12.04.02, Seabourne, Imprisoning Medieval Women

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Caroline Dunn

The Medieval Review 12.04.02

Seabourne, Gwen. Imprisoning Medieval Women: The Non-Judicial Confinement and Abduction of Women in England, c. 1170-1509. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xiv, 219. ISBN: 978-1-4094-1788-0.

Reviewed by:
Caroline Dunn
Clemson University

In her preface, Gwen Seabourne describes how she came to her topic after learning of the plight of Eleanor of Brittany, who was held captive for years by her uncle, King John. Eleanor reappears throughout this book but Seabourne here has significantly expanded upon her research into Eleanors life to investigate the diverse experiences of those medieval women who were taken captive, imprisoned, or confined in contexts of war, national politics, personal legal quarrels, or troubled family relationships. In addition to building her analysis upon an extensive and varied body of primary sources, the strengths of this book lie primarily in two areas. First, the themes that pertain to politically significant high-status captives like Eleanor of Brittany are particularly well examined. Second, Seabourne approaches the topic of imprisoned women as a legal scholar and her analysis of statutes relating to abduction and imprisonment, especially regarding the genesis of pertinent legislation, is insightful and elegant.

The intersection of Seabourne's interests in legal history and women's history is clear from how she frames her introduction. After explaining her topic and chronological boundaries (from Henry II to just before Henry VIII--both reigns associated with common law innovations), Seabourne highlights how her subject encompasses two historiographical trends. First she addresses the long-standing conversation over clauses relating to liberty and imprisonment in Magna Carta, concepts of due process in medieval England, and how women fitted into existing legal norms. Seabourne then turns to a shorter section on recent debates about the role of women in history. Here she briefly outlines the continuity/transformation and victim/agent debates that have characterized scholarship on medieval women in recent years, although she offers her perspective on neither. Seabourne makes it clear throughout the text, however, and especially in her concluding two chapters, that she believes that scholars (myself included) have gone too far in arguing against an all- pervasive model of female subjugation and objectification. Since Seabourne leaves this subject for the end of her book I will likewise return to this theme at the end of the review.

Seabourne divides her book into three parts. Part I, "By Royal Power and Command: Maidens (and Other Women) in Towers," considers women taken and imprisoned by royal authority and this section contains two of Seabourne's strongest chapters along with her weakest. Chapter 1 focuses on the role of women in warfare and its opening covers the neglected area of the treatment of women during armed conflicts. Seabourne outlines the lack of a clear and widespread canonical or chivalric policy covering female noncombatants. Even if some argued in favor of protecting (at least well-born) women, these dictates were not followed consistently. The rest of Chapter 1 focuses on the noblewomen who were confined because they or their family members rebelled against the king. Here Seabourne includes stories about women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor de Montfort, Robert Bruce's female relations, and Eleanor Cobham (a fifteenth-century duchess of Gloucester). This analysis of the treatment of female rebels is unique and insightful. Although held captive (without due process) because of their actual involvement in rebellions or their potential for aiding rebels, women rarely served as official hostages when peace was negotiated. Seabourne makes the valid point, however, that women might be held as unofficial hostages, using several examples of women who came to England as prospective brides but whose marriages were delayed or (like Richard I's betrothed Alice) never contracted.

Seabourne's discussion of the conditions of confinement, also explored in Part I, is revealing and interesting, with the section on provisions particularly illuminating. Seabourne also addresses issues of securing the prisoners and complaints of mistreatment. Her longer case study of Edward I's imprisonment of Robert Bruce's relations-- Mary and Marjorie Bruce and Isabel, countess of Buchan--in cages provides an excellent cogent analysis of this notorious treatment.

There is some repetition in Part I. For example the daughters of William the Lion are covered twice (46 and 50) and the first section of Chapter 3, which examines captivity locations, seems unnecessary when the previous chapter often covered whether rebels or potential rebels were held in castles or sent to convents. Chapter 2, on royal wardship and idiocy guardianship, is less satisfactory than the other two chapters exploring royally sanctioned confinement. Both forms of guardianship related to aspects of land tenure that were not limited to royal guardians, and while the mentally incapacitated were sometimes confined, wards were rarely imprisoned. They could be abducted but Seabourne saves the topic of ward-theft for a later chapter. Seabourne discusses royal wardship and custody of idiots too cursorily here to be of any use (the chapter is barely six pages long). The cases she includes here should have been discussed elsewhere or omitted.

