Tag Archives: Women

Owning words: some musings on categories and captivity

I have had cause to think quite a lot about the idea of people as property. Amongst other places in which this has come up in my teaching and research have been: medical law (yes – once upon a time used to teach that) where it features in relation to embryos and organs, for example; property law (can you have property in a corpse?) and of course legal history. In thinking about the history of women and the law, it is not uncommon to see references to the effect that ‘oh well, of course women used to be the property of their husbands/fathers etc.’. I have never been very happy with this line – apart from anything else, it often seems to be something of a device to encapsulate and dismiss a whole messy and uncomfortable area of historical (mis)behaviour, a somewhat ‘othering’ tendency too (for, if older dispensations can be seen as stark, and starkly different from present ideas, any nasty continuities and analogies of injustice can be ignored). I made some comments on the ‘women as property’ idea in the recent book on Women in the Medieval Common Law. It continues to bubble away in my mind, and here are a couple of other thoughts on it.

  1. Working with words and processes

One of the reasons why it might feel right to make a link between legal treatment of women and property in chattels is the recurrence of words in legal process relating to both categories. Thus abduxit would be used in relation to both the removal of a woman and the removal of a sheep, and relevant legal processes might also bear some resemblance, one to another. I am not sure, though, that that can be taken to indicate that ‘women were property’ in any meaningful sense.[i] The truth is that there were limitations of both linguistic and procedural sorts which go quite some way to explaining why there would be such similarities. The linguistic issue is that those choosing words for legal process and its records had a limited selection from which to select, and we should be slow to infer from the use of a term in two different legal contexts that it was understood in an identical sense in both. To take a possibly silly example, just because the verb used in relation both to wrongful cutting of a tree bough, and also to wrongful removal of a person’s arm in a sword fight would be amputavit, it does not mean that medieval common lawyers thought people and trees were the same. Likewise, the ‘vocabulary’ of legal process was finite, and the fact that a husband’s action with regard to the removal of his wife looks a bit like an action for the removal of a chattel cannot be taken too far. As students of legal history will know, the process of putting a set of facts into a few pre-existing procedural patterns is one of the hallmarks of common law development. Of course, the fact that the husband is accommodated in seeking legal action in relation to wrongs to his wife shows that he was seen as, and made, her superior – but I am not convinced that this should be seen as ‘property’ rather than ‘power’.

  1. Women/slaves/property

The links between ‘women as property’ and the explicit treatment of enslaved people as property are potentially problematic. Those noting the difficulities of women, or involved in campaigning for improvements in women’s rights have long made the connection (see also Jacobites, American independence fighters). It is particularly hard, now, to understand the viewpoint of those who talked of the injustice of women’s position in terms of ‘slavery’, while living in an age which did not reject the slave trade or the material benefits derived from such exploitation. See, for example,these lines from  a poem which makes this analogy:

 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762),

Epistle from Mrs Yonge to Her Husband (1724)[ii]

 

All bargains but conditional are made;

The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;

Defrauded servants are from service free;

A wounded slave regains his liberty.

For wives ill-used, no remedy remains,

To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.

O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue.

The change is justified by something new;

But we must sigh in silence – and be true

 

It did strike me today, however, when reading a review of a new publication on resistance by enslaved women, that, if we proceed with extreme caution, there could be some useful transferring of ideas for modern scholars of women’s history from the growing body of work done on enslaved people. In particular, I was arrested by the observation of the author, Rebecca Hall, that slave traders, afraid that there would be resistance by those being shipped into slavery, insured against cargo insurrection, and noting the complete contradiction between (explicitly) calling something a cargo (and really treating it as such – see the Zong Massacre) and yet admitting that there is a human will there. The point which is useful, from the point of view of women’s history, is not exactly the ‘persons as property’  part, it is the ‘subordinated persons as amenable to being put into whichever legal class we want, maybe even two arguably contradictory classes at the same time’ idea which is implicit. That unrepentant mental gymnastics point certainly applies to the history of women’s legal treatment (see one of my recent posts, on petty treason) , and I think deserves some further thought.

GS

16/5/2021

[i] Let’s leave aside the difficult question of defining ‘property’, and comparison of ‘property words’ and expressions in different languages. I am sure a better linguist would be able to do more with the comparative aspect of this, though I do enjoy this distinction between English and colloquial Welsh: ‘I have a cat’ v. ‘Mae cath gyda fi’ (= ‘There is a cat with me’). If you will excuse a reference to extreme high culture, it is somewhat reminiscent of the distinction between ‘You belong to me’ (Police, The, ‘Every Breath You Take’) (stalky and unacceptable) and Swift, T. ‘You Belong With Me’ (a touch desperate, perhaps – the object of Ms Swift’s affections in this classic work clearly not being worth it – but both ‘relatable’ and acceptable).

[ii] Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 580, footnote – ‘In 1724, the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages, and collected £1,500. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed”. Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune’. I have long used this as a source in my undergraduate legal history teaching.

Image: Photo by Junbeom Ahn on Unsplash Clearly not a medieval sheep, but there to show property rights – indication of ownership in its ear-tag, see.

Passion, poison, pardons … and pins: law and death in medieval London

When looking through medieval records, it is especially interesting to see the many occupations by which people (mostly men) were identified. Noting a man’s trade or position becomes essential in the fifteenth century, but is normal before that, and so we learn of various agricultural and industrial specialisms – some which seem very ‘niche’ to the modern reader. Such a specialised trade is that of ‘pinner’. The pin-making industry (pindustry?) is not something to which I have ever given much thought, though I have been doing some quick research on it today, in connection with an interesting case from the reign of Richard II, about a London pinner and his household.

