The Participation of Women in the Fourteenth-Century Manor Court of Sutton-in-the-Isle
McGibbon Smith, Erin
Marginalia, Vol. 1 (2005)
Introduction: Until recently rural peasant women have been extremely marginalized in medieval historical research. Documentary evidence about the medieval peasantry is generally limited to manorial documents such as accounts, extents, rentals, and manorial court rolls. Lords created these manorial records in order to maintain their seigniorial interests, and although the business of manorial courts frequently extended beyond the lord’s immediate concerns to include inter-peasant litigation, community concerns, and aspects of leet jurisdiction, landless peasants were nevertheless underrepresented. Unless women were landholders they were not required to attend the court, and were therefore only involved in a limited number of activities. Additionally, the activities of the court were not consistently documented, as the business and focus of manorial courts changed dramatically over time. Despite these shortcomings, manorial court rolls are the best source of information available about the lives of rural peasant women, and in order to further research in this area we must come to terms with their limitations.
The first part of this article introduces the manorial court rolls of Sutton-in-the-Isle and explains the methodology utilised to create a database of the business of the Sutton court. Section II addresses the issue of what information is available about women in manorial court records, and how that changed over time. Sections III and IV explore one aspect of court business, marriage fines, to emphasise first areas in which the Sutton rolls are particularly misrepresentative and then those in which the record is complete, with the intent of highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of court records as a source for the economic and social history of peasant women.