Part II, "Wrongful Imprisonment and Abduction: Legal Responses and their Limits," brings us back to Seabourne's strengths. Her legal analysis of laws and cases is strong and here she discusses a more socially diverse group of women than the royals and nobles that were the focus of Part I. Chapter 4 covers legislation introduced to deal with the ravishment of wards and of women and Seabourne elegantly argues that lawmakers were particularly concerned with property interests that accompanied possession of the stolen ward, wife, or daughter rather than the safety or potential collusion of the alleged victim. Seabourne's suggestion that the anti-ravishment legislation was often enacted at times when the king wished to bolster his royal authority is particularly insightful. The authoritarian claims of the legislating monarch Edward I are well known but the timing of later statutes (1382, 1453, 1487) correspond well with her argument that weaker royal governments were making attempts to win over the propertied classes by promising them swift royal justice that would guarantee property protection.

In moving from statutes to resulting court cases (Chapter 5: Common Law) Seabourne is nearly as adept. Even though her subject is the captivity of women she acknowledges that men were far more likely to be abducted or imprisoned. We see this admission regarding noble hostages in Part I and it appears again in Part II when men far outnumber women in wrongful imprisonment actions and cases alleging the abduction of servants. Seabourne's tables outlining the number of pleas she found for these types of cases, separated into columns for males and females, underscore this sexual discrepancy, but the discrepancy should have been highlighted with totals at the bottom. Thus Table 5.1 (108) charting "alleged instances of false imprisonment" would show 321 males outnumbering 50 female victims. The following subsection reveals a similar gender ratio in the taking of servants. Interestingly, although men outnumber female servants in both instances, the actions that allege "taking and imprisoning" reveal a far higher ratio of men than the actions alleging "taking and abducting." Seabourne, discussing the existence of two different actions meaning almost the same thing, notes that the "taking and abducting" cases correspond to post-Black-Death demographic patterns, but she fails to account for how the discursive shift parallels an increase in female victims. It would be helpful if she provided, here and elsewhere, the original Latin terms used for these allegations.

Seabourne's analysis of how the ravishment-of-wife cases rise and fall in the plea rolls matches the chronological trend that I have also uncovered, although Seabourne links the rising pattern to a prevalence of actual cases whereas I see many of them as fictitious. Seabourne is surely correct in her assertion that after actions for wife-theft declined, petitioners and lawmakers became more concerned about the abductions of single women. Yet her argument that "those looking to enrich themselves by controlling a woman's wealth might then have preferred to target single women" (122) imprecisely links the motivations of wife-abductors with those of captors of single women. Those taking fifteenth-century women were targeting propertied elite widows but most wife-theft cases involve women of common status. Seabourne briefly addresses the social status of both alleged victims and defendants in a subsequent section. In that discussion she considers, for example, how clerics evaded secular punishment through benefit of clergy but does not highlight the high proportion of clerics who numbered among the alleged ravishers of women.

Seabourne continues to focus on allegations of abduction and imprisonment in Chapter 6 but describes what happened when petitioners sought to resolve cases outside the common law. She considers how accessories and attempted abduction fell outside the purview of existing legal actions and illustrates concerns about official misconduct and intimidation of jurors or litigants by powerful elites. The chapter contains interesting and insightful information but lacks a sense of chronology. For example, Seabourne fails to note, when discussing high rates of imprisonment and abduction allegations and resulting oyer and terminer commissions from the early fourteenth century, that this particular type of commission was common during those years for all types of alleged crimes.

