Posted by 26 June, 2017

In June members of the project team travelled to Hofstra University in Long Island, NY, for the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities. This four-day triennial conference, known as 'The Big Berks', drew together over 1,500 scholars and activists from 35 different countries across over 250 session and events. As the largest gathering of its kind in the world, the conference was the ideal forum in which to share some of our project's findings, learn about comparable research in different contexts, and reflect on some of the bigger historiographical themes and conversations in the field. Our panel entitled 'Women negotiating the boundaries of justice: the female litigant in Britain and Ireland, c.1400-c.1800' showcased the project's research on women's involvement in litigation in medieval and early modern Britain and Ireland. Chaired by Deborah Youngs (Swansea), the session began with Sparky Booker (Queens, Belfast) who spoke on female litigation in the English colony of medieval Ireland and used a series of parliamentary petitions to explore how women engaged with the legal system in practice. Teresa Phipps (Swansea) examined the litigation of one woman in Nottingham's medieval borough court, considering the insights that can be gained from looking beyond the statistics to explore the experience of an individual townswoman. Finally, Alex Shepard (Glasgow) examined women's legal agency in early modern England through their roles as witnesses in formal processes of dispute resolution in church courts, exploring the frequency and terms of their participation.


This shared focus on women's practical roles in litigation highlighted a number of important themes and research questions that have been key considerations of the project as a whole. All three papers demonstrated that, while statistics are important indicators of women's legal action, we also need to look beyond the numbers to focus more closely on the significant cases of women who did go to court in various capacities. Phipps's discussion of the 'legal career' of Agnes Halum in fourteenth-century Nottingham highlighted the value of a microhistorical approach in revealing details of women's litigation and legal status that cannot be recovered through quantitative analysis alone. Shepard's study combined statistical examination drawn from a large database of female witnesses across multiple English church courts with examination of the language used to represent women's social profile through statements of individual worth.

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Our session on the female litigant, 1400-1800


The papers also gave more weight to the view that legal action was not always indicative of a complete breakdown in relationships, particularly highlighted by Craig Muldrew's work on the 'culture of reconciliation', and marking a contrast with the nature of litigation as we often understand it today. In pre-modern Britain and Ireland, going to court was a more 'normal' action that, in some cases, had constructive and consensual purposes, acting as a force for reconciliation or a means of furthering strategic aims, rather than simply being a vehicle for discord.

The importance of marriage and marital status ran through all the papers, as a key factor in defining the legal status of women. Marital status might determine the types of cases women were involved in, for example, as executrices. Perhaps more importantly, it also determined how and when women could attend court, with the application of coverture being an important, though somewhat inconsistent force across the multiple jurisdictions of Britain and Ireland. As a feature of common law, coverture did not formally exist in the jurisdictions covered by the papers, which dealt with customary, ecclesiastical and early 'equity' law, but they suggest that similar practices could exist when deemed an advantageous strategy to either plaintiff or defendant. The papers also reinforced the increasing view among historians that being a married woman was not necessarily a legal disadvantage, and that married women could in fact have the capacity to take legal action under different jurisdictions. Shepard demonstrated that the social reputation and authority of married women made them more likely to be witnesses. Phipps suggested that some married women could possess independent legal agency under the customs of borough courts, despite their theoretically 'covered' status. These issues raise questions about the interplay of legal doctrine and the customs of various jurisdictions, once again highlighting the importance of studying legal practice in seeking to understand the 'reality' of married women's legal status.

The papers also raised questions around the assistance women acquired when going to court, and the role of personal, familial and social networks that supported litigants. Petitioners commonly highlighted their impotence, with plaintiffs highlighting their own poverty and the power of their adversaries in order to achieve their goals. The trope of the 'poor woman' was present in both Booker's and Shepard's papers, which could be seen to reinforce women's inferior legal position, though Shepard's data also demonstrate the important role that women played in advocating for other litigants. Booker questioned the extent to which this was a gendered characterisation, as Irish petitions to parliament also featured the 'poor man'. However, Shepard noted differences in the proportion of male and female witnesses who described themselves in these terms, with a much higher proportion of women admitting their low worth or poverty. It may have been that more female witnesses were in fact 'poor women', particularly when considering the plight of some widows. Or this may indeed have been a gendered means of presenting oneself that had different implications for the status of women and men, and the relationships of dependence and social subordination that were associated with women (particularly when married).

