Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Abstracts
“All Those Goods Which She Brought to Me”: What Might a Wife Get Back at the End of the Marriage?

Janet Loengard, Moravian College

In a typical early 21st century English – or American – household, a couple would be hard put to name the “owner” of most of the material goods in their home. His? Hers? Ours? It would have been easier in medieval or early modern England: His, his, and his. The common-law rule is well-enough known: when a woman married, all her chattels and money became the absolute property of her husband. Nor did they return to her if he died during her lifetime.

However, existence of a rule does not mean that affairs were always arranged to conform to it. I have elsewhere examined the question of how husbands regarded the chattels in their homes. In their wills, only a few men referred to household objects acquired over the course of a marriage as “ours”, and, except where restrained by custom or pre-marital arrangement, most men felt free to dictate the devolution of such items. But yet there was ambivalence about things perceived in some way to have been a wife’s; it was not uncommon for a man’s will to provide that his widow was to receive “all those goods which she brought to me” at marriage and it was even more common for a testator to ensure that the widow retained her paraphernalia; the two categories could overlap.

Building on that material, this paper asks what a widow might expect to receive or retain at the end of a marriage because she had contributed it or because it was seen as uniquely hers. As to the first category, I know of no rule of law or custom requiring or even suggesting that women’s goods be returned to them if they survived their husbands (even in the Northern Province, where a woman received one-third of her late husband’s chattels, she could not choose what to take.) Provisions for return, then, seem to have been either simply an individual testator’s choice or an arrangement included in a private antenuptial agreement. In attempting to identify such goods, wills – both men’s and women’s – are important sources of evidence. While it is true that married women rarely made wills, those that exist are significant since bequeathing an object necessarily implies the belief that one’s husband will consent to the bequest, a consent necessary for its validity. One reason for the belief may well be that the object belonged to the testatrix before her marriage and that at the time of the marriage she had reserved the right to devise it, although only a few wills identify bequests in that way. Even more important are the men’s wills providing for the return of goods to their widows – sometimes naming chattels quite specifically but all too often only categorically, obviously referring to a no-longer-extant inventory or schedule again probably drawn up at the time of the marriage.

The issue is complicated by the existence of the second category of chattels, paraphernalia. A named sometimes went to a widow because it was considered paraphernalia, an article so personal to a woman that it remained to her at her husband’s death rather than going to his executors. While the common lawyers would have limited paraphernalia to a woman’s necessary garments, it is clear that neither the church courts nor most husbands accepted that position; for example, rosary beads and girdles – even those made of precious metal – were defined as paraphernalia by testators and church courts alike. But other possessions were not as easy to pigeonhole. Jewelry was probably not included. What of two important pieces of furniture: the bed and the chest, or coffer? A long tradition, particularly in the Province of York, held that a widow was entitled to her bed and her chest as part of her paraphernalia, but there was considerable opposition on the part of common law judges and treatise writers. When a will left a bed to a widow – and many wills did – what was the theory behind the bequest? Was it seen as hers by right, or because she had once owned it? Or was it simply a recognition that a woman needed a place to sleep? Was a chest paraphernalia or had it been hers as a girl, brought to her new home when she married? At least one will refers to the chest a woman had “as a maiden”, but unless the will specifies, there is no definite answer.

Nonetheless, the categories of paraphernalia and goods owned before marriage, taken together, do form a core of the personal property a women was most likely to receive at a husband’s death, perhaps in accordance with a prenuptial agreement – most common among women entering a second marriage. The chattels might be supplemented by additional bequests in many cases, offered as a choice in others, or given grudgingly by clearly unloving husbands whose wills left their widows nothing else.


 

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