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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

13 - Networks of Influence: Widows, Sole Administration, and Unconventional Relationships in Thirteenth-Century London

Summary

Isabella Bukerel and Johanna Vyel lived and moved in a society in which women of their class and station understood the law, especially as it pertained to their estates and inheritance, and knew how to use it. The methods by which women acquired this acumen are not explicitly recorded, but it seems to have been almost the rule, and certainly not the exception. Barbara Hanawalt finds that in London dower cases between 1301 and 1306, forty-five percent of widows in recorded cases represented themselves. Sue Sheridan Walker writes, “The control of property – as heiresses, landholders by their own acquisition, joint tenants, and doweresses – gave medieval women power, status, and a need to be familiar with land law. … Litigation about real property and appurtenant rights required that women, especially widows, be an active part of that pervasive legal culture.” Extant wills demonstrate that as they prepared for their deaths, late thirteenth-century London women capably prioritized not only their own material and spiritual interests, but also those of their family members and other loved ones, including other women. Walker writes, “The frequency with which women used the law courts and bureaucratic tribunals of the King, the church, and the town is one of the most striking features of medieval England.”

This chapter uses historical documents to examine the end-of-life decisions of the widow Isabella Bukerel, one of the wealthiest women in late thirteenth-century London, through her will and other documents relating to her family. Extant wills demonstrate that as they prepared for their deaths, thirteenth-century London women capably prioritized not only their own legal, material, and spiritual interests, but also those of their family members and other loved ones, including other women. These women used their status as wealthy, influential movers in the City's mercantile culture to arrange their own postmortem affairs and those of their families and to advocate for those concerns in the courts when it was necessary. Bukerel is an early example of the kind of widow Rowena Archer and B. E. Ferme use Christine de Pisan to invoke, “[taking] up the challenge of sole and indefinite administration of estates.”