This collection of ten essays concerns the interaction of ordinary women with the legal system of England and Wales. A common theme running through them is the extent to which the individual narrative of female petitioners, defendants and witnesses can be extracted from deposition statements, despite the mediation of court clerks in the creation of those documents.
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1. Your Oratrice: Women’s Petitions to the Late Medieval Court of Chancery:
The Court of Chancery during the late medieval period is particularly interesting because married women could bring cases in their own right, rather than having to be represented by their husbands. Beattie’s sources are extant bills from mid-fifteenth century which, on first appearance, show them to be formulaic and written in the third person. However, what makes them more interesting is that Chancery was an early court of ‘equity’ where the Chancellor was empowered to judge cases according to ‘conscience’, rather than applying strict rules of evidence. Taking one case as a micro-study, Beattie claims to have picked up on the use of third-person reported speech and ‘slips’ between the lawyer and contributor which reveal something of one petitioner’s voice about her own predicament.
2. Echoes, Whispers, Ventriloquisms: On Recovering Women’s Voices from the
Court of York in the Later Middle Ages: Jeremy Goldberg.
Goldber’s essay centres on the case of Marrays v Rouclif and the petitioner’s suit that his wife be restored to him: the case was singled out because of the large number of female deponents. Goldberg contends that, unlike Inquisition records for heresy, depositions given for private litigations before the Court of York were “not the product of fear” but given willingly. He argues that, while some servants and employees may have been pressured to give their evidence this was a very different dynamic of power to that experienced during the Inquisitions.
Goldberg contends that despite the use of standardized text by court clerks, the system allowed for individual experiences to show through and that the depositions examined provide evidence of the credibility and background of the deponents. From an examination of the case papers he concludes that, although the wife’s testimony was “crafted” it was not “invented” and something of her life experiences are still available to us and that the same is true for other men and women who testified before the canon law courts.
3. Women, Memory and Agency in the Medieval English Church Courts:
Kane examines the gendered relationship between the written, bureaucratic record and oral memory. In doing so she distinguishes between the role of elite women in preserving historical and literary texts and perceptions of female memory in a legal context. Her primary sources include a pool of more than 600 private cases from the church courts of York from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and a small collection from the Court of Canterbury from the thirteenth century. Acknowledging aspects of coverture that restricted female voices, Kane nevertheless raises the possibility that experiences of manorial and customary courts influenced the way some women interacted with the ecclesiastical courts.
Kane notes that ordinary men and women were likely to have acquired some knowledge of canon law through church sermons and responses to confessions, allowing both of them to exercise greater agency in the ecclesiastical courts than one might expect. The case studies selected demonstrate the presence of women in ecclesiastical courts, their understanding of judicial processes, and the importance of memory in acquiring that understanding and in order to establish their credibility as witnesses. As in the preceding essays, Kane observes opportunities for the individual female narrative to emerge.
4. ‘Utterly and Uuntruly He Hath Deceived Me’: Women’s Inheritance in Late
Medieval England: Rosemary Horrox.
This essay concerns the will of Jane Stapleton, made in 1518, in which she asks that her executors put right the fraud committed against her by her natural son, and it demonstrates the power of the written word in legal disputes. The history of Jane’s complaint lay in an attempt to settle land acquired by a first marriage on children born of a second marriage, diverting it away from any surviving children of the first marriage. The family connections which form the basis of this dispute are complex and difficult to follow but six pages in the crux of the case becomes clear when we get to an extract from Jane’s will. Having said that, this is a rich data source with great potential for use by social historians and genealogists.
In highlighting discrepancies between the accounts given by the son and that set out in Jane’s will, Horrax points to evidence of Jane’s “bitterness” towards her son. What becomes evident is the importance of written documentation which provides insights into Jane’s relationships with her husband and son, and as an individual through the bequests set out in her will. Horrax asserts that the will “emphatically” represents Jane’s voice in a way not possible had her case has survived in the form of court depositions. Further evidence of the authenticity of that voice is provided by additional material demonstrating the lengths Jane went to in order to ensure that her executors carried out her wishes after her death.
5. ‘She Hym Fresshely Folowed and Pursued’: Women and Star Chamber in Early
Tudor Wales: Deborah Youngs.
Youngs’ study provides evidence of some of the earliest female plaintiffs to travel form Wales to initiate proceedings in the court of Star Chamber (1536-1542). Her essay centres on a micro-study concerning two cases submitted in 1530-1532 when the court was under the chancellorship of Thomas Moore and includes an overview of the origins, proceedings and jurisdiction of Star Chamber which ranged from breaches of the peace to debt, slander and perversions of justice.
Youngs explains the fragmented process of government in Wales prior to the Act of Union, 1542, and the scope for mismanagement and corruption. The volume of cases initiated by Welsh complainants during the period surveyed was very small and none of verdicts have not survived. Nevertheless, Youngs argues for the place of these bills in telling particular stories about sixteenth-century society. The contents of the two bills examined concern the murder of the husband of Denise Williams and the rape of Kathryn Robert the daughter of a minor gentleman. Both Denise and Kathryn were the petitioners in their own complaint and, Youngs argues, provide evidence that these women were informed and proficient in legal procedures within their local jurisdiction and in Star Chamber.
