Current Research: September 2012

I have just finished a paper on dower and adultery, looking at the way in which lawyers interpreted a 1285 statute disqualifying widows from claiming part of a deceased husband’s land if they were found to have left the husband for a lover. The statute section (Westminster II c.34) remained part of the law until 1925, and interpretation of it became harsher over the years, making it more difficult for widows to claim their dower than had been the case in the fourteenth century. It is always interesting to look at issues like this, in which history just can’t be seen in terms of progress for women or other disadvantaged groups. In the course of writing two articles on this area, I have looked at thousands of medieval manuscript pages – always a challenge, though also a privilege – and I have also extended myself into more modern documents, going as far as the mid-nineteenth century. Many interesting and some strange stories have come out of these searches, and I have a pile of material which deserves to be written up in separate pieces.  I am finding it hard to stop looking for yet more dower/adultery cases, but it is probably time to leave it and do something new.

One new area which I will be getting into this year is humour in the medieval courtroom. There are some excellent examples of this in the Year Books (medieval court reports) which are crying out for some categorisation and consideration. I am particularly interested in gender aspects, but there is also much to say about word play and grim or gallows humour.

Over the next two years, I also plan to write papers or at least notes based on material discovered in archives during my research into women’s abduction and imprisonment. One paper will relate to material which I have found on the difficulties experienced by widows of the battle of Bannockburn (1314) in proving that their husbands were in fact dead, so as to allow them to claim dower lands. Another will consider a tale told in a fourteenth-century case, relating to a pilgrimage, a shipwreck and a pair of Cornishmen mistaken for Scots enemies and imprisoned in Cumberland, exploring medieval mobility and conceptions of the ‘foreign’. And I have amassed a pile of material on the land dealings of Hugh Despenser Senior and Junior and Eleanor de Clare which may yet come to something.

The next big project, though, will probably be a book on medieval law and women, drawing together some existing work by me and by many others, and trying to get an overview of the law’s treatment of women. There is much historical writing on women which assumes that there was a clear contrast between ‘law’. a monolithic, unproblematic thing, and ‘life’ or ‘practice’. My research thus far has shown me that ‘law’ and lawyers had a complicated view of women, and I think that an elaboration of this point is a contribution which a legal historian can make to the gender/women’s history debate.