When Jonet Pollock brought suit before Glasgow’s commissary court in 1694, she listed a string of accusations and complaints against her ex-partner, William Jamieson. In her complaint, Jonet insisted that William had refused to pay an outstanding debt due to her, despite the fact she had obtained a favourable ruling from the commissary judge four years previous. Secondly, Jonet argued that William had refused to pay child maintenance following the birth of their son John Jamieson in 1690, alleging that she was owed money for solely providing their son with food, clothing and shelter. Finally, she accused William of breach of promise of marriage, alleging that he had promised to marry her in 1691, and that he had since refused to complete the bond of matrimony with her before church and congregation. As a result, Jonet sought maintenance and damages worth roughly £21 Sterling – a large sum roughly equivalent to £2,500 today – as compensation.
Unsurprisingly, William refuted these claims on both his character and his property. In response to the second charge, William insisted that he had visited Jonet’s household in 1692 and had offered to take their son into his household and bring him up so ‘[he] might be frie of alimenting [maintaining] the bairn [child] in all tyme thereafter.’ And while William accepted that he was indeed John’s father, he argued that he had never agreed to marry Jonet, and that she had instead fabricated the claim following their tryst and subsequent falling out.
This complaint, just one of thousands heard in courtrooms across early modern Scotland, paints quite a picture. On the one hand, it depicts a bitter, personal dispute between two individuals who were engaged in a lengthy legal battle over issues surrounding parental rights and responsibilities, marriage, and debt – matters that continue to be heard in lawcourts to this day. On the other hand, it reveals that women sought legal intervention when they felt wronged, especially when dealing with issues concerning their complex status and rights. In the end, the judge ultimately sided with Jonet, ordering William to pay the outstanding debt and child maintenance until their son had reached the age of fourteen, though the compensation was admittedly reduced. The judge did, however, acquit William from paying damages for breach of promise of marriage, finding no evidence that he had promised to take Jonet as his lawful wife. Even without entirely favourable resolutions, civil legal records tell us much about women’s access to justice and the routes for redress that were available to them during the early modern period.
My research seeks to bring to life the experiences of thousands of ordinary women as they negotiated their legal status and property rights before the burgh (town) and commissary (consistorial) courts of early modern Scotland. During this period, the burgh and commissary courts were key sites for the provision of law and civil justice within urban and rural communities, and therefore regularly dealt with matters that pulled in women and their rights. Despite their inferior legal status and property rights within a patriarchal society, women were found in all forms and manners of civil legal matters and disputes – as pursuers, defenders, witnesses and even legal representatives of their husbands, children and kin relations. Though they did not appear in the same numbers as men, women’s legal action was not exceptional, nor was it prevented.
Some women were involved in a high number of pleas, such as Bessie Lindsen who appeared before the burgh court of St Andrews on nine separate occasions in 1601 when embroiled in a variety of property quarrels involving neighbours and kin relatives. Others were fleetingly involved when their circumstances drastically changed, such as Agnes Crawford who secured a yearly maintenance payment of £31 Sterling – roughly equivalent to £4,100 today – before Glasgow’s commissary court in 1616 after her husband of thirty-one years abandoned her, apparently without reason. Whether claiming their share of inheritance, protecting their property within marriage, or pursuing their unruly husbands for spousal abandonment, women were pulled into a wide range of legal negotiations and disputes throughout their lifetimes, with their complex rights to property demanding particular attention before the courts.
In the popular imagination, Scottish women are often remembered as victims or rebels of a patriarchal social order. Museums display the tools that were used to silence and punish disobedient women throughout history, while students at schools and universities are taught about the thousands of women who were persecuted during the Scottish witchcraft panics. Today, feminist activists are even campaigning for a national memorial to the thousands of people (mainly women) who were persecuted for the crime of witchcraft in early modern Scotland. But that is only half the story.
While Scottish court books are filled with countless tales of women branded as witches, scolds and sinners, thousands of ordinary women also left their mark, and the purpose of my research is to uncover the everyday (and often relatively mundane) matters that concerned women during this period. Whether appearing through a lawyer, voicing their complaints independently, or avoiding lawsuits entirely, women in early modern Scotland clearly knew their way around the patriarchal legal system; not all fell victim to it.
Dr Rebecca Mason is a historian of early modern Scotland, with expertise in social, gender and legal history. She is the 2021 recipient of a Women’s History Network Early Career Fellowship, and is currently writing her first book, entitled ‘Women and the Law in Early Modern Scotland: Property, Patriarchy and Power’. She tweets about her research @rmason717.
Image credit: ‘A Scotch Woman’ and ‘A Highland Woman’; Details from John Speed’s map of Scotland, in the version published in the Interregnum. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SpeedScottishWomen2.jpg