in Medieval women and urban justice

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.

In May 1325, Margery Bridgford and Adam del Park faced one another in a suit brought before Nottingham’s borough court. Bridgford alleged that Park had assaulted her in her house, beating, wounding and maltreating her, as well as wounding and killing three of her sheep. She claimed damages of 20s. Park brought a countersuit that recalled a different version of events. He claimed that he had attempted to impound the sheep, as they had been unlawfully grazing and destroying vegetables on his land. In response, Bridgford had defamed Park, calling him a false man, a thief and an infidel, and tearing his clothes. He sought damages of half a mark (6s 8d). Despite the parties’ denial of the allegations, the jury reported that both were guilty of the respective offences, with the court awarding damages of 2s 6d to Margery Bridgford but only 6d to Adam del Park.1 Bridgford secured compensation for the physical assault as well as the monetary loss resulting from the damage to her goods (the death of three sheep), while the defaming of Park’s reputation and Bridgford’s physical attack were also quantified in monetary terms, though at a lower sum. The court apparently agreed with the relative severity of the two attacks as claimed by the two litigants and reflected this in the damages that were eventually awarded.

These pleas were typical of those heard by the courts that governed England’s medieval towns, illustrating how relatively trivial, mundane disputes between neighbours could result in physical or verbal violence, and ultimately in litigation in the local court. Both women and men readily resorted to law to seek redress and to enforce obligations. The surviving records of these complaints provide an insight into urban women’s access to justice, revealing their standing under the law, as well as rare access to the details of their lives, interactions and relationships. In the context of medieval patriarchal society, where the identities and activities of the vast majority of women went unrecorded, local court records represent a crucial source through which we can access the lives of ordinary women. Furthermore, town court records reveal the activities of ordinary working women, in contrast to the more exceptional elite women who left their own records (such as the Paston women) or whose political roles saw them documented in contemporary histories. They allow us to access the occasions when women used the courts to claim and perform their legal identities, or when the complaints of others forced women to answer for their actions, and as a result offer an unparalleled insight into women’s lives and relationships. As illustrated by the cases cited above, we are able to glimpse their actions as both plaintiffs and defendants, their complaints and grievances, and the assessments of value and harm that these involved. The records of these complaints reveal women’s behaviour, interactions and altercations, instances of violence, their obligations and expectations, and sometimes their words, among many other intricacies and idiosyncrasies of urban life. They also reveal more quotidian details, such as the fact that Margery Bridgford and Adam del Park were neighbours, that she owned (at least) three sheep, and that he grew vegetables on the land surrounding his home. The court records also allow us to test and measure the experiences of real women against models or theories about the position of women in premodern society, allowing us to build a greater understanding of the lives of real women.

These women, their litigation and other legal actions, lie at the heart of this book, which seeks to understand how ordinary urban women engaged with and were defined by the legal systems that governed the late medieval urban communities of Nottingham, Chester and Winchester, c.1300–c.1500. England’s medieval towns were notably litigious places, and the pleas that were so common within local courts reflected many key urban characteristics: they were dynamic, evolving places that were densely populated and were at the centre of local trade and exchange, where people worked in a wide range of occupations. These factors combined to increase the propensity of urban residents to use and engage with local justice. Through civil complaints of debt, detinue (the detention or withholding of goods) and trespass, residents used their local courts to enforce commercial agreements and obligations, to complain about the poor quality of goods or services, and to seek compensation when the misbehaviour of others caused harm to individuals, property or reputations. Local officials also used the powers granted to them to police and punish misbehaviour and enforce local bylaws and regulations. As a result of this broad scope, a large proportion of the urban population came into contact with local justice at some point in their lives, many doing so frequently.2 In 1377, 1,477 people in Nottingham were eligible for the Poll Tax (adults over 14 who were not classed as poor); two years earlier in the year 1375–6 (Michaelmas to Michaelmas), 469 different individuals used the borough court, approximately a third of the taxable population.3 Of these individuals, 19% were women. Interaction with various arms of urban justice was a common, ordinary experience among the residents of England’s towns, and town courts were popular forums through which to resolve disputes and restore relationships.4

The high volume of litigation and presentments dealt with by these courts created a wealth of documentation that allows us to access the social and economic lives of ordinary women and men who rarely featured in other written records of the period, shedding light on the legal actions of thousands of people as they negotiated urban life, its challenges, opportunities and conflicts. This book examines the active nature of women’s experiences of and engagement with local justice, rather than the ways in which they were defined or punished by the law. This is in part a reflection of the sources used (particularly civil pleas) but also the approach to these records, centring women as individuals with choices and personalities, rather than simply as subjects of legal and official authority or statistics to be counted. While this study also serves as a detailed insight into the nature of late medieval urban justice, the focus here is not on the institutions that delivered this justice but on the individuals (specifically the women) who engaged with and were subject to the mechanisms and customs of local justice in the course of their everyday lives. The urban records therefore serve to expand our view of women’s legal experiences to incorporate the many ways that they engaged with the law in everyday life.

