More than Mothers: Juries of Matrons and Pleas of the Belly in Medieval England
By Sara M. Butler
Law and History Review, Vol. 37:2 (2019)
Abstract: Common law was an all-male system, with one glaring exception: juries of matrons. If a convicted felon requested a reprieve from execution on the grounds of pregnancy, it was the responsibility of a group of twelve matrons to perform an inspection in order to determine if she was in fact pregnant. Matrons were in a position of great authority. Their verdicts were definitive: if they decided a woman was pregnant, then she was sent back to prison.
Despite the significance of their role, little is known about medieval matrons and what qualified them to sit on a jury. Were they mothers? Honorable wives? Midwives? The goal of this paper is to argue that matrons had training in obstetrics. This was particularly important for medieval matrons because the quickening (that is ensoulment, signaled by the first fetal movements) did not become the focal point of the matrons’ assessment until at least 1348.
Before this, the diagnosis was much more medically challenging as matrons had to determine whether a felon had conceived. Overall, the medieval records demonstrate great confidence in medieval matrons and their obstetrical expertise.
Top Image: Three pregnant women. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.