The use of the Scandinavian medieval law codes as historical sources has been a topic of heated dispute, especially in Sweden. The debate has concerned the age and origins of the law codes and subsequently how they can be used in historical research. Significantly simplifying the debate, one can say that the primary question centered on whether the laws were orally transmitted customary law of great age or new legislation introduced by the king, the Church and the aristocracy.
Based on my research of the Swedish medieval laws I will discuss the ways in which a gender perspective provides new knowledge on the laws as historical sources. I will demonstrate that the medieval laws are based on a fundamental male legal subject. Since the laws depart from a male legal subject, it is also clear that the only individuals with unquestioned, full legal responsibility (and of course full legal rights) were men. However the laws did not grant all men this privilege: the laws refer to one specific type of man in almost all general provisions. This influenced both the legal responsibility of women and that of other groups of men.
During the course of the Middle Ages the legal responsibility of women became an issue that for some reason needed to be dealt with, but the legislators were hesitant and seemed to have mixed emotions towards introducing a full legal responsibility for women. It was nonetheless introduced, but slowly and unevenly in the corpus of law texts. With the new law of the realm from the 1350s, the national law code of Magnus Eriksson, one can see a clear change towards equal legal responsibility for both genders.
I claim that the legal responsibility for women was not introduced in accordance with contemporary legal practice. Instead, the introduction of legal responsibility for women was part of a very conscious legislation, which also met resistance. The motives behind new legislation in the Swedish medieval law codes are often very hard to trace. Only indirectly can one draw conclusions on the rationale behind developments in the law codes. Departing from continental tendencies in medieval legislation and theology I would like to discuss the reasons for the changes in Swedish medieval legislation concerning legal responsibility for women.
Last modified: Feb. 1, 2010
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