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In 1974, David Hey published his book on Myddle in Shropshire, a study based upon his doctoral research at Leicester University. One might wonder how a proud South Yorkshireman had even heard of an insignificant North Shropshire parish, let alone decided to carry out research on it. Fortunately, his supervisor, Professor W. G.
Married Life in the Middle Ages offers a refreshing approach to medieval marriage. Elisabeth van Houts focuses on the social and emotional sides of marriage rather than viewing marriage through a legal or institutional lens. Two aspects of van Houts’ book set it apart from others.
The Festschrift, usually a gathering of articles composed to honour a scholar on his or her retirement, or to mark a significant anniversary, originated around the beginning of the 20th century, and has become an acknowledged feature of the academic landscape, albeit one rather irregular in its occurrence. Continental Festschriften have sometimes run to several volumes.
It is the title which gives away a great deal about this very fine book, and should alert us to Tom Lambert’s ambition for this project, which has grown out of a University of Durham PhD thesis. ‘Law’ positions it as a work of legal history, but it is the component of ‘order’ which offers the second and bolder half of Lambert’s argument.
Arguably, no other institution in the Middle Ages and early modern era was as subject to as many legal disparities and disputes between royal and papal power as that of royal marriage. In fact, a royal marriage was far from a private affair. On the spiritual level, the marriage of a royal couple was to reflect the sanctity of the life union between woman and man at the highest strata.
This well-crafted volume of ten essays is an important contribution to the growing body of research on women and law in England the pre-modern period. Each essay examines a different aspect of women’s interactions with the law (broadly defined and encompassing both secular and ecclesiastical courts) and, as suggested in the title, foregrounds their agency.
Historians have great cause to be grateful to the precocious bureaucrats of medieval England, whose records they have exploited to shed light on so many aspects of the past. They should be equally thankful for the generations of scholars who have produced printed calendars of such records since the foundation of the Record Commission in 1800.
Can we conceive of a peculiarly ‘late medieval’ notion of family?