Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern England

Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern England

Nancy E. Wright
Margaret W. Ferguson
A.R. Buck
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 270
  • Book Info
    Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern England
    Book Description:

    Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern Englandexamines the competing narratives of property told by and about women in the early modern period. Through letters, legal treatises, case law, wills, and works of literature, the contributors explore women's complex roles as subjects and agents in commercial and domestic economies, and as objects shaped by a network of social and legal relationships. By constructing conversations across the disciplinary boundaries of legal and social history, sociology and literary criticism, the collection explores a diverse range of women's property relationships.

    Recent research has revealed fissures in our knowledge about women's property relationships within a regime characterized by competing jurisdictions, diverse systems of tenure, and multiple concepts of property.Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern Englandturns to these points of departure for the study of women's legal status and property relationships in the early modern period. This interdisciplinary analysis of women and property is written in an accessible manner and will become a valuable resource for scholars and students of Renaissance, Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, early modern social and legal history, and women's studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8360-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-22)

    In 1766 William Blackstone advised his contemporaries: ʻThere is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. And yet there are very few, that will give themselves the trouble to consider the original and foundation of this right’ (1979, 2: 2). This is the beginning of a fascinating turn in Blackstone’s discussion of the institution of property -...

  5. Part One: Credit, Commerce, and Womenʼs Property Relationships

    • 1 Temporal Gestation, Legal Contracts, and the Promissory Economies of The Winterʼs Tale
      (pp. 25-49)

      The Winterʼs Tale, like other Shakespeare plays, exploits an extraordinary number of contractual, commercial, and legal terms. This is not surprising, given the interrelation of market and theatre in early modern England (see Bruster 1992; Dillon 2000). Jean-Christophe Agnew has argued that the problem of credibility, ʻrepresentation and misrepresentation’ (1986, 11) foregrounded by the public theatre in the period was shared by the market economy. According to Craig Muldrew, rapid economic change, the expansion of consumption, and the increasing complexity of marketing structures contributed to a culture of credit, which redefined community as ʻa conglomeration of competing but interdependent households...

    • 2 Putting Women in Their Place: Female Litigants at Whitehaven, 1660-1760
      (pp. 50-65)

      Scholars studying early modern England are largely dependent on the legal records of courts for our understanding of how the majority of women, especially those below the gentry class, used and experienced the legal system when asserting or defending their property rights. The survival of personal letters, a diary, or a journal in which a Lady Anne Clifford or a Mistress Alice Thornton recorded her legal battle for land or possessions is rare. The bibliographical index provided by Amanda Vickery in her bookThe Gentlemanʼs Daughter(1998) indicates that for the majority of women a ʻSingle letter’ is all that...

    • 3 Womenʼs Property, Popular Cultures, and the Consistory Court of London in the Eighteenth Century
      (pp. 66-94)

      The London Consistory Court was the bishop of London’s court and as such one of the network of diocesan ecclesiastical courts that had existed in England since the twelfth century. It applied a modified form of canon law under the administration of civil lawyers. These courts are probably best known because of their reputation in the early modern period as ʻbawdy courts’ where sexual offences were tried, and for their marginal status in a Whig trajectory of English legal history as deserving losers to the post-Reformation hegemony of secular common and statute law. More recently they have attracted considerable attention...

    • 4 The Whoreʼs Estate: Sally Salisbury, Prostitution, and Property in Eighteenth-Century London
      (pp. 95-118)

      In the concluding anecdote of Charles Walker’sAuthentick Memoirs of Sally Salisbury, Salisbury and ʻa certain Nobleman’ decide to play a trick on a ʻDignify’d’ fortune-hunting clergyman. The nobleman introduces Salisbury, who greatly impresses the clergyman with her beauty, wit, and opulent manner of living. Salisbury, however, insists on being honest with him and tells him that ʻNotwithstanding she liv’d so genteely as she did, yet she could not boast, nor would she have him think she had a large Estate; for that, in Truth, she has nothing but a verySmall Spotto which she had anyHereditary Rightʼ...

  6. Part Two: Women, Social Reproduction, and Patrilineal Inheritance

    • 5 Primogeniture, Patrilineage, and the Displacement of Women
      (pp. 121-136)

      Recent legal histories of inheritance practices in England from 1300 to 1800 focus on the ascendancy of primogeniture among large landholders, that is, the aristocracy and gentry. InLaw, Land, and Family, for example, Eileen Spring argues that various legal devices, including the use and strict settlement, can be described as ʻprimogenitive devices’ that provided practical means to ensure property was transmitted in the patriline. Primogeniture and these legal devices, she argues, can be theorized as the practical means to implement ʻthe family logic’ that guided landholders’ behaviour (Spring 1993, 2). She uses statistics to document her analysis of landholders’...

    • 6 Isabellaʼs Rule: Singlewomen and the Properties of Poverty in Measure for Measure
      (pp. 137-161)

      In act 1, scene 4, ofMeasure for Measure, Isabella stands poised on the threshold of a nunnery, learning of the ʻstrict restraint’ to which she must succumb if she is to join the ʻvotarists of St Clare’ (1.4.4-5).1 Yet the Rule that defines and structures the Clarissan order is left unarticulated in the play. The scene beginsin medias res, just after a nun named Francisca has explained it to her. We are told only of Isabella’s desire to submit to the Rule - or more precisely, to submit to ʻmore,’ which within the Clarissan economy, as we shall...

