14.10.03, Beattie and Stevens, Married Women and the Law

Main Article Content

Ruth Mazo Karras

The Medieval Review 14.10.03

Beattie, Cordelia and Matthew Frank Stevens. Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. Gender in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk:The Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. x, 248. ISBN: 9781843838333 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ruth Mazo Karras
University of Minnesota

This book is precisely what the title suggests it is: a collection of chapters dealing with married women and the law in various jurisdictions in Scandinavia, the British Isles, the Low Countries and Germany. The fact that they all deal with the concept of "coverture" gives them a conceptual unity, although in fact the chapters fall into two overlapping groups: those that deal with women's status in law, and those that use legal records as evidence for the social and economic history of women. Few of the chapters delve very deeply into the chicken-egg problem of how the social status and legal status of women related to each other. Nor do many of them inquire into the nature of "premodern," "northwest Europe," or even "law" as coherent categories, although they do address marriage and what difference it made. Nevertheless, they are uniformly of an extremely high standard of scholarship, and this book will be an important starting point for anyone who wants to understand regional variation, chronological change, and the relation between learned law and pragmatic legal processes relating to women and their economic roles.

"Coverture" was the legal principle which put all of a woman's property under her husband's control and even denied her a legal personality. As Beattie and Stevens point out in the very helpful historiographical review in their introduction, Blackstone's 1765 claim that in England husband and wife were one person at law has been recognized as overstated in many ways. Although married women in England could not sue or be sued in the central royal courts of King's Bench or Common Pleas, except together with their husbands, "the customary law employed in local judicial forums, where the tenants of greater landowners or members of urban liberties with special judicial privileges ordinarily resolved their disputes, might apply coverture less strictly or consistently" (7), and of course canon law, and equity recognized women's independent legal existence. As criminal law--where someone committed an offense against the monarch, prosecuted by the state--came to be separate from offenses against an individual prosecuted by that individual, the effects on women's position were again highly varied. England also differed significantly from other jurisdictions in that even when men controlled their wives' property, this property remained notionally separate, as opposed to community of property which obtained in some regions of northwestern Europe.

Beattie and Stevens identify four main themes throughout the book: married women's rights to property, their capacity to transact business, their interactions with the courts, and marital property at the end of marriage. All of the themes, the editors note, involve some ambiguity. Taken as a whole the volume demonstrates the existence of this ambiguity across northwestern Europe, as well as the problematic nature of historians' assumption that coverture prevented women's legal and economic activity. The title of the introduction, "Uncovering Married Women," is apt for the whole book, implying both uncovering new information and removing coverture. Several articles in the volume also make use of databases involving large numbers of cases and are thus able to provide quantitative results that are much more precise than concepts like "a number of" or "many."

In the area of married women's rights to property, Lars Ivar Hansen discusses how from 1274 the national law of Norway established that married women were entitled to an inheritance from their natal family in addition to their dowry. Although the law provided that the husband was in charge of all property, a husband could not alienate the wife's property without her permission. Norway also had a system of joint ownership, félag, which gave a surviving spouse the right to property during his or her lifetime. Because this was created by contract, however, the portion of property included in it could vary greatly. Sweden, as discussed by Mia Korpiola, also knew both communal property and property that either spouse inherited from their natal family and did not pass to the spouse. Husbands managed their wives' property but could not alienate it to the wives' detriment. Similarly, in Ghent, Shennan Hutton shows that the community property system allowed widows (and widowers) to take half that property, plus usufruct of another quarter, with them into a new marriage. Alexandra Shepard analyzes what early modern married women told English church courts when they were required to state their level of wealth; although many of them said that their goods belonged to their husband, not all did so, and even those who did still spoke in such a way as to indicate that the husband did not have complete control. The "degree of variation in wives' responses is...indicative of flexible attitudes towards the dictates of coverture that included claims to joint spousal and independent property ownership by women within marriage" (193).