There is much to learn about the lives of ordinary women from the court rolls: details of their work, their commercial contacts, what they bought and sold and from whom, their interpersonal relationships and how these broke down, where they lived and even what possessions they had. We know, for example, that Nottingham’s John and Alice Sutton were wholesalers who dealt in large quantities of garlic and onions; that Agatha Spycer and Alice Mercer were both known as merchants in Winchester; and that Matilda Lok accused Ralph de Ravensecroft, a chaplain, of assaulting her in Eastgate Street in Chester’s city centre.5 Individually, these complaints offer a fascinating insight into the details of women’s everyday lives. However, when studied together in detail, the court records also allow us to consider important questions regarding women’s access to justice within the urban community. This book asks why, how and in what circumstances local law enabled women to complain about the actions of others who had harmed or wronged them, as well as the extent to which they were expected to account for their own behaviour through the complaints and reports of their neighbours and local officials. It represents a new, comparative focus in the study of medieval urban women, and of women’s roles in litigation, allowing us to consider patterns beyond individual places and courts, and to place the urban experience within the wider legal context of late medieval England. As Laura Gowing has argued, going to court was a rare occasion when ordinary women could have their actions and words documented, in a period where written literacy levels among the working population were low, though increasing in relation to pragmatic matters.6 Even if they were able to, there was no need for women (or men) to record who they might have had an argument with, who had stolen from them or insulted them. Most everyday commercial transactions were not recorded either, so occasions where a payment was not made on time did not get recorded unless they resulted in legal action.7 Court records therefore bring these moments into view, allowing us to reconstruct aspects of women’s legal actions and the everyday lives from which these actions stemmed. It is this which offers historians the opportunity to examine the law not just from an institutional perspective – as a system of rules that was imposed on the population for them to adhere to – but from the litigant’s perspective, as a series of principles and actions that was negotiated by individuals in the ways in which they told their stories.8 The fact that these stories were written down (to varying degrees) granted them a sense of formality and posterity that was rare in the lives of ordinary people, particularly women.

Town courts represented the lowest level of law and justice, and were thus the most accessible and relevant courts in the everyday lives of medieval women and men. This book examines and compares the records of urban justice from Nottingham, Chester and Winchester, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis to compare the legal status, roles and experience of ordinary, middling status women living in these towns across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.9 It does this by combining the analysis of six sample years for each town (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 1) with a broader survey and discussion of women’s legal actions and experiences across the period c.1300–c.1500. This was a period during which town courts developed to become key institutions for the administration of justice in England, as well as one of demographic and economic development and upheaval. The women at the heart of this study all lived in medium-sized towns and made their living by buying, selling or making various goods, or providing different services. We cannot, however, assume that all townswomen, their status or their experiences were the same. A key finding of this study is that, despite shared characteristics, each town and its court(s) were different, and women’s experiences of and engagement with the law were a product of local interpretations of legal practice, as well as their own personal lives and personalities. All of these factors intersected to create a unique experience of the law for every individual woman that is discussed within this book, as well as many thousands more who are not, a fact which speaks to the instability of ‘woman’ as a category. Moreover, the late medieval period was one of many turning points, meaning that the context in which women’s legal action took place was not static. It was a time of demographic and economic upheaval, but also a period of evolution and growth in the legal systems of England, and of continuing development of town governance, rights and customs, resulting in increasing interaction with the law by ordinary people.10 The courts examined here were still relatively new at the beginning of the fourteenth century when this study begins, but by the end of the fifteenth century were well established as central components within the machinery of local justice. The fact that this study spans and surveys legal records covering the period c.1300–c.1500 therefore allows for consideration of continuity and change in women’s legal experiences and status over time. As a result, this study is characterised as much by differences and contrasts as it is by common factors that applied to women as a group.

The context for each town and its court is established in detail in Chapter 1, though it is useful to set out some key characteristics here. They were all medium-sized, provincial towns, with good collections of surviving records from courts that can be loosely classified as ‘borough courts’. The towns were of comparable size, but in geographically separate regions of England, as Map 1 displays. Each had its own unique status, though by the fourteenth century none was nationally important in terms of politics or trade, meaning that they might be considered relatively ‘ordinary’ urban centres, in a separate category to major cities like London, York, Norwich or Bristol. Importantly, each town has a good collection of surviving court records from across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, recording comparable types of litigation between residents and regulation and policing by civic officials. The Nottingham records are the richest and best surviving, so are drawn on the most throughout the book, with extensive comparison to those from Chester and Winchester. This comparison is crucial to understanding the wider context of women’s legal action and the variables that defined it.

Borough courts and urban justice did not exist in a vacuum, and the varied array of legal options that existed in this period are now widely acknowledged. These customary courts sat within a complex web of overlapping, competing jurisdictions. Disputes could take various paths, giving individuals or groups a degree of choice over where to bring their complaints. This study illuminates the structures, customs and practices that governed urban women’s lives through the operation of local justice, and considers how these varied from one town to another. As Chapter 1 explains, there were many common factors that spanned all local town courts, though each court operated according to its own set of customs and traditions. Comparison between different town courts therefore identifies the ways in which these differing customs had an impact upon women’s experiences of the law, and the examination of thousands of cases and presentments serves to enhance our understanding of how law and justice operated at the local level in medieval society. Throughout this book, the practices of the three towns are also contextualised against existing studies of other jurisdictions, helping to provide a more complete picture of women’s litigation across the legal network of medieval England. Wider comparisons with evidence from across Britain (Wales and Scotland) and Europe also offer opportunities to consider aspects of a shared legal culture as it impacted on and was experienced by women across national and jurisdictional boundaries.

