Law and property

Law and property

In Anglo-Saxon times women could hold, devise, inherit and sell land. Women were also allowed to manage their land. This, of course, was more beneficial to women from wealthier families as these families actually held significant tracts of land. Anglo-Saxon women could also bequeath their property and other belongings themselves. The Anglo-Saxon woman could also indict someone in court. This was not the case for the Anglo-Norman woman as stated in Fell “in the twelfth century no woman could appear in a criminal court as plaintiff, let alone witness, except concerning her husband’s murder or her own rape” (164).  In the Anglo-Norman time there was a great difference between an adult unmarried woman and a married woman that played an important role in the freedom they had; the first having more legal freedom than the latter (Loengard 167). When speaking of unmarried women this mostly meant widowed women. The Anglo-Norman had a similar status to the Anglo-Saxon women, legally, and her position on these fronts was exponentially superior to her wed contemporary. As Johns states
such power was magnified greatly if a widow who was also an heiress could exert
influence in her second marriage by retaining some control or influence over her
inheritance. Dowager countesses-heiresses had the potential to be among the most
powerful independent women in society. They can be considered a sub-set of widows
who were a distinct status group who enacted their own policies and stratagems, and
had economic power rooted in land tenure and rank. (Noble women 70)

This again shows that rank played an essential role on the power a woman could hold but also that women’s power often lies in how they can influence men. Many widows remarried, whether completely voluntary or not it is difficult to say, but they were able to buy their “freedom” from remarrying. Widows were often also used as a reward for the incoming Norman nobles who fought for William the Conqueror. The contrasts with the law of Cnut in which it is stated that either partner can refuse a marriage.

In Anglo-Norman times a more feudal society emerged by Norman example. This meant that land was given in return for military service, and military service was expected of those that held land. In the eyes of the Normans military service was strictly for men so land was held mostly by men. The land that was given to these men came from the widows mentioned above and from heiresses but also from the Anglo-Saxon nobles displaced by the Conquest.  The establishment of a more feudal society thus contributed to the diminished position of women.

Henry I’s laws devised between 1114 and 1118 discuss the violence against women, in particular rape and it was termed a bootless crime, crimes “which are only punishable only by death or loss of member” (Saunders 50). So despite the many ways in which women lost rights according to the laws in Anglo-Norman England, this was one case in which the law was similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons, though perhaps the “compensation” here is of a different nature than the wergild women received in Anglo-Saxon England. The wergild received would depend on several factors such as the social and sexual status of the women. The consequences of the Anglo-Saxon law could have been that lower class women were more likely to be raped as the wergild would be easier to pay compared to that of noble women who were thus more protected. William I might have instituted these harsh punishments towards rapists so as to deter his own soldiers from raping Anglo-Saxon women during the conquest of England and not so much to change the wergild structure put in place by the Anglo-Saxons (Ritscher 5-6). It can be said that the Anglo-Norman law did more to protect women as the punishment was so severe that it served as a deterrent towards the rape of any women, no matter class. However, women would have to immediately after their rape go to a law-officer to show their injuries (Fell 164). Thus it is unlikely that perpetrators were convicted as very few people would have the ability to do this after such an assault upon their person.

Primogeniture was not prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society whereas it became an established practice in the Anglo-Norman time. The importance of women bringing forth the future male heir thus increased greatly. As Stafford states “Although there were Mercian princes at the end of the ninth century, none of them established his claim to follow his father on the throne” (44). However, in Anglo-Saxon times, especially in the middle and later period, the women and more specifically their lineage, could play an important role in the consolidation of power for kings. A woman from noble lineage could strengthen the rule of her husband and in turn also that of their child. Aethelflaed’s own royal Mercian lineage through her mother would help support her husband’s claim as Lord of the Mercians. Stafford adds that “AEthelflaed . . . played to internal Mercian insecurity as well as external anti-Viking alliances. She helped establish a husband whose claims to the Mercian throne were as debatable as those of most of his ninth-century predecessors (Mercia 43).  With more importance put on the first born son there was also an added pressure for noble women to produce this heir.

Not all of the changes in the position of women can explicitly or implicitly be linked to the Norman Conquest. Many of these changes had already started developing in the late Anglo-Saxon period such as the change from the Morgengifu that a wife would receive from a husband instead the wife’s family had to pay a dower to the husband. McNamara and Wemple state that “the bridegift . . . was turned over to her on her wedding day and usually represented a specific piece of land. But in the tenth and eleventh centuries fewer deeds gave the wife outright ownership, and even the usufruct was generally restricted to the use of the husband and wife jointly, not the wife exclusively (women and power in the Middle Ages 96)

Religion and education

Religion and education

Religion also played an important role in the changing position of women in this time period. One of contributions to this relates to the sanctification of women which also changed from the Anglo-Saxon to the Anglo-Norman time period. In the latter period it rarely happened while in the Anglo-Saxon this did happen though mostly in the earlier periods of the conversion to Christendom and less so in the 10th century. (Fell 10). The century between 650 and 750 saw a flourishing of female sanctity where in the case of Britain “nearly two out of every five saints were female” (women and power in the Middle Ages 103-4). The fact that the sanctification of female saints had already greatly diminished after the “golden age” means that it cannot be attributed to the Norman influence after the Conquest. However, the reasons for the declining number of newly sanctified women were different in both these periods.  There were several reforms during the Anglo-Norman time period which changed the position of women in the church. “the reformers’ encouragement of ritual purity and fear of the female sex served as an excuse for the growing segregation of the sexes . . . the reform councils repeatedly legislated strict enclosure for female religious which necessarily restricted their active involvement in the “public sphere” ( Schulenburg 115). These changes, however, need to be attributed to the Church as a whole and not to the Normans specifically, but they certainly reforms resulted in a major loss of influence for women. This is in complete contrast to the early days of the conversion to Christendom of the Anglo-Saxons.