6. Women and the Hue and Cry in Late Fourteenth-Century Great Yarmouth:
The primary source for this essay was 35 entries in the leet court roll for Great Yarmouth between 1366 and 1381. It considers the nature of the hue and cry as a mechanism which enabled non-elite women to be involved in the maintenance of law and order within of their communities. Rodziewicz observes that although women did not often play an active role in the formal practices of law enforcement, they could raise and negotiate disputes at court and were regular users of the practice of hue and cry. She argues that these records demonstrate not only the active participation of women in the use of hue and cry but that they understood how to use it to their advantage. Through an analysis of the records, Rodziewicz concludes that, while on some occasions the use of hue and cry conformed to the notion of the weaker woman in need of protection at other times (such as when a wife raised a hue and cry following an assault upon her husband) it inverted the assumption of proscribed gender roles.
7. Gender and the Control of Sacred Space in Early Modern England: Amanda
Flather sets out to interpret female involvement in popular iconoclastic attacks in Essex at a time when sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants were calling for greater reformation of church services and ceremonies. An examination of gendered participation in attacks on church property leads her to observe the dominance of men in damage caused to fonts and the common prayer book, while women might express their discontent through the rejection of the traditional ‘churching’ of a woman after childbirth, the wearing of a veil in church, or through the care (or neglect) of clerical vestments when undertaking cleaning duties.
Flather relies on the testimonies of men and women to the Committee of Scandalous Ministers, set up in 1644, to provide insights into the forms of conduct a woman was prepared to condemn. While she acknowledges the possibility of “personal animosity” in some of the allegations against ministers, she argues that female testimonies provide evidence of the capacity of married women to control male ministerial power in certain church activities in order to defend the protestant doctrine.
8. The Travails of Agnes Beaumont: Bernard Capp.
The story of Agnes Beaumont concerns a family argument over non-conformism which took place in 1674 and the fallout from that dispute was subsequently published in ten separate editions between 1760 and 1842. At the time of the disagreement, Agnes’ father died and she was accused of causing his death by poisoning, although a coroner’s jury found no evidence of foul play. Further complications arose in Agnes’ life when she challenged her father’s will.
While it is unlikely that Agnes put her side of the story down on paper until some years after the main events of her story took place, Capp maintains that the “narrative has the flavour of an oral account” because of its conversational style. He further maintains that the authentic voice survives because her papers were not published until many tears after her death and were not subject to any mediation by a husband or close male relative. Capp picks up not only on the dimension of faith in her story and also on evidence of the lack of autonomy and privacy in Agnes’ life. He favourably contrasts her account with other women’s spiritual autobiographies which he finds to be more passive and conforming to gendered conventions, not least in part because they were written with the intention of publication for a specific audience.
9. Parish Politics, Urban Spaces and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century
Norwich: Fiona Williamson.Williamson explores women’s words, defamation and urban spaces against the concept of a “unified ‘neighbourhood’ identity” in the multiple parishes comprised within Norwich. Her main primary sources are defamation suits from the Norwich diocesan court, where depositions provide evidence of residence, the parties, their relationships and social networking. In particular it focuses on a long-running dispute between the Frogg and Austin families during the 1660’s, which was acted out on the local streets, in church and in the courtroom. The dispute which formed the subject of court proceedings was led by one key female aggressor, rather than her husband, concerned a dispute over church pews and highlights the relevance of the different social status of the two families. The dispute led to instances of verbal abuse used in the street and parish church, thus making their neighbours witnesses to the alleged defamatory statements.
This case, Williamson argues, demonstrates the importance of the individual parish within its wider urban setting, how social relationships were negotiated, and the ways in which a parish might respond to issues of reputation, status and honour.
10. ‘With a Sword Drawne in her Hande’: Defending the Boundaries of Household
Space in Seventeenth-Century Wales: Nicola Whyte.
Whyte’s paper concerns the spatial boundaries of the household, both physical and moral, in relation to household identities and gendered behaviour. Her primary sources are cases which concern forcible entry (a crime) and dissiesin (lawful seizure of property) presented in the court of Star Chamber during the reign of James I.
Whyte observes the active role of some women in defending their interests in property, while other women acted in contravention of the various rights attached to property. This study, she argues, reveals contemporary anxieties about self-sufficiency and agency within the household unit. Whyte reminds us that houses cannot be viewed in isolation as a particular entity when they might form only one constituent part of a larger estate, which elements might be physically unconnected in space and spanning a long period in time. Using a range of cases studies, she demonstrates the autonomy of women in responding to the threat of dispossession by their responses to actions taken by constables and bailiffs in distraining goods and in protests involving enclosure breaking.
This collection of essays provide new insights for those less familiar with the early courts and offers new interpretations of depositions, often dismissed as a legal construct, and in doing so their respective authors uncover female voices from the archives.