The legal lives of medieval urban women

This study rests on several decades of scholarship on medieval women, particularly that which explores their lives in towns and their status under the law. Much of the history of urban women has focused on their work, a defining feature of urban life. The intrinsic commercial functions of towns make the consideration of women’s work central to the broader understanding of their lives and status within urban communities, but this was also tied to – or indeed the root of – much of their legal action, as Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate. Various studies, including those of Maryanne Kowaleski, Jeremy Goldberg and Caroline Barron, have drawn upon a range of legal and official sources to study women in towns including Exeter, York and London, as well as Lincoln and Shrewsbury.11 However, these studies have largely used court records to examine women’s work, and consideration of the details of women’s legal status and the nature of their litigation offers a background rather than the focus of these studies. There have been a handful of studies on women’s involvement in debt litigation, but none of their roles in trespass pleas.12 More research exists on Scottish townswomen’s legal actions, due largely to the work of Elizabeth Ewan.13 English court records have instead been mined for details of women’s working activities, occupations and economic status. As a result, we know that women played essential roles in urban economies, working to generate their own incomes and supplementing the earnings of their husbands. However, they often inhabited marginal positions, were involved in low-value trade, low-skilled work and were less likely to work in specialised occupations than men, instead intermittently working across many areas.14 Kowaleski’s study of women’s work in Exeter outlines the low status of women’s work in particularly stark terms, drawing upon their actions in the borough court as evidence of work and trade in five main areas: service, brewing or selling ale, retailing, prostitution, brothel-keeping and a small number of crafts.15 These activities are all represented in the court rolls examined here, along with many other tasks.

Some studies take a more optimistic stance on the position of women within urban society, emphasising their shifting status and positing periods of enhanced opportunity. Caroline Barron famously – and somewhat controversially – suggested that there may have been a ‘golden age’ for working women in late medieval London, particularly in the aftermath of the Black Death. Due to the customs of London that recognised women’s separate commercial activities, married women who acted as femmes sole were even said to have been ‘working partners in marriages between economic equals’, while the independence of widows was described as being ‘even brighter’.16 Jeremy Goldberg’s analysis of Yorkshire women also contended that there was a growth in employment opportunities for women as a result of the profound demographic downturn in the century following 1348. Like Kowaleski, he also noted the intermittent and fluid nature of women’s working identities, while acknowledging that they could nevertheless build up a range of skills and played important roles in running the household and bringing in money through by-employments.17 This has led to Barron and Goldberg being grouped together as proponents of the ‘golden age school’, though Goldberg has never used this term. But the idea that women experienced enhanced status and opportunities has been challenged by other historians, most notably Judith Bennett who has argued for the continuity of women’s low economic status over several centuries under the ‘patriarchal equilibrium’ by which there was change but not transformation in women’s status in relation to men.18 Most recently, Matthew Stevens’ work on London women has returned to the ‘golden age’ debate to suggest that a rise in women’s economic litigation may have been a result of increased opportunity, but that, overall, women’s capacity to access justice declined from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries.19 These arguments all draw on a variety of administrative and legal records to reconstruct the activities and experiences of medieval women, and to trace any changes in this position over time. These patterns of change also feature throughout this study, though not with the intention of identifying or disputing the existence of a ‘golden age’. Women’s access to justice was never ‘golden’ – they were always in the minority of litigants – and though in some courts and in some situations women did have significant capacity to use the law to their advantage, the act of converting women’s legal actions into broad narratives of continuity or change serves to mask the unique experiences and stories of individual women.

In the popular imagination, medieval women had few or even no legal rights, their encounters with the law were limited to ‘female’ acts of witchcraft or prostitution, and their behaviour punished by the ducking stool and scold’s bridles. While this is, of course, not an accurate depiction, the historiography of medieval women’s legal position does not offer much in terms of women’s equitable access to justice. Early histories of the English law painted a rather bleak picture of women’s legal status, based on general descriptions of female subordinance, particularly when married, drawn from legal treatises. These outline the position of women in theory, including striking statements that saw women characterised like children and outlaws, whose lack of legal capacity and obligations meant that they were not under the law.20 Eileen Power, for example, drew attention to the subjection of woman to man, and the law’s failure to view a woman as ‘a complete individual [or] a free and lawful person’.21 Women’s inferior legal status within marriage under the principle of coverture, and their husbands’ legal responsibility for their actions, was a particularly prominent theme in these early discussions.22 But none of these studies examined the actual legal actions of medieval women, or recognised the possibility that there may have existed a notable gap between women’s legal rights and actions in theory and in practice.

