Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England

Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England

Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England

Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England

Synopsis

In eleven interrelated essays, this text explores the roles that community, family and society played in maintaining social control in medieval England. The essays focus on gender, criminal behaviour, law enforcement, and much more.

Excerpt

The essays in this volume investigate the ways in which late medieval English society drew boundaries that separated those of good repute from those of ill repute. The stakes were high for medieval citizens in drawing those distinctions, because members of society who were well regarded could maneuver through life using their social networks for advancement or for clearing their names if they were charged with crimes, trespasses, or debts. The emphasis on "repute" came about because late medieval society was still largely an oral culture, and the general "rumor" about a person's reputation could make or break his or her chances in society. While, increasingly, written records from medieval times documented those whose behavior deviated from the prescribed laws and social norms, the general reputation of a person in his or her community could still be the dividing line between hanging and going sine die ("without day," or being acquitted), between being released on bail or put into prison, or between getting a loan or becoming impoverished for the lack of one. Persons of "good repute" could rely on members of their community and even their superiors to support their good name in a variety of cases, whether they needed oath-helpers to swear that they were telling the truth and had always done so, to stand surety for them that they would appear in court to answer charges, to guarantee their reputation for an apprenticeship contract, or to assure the parties to a contract or loan that their word was their bond and that they firmly believed that this was true. The community members who swore that they would back their word had to be sure that they were reliable, because they agreed to pay a fine if they did not appear, to guarantee their loans and contracts should they default, and to watch out for their good behavior in the future if others suspected that they might cause further damage. The use of mainpernors, or those who stood surety, was crucial for all aspects of life.

But what of those who were of ill repute, and how did society define and separate out the marginals from the included? Rather than emphasizing formal legal codes, common law, guild ordinances, village by-laws, and court verdicts that distinguished the law-abiding from the law breakers, the essays in this volume explore the more subtle ways in which the society made and enforced its distinctions. A complex system of responses and initiatives characterize the rich culture of social difference in the Middle Ages. In analyzing the various examples in these essays, I have drawn upon an-

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