Law and Women in Medieval Europe
Women have always been victims of various legislations and the way the law is applied concerning the crimes that they commit in the society. The suffering that women underwent in medieval Europe cannot be emphasized much as seen from this study. In late medieval Europe, religion played a significant role in shaping the way the law was practiced. A very wide jurisdiction was controlled by the ecclesiastical courts exempted the clergy from secular jurisdiction by extending their control over the laymen. The ecclesiastical courts protected the helpless people in the society like women, orphans, and children. It also handled a broad range of semi-secular offenses like forgery, perjury, libel, and falsification of testimony, weights, and measures among other crimes (Merback 8). In most of these cases, the church did not have exclusive jurisdiction, but concurrently exercised a considerable degree of influence by the secular courts. This study analyzes the extent to which laws and punishments for women in medieval Europe were impacted by religious principles. Furthermore, a comparison of the punishments rendered by ecclesiastical courts against those of secular courts is done.
Although marriage was considered sacred, the late medieval church extended its jurisdiction to cover all matrimonial cases, including the legitimacy of children and cheating spouses. For the sake of consolidating its jurisdiction, the church had instituted superior courts compared to the secular courts in terms of procedure, separation, and differentiation of penalties, and the application of the principles of jurisprudence. In a number of these principles, the church was borrowing much from the lessons drawn from the later Roman Empire. It is conclusive and arguable that the ecclesiastical courts were humanizing the law (Geremek 56).
In a stark contrast to the modern practice, the secular laws of the medieval ages augmented the sinful perception of crimes: secular penal law bore religious inclination and punitive angles. Apart from being wrongs committed against fellow humans or the state, crimes were also considered as acts defiling the souls of the criminal. Therefore, the punishment was a way of cleansing the criminal from such defilement. As additional evidence of the religious nature of the penal law in the medieval Europe, some secular codes bore passages that were moral in nature with quotations drawn directly from the Scriptures (Brundage 18).
The ecclesiastical courts served to supplement the secular courts. Essentially, the church’s influence on secular law was great because many and powerful religious sanctions were used to aid in the enforcement of secular law. Solemn oaths and rituals were conducted under the umbrella of the church, cowed criminals, and witnessed from acts of falsification. Perjury committed in such instances was regarded as the highest form of sin and attracted great and extreme penalties. Besides, the church controlled the events of the medieval era in various other ways. For instance, religious marriage took the plan of the pagan one where a sale or contract was promoted. As a result, the churches had powers to intervene and protect the wife who was often the subject of unfair treatment in marriage Geremek 44).
Gender inequality was evident in the application of law and punishment depending on the nature of the crime. An adulterous woman was subjected to heavier repression compared to her male compatriot. Christian doctrine notwithstanding, medieval European secular law, and to some extent the ecclesiastical law, subjectively acted in women cases pertaining to adultery. Wives who were caught in adulterous acts were punished, or even tortured to death by the state and their husbands. Female adultery was viewed as a sin that defiled not only the offender, but also the society and their families. In some cases, some scholars have reiterated the gravity of adultery with a woman passing an illegitimate son to her husband’s legitimate heirs. This point-of-view, simply affirms the idea of adultery being more of a female crime rather than men (Merback 19).
When it came to the prosecution and consequent punishment to an act of adultery, ecclesiastical lawmakers and judges regarded women as inferior, irresponsible, and easily deceived. Therefore, on matters pertaining to their punishment, it was unfair to blame them as they had little control over their behaviors. The responsible partner (the man in this case) deserved to shoulder much of the blame in the event of adultery. The commonly accepted notion that women were irresponsible meant that men, husbands, and fathers were obliged to take charge over their women. In this respect, cuckolds had no other option other than blame themselves for such a sin (Brundage 23).
Furthermore, ecclesiastical influence of secular laws was clearly taking ground over secular laws on the latter years of the medieval period when spousal homicide elicited a lot of controversy. The killing of an adulterous woman was a commonly accepted practice in the medieval Europe society. However, with the ecclesiastical courts exerting more influence on secular courts in the latter years, the law gradually became more and more intolerant. Men who propagated this form of homicide could no longer do this with impunity without fear of repression (Geremek 61).
