Custom and Coverture in the Manor Courts: Women as Tenants in Early Modern England
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England’s manor courts developed as a result of the tenurial agreements that structured the country’s medieval and early modern land market. Operated by the landlord’s steward and a jury of tenants, there courts were local institutions that fulfilled a wide variety of legislative, punitive, and adjudicative functions regarding the regulation of community resources and the resolution of conflict. The courts did not explicitly implement the common law doctrine of coverture, which denied women’s legal independence at marriage. However, the customary exclusion of women from land inheritance meant that they were largely restricted from accessing the local power structures that the courts embodied. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, women were frequently landholding tenants in early modern England, which meant that they had the same rights and duties as their male landholding neighbours. These courts ultimately protected women’s legal rights as tenants but enforced early modern England’s broader patriarchal social order.