Gender and Matrimonial Litigation in the Church Courts in the Later Middle Ages: The Evidence of the Court of York
Gender & History: Vol.19 No.1 April 2007, pp. 43–59.
It is commonly asserted,not least by undergraduate essayists,that the medieval Church, as a patriarchal institution, and medieval Catholicism, as a misogynistic ideology, were instrumental factors in the marginalisation and oppression of women in medieval society. Obviously this is an overly simplistic generalisation and many contemporary churchmen would indeed have been thrilled to learn that the Church was quite as influential in the lives and thoughts of the people as this crude perspective assumes. It is to ignore the host of other influences on the structure of society and the rich varietyof cultural histories and geographies that lie behind the superficial unity of Catholic Christendom. It is, however, too easy to pour academic scorn on a generalisation that may in fact contain some truth. The purpose of this present essay is to explore but one facet of this larger and complex picture. Through the exercise of canon law, the medieval Church came to play a significant policing role in people’s lives. Here theChurch as an institution engaged directly with and in the lives of ordinary layfolk insuch matters as personal belief, sexual conduct, the making of oaths and – our concernhere – marriage. Evidence from later medieval England can be used to show that contemporaries could be scathing about the fairness and impartiality of the Church courts. If some later medieval males thought the courts were biased, what might the female perspective have been? Charles Donahue, Jr, has argued that the English courts were indeed systematically prejudiced against female litigants. They were, to borrow a current phrase, institutionally sexist. More than ten years on from Donahue’s argument, since endorsed by Frederick Pedersen, it is time to reassess this verdict.
The medieval Church courts did indeed come to represent an important and ubiq- uitous forum for judicial control and dispute resolution operating alongside, and some- times in competition with, secular jurisdictions. Debt litigation, for example, is normally found within the borough courts and the like, but sometimes hides behind actions for breach of promise (fidei lessio) although the Church courts could only enforce ec- clesiastical sanctions such as penance or, in more serious cases, excommunication. Defamation cases could likewise be heard in both ecclesiastical and civil courts. In certain areas the authority of the Church was indeed unchallenged. Thus charges of heresy fell entirely within the jurisdiction of the Church.