The many continuities and shared themes between the three papers were also highlighted in the Q&As at the end of the session. It led to the unavoidable question of why - as the papers suggested - women's access to justice remained relatively static from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The value of our research project lies in its comparative nature, with examination of women's legal actions under a range of jurisdictions and over several centuries highlighting the many continuing themes in women's legal position. Yet the question of continuity is not one for which there is a straightforward answer, although, as Shepard pointed out, Judith Bennett's framework of the 'patriarchal equilibrium' might go some way to explaining this.

Other sessions at the conference shared many of the themes we consider in our project, and engaged in important historiographical questions concerning approaches to studying women's status that are becoming increasingly important across a wide range of historical contexts. Questions of women's agency legal and other as something exceptional or more ordinary were raised in a session that highlighted the need for an analysis of medieval women that goes 'beyond exceptionalism'. Other papers saw female power/agency/capacity considered in a range of contexts, and at different scales, from medieval queens to urban working women. While the recurring issue of terminology surrounding power and agency was a consideration here, so too was the myriad of assumptions made about women. Just as the theme of coverture and women's marital status is a central consideration to our own research, the negotiation of coverture and the gap between theory and practice was discussed in several other sessions. Heather Tanner suggested that the power of coverture may be overemphasised via the projection of more modern (nineteenth century?) ideas about women's status onto the middle ages and early modern period. Various papers on women's economic roles in premodern Europe also highlighted the capabilities of married women, despite their theoretical incapacity. Shennan Hutton, Andrea Bardyn, Alexandra Guerson and Dana Wessell Lightfoot, and Kaat Capelle all emphasised the various gaps between prescriptive theory and women's legal/economic status in practice. This theme may be one that is expanding beyond the discussions of academic historians, as a pre-conference trip to the New York Historical Society's Center for Women's History revealed. The main exhibit here also featured evidence of women's agency in in the political and legal systems of early America, despite the limits of coverture.

As new research continues to highlight women's economic and legal agency across a range of contexts, it becomes increasingly apparent that a new approach might better fit the various possibilities that existed for women. From what starting point do we begin to explore the status of women, and how do we frame research about what women actually did? For example, in commenting on papers on women, credit and the premodern economy Kate Staples called for analysis that examines the details of women's economic activity as the norm and moves away from a negative starting point of active men versus inactive or exceptional women.

Questions about frameworks and approaches to studying women also extended to the issue of patriarchy and its continuing relevance in framing discussions of power and gender. A fascinating lightning session reflecting on Judith Bennetts History Matters included Bennett herself highlighting the apparent fading of patriarchy as a defining theme in women's history, with the term barely featuring in session or paper titles at the conference. There was some suggestion that this may be a framework that is falling out of use, perhaps reflecting a new generation of scholars for whom second-wave feminism is less relevant or fashionable, or one that might be reshaped to consider other forms of historical oppression and power structures beyond gender such as disability. The continuing relevance of Bennett's change/transformation analysis of women's position was also noted through important discussion of the contemporary legal position of women and other marginal groups. Swansea's Trish Skinner highlighted the problems involved in teaching this to students whose conceptualisation of history focuses on change, 'The Event', rather than sometimes depressing continuities.

One of the main benefits of a large conference such as the Big Berks is in the wide range of research presented, spanning a range of periods and contexts. Papers on early America (Kelly Ryan), the medieval low countries (Chanelle Delameillieure), and early modern Italy (Sanne Murling) - among others - demonstrated continuities and similarities in women's legal actions, the proportions of women going to law, their status at court, their representation in court records, and the construction of female misconduct. These continuities have been highlighted within our own research project, and the conference offered further evidence of many of the various common means by which women were subject to and negotiated official structures across time and place, further underlining the value of both individual case studies and comparative analysis in understanding the position of women within premodern society.


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Members of the team enjoying the sunshine after our successful session on the female litigant

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