Infanticide forms the other type of cases that mostly touched on women in the medieval Europe. Understandably, adultery was highly discouraged and any proof of the same would result in serious consequences to the culprit. Children often born out of marriage setup or rather out of adultery were labeled as bastard infants and were often brought shame to the mother and the family. As such, most women often faked the death of their infants upon birth, so that their adulterous acts could not be traced. The bastard infant also ended up among the legitimate heirs of the husband, which was highly abominable in the society (Brundage 34). This reality often forced women to kill the illegitimate infants intentionally and perhaps blame the cause of death as stillbirth. These cases became very rampant and triggered serious investigations into the infanticide. Evidence from court records suggest that these cases were often brought to the ecclesiastical court or secular courts for trial. However, the handling of the cases indicated a sharp contrast between the two courts (Merback 35).
The ecclesiastical courts established a place where the prosecution of infanticide cases was handled. The penance for overlaying was often lighter compared to the penance for even unplanned homicide in the case of an adult victim. Whereas the taking away from an infant’s life was not condoned by these courts, it was often understood. A temporary and sometimes public humiliation penance was considered suitable and adequate for this sin. For example, Joan Rose was found guilty of killing her son in Canterbury in 1470. The judge ordered her to dress up in penitential garb. She was to go public before the parish procession for at least three Sundays carrying a candle and a knife she used for the homicide. In addition, she was ordered to walk around Canterbury, Faversham, and Ashford in a fashion similar to that of the church. This was certainly a public admission of sin and served as a warning to other women who would contemplate committing the same crime (Geremek 112).
While most of the records point to the evidence that most cases of infanticide were handled at ecclesiastical courts, other records, although few, suggest how secular courts handled similar cases. In secular cases, infanticide was often regarded in a similar fashion to homicide. As seen from the 15th century lawyer Hales, if a man colluded with a woman to kill an infant, when born and the woman commit the murder, she would be regarded as the murderer while the colluder an accessory (Brundage 67). Therefore, as seen from the secular courts, any women proven guilty of deliberately murdering their infants were to be murdered. In addition, unlike the current Europe, where a person is assumed innocent unless proven guilty by the courts of law, the secular courts of the medieval period often considered a woman in infanticide incidence as guilty unless the evidence gathered suggested otherwise.
When the ecclesiastical courts are compared to the secular courts, a sharp contrast is evident in matters relating to the handling of infanticide cases. Although the ecclesiastical courts were lenient in handling women found in guilty, the secular courts insisted on the use of thorough punishments (Merback 40). Some could go as far as instituting death penalties. Borrowing from the Biblical story discussing the wisdom that Solomon applied when handling the case of the two women claiming ownership to the living infant, ecclesiastical courts heavily apply the same principle. For instance, the church courts understood that there are cases where mothers nursing infant babies may lie on them by mistake resulting in their deaths. Therefore, it was important to understand their predicament and apply penance that was not as cruel as that applied by the secular courts. In fact, these ecclesiastical courts insisted that women were not to sleep very close to their infants for fear of sleeping and killing them in the process (Geremek 27).
Defamation cases characterized the medieval Europe’s acts of mistreating women. As suggested already, adultery was rampant in this period and attracted serious legal repercussions. The social circumstances under which sexual defamation occurred in this age suggests that sexual reputation was honorable to women than in men. In this respect, sexual defamation was mainly propagated towards women (Merback 64). These cases were brought to both ecclesiastical courts and secular courts, although the latter jurisdiction stopped handling these cases in the late medieval period. Church courts were confined to slapping spiritual penalties that ranged from excommunication or penance upon defamers. However, there are instances that those who defamed were permitted to pay money for their acquittal (Brundage 83).
In conclusion, ecclesiastical courts and secular courts formed an indispensable component of the medieval Europe judicial system. They handled a wide range of cases involving both men and women. However, in the latter years of medieval Europe, the ecclesiastical courts started exerting a lot of influence on the judicial system and its principles gradually infiltrated into the secular courts. The Church courts borrowed heavily from biblical principles in the way they handled the various cases involving women. Among the cases that were rampant, thus attracting punishment included adultery, defamation, and infanticides (Geremek 81).
Adultery was mostly punishable with some form of penance or excommunication. Similar treatment applied in the case of defamation and infanticides. On the other hand, secular courts reacted harshly to these cases and to extreme cases resulted in the death penalty. Therefore, this paper concludes that the ecclesiastical courts played a significant role in humanizing the secular courts that existed in that period. Secular courts began borrowing some aspects of ecclesiastical courts that include making women have solemn oaths in the name of God. This overawed them and they could provide truthful information. Failure and discovery of some form of cheating resulted in further severe punishments.
Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Print
Geremek, Bronislaw. The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print
Merback, Mitchell B. The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print
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