Ellen Taliour: Gender and the Remembrance of Times Past

  • Jeremy Goldberg
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


So testified Ellen Taliour in late January 1366 in one of the most emotionally charged and moving passages to be found within the medieval records of the Court of York. Ellen was the wife of a Thomas Taliour and resident at the time of the case in the adjacent village of Skelton. This was the second time she had been called as a witness. The first time she had given evidence in respect of the birth of Alice de Rouclif. This time she was questioned about the birth of Alice’s older brother, who died in infancy before Alice was born. Her task was to help demonstrate that Alice, whose brother John had been born about sixteen or seventeen months previous to her some thirteen years before, had not yet reached her twelfth birthday at the time of her testimony. Remembrance of Alice’s birth and, as here, that of her deceased older brother, were thus crucial benchmarks in a case that rested on whether Alice had or had not achieved her canonical majority. As a witness appearing (in effect) for Sir Brian de Rouclif, Ellen Taliour was of the latter camp.


Expert Testimony Expert Witness Opposing Party Village Woman Woman Witness 
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  1. 1.
    The normal expectation would be for a (former) female servant so closely associated with her mistress by the nature of her employment would ally with her erstwhile employer. On the other hand, as an ex-employee Ellen had little to lose from going against her former mistress. Cf. Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 156–8.Google Scholar
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    The canon law presumed witnesses to be trustworthy unless some “infamy” could be brought against them: X 2.20.1.Google Scholar
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    Just such an exception is in fact noted elsewhere in this case. One Simon de Folifayt intervened to revive Maud de Herthill’s child at birth. This incident is discussed at greater length below. For the exclusion of men from the birthing chamber see Becky R. Lee, “A Company of Women and Men: Men’s Recollection of Childbirth in Medieval England,” Journal of Family History 27 (2002): 94 [92–100].Google Scholar
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    BI, CP.F.256. Birthing practices, albeit for a slightly later era, are described in Adrian Wilson, “The Ceremony of Childbirth and its Interpretation,” in Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Valerie Fildes (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 68–107. They are implicit in the entry of a priest into the birthing chamber carrying a lantern noted in Lee’s analysis of later medieval proof-of-age evidence: Lee, “A Company of Women and Men,” p. 94.Google Scholar
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    There is of course a tendency for women to be especially vulnerable to poverty: cf. Sharon Farmer, “Down, Out and Female in Thirteenth-Century Paris,” American Historical Review, 103 (1998): 353–5 [345–72].Google Scholar
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    Visual cues are, and were understood at the time, to be important mnemonic devices. Cf. Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 27–8.Google Scholar
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    Joel Rosenthal likewise finds evidence for the exchange of “women’s news” between women refracted through proofs-of-age evidence, a source that in itself relates only to the testimony of men: Rosenthal, Telling Tales, p. 61. For a later analogy see Capp, When Gossips Meet, esp. pp. 327–8. Cf. Lee, “A Company Women of and Men,” 96–7.Google Scholar
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    The use of such writings to aid delivery was a common practice: cf. Marianne Elsakkers, “In Pain You Shall Bear Children (Gen. 3:16): Medieval Prayers for a Safe Delivery,” in Women and Miracle Stories: A Multidisciplinary Exploration, ed. Anne-Marie Korte (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 179–209.Google Scholar
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    Patricia Skinner makes a like observation, writing from a high medieval Italian perspective, that “birth dates and relative ages of children may have been information that mothers were more likely to remember carefully”: Patricia Skinner, “Gender and Memory in Medieval Italy,” in Medieval Memories Men, Women and the Past, 700–1300, ed. Elisabeth van Houts (London: Longman, 2001), p. 47 [36–52]. Cf. also Matthew Innes, “Keeping it in the Family: Women and Aristocratic Memory,” in Medieval Memories, ed. van Houts, p. 17 [17–35].Google Scholar
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    Cf. Dorothy M. Owen, Church and Society in Medieval Lincolnshire (Lincoln: Lincolnshire Local History Society, 1971), p. 109.Google Scholar
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    The disparity was much slighter in pastoral than arable regions: P.J.P. Goldberg, Women, Work and Life Cycle: Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300–1520 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 159–160.Google Scholar
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    P.J.P. Goldberg, “What was a Servant?” in Concepts and Patterns of Service in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Anne Curry and Elizabeth Matthew (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), pp. 11–12 [1–20].Google Scholar
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    Extended breast feeding was probably the norm. Recent analysis of skeletal remains from the Wolds village of Wharram Percy, a few miles east of York, suggest weaning at around two years: cf. M. Richards, S. Mays, and B. Fuller, “Stable C and N Isotope Values of Bone and Teeth Reflect Weaning and Growth Events at the Mediaeval Wharram Percy Site, Yorkshire, UK,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119 (2002): 205–10. Juliet’s nurse (Romeo and Juliet I: III) remembered that Jullet was nearly fourteen by the fact she had been weaned nearly eleven years earlier.Google Scholar
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    L.R. Poos, “Sex, Lies, and the Church Courts of Pre-Reformation England,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25 (1995): 586–7, 591–2, 594–607 [585–607]; Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), esp. ch. 3; Trevor Dean, “Gender and Insult in an Italian City: Bologna in the later Middle Ages,” Social History 29 (2004): 218–21 [217–31].Google Scholar
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    Cf. Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Reasons for Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past and Present 50 (1971): 41–75.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Goldberg 2008

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  • Jeremy Goldberg

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