Although in many jurisdictions women's rights to transact business without their husbands' explicit approval were restricted, as a matter of practice such transactions were not unusual; the law was enforced with some flexibility. This was true in Sweden (Korpiola), as well as in early modern Scotland (Cathryn Spence). In Ghent (Hutton), a woman could manage the property that came to her from her natal family, and could use it as surety for a debt, acting in her own name without raising concern about her husband repudiating it. In Ireland, Gillian Kenny shows, Gaelic Brehon law required women to be consulted about the disposition of joint property and gave them the same veto rights to their husbands' contracts that men had to their wives'. In Dyffryn Clywyd, Wales, Lizbeth Johnson shows that married women were sometimes complicit in the abduction of their persons and property, whereas cases involving other abductees do not suggest volition or involve property. This suggests that at least some of these women may have felt the property to be their own to dispose of. Miriam Müller, analyzing manorial court rolls, shows that in these courts peasant women acted on their own without regard for coverture, and could be called to account for their offenses against other tenants, although the husband was also held responsible for offenses against the lord. Stevens shows that despite coverture, five percent of London lawsuits in the Court of Common Pleas in the fifteenth century involved married women along with their husbands in economic disputes. Many of these cases involved debts that the women had incurred before the current marriage. Stevens suggests that "records of married women's debts [may] tell us more about female agency and activities than land disputes" (129). Beattie, using a wide range of sources, discusses married women's agency not in the common modern scholarly usage--the ability to act on one's own--but in the legal sense--acting as an agent for someone else. The common law held that a married woman could act as an agent for her husband in transactions as long as she was doing so to procure the necessities of life for him. Beattie shows that that women's actions under the "law of necessities" were increasingly restricted in the fifteenth century, with the husband's consent required. Urban jurisdictions allowed women more leeway as agents, even if they were not acting as femmes soles, than common law did. Women also acted as agents for their husbands or alongside those husbands in Spence's study of Scotland, in ways that indicate that they carried on trades such as brewing. In early modern Württemburg in southwestern Germany, Sheilagh Ogilvie shows, all women were under male guardianship and therefore could not sign contracts on their own, but they could choose their own guardians, who might protect them against their husbands. Nevertheless "men who regarded married and widowed women as dangerously entrepreneurial" (218) used the inability to enter binding contracts to impede their ability to compete in business. Community officials had great leeway in determining how guardianship was applied, and in Württemburg it was often applied against married women's ability to control their property.

Women's interactions with the courts might depend not just on what region a woman lived in but also on what ethnic or social group she belonged to. Kenny describes the difference in the position of women in English common law and Gaelic law, under which women's natal family rather than their husbands had control over their wealth. Anglo-Irish widows, however, had more control over their lands than Gaelic widows did, and Gaelic wives of English men might petition to be treated under English law, which gave them jointures and dowers if their husbands died. Johnson's Welsh court roll entries show that married women actively engaged in court cases, civil and criminal, but that whether an offense like assault was treated as a civil matter, with a lawsuit, or as a criminal matter determined whether a woman appeared together with her husband or on her own. Even here, however, there are exceptions, with women who should have been under coverture appearing on their own behalf as complainants or respondents. Müller, arguing for the absence of a dichotomy between public and private, provides an important corrective to the way historians often read court rolls: the assumption that women listed without a husband and engaging in significant commerce are unmarried is demonstrably wrong. Women appear more prominently in leet courts than in halimot courts, suggesting that historians who use the record of one type or the other may get a distorted picture. Hutton argues that unwritten customary law in Ghent, despite coverture there as well, gave women more freedom of action than the sixteenth-century redacted customs would indicate.

The end of a marriage most often came with the death of one of the spouses, and in this book it is the legal position of the widow that is most at issue. Müller discusses the situation of women tenants who were pressured by their landlords to remarry, suggesting that widowers were in a similar situation: it took two spouses to make a "viable economic unit" (110-111). Korpiola discusses the dissolution of marital property in medieval Sweden in other situations as well. Widows had an absolute right to their morning-gift property and could alienate it; if a woman caused her husband's death, however, she lost the morning-gift, and either spouse in that situation lost their share of communal property. When one spouse was fined for adultery or another crime, it came only out of the spouse's share. Property divisions in cases of legal separation were made privately and not recorded.

Having praised the content of the work, I must now criticize its format. The book is set in a very small font and with narrow margins, in an apparent attempt to fit a great deal of material into the smallest possible number of pages. While the desire to keep the cost of the book down is understandable, that effort seems already to have failed. For the same $99, the e-book, which allows readers to adjust the font to a readable size, seems preferable.

Article Details

Author Biography

Ruth Mazo Karras

University of Minnesota