Bowman, Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages

Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: A Divergence of Rule and Practice

Jeffrey A. Bowman (Kenyon College)

During the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, women of varying social statuses participated in legal courts as litigants and witnesses. Elite women, alone and in concert with other magnates, presided over these judicial assemblies on a regular basis. They did so less often than their male counterparts, but often enough that their participation was apparently not seen by contemporaries as troublesome or wildly idiosyncratic. Records from the Iberian peninsula, France, and Italy describe countesses, viscountesses, and abbesses organizing the machinery of justice, expressing opinions about legal questions and issuing authoritative judgments. That they did this work so often is interesting in its own right, but the agency of elite women in this arena is perhaps even more striking because diverse rules from canon and civil law prohibited women of any social status from acting as judges or presiding over courts. Diverse law codes (Lo Codi, Vidal Mayor, Siete Partidas, etc.) were unequivocal in their prohibition of such behavior. Some medieval lawmakers drew inspiration from Justinian’s Digest. Legal theory and legal practice clearly did not correspond exactly, and the increasing attention to Roman law in the twelfth century very likely reshaped legal practice and posed considerable challenges to women with aspirations to power of this sort.