Women, Gender, and Property in Late Medieval England: A Study of Female Agency Through Letter-Writing Open Access

Liu, Mingshu (2015)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/kp78gg43w?locale=en


The fourteenth-century demographic crisis that decimated England's population ushered in an era of social and economic mobility for aristocratic women. Because the Black Death and recurring episodes of bubonic plague disrupted male-dominated patterns of succession among the landholding class, women controlled a greater proportion of property in relation to men in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than they had prior to 1348. The episodic Wars of the Roses, fought between 1455 and 1487, only resulted in higher death tolls, thus compounding the inheritance problem. On the other hand, the expansion of women's legal rights during the Middle Ages supported female property ownership by providing women with more substantial protections against the common-law doctrines of coverture and primogeniture. This paper attempts to trace the impact of late medieval England's shifting demographic, legal, and political circumstances in order to demonstrate that women's position did improve during the Yorkist period as a result of these changes. Although England's class-based and gender-coded ideological structure remained intact, elite women utilized interpersonal and informal avenues of power to exercise their agency. This project seeks to prioritize women's voices by examining their written correspondence, tapping into a set of experiences not recorded in formal political or court manuscripts. By lending a micro-scale lens to a macro-historical approach, this discourse analysis aims to illuminate issues such as the reality of aristocratic Englishwomen's estate management, their movement throughout the uxorial life cycle, and the fluidity of fifteenth-century gender roles.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Section 1: Gender, Power, and Women's Letter-Writing Practices 13

Section 2: The Aristocratic Female Life Cycle: Patriarchy and Autonomy 22

Section 3: Law, Property, and Society: Negotiating the Paradox 42

Conclusion 53

Bibliography 56

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