This is where the true value of studying court records lies – in what these documents reveal about the practice, rather than theory or ideals, of law: how legal action and disputes played out in court, and in the context of everyday life; the interests, value and strategies of those involved; and how people behaved to each other. They tell us the things people could get away with, what other people thought to be out of line, and what could be done about this. All of this involved the explicit and implicit invocation of legal, customary and local norms.23 This access to law in action is particularly fundamental to understanding the position of women, whose status under the law was characterised by notions of inferiority in relation to men which resulted in long lists of things that women (especially married women) could not (theoretically) do. Court records allow us to assess the implications of these ideas in everyday life.

The most notable and powerful convention that defined women’s legal status – and has dominated much of the historiography – was the common law doctrine of coverture, which limited, or even removed, married women’s legal status. The influence of coverture on legal practice is a key theme that runs throughout this book, so it is worth spending some time setting out its parameters and treatment by historians here. This principle set out, in the most basic of terms, that married women did not have an independent legal or financial identity, but instead were ‘covered’ by their husbands, a phenomenon which defined women’s legal and economic status from the middle ages to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870.24 As a result, much discussion of women’s legal capabilities has focused on what a woman could not do: she could not ‘own or control property, enter into contracts, make a will, or bring or defend a lawsuit without her husband’.25 Coverture was also a defining principle for the status of non-married women, as it characterised the status of women in relation to whether they were or were not married. Furthermore, marriage was an expectation (though not always a reality) for adult women, meaning that the idea and power of coverture was something that impacted on the lives of all women. Coverture therefore created different categories of women, defined via their marital status as either maids, wives or widows.26

These classifications can be traced in the various legal treatises of the premodern period, revealing how lawyers interpreted the status of women under English common law. The treatise known as Bracton outlined the dual nature of coverture under common law: husband and wife are a ‘single person, because they are one flesh and one blood’, and men were the rulers of their wives and custodians of their property.27 This meant that wives were unable to bring or answer complaints independently, except in a few extreme circumstances such as the murder of their husband.28 This has led to some historians making broad statements on the power of coverture and the disabilities or invisibility of married women. Sue Sheridan Walker highlighted the rights that came with widowhood, stating that ‘the legal reality of the wife is largely subsumed by that of the husband and only revived upon his death’.29 Marjorie McIntosh suggested that, under common law, it is rare that historians are able to spot the presence of married women in court behind their husband’s name.30

We might not, therefore, expect to find wives in court records. However, these notions of extreme disabilities for married women in particular have been tempered by analyses of the ‘reality’ of coverture by numerous historians. In their seminal text on English legal history, Pollock and Maitland cautioned against assuming a uniform understanding of coverture: ‘we must be on our guard against the common belief that the ruling principle is that which sees an “unity of person” between husband and wife …… a consistently operative principle it can not be’.31 However, it is only recently that various studies have analysed women’s legal actions across a range of contexts, drawing on the records of legal practice to assess the day-to-day impact of coverture.32 These studies have revealed many grey areas within the ‘doctrine’ of coverture, suggesting that it was often more of a cultural guiding notion than a fixed set of rules. Tim Stretton has argued that coverture was a fiction which, in practice, did not mean that wives were not legal persons or completely unable to wage law. Instead, the essence of coverture lay in the power of a husband over his wife and her property, and the assumption that a wife acted under the coercion of her husband.33 Surveying the invocation of coverture in the late medieval year books, Sara Butler has also argued that medieval courts were reluctant to definitively proclaim the ‘civil death’ of the wife.34 While coverture is dominant in our perception of women’s legal status, Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring have cautioned that in fact many of the rules pertaining to coverture and women’s legal status did not guide every transaction, but were only called upon in particular instances of crisis.35 As we will see throughout this study, these rules were also applied and interpreted in various ways according to the practice and jurisdictions of different courts.

Historians have mined the records of numerous jurisdictions in seeking to understand the nature and extent of women’s legal actions in the medieval period. The publication of three separate volumes on women’s status across the premodern period in the last decade marked a new phase in the historiography. These studies treat the broad assumptions about the impact of coverture to close scrutiny, revealing that some women had more options than theoretical limits of the law might suggest, and that the power of coverture has perhaps been overplayed.36 Examining the records of legal practice, these collected studies have served to capture how ‘women’s legal agency was marked by variation and depended on marital status, jurisdiction and region’.37 This recent historiography shows varying capabilities of women in court, though this was consistently informed by the culture and tradition of coverture that delineated women by marital status; but it was in local courts, such as those of manors and boroughs, that communities and officials turned abstract legal ideas about women into reality through the process of litigation.38 Matthew Stevens found that in London there was ample scope for married women to litigate despite the conventions of coverture.39 Cordelia Beattie has also highlighted the potential for women to negotiate the restrictions of coverture, particularly in relation to household management and the provision of necessaries.40 Miriam Müller has problematised assumptions about the power of medieval coverture in the rural context, arguing that it is inadequate in explaining gender relationships and female subordination in the medieval countryside.41 Beyond England too, historians have noted the capacity of married women to engage in legal action, adding various caveats to theoretical legal constraints. In Scottish towns, as Elizabeth Ewan has argued, though the Laws of the Burghs stated that men could answer for their wives, the law did not say that men must represent their wives.42 Like Matthew Stevens on London, Cathryn Spence has demonstrated the prominence of married women in early modern Scottish burgh courts, their presence being indicative of their important economic roles.43 In Ruthin, in the Welsh marcher lordship of Dyffryn Clywd, Stevens has noted the presence of married women in court and in presentments, including many who did not appear in conjunction with their husbands.44 In Caernarfon too, married women appear in the medieval borough court rolls, sometimes without their husbands, though mostly in relation to interpersonal violence.45

