By Elizabeth Freeman
Australian and New Zealand Law and History E-Journal (2006)
Introduction: Evidence about individual nuns in medieval England is hard to come by. Often all we know is the name of a given community’s abbess or prioress, with the opinions and even the names of the other community members lost to history. But the York cause papers, from the Archbishop’s Court at York, provide some wonderful examples of both the individual and collective activities of nuns.
These consistory court records typically deal with marriage and tithe disputes; in fact, they deal with these disputes with monotonous regularity. But each time we read about yet another tithe dispute or yet another marriage dispute we gain some insight into the unique experiences of unique people. In the broader context of medieval institutionalised religion, English Cistercian nuns were quite marginalised; indeed, their very membership of the Cistercian order was often challenged. Happily, the York cause paper evidence shows us another side of the picture, with English nuns taking the initiative to argue for their legitimate place within the international Cistercian communion.