Women and justice 1100-1750 – pan-UK project gets under way

A four-year project exploring women's access to justice in various parts of Britain and Ireland between 1100 and 1750 is now under way. Funded with an £854,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is led by Dr Deborah Youngs from the College of Arts and Humanities.

Previous studies of medieval and early modern women and the law have focused on single jurisdictions or regions. English cases have dominated the field: if Irish, Welsh or Scottish materials have been explored at all, it has been on rigidly national lines.  

This new project, however, has a comparative focus, looking at similarities and differences according to national boundaries, language, ethnicity, confessional identity, and social status. In which judicial and cultural contexts were women more or less legally disadvantaged? How and with what success did they negotiate these limits? How did this change over time?

Watch a BBC News story on the research

Filmed in the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University, and at Oystermouth Castle

600 x 432Picture:  The figure of Prudence instructing young women, from a 15th century manuscript.  Credit: Wellcome Collection.

The comparison across borders and time, including Jewish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish women operating in courts where their first language was not spoken, and participating in processes imposed by a dominant or colonial power, is a new approach to the subject.

The team will be looking at evidence from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland between 1100 and 1750.  This period saw significant political change and social upheaval in British and Irish history, when the state's physical boundaries, administrative structures and religious identity were all shifting and evolving.

The law, to a degree, provided some continuity through this period, but the complexity of jurisdictions, overlapping, competing, local and central, religious and secular, meant that similar courts in different regions might differ a great deal.

Resources for the project will include records from both secular and church courts, encompassing civil, canon and criminal jurisdictions. Samples will range from the Anglo-Norman state where Jewish women will be considered alongside Christians; the English colony in Ireland; local courts in Wales and the Welsh use of central courts; the English and Scottish church courts; and women in the varied legal landscape of Highland and Lowland Scotland.

Deborah Youngs‌Dr Deborah Youngs, pictured, from the Department of History and Classics, and Deputy Head of the College of Arts and Humanities, said:

"We are all thrilled to be starting this ground-breaking project on women's experience of the courts in Britain and Ireland. This will be the first comparative study of its kind, and will allow us to produce a more sophisticated understanding of women's participation in the legal process across the medieval and early modern period."

Professor John Spurr, Head of the College of Arts and Humanities, said:

"This exciting project is the first major inquiry into the female experience of the law across the British Isles and Ireland and across more than six centuries. This is innovative and collaborative scholarship at its best: we are exceptionally proud of all those involved and look forward to their findings."

Dr Youngs will be working with co-investigators Dr Garthine Walker from Cardiff University, and Dr Alex Shepard at the University of Glasgow.  Also attached to this project are two Research Fellows, including Dr Sparky  Booker from the University of Dublin, and two fully-funded AHRC PhD students.

College of Arts and Humanities

Research Institute for Arts and Humanities