Others have drawn different conclusions about the legal status of women according to marital status, particularly in relation to their economic capabilities. Craig Muldrew’s study of Great Yarmouth’s borough court in the seventeenth century has highlighted the restrictions on women’s litigation, with married women unable to sue or be sued in their own names. Unlike the Scottish burghs, this obscured their involvement in networks of credit and debt.46 Chris Briggs’ analysis of women’s debt litigation in medieval manorial courts has also emphasised the limitations on married women’s legal action. Though acknowledging that the principles of coverture ‘did not completely prevent married women’s practical experience of credit matters’, wives are nevertheless shown to have rarely been involved in manorial debt litigation.47 Taken together, these studies highlight flexibility in the determination of women’s legal status, particularly at the local level, and make it clear that some women exercised more legal agency than common law doctrine or legal theory would suggest. Yet, as one volume on married women and the law acknowledges, there is much work still to be done in continuing to challenge the old view that women, particularly married women, were hidden from view in legal materials.48 This book aims to make a significant dent in this task within the context of town courts.

Though they operated according to their own customs, English borough courts existed within the broader culture of the common law, which included the influence of the culture of coverture. Sara Butler has argued that coverture was so entrenched in the laws of England ‘that courts freed from the constraints of this legal fiction still sometimes imposed it’.49 But the ways in which coverture was interpreted and imposed were not consistent. As this study will show, the customs of each town developed in unique ways, varying from place to place, over time and according to different situations, and this was reflected in ideas about women’s status at court and within urban society.50 One specific variation in the customs relating to women’s legal status was the existence of femme sole status, which has been the focus of some historiographical attention. These customs allowed married women who registered as femmes sole to trade and appear in court as though single, rather than the typical femme covert status of married women.51 The potential power of this custom to tip the usual rules of coverture and wives’ lack of independence on their head has led to it being overemphasised as one of the few ways in which married women could exercise independence: the ‘go-to’ exception to married women’s powerlessness. But femme sole customs were rarely adopted, and most towns did not offer this status to married women – though, as we will see, this did not mean that there were no other options for women to negotiate trade and justice within their communities. The court rolls reveal marital partnership, cooperation, support and ties of honour, deepening our understanding of women’s commercial and legal lives beyond basic notions of husbands’ authority that dominate legal theory and doctrine. By continuing to examine the legal actions of real women – married and not married – across a range of legal actions, this book therefore makes a direct contribution to the discussion on the nature of coverture in the medieval period, and to our understanding of women’s agency within the legal systems that underpinned much of their everyday lives.

While the historiography may be increasingly recognising women’s legal agency and their possibilities for action, particularly in the case of married women, this does not disguise or negate the fact that women were subordinate subjects under the multiple jurisdictions of medieval England. In the borough courts, at the lowest level of the law, women never accounted for more than around a fifth of litigants.52 Judith Bennett has highlighted the disadvantages women faced before their local courts, with legal practice marking women as ‘second-rank constituents’ in almost every aspect of civil litigation.53 Chris Briggs has argued that women’s limited involvement in manorial litigation indicates ‘little empowerment among women’.54 The statistical evidence for women’s litigation certainly represents their marginal status in the legal management of credit ties, but the extent to which litigation can be used as a measure of female empowerment is rather more tenuous, as Chapter 2 will discuss.

Though the numbers of women in court may be low in comparison to men, this book focuses on the nature of women’s legal actions and the roles they played in litigation and other cases, rather than concentrating simply on statistics and comparisons with the actions of men. A purely quantitative analysis might lead the legal actions of women to be disregarded as exceptional without questioning why their numbers were so low, and masking many of the more subtle and complex aspects of women’s experiences of the law. A wholly quantitative approach also serves to wipe away the stories and experiences of those women who did engage with the law, as well as limiting our capacity to understand why other women did not do so. As Garthine Walker has argued, quantification of male and female presence in legal records repeatedly shows us that women were a minority group within these records, particularly as those prosecuted for crime or wrongdoing, and therefore leads to women being counted and subsequently discounted.55 Measuring women against men in this way, particularly in statistical terms, will always serve to emphasise gender difference over what women actually did, and the ways in which their behaviour was understood by various legal systems. The highlighting of gender difference has been a particularly prominent feature of studies that consider women’s involvement in crime, underscoring notions of legal action being something which, on the whole, did not involve women. Karen Jones’ study of petty crime in Kent draws on a range of local jurisdictions in presenting a case for distinctly gendered patterns of virtue, (mis)conduct and criminal activity and the resultant ways that men and women were drawn into local law courts, the law serving to propagate negative images of women.56 Louise Wilkinson’s analysis of women’s involvement in crime in Lincolnshire also emphasises gendered patterns of violence, with women’s criminal behaviour rarely featuring in the Lincolnshire Eyre records of the thirteenth century.57

While quantification and consideration of gender difference is important and illustrative of some broad trends, there is more that can be said by paying attention to the presence of those women who did appear in borough court litigation and in the presentment of other offences, and the context within which these appearances occurred. We are able to recover important details of women’s actions or misbehaviours and how these brought women into contact with the law, serving to create a better understanding of the functioning of legal practice as a whole.58 This evidence demonstrates the ways that women were integrated into the legal systems of their local communities, claiming a legal voice and being held to account for their actions, rather than experiencing the law in distinctly female ways, or being classified as a passive minority or ‘other’ group over whom the law governed.

