Property, Power and Patriarchy: The Decline of Women's Property Right in England after the Black Death



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The social and governmental response to the Black Death in England undermined the social strength of women’s property rights and created a late-medieval patriarchal structure, within both the family and society, qualitatively different from that of the earlier fourteenth century. Women’s property rights developed at common law along with men’s and enjoyed the same robust legal protection. From the late twelfth century through the first half of the fourteenth century, the legal and social strength of women’s property rights increased. The common law definition of dower and of legitimate marriage expanded throughout the period. Developments, particularly in the later thirteenth century, that enhanced the tenant’s control of property increased the strength the property rights of both men and women. After the Black Death the acceptance of the use – the medieval antecedent of the modern trust – as part of a broader attempt to strengthen governance at all levels of society, enabled the circumvention and ultimately avoidance of women’s property rights and concentrated control of familial property in the hands of the patriarch. The use, either on its own or together with other mechanisms, allowed husbands to circumvent and then entirely avoid dower right, which was the first of women’s property rights affected by the change. Statistical analysis of litigation from the court of common pleas documents the substantial diminution of dower litigation and thus dower right through the mid-fifteenth century. Social acceptance, by both men and women throughout the socio-economic strata of society, of the benefits of concentrated patriarchal control of property reinforced the trend and reduced the social strength of women’s property right.



Dower, Property right, Black Death, Common law, Fee tail