Teresa Phipps is a research assistant at Swansea University, working on the AHRC-funded project ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice: Britain and Ireland c.1100-c.1750’. The project is a collaboration between researchers at Swansea, Cardiff and Glasgow, investigating how women in Britain and Ireland actively participated in the legal process across a range of jurisdictions. Teresa researches women’s access to justice in late medieval English towns, exploring in particular their involvement in litigation concerning debt and trespass as well as the way that women’s marital status influenced their options for legal redress. She tweets about the project @womenhistlaw

The medieval period is often imagined as one characterised by lawlessness, violence and warfare, proliferated by images of blood and violence in popular cutlure, tales of brave knights and perceptions of modernity as the height of civilisation and order compared to a brutal, bloody past. This image of the middle ages is a predominantly masculine one, except where women appear in various stereotypical roles – as beautiful maidens, bawdy wenches, or as victims of men’s misdeeds. While there may be some element of truth in these images of the medieval past, the middle ages is also the period in which many of the roots of English (and, by extension, Commonwealth) law, justice and government have their roots.

Research that uses legal documents and court records allows us to tap in to the nature of the violent and lawless behaviour of the period. Local and national governments oversaw various systems of policing and justice in attempting to impose order and punish misbehaviour. Pick up almost any textbook about medieval women and you will find examples of how women were subordinate to men when it came to legal status, power and access to justice, but this doesn’t mean that they are invisible in legal records. In fact, by examining these records we can access details about the lives, actions and relationships of real individuals, as well as finding out how authorities tried to regulate dangerous and disorderly behaviour. So, looking for women in these records allows us to think about what it might have meant to be a ‘dangerous women’ according to medieval law, and in society more broadly. What actions constituted disorderly, illegal conduct, and what role did women play in this dangerous behaviour?

These records tell numerous stories of conflict and violence, revealing what happened when relationships between neighbours broke down, as well as how these events were punished. At Nottingham’s in 1395, officials reported that Thomas Benton had attacked Hugh Wymondeslow. Inside the town’s Common Hall (or guildhall), Thomas had seized Hugh by his breast with one hand, taken out his knife in the other hand and spoken ‘malicious words’ to him. The attack was apparently so extreme that Hugh despaired for his life. Thomas was fined 12d. The officials next reported another attack. This time Joan, wife of Hugh Wymondslow, came into the Common Hall, slapped Thomas Benton in the face and again spoke ‘malicious words’ to him. Joan was also fined 12d. It’s easy to imagine this exchange in a modern day soap opera, perhaps exchanging the setting for a local pub rather than the town hall. Two men get into a disagreement, which escalates to become violent. On hearing about the attack on her husband, the wife of the victim is so outraged that she retaliates, probably by shouting (or swearing) at the attacker, coupled with a stereotypically female act of violence – a slap to the face. Both these attacks resulted in fines being issued as punishment for disrupting the peace of the town, and both male and female perpetrators were fined equal amounts for their misbehaviour. Even though Joan was acting in response to the seemingly more serious attack on her husband, her disorderly behaviour meant that she was, at least for this specific moment in time, a ‘dangerous woman’.

Dangerous behaviour could take the form of both physical violence as well as forms of ‘bad speech’ that attacked the honour of others or disrupted the peace of the local community, and were particularly attributed to women. In the case of Joan, she combined both in her retaliation on Thomas Benton – she slapped him and attacked him using words. For various reasons, we cannot view these records as evidence of the ‘truth’ of female misbehaviour, not least because they were generally documented in brief terms, using formulaic language and constructed by male scribes writing in Latin, though the business of the court was spoken in English. To add to this, the outcomes of cases do not always survive, so we can’t know what really happened. But we can nevertheless explore ideas about what constituted dangerous behaviour, and how this might have been exhibited by women.

Early forms of policing that existed in English towns relied on reports of local officials and juries, all supposedly respectable and well-informed (male) members of the local community, to report and present offences which disturbed the peace of the community and the king. The case of Joan Wymonsdlow, the ‘face-slapper’, arises from this local policing. Numerous examples of dangerous women arise from these records, named as both the perpetrators and victims of these attacks. The amount of detail recorded is usually limited to the names, whether or not bloodshed was involved, and the fine owed. Sometimes the weapons used were recorded: Margaret, wife of Hugh Spicer threw stones and drew her knife against the wife of William Spicer in Long Row in Nottingham, and was fined 6d. Typically, affrays without bloodshed were subject to 6d. fines, while bloodshed attracted the larger sum of 12d., demonstrating the correlation between bloodshed, the severity of violence and the scale of punishment. Women generally attacked other women, but not always. Alice, wife of John Teilere was fined 6d. for attacking John Layburne, and Margaret Gay was fined 12d. for injuring William Leadenham by throwing him against a post. Of course, men were violent too, and they were more frequently fined for fighting and causing bloodshed. Both men and women exhibited similar forms of unlawful, disruptive and dangerous behaviour and were punished accordingly.

