We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Eileen Edna Le Poer Power (1889–1940), by unknown photographer Eileen Edna Le Poer Power (1889–1940), by unknown photographer
Power [married name Postan], Eileen Edna Le Poer (1889–1940), economic historian, was born at home at Parkdale, Dunham Massey, Altrincham, Cheshire, on 9 January 1889, the eldest of three daughters of Philip Ernest Le Poer Power (1860–1946), stockbroker, and his wife, Mabel Grindlay Clegg (1866–1903). She was the granddaughter of the Revd Philip Bennett Power (1822–1899), originally from Waterford, Ireland, who made his name as a prolific writer of evangelical tracts. Philip Power was imprisoned for fraud in 1891, and Mabel Power, faced with scandal and financial ruin, moved with her daughters to Bournemouth. There they lived with and were financially supported by her father, Benson Clegg. Eileen Power and her sisters started school in Bournemouth, but on Mabel Power's death in 1903, Benson Clegg moved with one of his spinster daughters and his granddaughters to Oxford. There Eileen and her sisters and attended the Oxford High School for Girls, founded by the Girls' Public Day School Company.

Eileen Power went to Girton College, Cambridge, from 1907 to 1910, on a Clothworkers' scholarship, and took a first in both parts of the historical tripos. She was awarded the Gilchrist research fellowship, and studied at the University of Paris and the École des Chartes from 1910 to 1911. On her return to Britain she was awarded the Shaw research studentship at the London School of Economics (LSE) (1911–13), where she studied medieval women. She became director of studies in history at Girton in 1913, and remained there until 1921, but during that time also held the Pfeiffer research fellowship, (1915–18). She wrote her book Medieval English Nunneries (1922) and the early versions of several major essays on medieval women during the time she was in Cambridge. She was awarded the Albert Kahn travelling fellowship in 1920–21, and reported on her world travels during that year, which included China, in her Report to the Trustees of the Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship, September 1920 – September 1921 (1921). In 1921 she was appointed lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics, and remained there until her death: she became reader in 1924 and professor in 1931. She was made a corresponding member of the Medieval Academy of America in 1936, and was Ford lecturer in English history at Oxford in 1938–9. She was awarded an honorary LLD at Manchester in 1933, and another at Mount Holyoke College in 1937.

While Eileen Power was a student at Cambridge she was a close friend of Margaret Garrett (later Spring-Rice), niece of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and of Karin Costelloe (later Stephen), niece of Alys Russell. These friendships took her into suffrage politics, and onto the edges of the Bloomsbury circle. She campaigned for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and joined the women's peace movement. Her interests in women's medieval history and in internationalism were formed in this context, and in her personal response to the First World War. Her experience in the Kahn travelling fellowship, especially in India and China, also developed a new interest in comparative and world history. From this time she also argued for the role of history in spreading internationalist political ideals, and undertook the series of editions for children the Broadway Travellers (1926–38), the Broadway Medieval Library (1928–31), and the Broadway Diaries, Memoirs and Letters (1929–31). 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. Her broadcasts continued until 1936, when she came into conflict with her producers over the political and pedagogical directions of the programmes.

When Eileen Power moved to the LSE the predominantly literary, cultural, and social framework of her history was challenged under the influence of the social sciences then being fostered there. She became part of a remarkable group of scholars developing the social sciences in new directions. She reshaped the economic history courses and seminars in partnership with R. H. Tawney, and later with , whom she later married. Academic collaboration and friendship with Harold Laski, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Charles Webster developed in the pre-departmental days at the LSE, and in the social gatherings in both Tawney's and Power's houses in Mecklenburgh Square. Power also worked closely with several of these in working groups and other initiatives to foster close connections between economic and social history and the social sciences. From the early 1930s she ran the famous medieval economic history seminar together with Postan.

Eileen Power made a number of significant contributions to her discipline. She developed economic history within the framework of medieval history. She avoided the contemporary traditions of legal and constitutional history, and initially followed an inclination towards literary history and the history of religious life. Her early work had a clear political framework in her commitment to the women's peace campaigns of the inter-war years. Her book Medieval English Nunneries, major essays on medieval women's history, especially the well-known chapter ‘The position of women’ in C. G. Crump's and E. F. Jacob's The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1926), and other essays brought together long after her death in Medieval Women (ed. M. M. Postan, 1975), were conceived and written in this framework. Her most successful and famous work of social history, Medieval People (1924), which 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.

