Law in the Lives of Medieval Women: Beyond the Magna Carta
Lecture by Ruth Mazo Karras
Given at the Library of Congress on January 14, 2015
Ruth Mazo Karras discussed, through an analysis of the lives of three women, the way law affected (or not) women at different levels of society in medieval England.
Excerpt: Law obviously has a very great bearing on the way women were able to live their lives in the middle ages. Here we see a medieval law court noticeable for the absence of women. But in the Middle Ages it wasn’t necessarily the letter of the law and what the court did that was determinative of women’s behavior. Across the central and later middle ages in England and elsewhere in Europe, women were able to do much more than you might think their legal disabilities would let them do. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that women enjoyed equality to men in the Middle Ages, even a rough and ready practical equality. Women of any social status had major legal economic and social obstacles compared to their brothers. However, as we look at how individual women interacted with the law in the areas of land ownership, marital choice and commercial activity, we’ll see that they were able to create some freedom for themselves within the constraints of the law as they knew it and the questions of what women’s status in legal rights were are more complicated than they might seem. Since the occasion for this talk is Magna Carta, I’ll begin with a story of one woman who lived shortly before that time, Matilda, or “Maud”, of Gloucester, Countess of Chester. And Susan Johns has written a particularly interestingly about this character. So Matilda was born into a rich and important family, probably born somewhat before 1135. Her father, Robert of Gloucester, who is, ok here’s Matilda, her father, Robert of Gloucester, was an illegitimate son of Henry I. Henry I had only one legitimate son who lived past childhood, this is William Adelin, who was killed in a shipwreck at age 17, leaving him without male heirs. His legitimate daughter, Matilda, and this is a particular difficult period because everybody has the same name.