Women and urban justice

Townswomen came into contact with the law in various ways, through individual and joint litigation and the regulation and punishment of behaviour by officials. These legal actions determine the structure of this book. This involves drawing on both civil litigation and the records of misconduct, making it possible to examine and compare a wide range of women’s legal action within and across urban communities and identifying the role that law played in different aspects of women’s lives. However, before turning to the legal records in detail, some background is required in order to understand the details and significance of women’s various legal actions. Chapter 1 therefore sets out the urban context and legal framework that underpinned both the specific courts studied here and urban jurisdictions in general, discussing the towns, the functioning of their courts and the nature of their records. It also discusses the methodology for this study and the way that the court records have been used to provide both quantitative data (via sampling) and qualitative examples that provide insight into individuals’ experiences of the law.

Turning to the records of law in practice, Chapter 2 examines women’s involvement in commercial litigation. Pleas of debt and detinue and disputes over broken contracts (and either the withholding of payment or of goods) provide an insight into women’s work and trading relationships and reveal their ability to take action or be held to account when the obligations underpinning these relationships were not fulfilled. Though this litigation was a major component of court business across all three towns, women’s involvement in these complaints was not consistent. The ability of married women to litigate over debt and detinue was considerable in some places, marking a certain malleability in the nature of coverture. However, other towns enforced a strict understanding of coverture that prevented women from taking part in this litigation. These patterns also changed over time. Chapter 3 builds on this analysis of the intersection of women’s commercial life and their legal status to examine when and in what ways they were drawn into local regulatory mechanisms concerning weights and measures, the price and quality of goods and other marketing regulations. These presentments, made by local officials, represented a different form of legal action whereby individuals were held accountable for their behaviour through the simple listing of their names and issuing of fines. Together, these two chapters document the different ways in which women both used the law and were subject to its controls in the governing of local commercial activity and trading relationships.

In Chapter 4 the focus shifts to women’s misbehaviour and the trespass litigation that arose from wrongdoing and the breakdown of interpersonal relationships. Pleas of trespass encompassed a wide range of misbehaviour, including physical and verbal assault, theft and damage to property. The chapter examines the nature of this misconduct, with women’s involvement in a wide range of misbehaviour, as both perpetrators and victims, transcending gendered patterns of honour and wrongdoing. It also explores how the use of litigation was an important part of the process of restoring damaged reputations and publicising the misdemeanours of others. Chapter 5 takes an alternative perspective on women’s misbehaviour, using the records of urban policing to recover women’s wrongdoing in relation to affray, bloodshed and moral offences such as prostitution. In these presentments made by local officials, the disruptive use of women’s voices also becomes more visible, in line with other studies of women’s misbehaviour.59

Across the various chapters, this study of law and life in three English towns extends our understanding of the ‘legal lives’ of medieval townswomen in a number of ways. The detailed analysis of a range of legal actions highlights the extent and range of women’s experiences of the law, despite the restrictions it placed upon them. This broad focus suggests that women’s engagement with the law was greater than often assumed, being a regular feature of urban women’s lives rather than an exceptional event or experience. The focus on women in provincial towns, and the comparison between different places, brings the examination of local custom and practice to the fore, revealing that no one place can be understood as ‘typical’ in defining women’s experiences of the law. Instead, examination of the local context must be central to our evaluation of women’s negotiation of justice, highlighting both continuities and difference. Following many other recent studies, it also sheds new light on the role that marriage and coverture played in defining the status of urban women, revealing differences across jurisdictions and various legal actions that suggests multiple possibilities beyond the binary frameworks of coverture and femme sole status. These factors, when combined, mean that no one woman typified ‘the female litigant’, emphasising the importance of paying attention to the circumstances and experiences of individual women. Borough courts could offer women considerable legal agency, though differences in local legal custom resulted in variations in the ways in which women’s litigation and legal status was understood and performed in local courts.


