The Law of the Father? Patriarchy in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

By Mary Murray | Go to book overview
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Chapter 6

Sisters, daughters and subordinate wives

A useful-if at first slightly surprising-approach to understanding the position of women in the medieval English family historically can be drawn from Karen Sacks' study of African societies, Sisters and Wives. Sacks herself points out the parallels, suggesting that in pre-feudal Europe, as in twentieth century Africa, women may have held contradictory roles, equal as sisters, subordinate as wives. She also argues that class societies, 'to the extent that they developed from patri-corporations, transformed women from sister and wife to daughter and wife, making them perennial subordinates'. 1

It will be my argument that women in Anglo-Saxon society could be sister, daughter and subordinate wife, all at the same time, becoming, by the post-conquest period, daughter and wife only. We shall see too that feudalism and capitalism have been associated with specific expressions of women's subordinate status as daughters and wives.


FROM SISTERS, DAUGHTERS AND SUBORDINATE WIVES…

Anglo-Saxon women continued after marriage to belong to their own blood kindred. 2 This meant that legal responsibility for the actions of a married woman was borne by her and her kinsmen. This is demonstrable from the payment of wergild. Wergild had originally replaced blood feud as a way of resolving conflicts, and expressed both the unity of the kindred in paying for the crimes of their members and the justice of the accuser's case. However,

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