Thursday, 8 March 2018

Medieval women in the archives

March is Women’s History Month and so I thought it would be interesting to look at how women appear in some of the earliest records held here at Hull History Centre – deeds recording property transactions. We hold deeds covering nearly a thousand years, from the 12th century up to the 20th.

Studying the lives of medieval women can seem a daunting task, and it’s true that men appear more often than women in medieval records, but that doesn’t mean that women are invisible. We can use deeds to get a glimpse into the lives of some medieval women.

All the deeds featured here are written in Latin, so don’t worry if you can’t read them! The women’s names are highlighted to help you spot them.

Gift of Breithive, daughter of Norman de Elretona

In this 12th-century gift Breithive, daughter of Norman de Ellerton, and Adam, her nephew, give to Ellerton Priory all their land in Ellerton beyond Whitebec to the east and Ruedic to the west. No reason is given for Breithive’s gift, but often priories were given property in remembrance of a deceased family member. (U DDCA2/17/1)

Gift of Agatha de Cleseby

This gift from Agatha de Cleseby to the priory of St Andrew, made in the early 13th century, includes a toft and croft in Manfield along with other property, and was given for the soul of Robert, her son. (U DDCA2/29/43)

Gift of Juliana, widow of Ralph Pilkat

Interestingly, in this 13th-century gift both the parties are women, as Juliana, widow of Ralph Pilkat of Everingham, gives a half part of her house to her daughter Alice. The property given to Alice was 15 feet long and 15 feet wide. (U DDEV/9/4)

Gift of Robert de Sywardby

Finally, another 13th-century document records a demise of a toft in Sywardby from Thomas, son of Robert de Sywardby, to his mother Lady Beatrice for her life, as long as she remains lay (i.e. does not enter a convent). From this it appears that Lady Beatrice was a widow, as it was not uncommon for widows to become nuns. (U DDLG/30/27)

In the Middle Ages women could also witness deeds, but I haven’t yet found a deed in our collections where a woman appears in the witness list. If you know of one please get in touch!

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