Women, Posthumous Benefaction, and Family Strategy in Pre-Conquest England

Women, Posthumous Benefaction, and Family Strategy in Pre-Conquest England

By Julia Crick

The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4. (1999)

Introduction: In the early Middle Ages it was men who, with their resort to armed might, were the plunderers of church property, though some among them did contribute to its increase. Women, and especially widows, were more positively involved with the church, as givers rather than as receivers.

When Jack Goody put more than a thousand years into the few hundred pages of his Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, he could be allowed a little judgmental rhetoric. The documentation from early medieval Europe, unevenly distributed across very diverse situations, may indeed yield fewer examples of female than male predation, and perhaps more examples of female than male benefaction.

But, since Goody wrote, historians have been increasingly alerted to complex relationships among individuals, property, and the church, which may extend far beyond the scope of individual documents, across several generation. Goody’s female “givers” take on a new complexion in an environment in which donations can be more apparent than real, where a land transfer may prove no more than a social gesture. In such circumstances, identifying the originators of grants, let alone separating male and female action, becomes a delicate process. In the following article, female involvement is considered in the context of pre-Conquest wills, a body of documents that could be interpreted as classic evidence that female “givers” literally as well as morally stood in credit with the church.

The prominence of women in pre-Conquest wills has long been noted. Indeed, in about half of the cases of bequest both by men and women assembled here, women act as donors either alone or with another person. The terms of bequest indicate that these were women of substance. The testatrixes dispose not only of movables but, more usually, of land, and the beneficiaries extend beyond their family and household to the church and sometimes members of the ruling dynasty. Once, these documents were taken as indications of female control over property; interpreted as the right to bequeath, the phenomenon of female bequest fueled the hypothesis, only recently defunct, that pre-Conquest Englishwomen enjoyed exceptional control over property.

Now that the premise on which this argument rested – the superiority of female rights over property before the advent of common law has been dislodged, the anomalous nature of the evidence of records of bequest has been starkly exposed. No other body of evidence produces an equivalent rate of female participation. By examining the gifts of testatrixes in a familial context, it is possible to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of transactions between noble individuals and the church and to observe the key function of women in the implementation of family strategies, temporal and spiritual.

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