Experiences of death are shaped by gender relations and identities. Gender also informs the divisions of labour within the practices which surround death, ensuring that the contributions of women and men within the dying process are different. This chapter examines a further gendered dimension of dying and death: the ways in which death forms a site at which gender and power relations are negotiated and transformed. Death, as a disruptive and destabilising force, opens out personal and social relations to critical reflection and in doing so releases a potential for significant shifts in interpersonal hierarchies. This has particular relevance for gender relations, understood as sets of social and symbolic categories which structure and inform social relations and practice. Anthropological approaches to gender have emphasised the importance of the analysis of variation in gendered experience as well as attempted to avoid assumptions about woman as a unified and universally subordinate category. Sanday identifies ‘a move away from some of the constraining labels and blanket judgements implicit in past formulations in favour of addressing the conflict, variability and contradictions that we have all encountered in ethnographic field research’ (Sanday 1990: 1). Gender categories are complex and their meaning shifts over time in relation to particular social and cultural relations.
This chapter explores a range of representations which engaged gender and death in early modern England. It is particularly concerned with the gender politics which emerged within popular, religious and legal representations of dying and death. In printed visual images, texts and legal documentation from church court cases, the relationships between women and men, their differences, qualities, duties and capacities with regard to dying and death, were explored and elaborated. Death formed a significant arena in which access to power and authority was contested.