The Rights of
Medieval English Women
Crime and the Issue of Representation
The Middle Ages were resolutely male. All the opinions that reach and
inform me were held by men, convinced of the superiority of their sex.
I hear only them.
— George Duby
The written record of the Middle Ages resists our efforts to reconstruct what Carolyn Dinshaw describes in a clarifying phrase as “lived lives,” and it seems most to thwart us when the lives we seek to reconstruct are the lives lived by women.1 Inherent in the record that we use for such reconstruction, says George Duby, is a kind of “screen between our eyes and what our eyes want to see”: we may “measure this distance” and “perceive the distortion,” or we “must give up the positivist dream of attaining past reality” and recognize that “this screen can never be completely penetrated.”2 The law of medieval England, my main subject in this essay, proceeds by an even more general logic of obfuscation, one that extends to the lives of medieval men as well as women. This law leaves a legacy of the recorded word more voluminous than historians have as yet been able to read in detail, but these words are largely instrumental in their function, prompted by events often unmentioned or artfully concealed, designed to secure ends often unspecified or misrepresented. As William Maitland laments these general distortions, the court may be “miraculously clear in our spotlight” but “the world around it,… the world of fact,” lies wholly “in the dark.”3
But what if the screen itself signifies? In what follows I will argue that distortions may themselves be “facts” miraculously clear in our spotlight, that—to abandon, finally, honest but misleadingly hypostasizing images—the record's overt resistance is the resistance lived in the life and, particularly, in the lives lived by women. I focus by design here on the records of crime (in particular, on enrollments in the Court of King's Bench) in order to seek such resistances where they appear to have been most acute. The ground for a woman's recorded presence at law was generally a wrong directed at her possessions or her person: the nature and ambit of the female lives court rolls describe begin in a woman's hurt. The law often intensified this hurt in the instance of its legal recording