Debate and Disagreement in the Courtroom: Women, the Law, and Property in England, 1400–1800
North American Conference on British Studies 4
Some scholars who have studied women’s status under English law have relied on prescriptive literature, taking the patriarchal paradigm laid out in sermons and treatises as an indication that women were confined mainly to the private sphere of family and the household. More recently, however, scholars have begun using the records of English legal courts to uncover the real, lived experiences of women from the medieval to the modern period. These records reveal that English women were often not as silent and submissive as prescriptive literature would suggest. Instead, these legal disputes present a wholly different picture of women’s lives, one in which women were vocal and vociferous defenders of their legal right to property, and sought to maintain some degree of financial independence.
This panel expands scholarly discussion of women, the law, and property in England by focusing on what legal disputes can tell us about women’s lived experiences: how they defended their property in the courts, how they sought to maintain financial independence, and how they sometimes even entered into legal disputes against their own husbands, fathers, and brothers. Using legal records from the courts of common law and the court of Chancery, Sara Butler’s paper examines the life of singlewomen in the fifteenth century, and seeks to explain how this marginal, and often forgotten, group of women survived in a world in which marriage was the norm. Lindsay Moore’s paper utilizes a similar set of sources to those used by Butler. She highlights the legal activities of female aristocrats in the seventeenth century, revealing that these women possessed a remarkable degree of knowledge about the intricacies of English property law, and made pivotal decisions about how their cases were prosecuted before the courts. Seventeenth-century aristocratic women who sought to defend their property were often pitted against their male family members in the courtroom, a fact highlighted by Julia Rudolph’s paper as well. Using case law and legal treatises, Rudolph’s paper shows how women involved in eighteenth-century mortgage disputes defended their interests in property against the claims of their male relatives.
By looking at women’s debates and disagreements in the courtroom, this panel raises questions about how the legal status of English women developed during a period of profound and momentous historical change. Did women’s status under the law improve or decline from the medieval to the modern period? What can legal disputes involving women tell us about their changing relationship to the law? By revealing that women could often use legal leverage to secure their own financial benefit, this panel augments the scholarly discussion on women’s status under English law.