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- Author: Dana Wessell Lightfoot x
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This book examines labouring-status women in late medieval Valencia as they negotiated the fundamentally defining experience of their lives: marriage. Through the use of notarial records and civil court cases, it argues that the socio-economic and immigrant status of these women greatly enhanced their ability to exercise agency not only in choosing a spouse and gathering dotal assets, but also in controlling this property after they wed. Although the prevailing legal code in Valencia appeared to give wives little authority over these assets, court records demonstrate they were still able to negotiate a measure of control. In these actions, labouring-status wives exercised agency by protecting their marital goods from harm, using legal statutes to their own advantage.
The key factors in this argument are the immigrant and labouring-status background of these women. Many women immigrated to Valencia on their own from smaller towns and villages. In doing so, these women moved outside of their natal families’ sphere of influence, making them less embedded and subject to the authority of their kin relations. Labouring-status women worked themselves, most often as servants, to generate the necessary funds for their dowries. These factors gave wives of this status greater agency than elite women in contracting their marriages, providing dotal assets and challenging their husbands’ authority over this property in dowry restitution cases. Without the influence of their natal families in making marital decisions, these wives were able to act independently in controlling their marital property, negotiating the structures of patriarchy to their advantage.
Chapter Four of this moves away from the dotal regime to explore another system of marital assigns utilized in late medieval Valencian society, known as germania. This regime stipulated that all of a couple’s assets would be held together as a conjugal fund for the duration of the marriage. When one member of the couple died, the survivor received half of the assets, with the other half devolved upon their children. If there were no offspring, the survivor received the entirety of the fund. This type of marriage contract was not formally recognized by the Furs, although a large minority of lower status Valencian women utilized this system. Historians have argued that women who married under a regime such as the germania had greater equality in marriage; however, this chapter argues that the absence of legal protection could place these wives in difficult situations.
Labouring-status women who married in late medieval Valencia gathered their marital assets in two ways: earning them through work or receiving them from outside donors. Chapter Five explores the methods by which these women earned their marital property, looking at how artisan and llaurador women provided their own dowries and share of the conjugal fund from income earned through service and bequests prior to marriage. While families were often closely involved in marital property donation, by no means were they exclusively so. Immigration had a great effect on how labouring-status women earned their dowries as, in the absence of family, these women turned to other means to generate such assets. The evidence therefore suggests that labouring-status women retained a great deal of agency in cobbling together the assets needed to marry according to their status. Men who married under the dotal and germania systems also received marital donations. The types and sources of these gifts reflected, rather than challenged, gendered notions of property as they supported inheritance trends prevalent in late medieval Valencia.
The final chapter of this book uses evidence from the court of the civil justice and the court of the governor to examine wives’ claims against their husbands for the restitution of their dowries. It begins by looking at the laws allowing for dowry restitution as well as the ways in which the courts functioned in these suits. The chapter then turns to an examination of the cases themselves, looking in depth at labouring-status women as instigators of these suits and the types of evidence they utilized to prove them. The vast majority of witnesses that testified in dowry restitution cases were neighbours, indicating the impact that immigration had on definitions of kin in late medieval Valencia. Dowry restitution cases present the greatest evidence of women’s agency in protecting their marital assets from errant husbands. Although the law restricted the access of wives to this property while married, dowry restitution provided women with a method to negotiate patriarchal structures such as this to their advantage.
The conclusion to this monograph re-emphasizes the role of socio-economic status and immigration on the manoeuvrability of labouring-status women in terms of marriage and the law. It highlights how medieval urban settings impacted the ability of people to develop social kin networks, looking particularly at those created by women.
This introduction argues that due to socio-economic background and immigration, labouring-status women exercised agency in choosing a spouse, gathering dotal assets and controlling this property once married. It explores scholarship on southern Europe thus far, building on this work but considering a group of women previously ignored by scholars, shifting our understanding of women’s access to and control of property in the medieval period. It highlights the use of agency theory in thinking about women’s ability to manoeuver within patriarchal structures such as the law to their advantage by looking at the act of marriage and the garnering of protection of dotal assets as culturally constituted projects.
This chapter gives a brief history of the city from its conquest from the Muslims in 1238 to its rapid rise as the centre of the Crown of Aragon, the wider polity of which it was a part. It then turns to consider the experiences of immigrants who moved to Valencia during the fifteenth century, exploring the various opportunities available to them and why women, in particular, came from other parts of the kingdom of Valencia, Castile, Aragon and Catalonia. The second part of this chapter sets the theoretical framework for marriage in late medieval Valencia by considering what made marriages valid in the eyes of the canon law, civil law and community opinion. It explores canonical legal strictures regarding marriage in the medieval period and then more specifically looks at synodal legislation. The next section of this chapter focuses on the civil marriage contract and examines the secular legal precepts that governed marital property. Lastly, this chapter analyses the social definitions of a marital union using witness testimony from dowry restitution cases. These criteria both complemented and differed from those defined by canon and secular laws.
Chapter Two examines the marital choices of artisan and llaurador women in late medieval Valencia and argues that because of their socio-economic and immigrant background, labouring-status women exercised agency in the first “project of marriage”: choosing a spouse. Some of these women were influenced by family members in their marital decisions. For others, the lack of familial presence in Valencia, and the fact that many of their fathers were deceased, impacted the ability of labouring-status women to make their own spousal choices. At the same time, these women were influenced by friends, neighbours and employers. While families looked for marriage alliances that could augment their economic resources and cement social ties within neighbourhood and guild structures, these factors were also considerations for women themselves as they sought husbands with whom they could create economically and socially viable households.
The economic aspect of the marriage is the focus of Chapter Three, looking specifically at the amount and type of property given as dowry and how this varied according to economic, familial and marital background. Women of labouring-status largely had dowries that were valued at twenty to forty pounds, consisting primarily of cash, household goods and jewellery; however, widowhood and the loss of a father could affect these patterns, in both a negative and positive manner. Legally, Valencian wives had no control of this property while married, as their husbands held administrative rights. Husbands also controlled the creix, given to women in exchange for their virginity. Unlike the dowry, marriage contracts rarely discussed the type of assets donated as counter-gift, largely because it was not conferred until the dissolution of the marriage. This evidence demonstrates that the type of property women received as marital assets was similar across socio-economic status in many ways as it consisted largely of moveable goods but elite women tended to bring more investments as part of their dowries while labouring-status women’s assets were primarily cash, household goods and jewellery.