This book explores the legal actions of women living in three English towns – Nottingham, Chester and Winchester – during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For the first time, it brings together women’s involvement in a wide range of litigation, including pleas of debt and trespass, as well as the actions for which they were punished under local policing and regulations. The book details the multiple reasons that women engaged with the law in their local communities, all arising from their interpersonal relationships and everyday work and trade. Through the examination of thousands of original court cases, it reveals the identities of hundreds of ordinary urban women and the wide range of legal actions that they participated in. This wide-ranging, comparative study examines the differing ways that women’s legal status was defined in multiple towns, and according to different situations and pleas. It pays close attention to the experiences of married women and the complex and malleable nature of coverture, which did not always make them completely invisible. The book offers new perspectives on women’s legal position and engagement with the law, their work and commercial roles, the gendering of violence and honour, and the practical implications of coverture and marital status, highlighting the importance of examining the legal roles and experiences of individual women. Its basis in the records of medieval town courts also offers a valuable insight into the workings of these courts and the lives and identities of those that used them.
This chapter provides the essential context for understanding the workings of town courts and the legal actions that women were involved in. It describes the three towns that are the focus of the book, detailing their political status, populations, local government and other key features. It then discusses the procedures and customs of the courts of these towns, the nature of the legal process, and the records of these courts. Finally, it discusses different approaches to the study of court records, outlining the way that these records have been used in creating this study, discussing issues in both quantitative and qualitative analysis and the way that women’s legal experiences are interpreted and reconstructed. This chapter therefore serves as a valuable standalone introduction to town courts and their records, as well as the basis for the remainder of the book.
This chapter examines women’s involvement in commercial litigation through analysis of debt pleas from the three towns of Nottingham, Chester and Winchester. It uses debt pleas to offer a new insight into women’s work and trading relationships and the ways in which this brought them into contact with the law, as both plaintiffs and defendants, at different stages of their lives, and at all levels within the local economy. Debt pleas were one of the key ways in which women engaged in litigation within medieval towns, making their role within these pleas key to understanding women’s experiences of the law more broadly. The chapter analyses women’s involvement in debt pleas through both quantitative and qualitative analysis, tracing changes over time in levels of women’s commercial litigation as well as examining the nature of these cases as illustrated through numerous examples. It also deals in detail with the status of married women in these pleas, contrasting the extent to which they were able to take legal action alongside their husbands in the courts of different towns, and how this developed or changed over time.
This chapter examines the ways that women were drawn into the local regulatory mechanisms that governed trade and the quality of goods within different towns, drawing largely on evidence from Nottingham and Winchester. These regulations included rules concerning weights and measures, the price and quality of goods and marketing behaviour. Presentments for wrongdoing were made by local officials and thus represented a different form of legal action to those discussed in the previous chapter. This allows for a wider understanding of the ties between women’s commercial activity, trading behaviour and their legal roles, building on the analysis of Chapter 2. The chapter again examines the practical implications of coverture in the way that women were or were not held accountable for their trading behaviour, and the way in which women’s marital and household identities were documented, including the extent to which wives’ brewing activity was hidden behind the identities of their husbands.
This chapter examines women’s roles in trespass litigation, revealing a wide range of misbehaviour, including physical and verbal assault, theft and damage to property. These pleas allow us to access urban life, and its sometimes turbulent nature, in vivid detail, and the chapter utilises these pleas to explore the nature and implications of women’s involvement in misbehaviour, as both victims and perpetrators. The chapter examines the nature of this misconduct and the ways that this transcended gendered patterns of honour and wrongdoing that have dominated other studies, instead showing how women’s involvement in trespasses encompassed the full range of offences that fell within this category. It discusses the role of family and household ties in trespasses and the resultant litigation, including the way that ties between husbands and wives played out in court. It also explores the use of litigation as an important part of the process of restoring damaged reputations and publicising the misdemeanours of others.
This chapter uses the records of urban policing to recover women’s wrongdoing in relation to affray, bloodshed and moral offences such as prostitution. These offences were reported and punished via presentments made by local officials and offer a wider perspective on women’s misbehaviour and its punishment, encompassing the disruptive use of women’s voices and their use of the hue and cry as a policing mechanism. It argues that no type of disorder was exclusively male or female and that both sexes had the capacity to harm others and the urban community through their unlawful and immoral behaviour. These records illuminate town officials’ use of policing to create and maintain peaceful communities in order to promote their civic status and foster economic prosperity, and together with Chapter 4, this chapter helps to create a more rounded picture of the various ways in which misbehaviour and violence gave rise to different legal actions.
The conclusion brings together the different legal actions and pleas examined throughout the book to create a picture of the wide-ranging and varied means by which medieval urban women engaged with the law. It highlights the richness of the sources used throughout the book for examining women’s legal lives and enriching our understanding of urban justice through the recovery of stories that might otherwise go untold. In assessing the nature of women’s legal actions, it argues that these were often not defined primarily or solely by gender, with women being involved in the same legal actions and pleas as men. Finally, it draws together the numerous factors that determined women’s engagement with the law, including the type of plea or offence, a woman’s marital status, and the customs and practices of the town in which she lived. This means that there was no singular type of urban woman litigant and no definitive legal experience for urban women. Instead, the conclusion, and the book as a whole, highlights the importance of paying attention to the individual details contained within each legal action in order to better understand women’s experiences of and negotiation of justice within medieval towns.
This chapter sets out the scope and focus of the book. It introduces the records and context upon which the book is based and the way in which the legal evidence is used to examine women’s engagement with the legal system. It also places the book within its historiographical context by outlining existing key studies and the way that the book builds on these studies. Finally, it outlines the structure of the remainder of the book.