Acta Est Fabula, Plaudite! The Role of Women in Late Medieval England: The Evidence from Wills
MA Thesis, Bilkent University (2009)
Abstract: The purpose of this thesis is to provide an insight into the role and place of women in late medieval England through a qualitative and quantitative examination of 403 women’s wills from 1300 to 1500. The sample used in this thesis is collected from different sources to establish a general profile of women from different regions of England as revealed by their distribution of property to wide range of relations formed within and outside the household. A woman’s right to hold property, and in relation to this, her testamentary behaviour were affected by her marital status, class, and most especially, by her gender. Though disadvantaged under testamentary law, women used an official arena such as wills to control the way their modest wealth and property were distributed after death.
Introduction: Historical sources from the medieval period generally tell a story in which male characters come forward and take the lead while female ones, if any are represented, are given a lesser role as the objects of male agency. Anyone who takes such documents at face value would, as P. J. P. Goldberg states, “be tempted to conclude that women were in a minority in medieval societies and that they played little part in those societies.” However, one who reads through the last will of a medieval woman will realise that such an assumption is not true but a misconception. Through analysing a selection of late medieval English women’s wills, it is the aim of this study to draw a general profile of women’s last wills from late medieval England and get a glimpse of women’s role in medieval society as revealed in their wills. Last wills of the medieval period, whether they belong to a male or a female, had common characteristics, and thus special reference will be made to women’s wills, to show why it is important to study women’s wills, how they differ from male wills, and how the evidence of wills refutes the general assumptions about medieval women. It will be argued that although, under the common law concerning last wills, women were disadvantaged, those who did manage to leave a will had the power and right to control their property much more freely than men and distribute it as they wished. What follows is an attempt to give background information on medieval women and wills, and thus, this part of the study will deal with women in medieval society, wills as historical sources, the literature on medieval women’s wills, and my thesis plan and methodology respectively.
The general assumption about medieval women is that, having a very limited space, they busied themselves with household duties, and were financially and legally bound to their male relatives or husbands. Most of the medieval sources and the secondary literature imply that in the medieval period, a woman hardly had a right to define her own space, but she was supposed to remain in the place that was defined for her by contemporary opinion coming from two forces: “the Church and the aristocracy.” Moreover, as Barbara A. Hanawalt states, “a woman’s reputation might hinge on her ability to remain in a particular, acceptable space.” If a woman crossed that “acceptable space,” she was most probably subjected to penalties. In other words, as Jacqueline Murray points out:
Women were considered inferior and their virtue was interpreted according to the degree to which they accepted their theoretical and social inferiority. Submission and obedience were virtues. Pride, ambition, and autonomy were perceived ultimately as rebellious, and as crimes against both the natural and the moral order. The best thing inferior woman could do was to know her place.