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Recent research has emphasized the nexus of separation customs and marital property systems in medieval Europe. Indeed, the practice of marital separation across the late-medieval Franco-Belgian region may have been influenced by its communal property system. Charles Donahue Jr has observed that ‘a system of marital community property, which existed all over the Franco-Belgian region, virtually requires that a separating couple obtain a public declaration that they have separated’, whereas the English ‘separate marital property system’ more markedly fostered informal ‘do-it-yourself’ separations. Donahue's observations have been corroborated by a recent article by Monique Vleeschouwers-Van Melkebeek, focusing on separation and the division of property in the late-medieval southern Low Countries. There, the ‘customary property system in the Franco-Belgian region spurred the couples on in their demand for a judicial separation’, in contrast to England. From the Franco-Belgian region, hundreds of preserved divisions of marital property can also be found in secular court records as a material consequence of judicial separations, granted by ecclesiastical courts.
There has been a tendency in scholarship on premodern women and the law to see married women as hidden from view, obscured by their husbands in legal records. This volume provides a corrective view, arguing that the extent to which the legal principle of 'coverture' applied has been over-emphasized. In particular, it points up differences between the English common law position, which gave husbands guardianship over their wives and their wives' property, and the position elsewhere in northwest Europe, where wives' property became part of a community of property. Detailed studies of legal material from medieval and early modern England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Ghent, Sweden, Norway and Germany enable a better sense of how, when, and where the legal principle of 'coverture' was applied and what effect this had on the lives of married women. Key threads running through the book are married women's rights regarding the possession of moveable and immovable property, marital property at the dissolution of marriage, married women's capacity to act as agents of their husbands and households in transacting business, and married women's interactions with the courts. Cordelia Beattie is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh; Matthew Frank Stevens is Lecturer in Medieval History at Swansea University. Contributors: Lars Ivar Hansen, Shennan Hutton, Lizabeth Johnson, Gillian Kenny, Mia Korpiola, Miriam Muller, S. C. Ogilvie, Alexandra Shepard, Cathryn Spence.