In Chapter 7 Seabourne returns to the historiographical debate regarding women's victimization versus empowerment when she considers the imprisonment and especially abduction cases that some scholars have interpreted as collusive. She overstates the extent to which previous authors have interpreted cases as consensual. Seabourne astutely highlights how ideas and vocabulary of consent have changed over time, that some of the terser narratives make it impossible to classify the woman as victim or agent, and that some narratives offer such conflicting stories that "what really happened" can be asserted only by an imprudent scholar. However, Seabourne's allegation that those who interpret some cases as collusive are failing to consider the nuances of how the meaning of consent might have changed over time, or are relying upon "questionable assumptions about the facts of the case" (161), is unjustified. Earlier historians have not merely assumed but have combed through the available evidence and employed inductive reasoning before proposing that many cases of abduction could have been collusive.

The question of consent appears again in Seabourne's Chapter 8 (the sole chapter in Part III: Other Roles). Seabourne begins by considering women confined in convents and again challenges current viewpoints that stress female agency over victimization. In this case Seabourne is emphasizing the passivity of women forced into nunneries, countering recent studies by Barbara Harris and Marilyn Oliva that focus on the agency of women to choose the monastic life voluntarily. When Seabourne presents one case of a nun running off from her convent with a local barber (170), she provides evidence for lack of consent to monastic life but in doing so unfortunately contradicts her earlier arguments against the possibility of collusive abductions. The additional "other roles" that Seabourne considers here return her to noble and royal families when she discusses women as captors or the activities of women whose relatives were confined.

Seabourne concludes with an exploration of gender and why it is useful to consider women as captives, captors, abductors, and abductees even when men also found themselves in these roles during the English middle ages. She outlines what she terms a model of "dangerous weakness" that she sees in male attitudes to women and their abduction and imprisonment. Women were both dangerous and weak in their susceptibility to capture and thus lawmakers and men in power felt that women should be both blamed and protected. In her conclusion Seabourne also considers how various phases in a woman's lifecycle could be relevant to her experiences but she does not use lifecycle status as a particular category of analysis earlier in the text.

Finally, Seabourne presents the reader with an appendix discussing the problematic Latin term raptus , in which she considers the question of conflation of modern concerns of rape and abduction together in the medieval term. Contrary to earlier scholarship, she postulates that late thirteenth-century statutes do not conflate the two concepts under the umbrella term of raptus . Seabourne suggests that raptus was meant to indicate that what occurred was "something more outrageous than abduction, though the 'extra something' varied with gender" (195). In the case of male wards it might mean force; in the case of women it might indicate sex or threat of rape. I suspect that this hypothesis will not garner wide support among those studying ravishment.

Since raptus is a notoriously difficult term to interpret and with so many additional terms used to denote both abduction and sexual violence in late medieval England it would be useful to see the original Latin or vernacular vocabulary in the footnotes. When discussing the (French vernacular) petition of Isabel Cleterne, who complained that she had been "forcibly seized" it would be valuable to know if the original terminology employed the term ravie , most often associated with the taking of women, or if more gender-neutral vocabulary was used. The distinction matters when Seabourne uses Cleternes petition to highlight a particular "female vulnerability to abduction and confinement" (2). Furthermore when discussing the well- known case of Jane Boy's ravishment (154), Seabourne seems to interpret the text describing how Jane "consented to the raptus " as consenting to rape, rather than to abduction (elopement).

Taking on a topic that covers multifaceted experiences of women of all degrees of social status over three hundred years is ambitious and some parts of Seabourne's book are more successful than others. Organizing the abundance of material is one area that meets with less success since there are some areas of repetition with topics (wardship, nuns) covered across two or three parts of the book. Some small errors might have been saved by enhanced copy-editing. A period comes mid-sentence (7), the scholar Judith Evans Grubbs is rechristened Jane (112), and surely Seabourne meant to say that noblewomen were always susceptible or vulnerable to confinement rather than "noblewomen were always amenable to confinement" (85). Yet these are quibbles when overall Seabourne has presented students and scholars with a very readable text. This would be a useful and informative book for undergraduates in a women's history course or for scholars seeking evidence of women's place in the legal and political culture of medieval England.

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Author Biography

Caroline Dunn

Clemson University