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early modern women, court records, women, gender studies


Much of the fame of early modern England’s church courts today is based on their reputation as “women’s courts.” Because ecclesiastical law allowed women to initiate suit and to be sued in their own names, the courts’ records are full of women’s words. But the task of discovering women’s experiences through these records is a methodologically complex one. Words attributed to women, for example, come to us courtesy of the male church court clerk, whose education and legal experience shaped the written record of legal oral proceedings. And while women filing suit gives the appearance of female agency, it was male kin who provided the material support to pursue a cause under the law and whose interests helped sustain the continuance of legal action. The advantages of using these sources in today’s college classroom are many. Documents recounting dramatic verbal confrontations, physical altercations over pews, and secret pregnancies captivate students’ attention. These centuries-old dramas help humanize the past and allow students to encounter ordinary women whose names do not appear in traditional textbooks. These sources offer students access to a more complicated depiction of women’s actions and identities than those associated with the handful of famous early modern women.