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Coverture: The Medieval Perspective

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Until the Married Women’s Property Acts of the late nineteenth century, the legal concept of coverture is held to have shaped what it meant to be a married woman in England: no independent legal identity or control of property. Yet, while it is a commonplace in the historiography on women and the law to see married women as hidden from view, obscured by their husbands in the legal records, this claim perhaps owes more to the enduring influence of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1st edn, 1765). First, we should note that Blackstone dealt only with common law: the wife’s position under customary law, canon law and equity were all different. Second, Frederick William Maitland cautioned back in 1895 that medievalists should be on their guard against the common belief that a ‘unity of person’ between husband and wife was a consistently operative principle. In this paper I would like to add some further caveats based on research undertaken for a co-edited book on Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe (2013).

This talk is part of the Economic and Social History Seminars series.

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