published in 1975.
Eileen Power dealt with history. She became distinguished for her fine scholarship and her utter charm, which captivated many of both sexes. We always found it a pleasure to watch her, tall and placid and very much a personality, as she came in to take her place for dinner at high table. She had very beautiful, candid blue-grey eyes.
In the autumn of 1924 I started work at the London School of Economics. Sir William Beveridge was director when I joined the staff in 1924. He accepted me first on a part-time basis. I never hit it off with Beveridge, though I recognised from the beginning that he was a man of extraordinary ability. I once, and only once, pleased Beveridge. I said that he "ruled over an empire on which the concrete never set". He was so delighted with this remark that he constantly quoted it, always attributing it, however, to Eileen Power, with whom, like everyone else, I assume was more or less in love. Eileen, indeed, was one of the most attractive women I have ever known. She was good-looking, and carried her erudition as a medieval scholar with wit and grace. She wrote delightfully, her account of the domestic life of nunneries would never bore anyone, and her Medieval People showed that careful scholarship can be made popular and achieve large sales.
We used to speculate on whether she would marry; on the whole the betting was that an air ace would carry her off her feet, but in the end it was the excellent historian, Michael Postan, on whom the choice fell. There was no one who did not deeply regret her loss when she died suddenly of heart failure.
Social history sometimes suffers from the reproach that it is vague and general, unable to compete with the attractions of political history either for the student or for the general reader, because of its lack of outstanding personalities. In point of fact there is often as much material for reconstructing the life of some quite ordinary person as there is for writing a history of Robert of Normandy or of Philippa of Hainault; and the lives of ordinary people so reconstructed are, if less spectacular, certainly not less interesting. I believe that social history lends itself particularly to what may be called a personal treatment, and that the past may be made to live again for the general reader more effectively by personifying it than by presenting it in the form of learned treatises on the development of the manor or on medieval trade, essential as these are to the specialist. For history, after all, is valuable only in so far as it lives, and Maeterlinck's cry, 'There are no dead,' should always be the historian's motto. It is the idea that history is about the dead, or, worse still, about movements and conditions which seem but vaguely related to the labours and passions of flesh and blood, which has driven history from bookshelves where the historical novel still finds a welcome place.
The great and noble trade of cloth-making has left many traces upon the life of England, architectural, literary, and social. It has filled our countryside with magnificent Perpendicular churches and gracious oak-beamed houses. It has filled our popular literature with old wives' tales of the worthies of England, in which the clothiers Thomas of Reading and Jack of Newbury rub elbows with Friar Bacon and Robin Hood. It has filled our shires with gentlemen; for, as Defoe observed, in the early eighteenth century "many of the great families who now pass for gentry in the western counties have been originally raised from and built up by this truly noble manufacture". It has filled our census lists with surnames - Weaver, Webber, Webb, Sherman, Fuller, Walker, Dyer - and given to every unmarried woman the designation of a spinster. And from the time when the cloth trade ousted that of wool as the chief export trade of England down to the time when it was in its turn ousted by iron and cotton, it was the foundation of England's commercial greatness.
What exactly did the nuns teach children? This is a difficult question to answer: difficult because contemporary evidence is scarce, and because the value of education varied greatly from age to age, and also with the intellectual level of the nuns themselves. Generally speaking in the early centuries of the Middle Ages the intellectual standards at many houses were quite high. But in the later centuries the education of the nuns themselves grew progressively worse, and Latin died out of most convents in the fourteenth century and French in the fifteenth century.
Modem writers have tried to make up for lack of direct evidence by drawing up imaginary curricula, and they grew more and more ambitious as they copied the curricula from each other. In the seventeenth century, Aubrey says "here they learned needlework, art of confectionary, surgery, physic, writing, drawing etc." But in the work of a writer of the mid-nineteenth century the list becomes, "reading, writing, some knowledge of arithmetic, art of embroidery, music and French ..., preparation of perfumes, balsams, simples and confectionary". Another writer adds a few more touches, "treatment of various disorders, compounding of simples, binding up of wounds, fancy cookery such as making of sweetmeats, drawing, needlework of all kinds and music both vocal and instrumental". Students of human nature cannot but smile to see music creep into the list and become both instrumental and vocal. Confectionary extends itself to include perfumes, balsams, simples and sweetmeats; arithmetic appears out of nowhere, and even dancing trips in on light fantastic toe! In Malory, there is a passage where it is said of Arthur's fairy sister, who bewitched Merlin, that "she was put to school in a nunnery and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy". This would add black magic to the curriculum of nunnery schools!
The sober fact is we have no evidence about what was taught except inferences from what we know of the education of nuns themselves. Latin could not have been taught in the fourteenth century or French in the fifteenth century since nuns themselves did not know these languages in those times. Children were doubtless taught the Credo, the Ave and the Paternoster by rote, and must have been taught to read, although it is more doubtful whether they learned to write. Probably, they learned songs with the nuns, and spinning and needlework. Beyond these accomplishments nuns doubtless taught piety and good breeding; and the standard of these, though good in some houses, could not have been very high in others, judging from the visitation reports.
Much less prominent in medieval sources, perhaps because it was taken for granted, was the largest class of working women, peasants and dwellers on all manors scattered up and down England. But adequate evidence for reaching a judgement about their role exists nonetheless, and will surprise us.
Most of them were expected, if they were married, to share in all their husband's labours on the family holdings. In addition, they were burdened with chores which were traditionally feminine. The keeping of the house was of course one of them, the making of cloths and clothes (both for own use and for sale) was another. When Helmbrecht, an ambitious peasant hero of a famous German poem, tried to persuade his sister Gotelinde to flee the house of her peasant parents and marry a man who would enable her to lead the life of a lady, he reminds her of what her life would otherwise be: "You will never be more wretched than if you marry a peasant. You will be compelled to spin, to scour the flax, to combe the hemp, wash and wring clothes, dig up the beets." Helmbrecht's list of the tasks which life imposed on a peasant wife was of course too short. For instance, it says nothing of the strenuous hours and weeks which a working wife was called upon to spend by their husband's side in fields and pastures.
These tasks weighed no less, often even more, on women who, whether married or not, possessed holdings in their own names - mostly widows or unmarried women. This was perhaps the most hardworked class of all. In every manorial survey one will find a certain number of women as free tenants, villeins or cotters, holding their virgate of few acres like men and liable to pay the same services for them - so many days' labour a week perhaps, so many boon services at sowing or harvest, so many cartings, so many eggs or pullets or pence per year. No doubt they hired men for heavy ploughing but probably performed other services in person.
We find in manorial accounts women hired by the bailiff to do all sorts of agricultural labour. In fact there was hardly any work except ploughing for which they were not engaged, e.g. planting peas and beans, weeding, repairing, reaping, binding, threshing, winnowing, thatching. It appears they did much of the sheep shearing. Even work as a blacksmith, a skill one might have thought exclusively male, is shown in some French images.