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Cordelia Beattie is Senior Lecturer in Medieval history at the university of Edinburgh, author of Medieval single Women: The national politics of Social group in Late medieval England (Oxford university Press, 2007), and co-editor of Married Women and the law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Boydell and also Brewer, 2013). She tweets
BeattieDr. Her write-up “Married Women’s Wills: Probate, Property, and Piety in later Medieval England” shows up in Law and history Review 37 no. 1 (March, 2019).

You are watching: In medieval society, a married woman became the property of her husband.


Cordelia Beattie‘s article, “Married Women’s Wills: Probate, Property, and Piety in later Medieval England,” appears in the latest issue of Law and also History Review. Below, she describes some the her main insights right into married women’s home in medieval England.

The Married Women’s residential or commercial property Act the 1882, which offered wives the right to own their own property, is frequently viewed together a vital victory in women’s struggle to be counted as full citizens in Britain.<1> The suggest at i m sorry married women had actually lost this right is about dated come the thirteenth century,<2> when the brand-new common regulation doctrine that coverture make husbands the legitimate guardians of your wives, who can not own any type of property separately throughout the marriage. The doctrine was later on exported come Britain’s colonies and also its advancement is still gift traced.<3> Coverture was never abolished outright by legislation yet was chipped away slowly. As newly as 1981, it had to be declared in a civil instance that the legitimate fiction the husband and also wife as one human being no much longer existed, even under usual law.<4> However, the doctrine’s influence is felt also today. In 2016, the BBC interviewed women who had actually experienced discrimination, together as having actually their financial institution accounts put right into their husbands’ surname on marriage in the 1960s and also 1970s. One widow reported finding it difficult to acquire a credit transaction card in her own name together she had actually not built up a credit transaction rating that her very own as a result.<5>

For medievalists, attempts to find limitations on the exercise of coverture led part to overemphasise the tradition which activate in part English communities of enabling married ladies to trade as if single (as femme sole).<6> For beforehand modernists, attention has actually been paid to marriage settlements which permitted women or their families to keep residential or commercial property out of the hand of the husbands.<7> Indeed, Richard Helmholz argued that move in this direction in the fifteenth century might explain why married women seldom made wills ~ c.1450.<8> The future of their home would have been encountered in together settlements.

It has end up being a popular in recent scholarship to keep in mind that married females in late middle ages England seldom made wills, usually v a referral to Helmholz’s 1993 essay top top the subject.<9> However, once reading Lawrence Poos’ version of the court book of the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-84, i was win by the reasonably high ratio of married women’s wills among all those videotaped (12 of 181; 6.6%).<10> This collection me off on a hunting to check out where rather married women’s wills can survive, starting with various other printed editions yet moving on come archives in York, bury St. Edmunds, Norwich and Cambridge. In some locations there to be a marked, early decline in married women’s will-making. For example, in the registers of the Dean and also Chapter of York, currently in York Minster Library, the last married woman’s will I discovered dated native 1446.<11> In others, over there were enough married women’s wills in the late fifteenth century because that me to start to check out some exciting patterns.

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Cambridgeshire Archives, Consistory Court that Ely will registers, (from height to bottom), VC 2 (1458-84), VC 1 (1449-60), VC 3 (1478-86), VC 4 (1486-1505).

In Cambridgeshire record Office, then in Cambridge although now in the procedure of moving to Ely, the court book of the Deanery of Wisbech exist as part of a series of probate registers because that the diocese of Ely, native 1449 stretching into the sixteenth century. The bound manuscript volumes are labelled Liber A, B (the court book), C and also D, v the titles being contemporary or near contemporary with the volumes’ compilation.<12> From assessing these registers, I came to a number of conclusions. First, in this diocese there was a decline in videotaped married women’s wills end the course of the fifteenth century: from 37 in Liber A (of 257; 14.4%), extending the duration 1449-60, to 10 in Liber D (of 549; 1.8%), because that the period 1486-1505. Second, those the were taped by the end of the fifteenth century were an ext likely to it is in those that encountered land or buildings. This was no the case in Liber A, where many married women’s wills were involved only with spiritual offerings or tiny bequests of clothes and an individual jewelry. Third, those married ladies whose wills to be recorded despite having small to leave had tendency to have a close connection to a churchwarden or a juror in the court which probated your wills.

