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Medieval Women and Urban Justice: Commerce, Crime and Community in England c.1300-1500 by Dr Teresa Phipps

When Margery Dod brought a plea of trespass to Nottingham’s borough court in April 1324, she listed a string of accusations against many members of the de Spondon family, likely to have been her neighbours, trading contacts, or both. Margery alleged that Robert, his wife Hawise and daughter Alice had assaulted her in the town’s large Saturday market place (today the city’s Market Square). More specifically, she claimed that they had called her false, a thief and a whore, and accused her of stealing a tabard. The assault was not just verbal, however. Margery also said that she had been beaten, crushed and dragged along the floor. As a result, she sought damages of 20s ( a large sum roughly equivalent to the yearly rent of a craftsman’s house) as compensation. Monetary compensation was the typical recompense for these types of complaints, though plaintiffs never won anything like the sums they claimed. This complaint, just one of hundreds involving women heard in town courts across medieval England, paints quite a picture. On the one hand, it depicts a disordered and violent society, where verbal and physical attacks went hand in hand, even in the most public of spaces such as the large market place. But it also demonstrates the legal options available to town residents – including women – when they were (allegedly) victims of such attacks, and thereby tells us much about what was deemed unacceptable behaviour among the urban community and the routes for redress that were available. Indeed, the only reason we know about instances of violence such as this is thanks to the well-developed systems of law and administration that recorded these complaints. We don’t know the outcome of this case – like many others – but while discovering the full story (or at least what the court decided this was) can be intriguing, it isn’t the most important aspect of studying these records. Even without neat resolutions, these records reveal the ways in which women accessed justice within their local communities, their status under the law, and how they used the courts to negotiate the challenges of urban life.

This is the focus of my new monograph, Medieval Women and Urban Justice: Commerce, Crime and Community in England c.1300-1500, published by Manchester University Press. The book draws on town court records from Nottingham, Chester and Winchester to explore the lives and legal experiences of hundreds of ordinary townswomen. In examining the wide-ranging reasons and disputes that brought women into contact with the law, offers a wide-ranging analysis of women’s legal status in the context of a range of different disputes and offences. Not all of women’s legal actions paint quite such a vivid picture as the complaints of Margery Dod described above. The majority of litigation that town courts dealt with was related to relatively low value debts for unfulfilled trading agreements. While these might not be the most exciting cases to read, they offer essential evidence in understanding the economic activities of medieval women and what happened when trading obligations were not met. Some women, such as Nottingham’s Agnes Halum, were involved in high number of debt pleas, suggesting a wide trading network with many contacts and simultaneous agreements. Other women appear in relation to small, single debts, like the 3d for milk owed by Chester’s Matilda le Spenser to Alice, widow of John Hammes. Trespass complaints, like that of Margery Dod, reveal a wider range of misbehaviours through which members of the urban community caused harm to one another – from physical and verbal assaults, to theft or damage to property. John Hodyngs and his wife Elizabeth were ordered to pay 2s compensation to Edmund de Wheteley after they used pick axes and spades to tear down his garden wall – quite the feat given that the wall was said to be eight foot high. Local officials also issued direct fines for the breaking of market regulations (such as the assizes of bread and ale) and as a means of policing violent affrays. Through detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis of the records of the three towns, the book demonstrates that, despite their seemingly inferior legal and economic status, women were found in all forms of legal dispute and offence, as both plaintiffs and defendants, perpetrators and victims. Though they never appeared in the same numbers as men, neither was women’s legal action exceptional or confined to a small number of circumstances. Rather, the records depict their activities and connections across the urban community.

By examining these records of various legal actions the book offers a rounded picture of women’s interaction with local, urban justice systems. A key theme throughout is the impact that a woman’s marital status had on her legal standing, particularly whether she could bring or answer complaints while married. The book joins other recent studies in challenging the somewhat simplistic narratives of coverture by demonstrating that many married women did take legal action during marriage, often jointly with their husbands, meaning that marriage did not render them legally invisible as various medieval legal treatises or older histories of medieval law would suggest. Importantly though, the comparison of records from different towns also highlights local variations in how the status of women was translated in local courts. While there may be various observable trends in the legal actions of women in medieval towns, perhaps a more important takeaway from the book is the need to examine the details of women’s engagement with the law on an individual basis, looking at the details of different cases and the customs and practices of different courts, in order to piece together a nuanced picture that places individual women at the centre of their own stories.

Dr Teresa Phipps is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at Swansea University and a Programme Officer at The Brilliant Club. She researches women and law in late medieval Britain with a focus on the records of English towns. She was part of the AHRC funded project ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice’ based at Swansea University from 2016-2019. She is also co-editor (with Richard Goddard) of Town Courts and Urban Society in Late Medieval England (Boydell and Brewer, 2019).