1 Nottinghamshire Archives (hereafter NA), CA1259 rots 17d, 20. Both complaints follow common practice whereby high sums of damages were claimed but never awarded by the court.
2 Patricia Turning has also shown that a wide spectrum of people negotiated justice in the courtrooms of medieval Toulouse. See Turning, Municipal Officials, Their Public, and the Negotiation of Justice in Medieval Languedoc (Leiden: Brill, 2013), p. 11.
3 The Poll Tax of 1377 covered all adults over the age of 14 who were not paupers (though various issues of tax avoidance that mean this figure should only be taken as a rough indication of the actual eligible population). There were 1,477 taxpayers for Nottingham in 1377 and 469 different individuals can be identified from the borough court rolls of 1375–6; 326 of 409 pleas concerned debt or detinue. For Poll Tax figures, see Alan Dyer, ‘Ranking of towns by taxpaying population: the 1377 poll tax’, in D.M. Palliser (ed.), Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 758.
4 On choice of legal forums, see Daniel Klerman, ‘Jurisdictional competition and the evolution of the common law: an hypothesis’, in Anthony Musson (ed.), Boundaries of the Law: Geography, Gender and Jurisdiction in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 149.
5 NA CA1279 rot. 12; Hampshire Record Office (hereafter HRO) W/D1/37 rot. 3d; HRO W/D1/37 rot. 8d. Cheshire Archives and Local Studies (hereafter CALS) ZSR 21 rot. 7d.
6 M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), pp. 258–265; J.L. Bolton, Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973–1489 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 199–202.
7 James Davis, Medieval Market Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 348.
8 Laura Gowing has argued that the telling of ‘stories’ by women in legal actions gave them ‘both a formal cultural agency – a time in which their words were written down – and a way of putting themselves, as actors, at centre stage’. Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) p. 234.
9 For more on the methodology and approach to court records used in this study, see Chapter 1.
10 John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages: the History and Theory of England’s Economic Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 26–30; Richard Goddard, Credit and Trade in Later Medieval England, 1353–1532 (London: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 97–129; Anthony Musson, Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from the Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 84–120.
11 For example, Maryanne Kowaleski, ‘Women’s work in a market town: Exeter in the late fourteenth century’, in Barbara A. Hanawalt (ed.), Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 145–164; Diane Hutton, ‘Women in fourteenth-century Shrewsbury’, in Lindsey Charles and Lorna Duffin (eds), Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England (London: Croom Helm, 1985), pp. 83–99; Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); P.J.P. Goldberg, Women, Work and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c.1300–1520 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Caroline M. Barron, ‘The ‘golden age’ of women in medieval London’, Reading Medieval Studies, 15 (1989), 35–58; Matthew Frank Stevens, ‘London women, the courts and the ‘golden age’: a quantitative analysis of female litigants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’, The London Journal, 37 (2012), 67–88; Louise J. Wilkinson, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007), pp. 92–115.
12 On debt litigation, see Chris Briggs, ‘Empowered or marginalized? Rural women and credit in later thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 19 (2004), 13–43; Matthew Frank Stevens, ‘London’s married women, debt litigation and coverture in the court of Common Pleas’, in Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013), pp. 115–132.
13 Elizabeth Ewan’s work on Scottish urban women and law includes ‘Scottish Portias: women in the courts in mediaeval Scottish towns’, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 3 (1992), 27–43; ‘Divers injurious words’: defamation and gender in late medieval Scotland’, in R.A. McDonald (ed.), History, Literature and Music in Medieval Scotland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), pp. 63–86; ‘Disorderly damsels? women and interpersonal violence in pre-Reformation Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, 89 (2010), 153–171.
14 These general characteristics are described in a number of studies of women’s work: see, for example, McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, p. 4. See also Hutton, ‘Women in fourteenth-century Shrewsbury’ pp. 83–99; Kay E. Lacy, ‘Women and work in fourteenth and fifteenth century London’ in Charles and Duffin (eds), Women and Work, pp. 24–82; Rodney Hilton, ‘Women traders in medieval England’ in Hilton, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism (London: Verso, revised edn, 1990), pp. 132–142; Peter Fleming, Women in Late Medieval Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets, 103 (2001).
15 Kowaleski, ‘Women’s work in a market town’, p. 148.
16 Barron, ‘Golden age’, 40–41.
17 Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle, pp. 335–7.
18 Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 61–62.
19 Stevens, ‘London’s married women’, pp. 73, 80.
20 Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitland, The History of English Law before the time of Edward I, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), p. 482.
21 Eileen Power, Medieval Women, ed. Michael M. Postan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975) p. 2.
22 Power described how a married woman’s rights ‘slipped out of her hands’ for the duration of the marriage. Medieval Women, p. 30. See also Pollock and Maitland, English Law, vol. 2, p. 405; William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, book 1, chapter 15 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765–9), pp. 430–433.
23 Chris Wickham, Courts and Conflict in Twelfth-century Tuscany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 5.
24 On the continuities of coverture, see Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring ‘Introduction: coverture and continuity’ in Stretton and Kesselring (eds), Married Women and the Law: Coverture in the Common Law World (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), pp. 3–23.
25 Stretton and Kesselring, ‘Coverture and continuity’, pp. 7–8.
