By Ruth Mazo Karras
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 39 (2005)
Introduction: Medieval recordkeepers wrote down the information they heeded for their own purposes, not the information they thought might be useful to people five hundred years litter trying to reconstruct their society. A fundamental principle in the use of archival (or any other) documents of practice as evidence is to understand the purpose for which the document was created. Certain types of information may have been included or excluded not because they were not available, not because they were irrelevant in medieval culture, but simply because they were not necessary for the purpose of the record-keeping.
An analysis of why certain information was deemed necessary may help us understand the culture in more depth, but that should not be confused with assuming that whatever is not mentioned is not important. For example, if documents involving property transactions typically give the marital status of women but not that of men, this is likely because women’s marital status determined what kinds of rights over property, they could have, whereas men’s did not. It could also be that a woman’s marital status was deemed fundamental to her personal identity in a way that a man’s was not, but we cannot draw that conclusion from the fact that it is mentioned in property transactions.