I additionally found a comparable trend in court publications for the Archdeaconry of Buckingham, 1483-97. In this court material, just two married women’s wills were recorded, both of which cite a tenement acquired from a ahead marriage. However, there room thirty-five notes of probate pertaining to married females in the same duration (of 195; 17.9%).<13> This suggests that if married women continued to make wills and have them showed in this area as much as the finish of the fifteenth century, their executors to be unlikely to make the payment to have actually the wills taped unless castle concerned an extensive property. Also, some of the husbands who were named as executors in the note of probate share their names with guys who were churchwardens in the same parts of Buckinghamshire, or nearby, roughly the same time.

Ian Forrest has actually recently written a an extremely interesting examine on the males who plot as regional jurors in late medieval England but my very own research says that we also need to think around their wives too.<14> The taped wills in Wisbech, for example, imply that wives or sister of jurors were much more likely to do wills, even when they had actually very few possessions to dispose of, and to have these wills tape-recorded in the local court.

My research study does not overturn the work of scholars like P.J.P. Goldberg who argued that married women’s will-making in York decreased in the first half of the fifteenth century.<15> Rather, it nuances Helmholz’s England-wide argument and suggests that there was local variation in this decline, as Helmholz himself uncovered for the tradition of legitim, the exercise of a third of a testator’s products being allocated to his or she children.<16> my work additionally adds another dimension to the debate about the influence of different legal jurisdictions top top the property rights and legal capability of married women. Rather than a clear victor in the fight between usual law and canon legislation over whether married women might make wills, or a emphasis on equity regulation as a means to subvert common law, mine findings imply that we require to allow for much more variability in practices. Just since common law collection out a details position, we should not i think that medieval people constantly followed it. Part married women had a clear sense of the residential property they owned and their husbands and the courts did not dispute this.

<1> E.g. The illustration on “The Married Women’s property Act” digital at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002196, transfer 16 Jan. 2019 (accessed 11 Feb. 2019).

<2> watch Charles Donahue Jr, “What Causes fundamental Legal Ideas? Marital residential property in England and also France in the Thirteenth Century,” Michigan legislation Review 78 no. 1 (1979): 59-88.

<3> E.g. See Tim Stretton and also Krista J. Kesselring, eds., Married Women and also the Law: Coverture in England and also the usual Law World (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s college Press, 2013) and also many that the essays in Cordelia Beattie and also Matthew frank Stevens, eds., Married Women and also the law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013).

<4> J.H. Baker, An arrival to English legitimate History, third ed. (London: Butterworths, 1990), p. 551, n26.

<5> Claire Bates, “Credit map sexism: The woman who couldn’t buy a moped,” BBC News Magazine, 6 July 2016, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36662872 (accessed 11 Feb. 2019).

<7> E.g. Amy Louise Erickson, “Common legislation versus common Practice: The use of marriage Settlements in Early modern-day England,” Economic background Review 43, no. 1 (1990): 21-39.

<8> Richard H. Helmholz, “Married Women’s Wills in later on Medieval England,” in Wife and also Widow in medieval England, ed. Sue Sheridan pedestrian (Ann Arbor: university of Michigan Press, 1993), 165-82.

<9> Ibid.

<10> L. R. Poos, ed., Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England: The court of the Dean and Chapter that Lincoln, 1336-1349, and the Deanery the Wisbech, 1458-1484, records of Social and also Economic history new collection 32 (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2001), 267-592.

<11> York Minster Library, Dean and Chapter Registers, D/C Reg. 1, fo. 244 (Agnes Parke).

<12> Poos, Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, xxxviii.

<13> E.M. Elvey, ed., The courts of the Archdeaconry that Buckingham, 1483-1523, Buckinghamshire record Society, 19 (1975), 1-189.

<14> Ian Forrest, Trustworthy Men: just how Inequality and Faith do the medieval Church (Princeton: Princeton university Press, 2018).

<15> P. J. P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and also Life bicycle in a middle ages Economy: ladies in York and also Yorkshire c.1300-1520 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 264-9.

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<16> Richard H. Helmholz, “Legitim in English legit History”, University the Illinois law Review 3 (1984): 659-74.