26 On medieval classificatory systems, see Cordelia Beattie, Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), pp. 1–12, 15–24.
27 Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, trans. Samuel E. Thorne, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977), p. 287 (hereafter Bracton). On the writing of the treatises see J.L. Barton, ‘The mystery of Bracton’, The Journal of Legal History, 14 (1993), 1–142.
28 Bracton, vol. 2, p. 353.
29 Sue Sheridan Walker (ed.), Wife and Widow in Medieval England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 4.
30 McIntosh, Working Women, pp. 95–96.
31 Pollock and Maitland, English Law, vol. 2, pp. 405–406.
32 For example, Sara M. Butler, ‘Discourse on the nature of coverture in the later medieval courtroom’, in Stretton and Kesselring (eds), Married Women and the Law, pp. 39–40. See also Cordelia Beattie, ‘Married women, contracts and coverture in late medieval England’, in Beattie and Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law, pp. 133–154; Stevens, ‘London’s married women’, pp. 115–132. On early modern women, see Cathryn Spence, ‘“For his interest”? Women, debt and coverture in early modern Scotland’, in Beattie and Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law, pp. 173–190; Joanne Bailey, ‘Favoured or oppressed? Married women, property and “coverture” in England, 1660–1800’, Continuity and Change, 17 (2002), 351–371; Amy Louise Erickson, ‘Coverture and capitalism’, History Workshop Journal, 59 (2005), 116; Margot Finn, ‘Women, consumption and coverture in England, c.1760–1860’, The Historical Journal, 29 (1996), 703–722.
33 Tim Stretton, ‘Coverture and unity of persons in Blackstone’s Commentaries’ in Wilfred Prest (ed.), Blackstone and his Commentaries: Biography, Law, History (Oxford: Hart, 2009), pp. 112, 115; Stretton, ‘The legal identity of married women in England and Europe 1500–1700’ in Andreas Bauer and Karl H.L. Welker (eds) Europa und seine Regionen: 2000 Jahre Rechtsgeschichte (Cologne: Böhlau, 2006), p. 312.
34 Butler, ‘Discourse on the nature of coverture’, pp. 30–32.
35 Stretton and Kesselring, ‘Coverture and continuity’, p. 8.
36 These volumes are Beattie and Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law; Bronach Kane and Fiona Williamson (eds), Women, Agency and the Law, 1300–1700 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013); and Stretton and Kesselring (eds), Married Women and the Law.
37 Kane and Williamson, ‘Introduction’ in Kane and Williamson (eds), Women, Agency and the Law, p. 7.
38 Marie A. Kelleher, ‘Later medieval law in community context’, in Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 144.
39 Stevens, ‘London’s married women’, p. 131. Barbara Hanawalt has also identified the presence of married couples pleading in London’s Mayor’s Court. Hanawalt, The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 171.
40 Beattie, ‘Married women, contracts and coverture’, pp. 133–154. See also Butler ‘Discourse on the nature of coverture’, pp. 24–44.
41 Miriam Müller, ‘Peasant women, agency and status in mid-thirteenth- to late fourteenth-century England: some reconsiderations’, in Beattie and Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law, pp. 91–113.
42 Ewan, ‘Scottish Portias’, 29.
43 Cathryn Spence, Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scotland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 53.
44 Matthew Frank Stevens, Urban Assimilation in Post-Conquest Wales: Ethnicity, Gender and Economy in Ruthin, 1282–1350 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), p. 127.
45 Deborah Youngs, ‘The townswomen of Wales: singlewomen, work and service, c.1300–1550’ in Helen Fulton (ed.), Urban Culture in Medieval Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 165.
46 Craig Muldrew, ‘A mutual assent of her mind? Women, debt, litigation and contract in early modern England’ History Workshop Journal, 55 (2003), 54–57.
47 Chris Briggs, ‘Empowered or marginalized? Rural women and credit in later thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 19 (2004), 21–25.
48 Beattie and Stevens, ‘Uncovering married women’, in Beattie and Stevens (eds), Married Women and the Law, p. 10.
49 Sara M. Butler, Divorce in Medieval England: From One to Two Persons in Law (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), p. 12.
50 Mary Bateson wrote that ‘the borough customs pursue an erratic, unsteady course, and the variations can be ascribed to no difference of race, or even to differences of principle carefully thought out by the legislators. Much may have turned on the character and personal experience of the officer of the court who had most legal knowledge at the time when borough customs had to be interpreted in a case of practical difficulty.’ Mary Bateson (ed.), Borough Customs, vol. 2 (Selden Society, Vol. 21, London, 1906), p. c. See also Tim Stretton, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 176.
51 Stretton, Women Waging Law, p. 30; Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, ‘The benefits and drawbacks of femme sole status in England, 1300–1630’, Journal of British Studies, 44 (2005), 410–438.
52 For more on the proportions of female litigants, see the figures in Chapters 2 and 4.
53 Judith M. Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock Before the Plague (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 27–28.
54 Briggs, ‘Rural women and credit’, 13–43.
55 Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.
56 Karen Jones, Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460–1560 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006). Sandy Bardsley has also noted the gendering of men’s and women’s speech as interpreted by church and local courts in the late medieval period, a ‘legal devaluation’ of women’s speech as part of the negative construction of women’s voices. Bardsley, Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), pp. 69–70.
57 Wilkinson, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, pp. 160–161, 164.
58 Alex Shepard has similarly highlighted the need to look at women’s commercial activities in order to understand the early modern economy, not just comparing women to men within male-centric models or emphasising the extent to which women were handicapped by patriarchal structures and practices. This approach can apply to the study of women’s legal actions too. See Shepard, ‘Crediting women in the early modern English economy’, History Workshop Journal, 79 (2015), 1–24.
59 Notably Bardsley, Venomous Tongues.

Medieval women and urban justice

Commerce, crime and community in England, 1300–1500


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