Town courts also provided access to justice by allowing residents to bring complaints about the actions of others in the town. Women were both the perpetrators and victims of these offences, brought under the complaint of trespass. Again, we find details of women who used weapons in violent assaults, like Alice Cappere from Winchester. In January 1386, Hugh Trevor and his wife Albreda claimed that Alice, with her servant Margaret Drumond, came to their house armed with sticks and knives, and stole linen cloths worth 40d. After Alice denied her guilt, a jury of local men pronounced that in fact Hugh and Albreda had made a false claim, so the pair were themselves fined 3d. At Nottingham in December 1433, Margaret Midilton was accused of attacking Margery, wife of Thomas Beauchamp, beating her with her fists. Margaret brought a counter-suit, saying that Margery had attacked her on the same day, injuring her with a wooden pot. It appears that both parties were deemed guilty of these attacks in what may have been part of an ongoing dispute or breakdown in relationships.

It was common for women to use everyday items as weapons, things they could easily draw upon in the heat of the moment. Women even appeared in court as part of what might now be interpreted as a violent gang: at Winchester’s City Court in 1300, Johanna, daughter of John de Hussleye, along with five men, were accused of beating Robert Poterel, which they all denied. Other attacks brought with them claims for huge sums in damages, echoing the today’s compensation culture. Lucy Lysewis sued Alice le Gardener, who she said had attacked her in Chester’s Bridgestreet, one of the city’s central streets, beating and wounding her. Lucy claimed 100s. in damages, but while the jury said that Alice was guilty, they ordered damages of only 6d. to be paid. This was a common pattern across all types of medieval litigation. Damages represented the severity of the harm felt by the victim, so perhaps Alice was a particularly dangerous woman? Husbands could also be caught up in the violent behaviour of their wives. Because married couples were legally one person, husbands were regularly held accountable for the violence of their wives. At Nottingham in 1361, Adam Packer and his wife Agnes were fined 6d. for Agnes’ attack on Margaret of Derby: Agnes assaulted her, wounding her and causing bloodshed.

Women could be dangerous without being physically violent. At Nottingham in 1323, Richard son of Richard de Grymeston complained that Alice, wife of William Castelyn had assaulted him: she allegedly called him a false man and a thief, claimed that he had stolen a cloak belonging to her husband and had forged a key to her father’s chest, planning to steal his money. This long list of accusations would have constituted a major slur on Richard’s honour and fidelity, particularly if overheard by others. The incident took place on Cookstool Row, next to the large Saturday Market Place, making this a particularly public attack.

The disruptive power of women’s voices was also embodied in the character of the female scold, women who engaged in a gendered form of ‘bad speech’ that involved things like nagging, chastising, shouting, defaming, speaking angrily and generally causing a nuisance to neighbours, or perhaps even simply a woman speaking her mind. In 1407-8 in Nottingham, Alice Broun, Isolda Oseberne, Cecilia Molde, Helen Mylner, Dionisia, wife of Richard Baxter, and Agnes, wife of William Osteler, were all labelled ‘common scolds’. A further nine women were fined 6d. for scolding in the 1414-15 list, but intriguingly, so were three men: William Smalley, John Cathorp and John Aldryche. This ‘bad speech’ was a largely female form of disorder, endangering the desired peace of the urban community, though this was not a label reserved exclusively for women. The punishment of scolding perhaps fits more with notions of invisible women, who ought to have existed on the out of the view (and earshot) of the community and not be disruptive. But taken together, the handful of examples discussed here hardly depicts women as invisible, weak individuals, who lived out their lives on the sidelines of the community. Instead, they were at the centre of town life, where relationships were made and broken through everyday interactions and physical and verbal attacks by both men and women.

Studying women in legal records allows us to recover real women, rather than the female characters that often dominate ideas about the medieval past. There is certainly abundant evidence of violence in medieval urban society, but also of well-developed systems of law and order. In fact this evidence only exists because of the complicated systems of law and order that were in place to govern and punish this behaviour. We find that women were much more than feeble victims who needed protecting or saving: women could be dangerous, their actions had the power to hurt and harm others, both women and men. They attacked the bodies and homes of others, but their voices were also viewed as particularly dangerous. But local governments, in towns and elsewhere, took steps to police and punish this behaviour, allowing us to recover what constituted dangerous behaviour in medieval society.


Image courtesy of The British Library