Abduction, Marriage and Female Agency in 14th C. England – Dissertation Summary

This is a blog post by Imogene Dudley, a year 3 student, on her dissertation: “And so abducted her with her own will”: Abduction, Marriage and Female Agency in Fourteenth-century England.

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The aim of my dissertation was to explore how much control medieval women had over their marital choices. I defined the term “marital choices” in two ways: firstly, the initial selection of a husband and secondly, the ability to leave an unhappy or unwanted marriage after it had been solemnised. The traditional view of medieval women was that their ability to control their own lives was extremely limited by the patriarchal structure of society and by their subordination to the men in their lives. Although marriage was one of the most important aspects of a woman’s life and the right husband was crucial to her future happiness and prosperity, the husband of a medieval woman was often chosen by a male relative or guardian. This was especially true of the upper classes. Once married, it was difficult for a woman to escape the restraints placed upon her. The common law system of coverture meant that a woman gave up her separate legal identity upon marriage and this has fed the view of women being the property of men in this period. A formal separation granted by church or secular courts was rare and a woman could often only escape a marriage through either her husband’s death or her own. However, the view of limited female control has begun to be challenged by gender historians and it is now accepted that medieval women were sometimes able to circumnavigate the controls that were placed upon them.

I chose to explore this topic through examining the issue of abduction, which can reveal many ways in which a woman could exert control over her marriage. There are two types of abduction. The first is forced abduction, which involved a woman being kidnapped and forced into marriage against her will, often by a fortune hunter hoping to profit. These women were victims and displayed no agency with regards to their marriage. However, some women in this situation managed to overcome their victim status and attempted to remove themselves from their forced marriage by applying to the courts or by petitioning a higher power such as the king. This involved a considerable amount of fortitude and determination. Even those women who remained with their abductors displayed considerable strength as they attempted to make the best of a sorry situation.

Consensual abductions are much more obvious examples of female agency. They took two forms. The first was an unmarried woman staging an abduction so that she may marry the man of her choice. These were more likely to be maidens as they were subjected to stricter control than widows. However, there are examples of widows eloping due to a disparity of status between them and their lovers or because their youth or wealth made others seek to control their second marriage. The second form of consensual abduction was a wife deserting an existing marriage, either because she had found a new lover or because she wished to escape a violent husband. Both types of consensual abduction showed female agency as these women defied familial wishes and societal norms to pursue their own desires in life.

I chose to focus my studies on fourteenth-century England, as this period was bookended by two significant pieces of abduction legislation. The Statutes of Westminster I (1275) and II (1285) attempted to prevent married women from running away with their lovers by removing their rights to their dower if they consented after the abduction. The Statute of Rapes (1382) completely eradicated a woman’s right to consent to her abduction, whether she was a maiden, a wife or a widow. Her consent would mean that all her inheritance or dower rights would pass to her nearest male relative. These laws revealed the concerns of the male lawmakers who were also the potential fathers and husbands of such women. Their primary concern was the threat that a woman’s agency could pose to their property, wealth and lineage. Their aim was to lessen the economic consequences of abduction for men.

This is a subject which has not been widely studied. Medieval women were largely ignored by traditional historians. Although the advent of gender history has seen a significant amount of literature published on medieval women, in the majority of these studies (such as those by Barbara Harris or Jennifer Ward) the subject of marriage was treated in a single chapter. Abduction is also a topic which has flourished due to the rise of gender history, yet early works had a purely legal focus, either as part of a wider analysis of medieval law or as an exploration of the implementation and phrasing of the statutes (for example, the works of J. B. Post and E. W. Ives). Although historians such as Sara Butler, Gwen Seabourne and Caroline Dunn have recently begun to use abduction as a means to understand female agency and experience, this angle and the extent of which women could exert marital choice are topics which have only begun to be explored and I hope that my dissertation has aided this process.

I encountered a substantial amount of cases which I eventually narrowed down to six which were studied in detail, although I did include other cases to add strength to my arguments where applicable. Three were cases of forced abduction which I had found in the Calendars of Patent, Fine and Close Rolls, which were administrative records compiled in Chancery. Often the same case would appear in all three of these, causing some degree of detective work! Abduction cases are usually found in relation to commissions ordering the arrest of the abductors or, more unfortunately, in records of pardons granted to the abductors. The three cases of consensual abduction were all found in records of the courts of the Kings Bench, a common law court where husbands and fathers would petition for the return of their womenfolk and sue for any damages incurred. I purposefully selected cases which illustrated the three different types of consensual abduction: an elopement by a maiden and a wife leaving the marital home due to her own adultery or the cruelty of her husband. Case studies are illuminating as they provide real life examples of abduction and female agency. Frustratingly, an insight is often all that they can give as the legal sources are formulaic to a degree which obscures the real story and the female voice can rarely be heard as it is their fathers or husbands who were the plaintiffs in these cases and their grievances which were prioritised. The endings of many are unrecorded and the cases need careful reading to determine whether the abduction was forced or consensual. Signs of consensual abduction can be that traditional female possessions such as jewellery and clothing were taken alongside the women, or that she was abducted by family members: these are often signals that she was fleeing from an abusive marriage.

I arrived at the conclusion that medieval women possessed more control over their marital choices than previously supposed. It is not to be denied that the overtly patriarchal power structure severely limited female choice and many women were victims of this system, trapped in unhappy or violent arranged marriages. However, some women defied family and society to choose their own husband or to abandon their marriages and staging an abduction was a useful way to accomplish this. Even those subjected to a forced abduction often fought to free themselves from such a situation. Therefore it is not to be assumed that all women were unable to take control of their own lives and marriages. Many found ways to circumnavigate a patriarchal system in order to pursue their own marital choices.

Written by Imogene Dudley – Edited by Emma Garland