    • 7 Marriage, Identity, and the Pursuit of Property in Seventeenth-Century England: The Cases of Anne Clifford and Elizabeth Wiseman
      (pp. 162-182)

      The first marriage of Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) and the remarriage of Elizabeth Wiseman (1647-1730) confirm that courtship and marriage, among the elite in seventeenth-century England, can be characterized as the pursuit of property.¹ Ideals of romantic love and conjugal affection, as their own diaries and letters confirm, played little part in the conduct of these two heiresses, their families and suitors. To say the property that they inherited, Lady Anne Clifford’s ₤15,000 and Elizabeth Wiseman’s ₤20,000, made them eminently marriageable does not sufficiently emphasize the consequences of owning property for these women. In their contemporaries’ eyes, the role of...

    • 8 Cordeliaʼs Estate: Women and the Law of Property from Shakespeare to Nahum Tate
      (pp. 183-198)
      A.R. BUCK

      Much has been written on the dramatic differences between Shakespeare’sKing Learand Nahum Tate’sKing Lear.¹ The different fate of Cordelia in the two plays, for instance, is striking. In Shakespeare’s play, Cordelia is stripped of her inheritance at the beginning, never to recover it, and, like Lear, ultimately dies. In Tate’s play, Lear lives to give away the bride (to Edgar) and the inheritance passes smoothly from one generation to the next. In this intergenerational passing of property, it is not Cordelia who inherits in her own right; she is, however, the conduit through which the property stays...

  7. Part Three: Womenʼs Authorship and Ownership:: Matrices for Emergent Ideas of Intellectual Property

    • 9 Writing Home: Hannah Wolley, the Oxinden Letters, and Household Epistolary Practice
      (pp. 201-218)

      Many genres in which early modern women wrote strike an uneasy balance between the realms of property and writing. Letters, for example, are not ʻintellectual property’ in the ways in which that term has been historically defined; existing as manuscript documents whose presumed privacy exempted them from legal protection, they were at the same time written, circulated, and understood within communal circuits that belie the notions of individual authorship on which intellectual property has historically been grounded. But letters, like wills, participated in a world of tangible property, along with the objects and artefacts that made up the everyday life...

    • 10 Womenʼs Wills in Early Modern England
      (pp. 219-236)

      Women made approximately 20 per cent of the two million wills that survive from the 1550s to the 1750s (Erickson 1993, 204). Wills can accordingly be regarded as one of the main genres in which women wrote, or dictated, during the early modern period. Wills exemplify a notion of genre conceived less as a category of text than as a range of factors that encompass stylistic conventions; interpersonal contexts of authorship and response; key institutions such as religion, the law, and the family; gender relations; along with practices of textual production, dissemination, and reception. A further element underscoring the generic...

    • 11 Spiritual Property: The English Benedictine Nuns of Cambrai and the Dispute over the Baker Manuscripts
      (pp. 237-255)

      When a seventeenth-century woman pronounced her solemn vows of religious profession, she renounced any right to inherit the property of her secular kin and committed herself to a life of communal ownership within a religious cloister. All monastic goods had to be held in common. Individual possessions were forbidden. This denial of personal property rights was a vital element of monastic poverty. However, in the Benedictine order, poverty was not interpreted literally. Benedict’s nuns required adequate housing, clothing, and sustenance in order to focus on their principal apostolate of prayer and contemplation. Therefore property was permitted, so long as all...

    • 12 The Titular Claims of Female Surnames in Eighteenth-Century Fiction
      (pp. 256-280)

      ’Titles likeTom JonesandClarissa,ʼ Paul Hunter once declared, ʻtell us nothing at all about the social, economic, political, religious, or philosophical commitments in these novels’ (1979, 71).¹ Such textual titles, however, reveal more than Hunter’s remark would have us believe: at the very least, these and similar titles of eighteenth-century novels encapsulate the social and economic connections among gender, marriage, and property. If we heed their various enunciations,Tom Jones,Clarissa, and the host of similar titular names labelling eighteenth-century novels attend directly to property relationships. Indeed, the absence of surnames in the titles of novels named after...

    • 13 Early Modern (Aristocratic) Women and Textual Property
      (pp. 281-295)

      This chapter explores some issues surrounding the ownership of, and investment in, a selection of texts by early modern women. In particular I want to explore connections between the way certain early modern aristocratic women allowed their texts to circulate while maintaining a particular kind of possession of them, and the possession and recirculation of them after they were first written. I examine Anne Clifford and Margaret Cavendish as examples of early modern women who wrote in very different ways and in different genres but who were particularly concerned with the reception of their writing and the way that reception...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 296-304)

    Had the property laws of early modern England applied in Eden, Eve would not have fared well. In a system that privileges first-born males, to be born second and female was doubly bad luck. Nor did the fall help matters. Both Eve and Adam were penalized with the pains and sorrows of labour, she in childbirth and he in the fields. But Eve was given an additional punishment: she was made subject to Adam - ʻhe shall rule over thee’ (Genesis 3: 16). This penalty put her in the same category as the other creatures over which Adam had been...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 305-308)
  10. Index
    (pp. 309-316)