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“As If She Were Single”: Working Wives and the Late Medieval English Femme Sole

  • Brian W. Gastle
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

This essay demonstrates how the legal term, femme sole, emerged and changed from the late thirteenth through early fifteenth centuries in England, and outlines the ways in which that classification disrupted medieval notions of marital obligation and equity associated with the marriage debt.

Keywords

Single Woman Fifteenth Century Fourteenth Century Marriage Contract Legal Documentation 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    For a discussion of single women and widows operating as femmes soles see Amy M. Froide, “Marital Status as a Category in Early Modern England,” in Singlewomen in the European Past 1250–1800, ed. Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 246–48 [236–69].Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Kay E. Lacey, “Women and Work in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century London,” in Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Lindsey Charles and Lorna Duffin (Dover, NH: Croom Helm, 1985), p. 41 [24–82].Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Diane Hutton, “Women in Fourteenth-Century Shrewsbury,” Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Lindsey Charles and Lorna Duffin (Dover, NH: Croom Helm, 1985), p. 86 [83–99].Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    For a discussion of such property rights of women, see Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 24–30.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    This consensual power derived mainly from a series of letters from Pope Alexander III focusing on the importance of the consent of the parties involved. For an extended discussion of the role of consent and the development of late medieval marriages, see Charles Donahue, Jr., “The Canon Law on the formation of Marriage and Social Practice in the Middle Ages,” Journal of Family History 8.2 (1983): 144–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 9.
    For a discussion of the decline in the variety of occupations generally held by women, see Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (New York: Crofts, 1930), p. 303.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Eileen Power, Medieval Women (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 53.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    See, e.g., Sheila Rowbatham, Hidden From History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It (London: Pluto Press, 1973), p. 2, who believes that such trades “related directly to the work of women in the household because at this stage domestic and industrial life were not clearly separate;” and Richard T. Vanne, “Toward a New Lifestyle: Women in Pre-Industrial Capitalism,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton, 1979), p. 195 [192–216], who posits that since most women in the period married at some time their work necessarily becomes part of their married life.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Borough Customs, ed. and trans. Mary Bateson, Selden Society, (London: B. Quaritch, 1904–06), pp. 222–23. For other examples of urban mercantile women’s legal positions from the Borough Customs, including examples from Lincoln, Northampton, Hastings, and London, see PJ.P Goldberg, trans, and ed., Women in England, 1275–1525: Documentary Sources (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 131–32, 196–97.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Martha Howell, Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 14.
    Rotuli Parliamentorum: ut et Petitiones, et Placita in Parliament [Rolls of Parliament], ed. J. Strachey, 6 vols., vol. 2 (1326–77), vol. 3 (1377–1411), (London, 1767–77); henceforth, RP.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    For an excellent disussion of the early history of parliament and its attendant documentary evidence, see A.L. Brown, “The Development of Parliament,” in The Governance of Late Medieval England 1272–1461 (London: Edward Arnold, 1989), pp. 157–76. See also the very thorough introduction to H.G Richardson and George Sayle, Rotuli Parliamentorum Hactenus Inediti, 1279–1373, Camden Third Series, 51 (London: Camden Society, 1935), pp. vii–xiii.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Pope Alexander III, in the late twelfth century, wrote a series of decrees outlining marriage rules, including present consent, future consent, and minimum age of consent. For a succinct but thorough investigation of the development of marriage law, see Charles Donahue, Jr., “The Canon Law on the Formation of Marriage and Social Practice in the Later Middle Ages,” Journal of Family History 8.2 (1983): 144–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    Year Books of the Reign of King Edward the Third, ed. and trans. Luke Owen Pike, 15 vols. (London: Longman, 1883–1911), 11: 430.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    One of the first femme sole married women in England was Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III. Eleanor’s great contribution to English femme sole history was to secure the right for herself and subsequent English queens in the Middle Ages to hold, manage, and administer their dower lands, or the equivalency, while they were married as if they were femme sole. Margaret Howell discusses some of the events leading up to this development in her biography of Eleanor, Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth Century England (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998), esp. pp. 189–91 and pp. 291–94. A more focused study of Eleanor’s administration as a femme sole is the opening section of Ann Crawford’s “The Queen’s Council in the Middle Ages,” English Historical Review 116.469 (2001): 1193–1211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    For an overview of the doctrine of unity in medieval English law, see John Hamilton Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (Toronto: Butterworth, 1990), pp. 550–57.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    George Kay, Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), is an excellent study of Perrers, the social milieux in which she operated, and her effect upon the period.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 403.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    Liber Albus, ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1859–62), p. 68.Google Scholar
  20. 31.
    J.H. Baker, Manual of Law French, 2nd ed. (Brookfield, VT: Scholar Press, 1990), pp. 119–20.Google Scholar
  21. 39.
    See Elizabeth Makowski, “The Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law,” Journal of Medieval History 3 (1977): 99–114, and James A. Brundage, “Sexual Equality in Medieval Canon Law,” in Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History, ed. Joel T. Rosenthal (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), pp. 66–79. Makowski and Brundage point towards the Decretum as a pivotal moment in the institutionalization of equality in the marital relationship. Medieval conjugality, for both Makowski and Brundage, was characterized by mutual obligations and was therefore a form of equality, since that debt could only be evaded through mutual consent.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 40.
    Eleanor McLaughlin, “Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Reuther (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).Google Scholar
  23. 41.
    Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 148.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    Louise Tilly and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work, and Family (NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978), p. 21.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Brian W. Gastle

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