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Magna Carta Lecture Series: Law in the Lives of Medieval Women

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The lecture delivered by Professor Ruth Mazo Karras, medievalist and chair of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, was the fourth of the Law Library’s series of complementary lectures to the exhibition:  “Magna Carta:  Muse and Mentor.”

Ruth Mazo Karras lectures on the role of the Magna Carta in the lives of medieval women, Jan. 14, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Prof. Ruth Mazo Karras speaking about the Fourth Lateran Council Photo by Shawn Miller














The focus of Prof. Karras’s scholarship is the history of women, gender, and sexuality in medieval Western Europe.  Among her most renowned works are Sexuality in Medieval Europe:  Doing Unto Others; Common Women:  Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England; From Boys to Men:  Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe; and Unmarriages:  Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages among others and a vast number of essays on these same subjects.

During this vigorous and entertaining lecture, Prof. Karras clarified that “women are not one class of people any more than all men are.  The lives of women in the aristocracy in many ways were more like those of men in the aristocracy than like men of the peasantry.  Women’s legal status was also different in different regions.”  But her strongest point was that “women’s status under the law differed significantly depending on their marital status.”

The Mumford Room was brimming with a multi-generational audience as Prof. Karras delivered her analysis.  She contends that “across the central and later Middle Ages in England, women were able to do much more than you might think their legal disabilities would let them.”  She further clarified that it was not that “women enjoyed equality to men, even a ‘rough and ready equality.'”  Certainly, “women of any social status had major legal, economic and social obstacles compared to their brothers.”  She stated:  “However, as we look at how individual women interacted with the Law in the areas of land ownership, marital choice, and commercial activity, […] they were able to create some freedom  for themselves within the constraints of the law as they knew it.”  Her point, with respect to the question of the legal status and rights of women in the Middle Ages, was simply that these “are more complicated than they might seem.”

Prof. Karras noted that “ownership and control of property was a source of income and support for women, particularly at the higher echelons of society and particularly those who were left widowed.” On that matter, she conceded that the “fact that the legal system was based on property and the defense of property” held women back as a group; however, “it allowed individual women, mainly widows, who gained control of property, to exercise a good deal of power.”

The lecture was seasoned with great bits of information.  There were interesting anecdotal examples of historical figures like Matilda “Maud” of Gloucester, Countess of Chester and Ranulf de Gernon.  Prof. Karras explained how “groups who were considered to be foreigners–within a particular jurisdiction (Italian merchants in England, Jews wherever they were found across Europe)–had their own bodies of law and were allowed to decide disputes among themselves, according to it.”  She went on to explain how “Medieval Europe had a whole separate legal system also of church courts–from the level of the rural archdeaconry on up to the bishop courts and appeals to the papacy.  Canon Law still exists in several churches, but today you can opt out of it by choosing not to belong to that church.  In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t opt out of it.  You were subject to it whether you wanted to or not.”

While discussing the legal rights of women, Prof. Karras mentioned that this year was not only the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  She said that “we are also celebrating the 800th anniversary, this year, of the Fourth Lateran Council [1215], which is perhaps the most important church council before the 16th century.  And one of the things that the Fourth Lateran Council did was to put together a list of Canons on theological and disciplinary topics that created standard church law for hundreds of years.”

Prof. Karras made a reference to Decretum (Concordia Discordantium Canonum), which she said was “the most important milestone in Canon Law,” as it “collected the authorities on each point and decided among them.”  She explained that “this was a text book […] not a legislative act, but it became the basis for Canon Law as it developed throughout the middle ages.”  She explained that its importance rested in that

Canon Law governed marriage.  And marriage is critical to medieval women, especially.  Marriage was not a matter for the state at this time.

Marriage was important to men too, but it didn’t change men’s status drastically.  Men didn’t gain new rights because they were married, or lose rights because they were married.  Indeed, Janet Loengard, suggests that in terms of property rights the real distinction–in medieval England–was not between men and women but between men and single women on the one hand and married women on the other.  And married women are the ones who didn’t have property rights.  So, while the legal rights of a woman in relation to property were determined in part by the secular power under whose jurisdiction the property was located, her personal rights were deeply affected by whether or not she was married.  And that was determined by Canon Law.

The lecture was filmed and will be available soon on the Library of Congress YouTube Channel.

The exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” celebrated the 800th anniversary of the first issuance of Magna Carta. Opening November 6, 2014 and running through January 19, 2015, the 10-week exhibition featured the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215, along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of Magna Carta’s influence on the history of political liberty. 

Update: Event video added below.

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