By Andrew Rabin
Old English Newsletter, Vol. 41:3 (2008)
Introduction: The status of women under Old English law is among the most contested topics in Anglo-Saxon studies. Some have argued that the years before the Norman Conquest were “a surprisingly bright period” during which women owned land, exerted significant political influence, and exercised many of the same rights as men. Others have said that during this period women were viewed as little more than men’s property, subject to the same second-class treatment they received in other early medieval cultures. The five charters edited here record lawsuits in which the principal litigants are women of different backgrounds. These documents raise many questions—legal, social, and rhetorical—and illustrate the difficulties involved in addressing this issue. At the same time, they provide vivid depictions of the ways law was practiced, politicized, and (perhaps most importantly) narrated during this period. The way a dispute was recorded influenced not only the future adjudication of similar cases but also the manner in which the law was understood by subsequent judges, lawmakers, and litigants. Records like these can give us deeper understanding of the interactions between competing notions of gender, textuality, and legal authority in Anglo- Saxon England.