At the LSE, Power worked in partnership with R. H. Tawney to develop an extended course structure for economic history, as well as graduate seminars, social science discussion groups, and collaborative research projects. Economic history was enormously popular during the time she taught, and indeed it came for a time to be identified with the LSE. Her personality contributed to this success. Tawney commented that it was not just ‘her brilliance as a lecturer, it was personal contact which best revealed her magic. She possessed to an extraordinary degree the gift of not merely drawing out different personalities, but of fusing them into an organic group’ (DNB). The keynote of Power's teaching at the LSE remained internationalism and comparative history, especially that between the East and the West. In another collaboration with M. M. Postan from the later 1920s she also moved economic history forward into discussion with the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology. She developed her comparative method through analogies between current underdeveloped economies, especially China and India, and medieval societies, and she also drew on the comparative regional studies developed by historians from the German historical school, especially the Austrian Alfons Dopsch. Her project should be seen as parallel to the work in France of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, founders of the Annales school of history, and Bloch and Power recognized the similarity of their goals.

Throughout this period Power concentrated on the study of long-distance trade and merchants. The inspiration on which she drew for this work, and for the place she saw for it in explanations for the transition out of feudal economic limitations to capitalist development, was Henri Pirenne. Pirenne attributed to the medieval merchant–entrepreneur the origins of the dynamism which would eventually lead to economic growth. For Power this position provided further connections between economic history and her internationalist political views. She associated trade and merchants with international connection and peace. Her research and publications over this period reflected this search for the origins of merchant capitalism before industrialization: English Trade in the Fifteenth Century (ed. E. E. Power and M. M. Postan, 1933), The Wool Trade in English Medieval History (published posthumously in 1941), and the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (ed. E. E. Power and J. H. Clapham, 1941). The Cambridge Economic History of Europe was the first great collaborative project in comparative economic history; it was also a great international enterprise which succeeded despite the Second World War.

Eileen Power's idea of social history from the time she arrived at the LSE thus developed away from simply revealing the lives of ordinary people towards offering a historical analysis of social structures. Thus she turned to the analysis of the underlying trends of medieval agrarian society and to comparative commercial and industrial development, linking it to the new discipline of economic history. She also took a professional attitude to the development of her discipline. She took a major role in the founding in 1926 of the Economic History Society; she helped to establish its journal, the Economic History Review; and she edited the first wartime number herself. She worked in archives, and raised research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to start major new archive collections, including a registry and depository of London business archives. She developed research projects, set up her research seminar to pursue these, and left behind a group of research students who in the following two decades published work on medieval trade and commercial history. Other students and colleagues whom she had influenced wrote the big books of social history and women's history which were not overtaken until the 1970s and 1980s—Alice Clark, Dorothy George, Ivy Pinchbeck, Dorothy Marshall, and H. S. Bennett among them.

During a second trip to China in 1929 Eileen Power became engaged to , the tutor to the last emperor of China. He returned to Britain in 1930, but the engagement was finally ended in 1932. She then turned to a closer involvement with her former student and research assistant, by now a lecturer at the LSE, , who was ten years her junior. They married on 11 December 1937, and a few months later Michael Postan became professor of economic history at Cambridge. They built a house in Cambridge, but kept on the house in Mecklenburgh Square, as Eileen Power continued to teach at the LSE.

While Power continued to support the League of Nations, and attended an assembly in Geneva in 1939, she was also a critic of fascism and was part of a prominent anti-appeasement circle in the later 1930s. She turned to lecturing and writing against appeasement, including her famous lecture to the Cambridge History Club ‘The eve of the dark ages: a tract for the times’, later reprinted in a posthumous edition of Medieval People. At the outbreak of war she returned to Cambridge when part of LSE was evacuated there. She died on 8 August 1940, on the way to the Middlesex Hospital, London, after a sudden heart attack, and was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex, on 12 August.

Maxine L. Berg

Sources  

M. Berg, A woman in history: Eileen Power, 1889–1940 (1996) · J. H. Clapham, ‘Eileen Power, 1889–1940’, Economica, new ser., 7 (1940), 355–9 · R. H. Tawney, ‘Eileen Power’, address delivered at Golders Green crematorium, 12 Aug 1940 · DNB · C. K. Webster, ‘Eileen Power (1889–1940)’, Economic Journal, 36 (1926), 317–20 · K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

BLPES, personal file · CUL, papers, incl. indexes relating to historical work, notes, and transcripts · Girton Cam., MSS · NRA, priv. coll., MSS · Nuffield Oxf., Economic History Society MSS |  BBC WAC, Eileen Power and Rhoda Power MSS · BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52743 · BLPES, R. H. Tawney MSS


Likenesses  

photograph, 1933, BBC · photograph, BLPES [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£1194 8s. 6d.: probate, 6 Jan 1941, CGPLA Eng. & Wales