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The Project

A medieval depiction of a woman reading to children

Dr Deborah Youngs, an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Classics and Deputy Head of the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, is the Principal Investigator on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project – worth £854,599 – along with her Co-Investigators: Dr Garthine Walker, Reader in the Department of History, School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University, and Dr Alex Shepard, Reader in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow.

This 48 month project explores women's relative access to justice in various parts of Britain and Ireland between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. While much excellent historical

research on medieval and early modern women and the law exists, most studies have focused on single jurisdictions or regions. English cases have dominated the field: if Irish, Welsh or Scottish materials have been explored at all, it has been on rigidly national lines.  

This exciting new project develops our understanding by its comparative focus. We do not ask simply about women’s access to justice and the legal process, the choices they had, the obstacles and opportunities with which they were confronted as ‘women’. Rather, we explore the extent to which the answers to these questions were determined by and varied according to national boundaries, language, ethnicity, confessional identity, and social status. In which judicial and cultural contexts were women more or less legally disadvantaged? How and with what success did they negotiate these limits? How did this change over time?

Answers to these questions are being sought by analysing evidence from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland between 1100 and 1750. The comparison across borders and time, including Jewish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish women operating in courts where their first language was not spoken, and processes imposed by a dominant or colonial power, is a new approach to the subject.

The resources for the project include records from both secular and church courts, encompassing civil, canon and criminal jurisdictions. The period studied is a time of significant political change and social upheaval in British and Irish history, when the state's physical boundaries, administrative structures and religious identity were all shifting and evolving. The law, to a degree, provided some continuity through this period, but the complexity of jurisdictions, overlapping, competing, local and central, religious and secular, meant that similar courts in different regions might differ a great deal.

The project brings together a team of experienced researchers whose combined expertise can deliver a genuinely comparative study of women's participation in the legal process across the multiple jurisdictions in medieval and early modern England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Attached to this project are two Research Associates, including Dr Sparky Booker, who has joined us from the University of Dublin. Dr Booker’s research examines the position of English and Irish women in secular and ecclesiastical courts in the English colony in Ireland c.1300-c.1500. The second RA will also be based in Swansea, and their project will explore Christian and Jewish women’s access to justice in the courts of England c.1100 – c.1300. Two AHRC PhD students (one based at Cardiff University and the other based at the University of Glasgow) are also funded by the project. The Cardiff University student’s project discusses women and courts in Wales, c.1530-1660 while the Glasgow studentship focuses on married women and the law in Scotland, 1600-1750.