Nothing is more indicative or determinative of women’s status in a society than their ability to hold and control property. Today, I look more closely at the sources of women's landed property in the Middle Ages: inheritance, dowries and dowers.
The first important fact is that in France, England, and the crusader states there were heiress (feminine), i.e. it was possible for women to inherit property and titles. This is not the case everywhere in the world even today. Second, heiresses were not dispossessed at marriage. Their husbands were expected to share in the control of their estates and the heiresses no longer controlled them exclusively, but they did not legally lose control or ownership.
Women might, of course, “bow to their husbands' wishes” for the sake of domestic harmony or be otherwise coerced or cajoled into granting their husbands more control than was legally required, but stronger women knew how to keep their husbands in their place. Geoffrey d’Anjou never titled himself “King of England.” Eleanor of Aquitaine took the Aquitaine back when she divorced Louis VII. Queen Melisende checked-mated Fulk d'Anjou when he tried to sideline her. Joan, Countess of Kent, did not bestow the honor of Kent on any of her three husbands; she retained it and passed it to her sons. Kings of Jerusalem lost their title, at the death of their wife, if there was no adult heir (e.g. Guy de Lusignan). Heiresses, furthermore, were not found only in the aristocracy; peasant and merchant daughters also had the right to inherit their estates, provided they had no brothers. Indignation over the fact that boys inherited first should not blind us to the more important fact that because girls could inherit, some girls held very powerful positions indeed.
A dowry was not an inheritance. It was, however, property that a maiden took with her into her marriage. Anyone who has read Jane Austin’s books knows that young ladies generally had a greater or lesser “dowry” settled upon them and the size of that dowry greatly affected their value on the marriage market. A dowry, however, was never a girl’s property. It was property that her father/brother/guardian owned but agreed to transfer to a girl’s husband at her marriage. In the Middle Ages, dowries were usually land. Royal brides brought entire lordships into their marriage (e.g. the Vexin), but the lesser lords might bestow a manor or two on their daughters and the daughters of gentry might bring a mill or the like to their husbands. Even peasant girls might call a pasture or orchard their dowry. With time dowries were increasingly monetary, either a lump sum paid at the time of the marriage to the bridegroom or a fixed annual income paid by the bride’s guardian (or his estate) to the husband. The key thing to remember about dowries, however, is that they were not the property of the bride. They passed from a girl's guardian to her husband.
Dowers on the other hand were women’s property. In the early Middle Ages, dowers were inalienable land bestowed on a wife at the time of her marriage. A woman owned and controlled her dower property, and she retained complete control of this property not only after her husband’s death, but even if her husband were to fall foul of the king, be attained for treason, and forfeit his own land and titles.
In the early Middle Ages, dowers were usually negotiated in advance of a marriage. Generally the father of the bride and the father of the groom would negotiate both the size and nature of the dowry and the dower at the same time. In short, the father of the bride would agree to transfer certain properties or a combination of properties and money to the groom at the marriage, and in exchange the father of the groom would designate properties as the new bride’s dower. These could, obviously, be identical. I.e. the father of the bride might agree to transfer certain properties to the bridegroom on the condition that they were designated his daughter’s dower, i.e. they were effectively transferred not to the control of the groom but to the bride after her marriage. Formally, however, the groom bestowed the “dower” on his wife at the church door immediately after marriage, and its size was variable.
In the absence of a formal agreement, however, English law came to recognize the right of every widow to one third of her late husband’s property. In this case, it fell to the husband’s lord (for barons, the crown) to determine exactly which pieces of property made up the dower portion after her husband’s death. Theoretically, the husband’s overlord was supposed to make this determination within forty days, but reality sometimes looked different. English judicial history is full of cases where tenacious widows litigated for decades to get their rights, an indication that justice was not always served rapidly, but also that women felt sufficiently protected by the law to take their case to court. The exception here was in the case of the widows of executed traitors. Whereas the older custom of designating the dower at the church door protected the widows of traitors, the idea that the dower was simply one third of a man’s estate at death meant that it was de-facto forfeited to the crown with the rest of a traitor’s lands, and his widow was left empty-handed.
This change in the nature of dowers may explain the increasing popularity of “jointures.” Jointures were not strictly women’s property as they were (as the name suggests) bestowed jointly on a couple at marriage. Nevertheless, the effect of jointures was to protect women financially. Property that was part of a jointure was controlled jointly so long as both partners lived, but became the sole property of the surviving partner at the death of the other. For men, that was nothing new, but for women it meant that in addition to the third of her husband’s estate that made up her dower portion, she had control of all her “jointure” lands. Furthermore, land held via “jointures” could not seized by the crown if either partner were convicted of treason; it remained the property of the survivor (usually the widow).
It was not uncommon in the High Middle Ages for women to successively marry two, three or even four husbands. After each marriage, the widow retained her dower and any jointures settled on her at the time of the marriage. Women who were politically well-connected, already wealthy and/or knew how to negotiate could therefore accumulate vast estates. “Dowagers” controlling these estates were not only wealthy and independent, they were influential and powerful -- at least within their family circles. They often controlled the income, marriages and dowries of their off-spring. One can imagine, they were not always popular but undoubtedly formidable!
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.