Feminism and Renaissance Studies

By Lorna Hutson | Go to book overview

16 Language, Power, and the Law:
Women's Slander Litigation in Early
Modern London

Laura Gowing

“A married woman perhaps may doubt whether shee bee either none or no more than half a person”, wrote the anonymous author of the first exposition of women's equivocal legal position, The lawes resolu tion ofwomens rights, in 1632. Legally, women's agency was vested in their husbands: “Women have no voyse in Parliament, they make no lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none. All of them are understood either married or to be married and their desires are subject to their husband, I know no remedy, though some women can shift it well enough”.1

For much of the legal practice of early modern England this outline was an accurate one. In particular, while contemporaries observed increased levels of litigation, women's access to this kind of participation in the law was restricted. Technically, married women could not sue cases at the common law: their desires, and their legal authority, were “subject to their husband”. But among those who could “shift it well enough” must surely have been the women who fought cases at the church courts. There, married, single and widowed women sued cases in their own names over disputed wills, tithes, and, most often, sex and marriage. In the most popular type of litigation, suits alleging sexual slander, they brought cases up to five times more often than men did. A typical case in London in 1628 involved Magdalen Lewis and Mary Record, neighbours from near Bridewell. The two had fallen out after Magdalen's husband persuaded Mary's lodgers not to go to her wedding feast. Mary interpreted this as a slur on her premarital conduct and, in return, launched an attack on Magdalen's honesty, calling her “a pore sorry thinge a common thinge and one that was familiar with every hattmakers boy”, adding “that she had had a bastard by a hattmakers boy before she was married”. The slander stuck. Six

From Garthine Walker and Jenny Kermod (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early
Modern England (UCL University Press, 1994), 26-74 Reprinted with permission

-428-

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Feminism and Renaissance Studies
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Notes on Contributors vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Humanism After Feminism 19
  • 1: Did Women Have a Renaissance? 21
  • 2: Women Humanists 48
  • 3: The Housewife and the Humanists 82
  • 4: The Tenth Muse 106
  • Part II - Historicizing Femininity 125
  • 5: The Notion of Woman in Medicine, Anatomy, and Physiology 127
  • 6: Women on Top 156
  • 7: The 'Cruel Mother' 186
  • 8: Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany 203
  • Part III 231
  • 9: Diana Described 233
  • 10: Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text 249
  • 11: Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract 286
  • 12: Surprising Fame 317
  • Part IV - Women's Agency 337
  • 13: Women on Top in the Pamphlet Literature of the English Revolution 339
  • 14: La Donnesca Mano 373
  • 15: Guilds, Male Bonding and Women's Work in Early Modern Germany 412
  • 16: Language, Power, and the Law 428
  • 17: Finding a Voice 450
  • Bibliography 468
  • Index 475
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