The Legal Status of Female Guardians in 1530s Lithuania
Det Kongelige Bibliotek: Proceedings from a Conference on Gender in European Legal History, 12th – 19th Centuries, September (2004)
Women and Guardianship
As may be seen from the legal sources of the time, the institution of guardianship of children was fully formed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by the beginning of the 16th century. Both the First Lithuanian Statute of 1529 and the court cases of the Books of Court Records of the Lithuanian Metrica – that is, the collection of documents of the chancery of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – provide various examples of guardianship, covering such questions as the choice and change of guardians, and their rights and obligations. The office of guardianship was clearly needed in the society of sixteenth-century Lithuania.
The comparatively short average life expectancy meant that quite a great number of children lost one or both of their parents before reaching majority, and thus had to receive some sort of protection. While discussing the role of guardians, it is important to remember that guardianship, which at first glance would seem to be more a matter of personal interrelations and issues of care, was in reality much more connected to issues of property. Being a guardian was, indeed, a responsibility, but it was a rewarding one, since a guardian could profit financially from it. However, the rights and responsibilities were not equal for every kind of guardians. One type of guardians – namely, widows – had a special position and exceptional rights and duties. Other women had the opportunity to become guardians as well, but their rights did not differ from those of men.