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Popular Memory and Gender in Medieval England: Men, Women and Testimony in the Church Courts, c. 1200-1500 by Dr Bronach C. Kane

In May 1365, Alice de Bridelyngton and Joan del Hill, spinsters by trade, testified in a marriage case brought in the church court of York between Margery de Merton and Thomas de Middelton. Both women said that they had overheard Thomas, a chapman from Beverley, making promises of marriage to Margery the year before at his brother’s house in the town. When Thomas sent word for Margery to visit him, she asked Alice and Joan to accompany her to hear what was said.[1] Like many unmarried and lower-status young women in this period, Margery and her friends were aware that ambiguity around sexual and romantic ties could imperil marital prospects and endanger women’s socio-economic security. Ballads and lyrics from the late medieval genre known as the ‘betrayed maiden’s lament’ warned of the costs of failed dalliances for young non-elite women in tales of flirtation and illicit sex that culminated in abandonment and stomachs that grew swollen in pregnancy.[2] In marriage litigation, past relationships were depicted in opposing narratives that saw women’s testimony critiqued and undermined, with potential unions cast as transitory or informal sexual liaisons that both parties understood would not develop into marriages. Eye-witnesses who could claim to recall marriage contracts were critical to women’s sexual reputations, especially where disputes over their meaning escalated into legal suits.

Memory was part of the fabric of high and late medieval culture, imbuing social, political and religious life with practices rooted in different traditions.[3] For instance, architectural mnemonic techniques and compositional memory predominated in schools and universities. These methods were employed in religious houses and supplemented by contemplative forms of memory focused on commemoration of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. These memory practices emerged and saw use in primarily masculine environments, although women were occasionally given figurative roles in these discourses to demonstrate perceived deficiencies in remembrance. Memory also emerged as a primary means of judicial proof under canon law and in other jurisdictions by the late thirteenth century. Assigned growing import in legal treatises and religious texts, memory as a form of evidence became an increasingly common feature of testimony recorded in English archiepiscopal and diocesan courts.

Gendered experiences of time and memory are explored across a full range of litigation in Popular Memory and Gender in Medieval England, in marriage and defamation disputes to suits involving tithes, burial custom and benefices where gender initially appears less significant but, on closer study, is a critical concern. The study focuses on the memory practices of lower status people, including servants, urban and rural labourers, single women, the poor and the unfree. It interprets evidence from women, and more marginal men, as a powerful form of counter-memory that qualified and subverted patriarchal understandings of the past, present and future. Popular perceptions of time and ways of recording its passage encompassed experiences of the landscape and environment, work and life cycle, as well as sensory and embodied remembrance. For non-elite women, the organisation of memory depended in part upon childbearing as descriptions of birth centred on pregnancy, the uterus and postnatal care. Child loss sometimes infused these memories as women calculated the ages of children had they survived. Single and childless women recalled the past through experiences of work that conferred, if not honesty, then a type of industriousness that spoke of respectability and a reliance on the labour of their own hands.

Although non-elite women are its primary focus, the book examines the presence and activities in the church courts of women at every social level and status group. Gender ideologies among urban and rural men are similarly accounted for, particularly through a Marxist lens, but this strand of analysis is pursued to illuminate how patriarchies operated in their variety and breadth during this period and context. Men were usually called upon for testimony in tithe and custom suits, and their evidence was often favoured over women’s in marriage litigation. Men’s legal authority was not solely based on gender and allegations of unfreedom, poverty and dependence could be used to undermine their word.

Class intersected with gender more consistently where antifeminist tropes associated with speech, deceit and sexuality cohered to depict poorer women as guilty of perjury and fabrication. In the suit between Margery de Merton and Thomas de Middelton, several men testified against Alice de Bridelyngton and Joan del Hill’s trustworthiness, describing the former as promiscuous and noting that Joan had left her husband’s household. Both women worked as spinsters in the cloth industry, poorly paid and lower status labour that attracted large numbers of impoverished single women and supplemented married women’s income. The attacks on Alice and Joan’s testimony carried the inference of selling sex, evoking the gender dynamics of poorer women’s economic condition coupled with the implied moral danger of the women’s marital status and residence outside patriarchal households. In other cases, spinsters defended their positions through detailed accounts of the purchase, spinning and treatment of wool in ways that rejected suggestions of immorality and instead underlined women’s productive power and the routines of their labour.

Popular modes of remembering, in all their plurality, overlapped and intersected with the types of memory traditionally seen to prevail in learned and clerical settings including courts of law. The book thus offers in part a gendered history of the emergence of the English church courts, tracing the ways in which sex difference guided methods of proof and the treatment of men and women’s testimony. Drawing on literary texts (ballads, lyrics, poems), religious pastoralia and visual remnants, it also aims to situate these experiences and patterns in a wider social and cultural milieu where memory, authority and morality accrued much of their meaning. Most significantly, however, it foregrounds the pasts and futures that women and marginal men sought to create for themselves and others to make sense of the world and the passage of time.

Bronach C. Kane is a feminist historian of late medieval England. She researches gender relations, femininity and masculinity among lower-status people in everyday life, with forays into the history of emotions as a way of exploring sex, courtship, marriage and reproduction. She is the author of Popular Memory and Gender in Medieval England: Men, Women and Testimony in the Church Courts, c.1200-1500 (Woodbridge, 2019) and co-editor with Fiona Williamson of Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (London, 2013).

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives, York, CP.E.102.

[2] Neil Cartlidge, ‘“Alas I Go with Chylde”: Representations of Extra-Marital Pregnancy in the Middle English Lyric’, English Studies, 79 (1998), 395-414.

[3] On learned memory and mnemonics, see the classic study: Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992).