This case can be seen in entries on a King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1386, telling of an inquiry which the London civic authorities were ordered to carry out, by a writ dated 20th August 1386, and which took place in the Guildhall on 27th September 1386.

From this material, we find that our pinner, Hugh Bromhill, was married to a woman called Margery, and was employer to the other main character in the story, John de Shrewsbury. Hugh, perhaps, seemed to outsiders to be well-placed both in his trade and his domestic life. That, though, was not the truth of things, at least not according to a jury of London men. Yes, it was an inquest jury. Yes, he ended up dead. And yes, those of a suspicious nature, given to salacious speculation, there was allegedly something going on between Margery and John.

The story, as told by the London jurors, went like this. The pair had killed Hugh in the parish of St Martin Pomary in Ironmonger Lane in the ward of Cheap. Why? Well – John, at that time Hugh’s employee, a cardmaker (there’s another niche trade for us)  and Margery had been involved in an illicit relationship. They had slept together often, both at Hugh and Margery’s house and also in other secret locations. Not secret enough, however: Hugh learned what was going on, and threw John out.

We do not know why, but Hugh took John on once more. This makes me warm to him rather – but it was a mistake. John and Margery now, according to the jurors,  plotted Hugh’s death. On Thursday 1st September 1384. They put arsenic powder and realgar (arsenic sulphide, according to the internet – well actually it said ‘arsenic sulfide’, but I just can’t …cool alternative name – ‘ruby of arsenic’) in Hugh’s food and drink. The unsuspecting Hugh ingested it and fell ill, declining over a period of days, and dying early in the morning of 3rd September, in his house.

John and Margery then ran off, and were received by William Coventry, pinner, in the parish of St Mary le Bow, Ward of Cheap, Robert Byssheye in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw,  Nicholas Luffenham, wiredrawer, in the parish of St Benet Fink in the ward of Broad Street. These receivers were said to have known just what Margery and John had done. An innkeeper John de Harwell had also accommodated John de Shrewsbury, at his inn in the parish of All Hallows, Bread Street ward, but the jurors were careful to say that he did not know about the felony his guest had committed.

This all looked as if it might be heading for a burning for Margery, and a drawing and hanging for John de Shrewsbury, as the wife and servant of Hugh respectively, and so petty traitors both. But no.

Margery came to court in January 1389, and produced a pardon for offences between 1st Oct 1382 and 31st May 1388. This is CPR 1385-9, 519. (We have to wonder what else she had been up to! One suggestion is that is was really concerned with the Brembre/Northampton kerfuffle. Could it be that Margery was ‘repurposing’ a pardon to cover things it was never intended to cover?). She was also waving another letter, dated 2nd December 1388, telling the justices not to molest her, which I have not yet managed to track down. This all worked to ward off the possibility of conviction and punishment. She used her status as a citizen of London to get out of jail. John was, apparently dead by the time proceedings came to an end, and the people who had received the pair walked free.

All a bit anticlimactic perhaps, but still, some things to think about.

 

Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

I think we have to conclude that Margery was somebody with a bit of clout in the pinning/wiredrawing community, since she got the support of a number of people, who sheltered her and John S, and helped out as sureties during the court cases. (Either that or all of the pinners just hated poor Hugh). Amongst a slightly less pin-focused group of Londoners, the evidence about Margery is equivocal. The inquest jurors were not backward in pinning (!) the blame on Margery and John S, leaving them open to the death penalty, with the extra relish of punishment for ‘petty treason’. On the other hand, however, Margery was acknowledged to be a citizen of London. If this  was a case in which she took over the status of citizen following the death of her husband, then it does seem interesting that a suspected husband-killer would not have been blocked from this, in some way.  In any case, she had enough money or (p)influence to obtain a pardon, during a period when the killing of husbands does seem to have been a particular concern to ‘the authorities’, which seems noteworthy. There is some easily-found evidence about the property interests of Hugh and Margery. Hugh had an interest in, and perhaps lived in, a tenement and shop in the parish of St Martin Pomary. Margery was his executor (which does suggest that he trusted her). I wonder if there is any more information on her, lurking about anywhere.

  1. Relationship drama

A woman committing adultery with her husband’s servant was fairly transgressive. The entry shows some interesting hints of the thinking of medieval (male) jurors about gender and hierarchy. It is one of those situations in which two different hierarchies collide – John S is the man but he is also the employee, so on the one hand he was the superior, on the other hand, the inferior, of Margery. How was the jury to understand the couple’s interactions in that case? Well, they seem to have gone with an unusually equal portrayal. As far as the sex was concerned, the pair ‘slept together’ and Margery is given some of the initiative at least. As far as the killing went, rather than the more usual story which is given in such situations, of the male doing the killing while the female procures or encourages, this was very much a joint venture. They acted with ‘unanimous assent’, and the poisoning activity is described in the third person plural.

  1. Cause of death

Poisonings – or alleged poisonings – are always interesting. The type of toxin used is not unusual really, but perhaps the separation of arsenic and realgar says something about popular understanding of poison, and we do have a few more details than usual on how it was administered, and the length of time it took to act and to prove fatal. Another one for my ‘lingering death’ spreadsheet and considerations of causation.

  1. Petty treason

How does this affect the picture of attitudes towards petty treason which I have been building up? It does trouble things a little, doesn’t it? Although wives killing husbands certainly had to be scared of being consigned to the flames, and the troubled state of England in the later fourteenth century did push authorities at various levels towards exemplary burnings of husband-slayers, not even this was immune from the prerogative of mercy. Thus Margery was left to enjoy her pins and presumed relative prosperity after the demise of her apparently unlamented spouse.

GS

7th May, 2021.  

(Image, Photo by Lisa Woakes on Unsplash – and yes, I know they aren’t medieval – just going for a general essence of pin).