Finding Medieval Women – Incidental Histories

By Mara Schmueckle

On 23 January 1522 Robert Lindsey and Janet Ross were married in her father’s chapel.  The rituals and formalities in which they engaged in advance of their wedding were recorded in unusual detail by the notary Gavin Ross.  He recorded formal declarations that the banns for their marriage had been declared as was necessary, but was also asked to copy into his protocol book a document confirming that Robert Lindsey was in fact free to marry.

This was necessary because this was not Robert Lindsey’s first wedding, and the woman he had first married was still living.  The need to record his freedom to marry also meant that the notary preserved for historians a document we would otherwise have had no access to: the decision for an annulment petition filed by Janet Stewart, Robert’s purported first wife.   In her petition, Janet claimed that she had been forced into marriage by her parents, that she had objected to this marriage, and that in light of her dissent the marriage had never been consummated.  

Unfortunately, the records of this action do not survive, and so we do not know the details of Robert’s defence, or  the details of the witnesses whose statements supported her claim.  Whatever they were, they were sufficient for the judge to find that the marriage was void – a legal term meaning that it was treated as having never existed.  The marriage gifts and dowry were returned, and the couple were permitted to go and marry elsewhere, which Robert promptly did.  His second marriage took place around 3 months after the annulment of his marriage from Janet Stewart was granted.

Judge separating husband and wife
This image comes from London, British Library, Royal 11 D IX, f. 284, a canon law manuscript, produced in France in the late 13th or early 14th century.  It depicts a “judge separating a husband and wife,” and is made available in the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts at https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=33332

We do not know whether Janet Stewart ever re-married and there are too many women by that name living in medieval Scotland to trace her with any certainty.  The scant surviving details of her case, however, highlight some of the biggest questions historians explore about medieval women and the society within which they lived.  In a society in which marriage was considered key step to adulthood for all young people (both men and women) and in which marriages were usually made with significant input from family members, how much input did young people really have when it came to selecting the person to whom they would be married for life? As Janet’s case demonstrates, some medieval women were forced into marriages against their will.

But Janet’s case also raises an optimistic note, demonstrating that she was able to go to court and ask for her marriage to be annulled.  Research into the legal position of women in medieval Scotland is ongoing, but there is an ever-growing body of work demonstrating that the women of medieval Scotland were able to, and often did, go to court or engage legal help to defend their rights.   Looking through the surviving records of daily administrative life, such as wills, court records, contracts, charters and the surviving records of notaries, historians are able to demonstrate that women were actively engaged in defending and managing their rights.  The availability of evidence only rises as we move from the medieval into the early modern period, and more records of courts survive.   However, even for the period where the survival of sources is more limited, we have evidence that women that women ran businesses, made land grants and went to court or appointed others to go for them.  

The example of these women is not intended to demonstrate that women in medieval Scotland stood equal to men – many institutions (most obviously the church) were male dominated or excluded women entirely.  Where records of women’s legal activity survive, they are passed to us through the moderating voices of male procurators (legal representatives, sometimes trained but often lay), judges and recording scribes. Women were placed under certain legal disabilities, the form and effect of which remains part of ongoing research.  But despite these challenges, the records of medieval Scotland are full of women actively engaging with these institutions in defence of their rights. 

Notes

The Protocol Book of Gavin Ros 1512-1532 ed. J. Anderson and F. J. Grant (Scottish Record Society Old Series Volume 29 (1908))

Elizabeth Ewan, “Scottish Portias – Women in the Courts in Medieval Scottish Towns”, Journal Of The Canadian Historical Association-Revue De La Societe Historiq 3 (1992), pp. 27-43

Heather Parker, “’At their perfect age’: Elite Child Betrothal and Parental Control, 1430-1560” in Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland ed. Janay Nugent and Elizabeth Ewan (Boydell, Woodbridge, 2015) pp. 173-186. 

John Finlay, “Women and Legal Representation in Early Sixteenth-Century Scotland,” in Women in Scotland c1100-c.1750 ed. Elizabeth Ewan and Maureen Meikle (Tuckwell Press, East Linton, 1999) pp. 165-175. 

Richard Helmholz, “The Medieval Canon Law in Scotland: Marriage and Divorce,’ in The Stair Society: Miscellany Eight ed. A.M. Godfrey (Stair Society, Edinburgh, 2020) pp. 95-112. 


Recommended Reading

Beyond the essay by John Finlay noted above, all contributions to the volume Women in Scotland c.1100-c.1750 are very valuable. 

A good summary with a lengthy bibliography comes from Elizabeth Ewan, “A New Trumpet? The History of Women in Scotland 1300-1700.” History Compass 7/2 (2009), pp. 431-446. 


About the Author

Mara Schmueckle is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.  Her research interest is women in late medieval Scotland and their interactions with the different legal institutions and spheres surrounding them.  Her PhD project is focused on the records relating to the obtaining of dispensations and annulments in late medieval Scotland. 

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