The coming of Christendom to the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes meant that there were other roles women could fulfil. In the early days of the conversion to Christendom there were double houses (monasteries and nunneries together) that were ruled by an abbess which meant that the men also had to answer to this woman leading this double house. Stafford states that “female monasticism was central to the early English Church. It was built on the enthusiasm of conversion and on female claims to share family inheritance, which it in turn strengthened” (Mercia 41). Men and women in these houses were expected to be around the same level of literacy (chapter 6 Fell). The level of literacy had already taken a steady decline before Alfred’s attempt to improve literacy.    However, by the time the Normans conquered England “little tangible evidence remained of the halcyon days of female monasticism under the Anglo-Saxons. . . The renowned monasteries with their royal abbesses ruling over both nuns and monks…had either been abandoned or converted into monasteries for monks alone” (Elkins Holy women 1).
Fell compares the attitude of the Anglo-Saxons who were respectful of women in these houses and saw them as on equal terms to the men to the Middle English attitude as exemplified in Ancrene Wisse with its more condescending attitude towards women. The diminishing role of women is also reflected in the religious sphere as written evidence from nunneries show works with simpler and vernacular language, as can be seen in Ancrene Wisse in which the Latin was translated by the writer (Fell 164-5). This shows that the women it was meant for could possible not read Latin though they were likely able to read in English and possibly French. The decline of learnedness in women was also reflected in secular society as women were not allowed to attend university which was often meant for men with a future in the Church. Evidence also shows that the learnedness of women compared to men in the corresponding rank
was usually lower (Fell 164).

The influence of canon law on marriage and sex had already been growing in Anglo-Saxon England before the conquest but its influence became greater in Anglo-Norman England especially after the Gregorian Reforms. Unlike civil law canon law did not look at rank nor did it differ per region (Fell 152). It gave women some freedom as children under a certain age could not be married off, nor could people be forced under duress to marry. As Fell states “Canon lawyers came to demand as a precondition for a valid marriage full and free consent from both parties (153). However, she adds that
canon law was not a liberalising force. Theology alleged women to be essentially   inferior to men and                              in need of constant tutelage. . . The tighter the grip of canon law grew on secular affairs, the further women’s                 already limited rights were eroded, always under pretext of affording their weakness as a necessary                                 protection (154).

Conclusion

Conclusion

Many of these eroded rights have already been discussed in the previous section but this does illustrate that these changes might not (wholly) be put on the Normans but more so on the influence of the Church.                                                                                                                   The idea of the relative freedom of the Anglo-Saxon women is not supported by everyone. Legal documents Thompson states that legal documents                                                      often explicitly refer only to men; in some cases the pronouns used are ambiguous and       may refer only to men or to both men and women. Women are usually only discussed            as such where sexual crimes are concerned or where their marital or religious condition is relevant. Women are not perceived as having independent status; rather    they are defined by the position and wergild… of the man with whom they are                  associated. (2)
There is something to be said about the lack of representation of women concerning legal documents, however, the latter remark about the status and wergild of the man is somewhat unfair as people of similar ranks often married and their child whether male or female would also be defined by the rank of their parents.                                                                               Then there is the case of landownership which is often stated to be one of the key elements that shows the status of the Anglo-Saxon (noble) women. Of that Stafford states that “The raw statistics of Domesday, for example, suggest a different picture of England on the eve of the Norman arrival. No more than five per cent of the total hidage of land recorded was in the hands of women in 1066” (225-6). This shows that though legally women had the rights to own land that there was little land that was actually in hands of women. It is possible that in the middle or earlier Anglo-Saxon period this percentage was higher; however, without evidence for it this cannot be explicitly stated. Added to this fact is that there were Anglo-Norman who owned land, though they were often women and there were many restraints on this ownership, the difference is not that clear cut in the reality that these women lived in.                                                                                                                                          When looking at women in these different time periods it is important to keep in mind that it cannot be wholly contributed to one influence or the other. Anglo-Saxon England consisted of different kingdoms, meaning that the laws in one kingdom might not be the same in another kingdom as such saying that women as a whole were better off in Anglo-Saxon England does not necessarily convey the whole truth or any truth. Another important thing to keep in mind is that while the laws might say one thing individual circumstances, actions, and (lack of) choices greatly influence in how far these laws would affect the lives of women in these time periods or in any time period. The statements of the law did not necessarily mean the beliefs of society or elements of society.