- The Measure of Women, Law and Female Identity in the Crown of Aragon by Marie A. Kelleher
Mary Kelleher's book deals with the place and social status of women, reflected in court records from various courts in the kingdom of Aragon, from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth, in cases where women were either plaintiffs or defendants. During that period, Aragon was ruled, successively, by seven different kings, and with each reign the kingdom's domain expanded. This expansion saw an increasing involvement in the international system of the Mediterranean and the expansion of trade. An atmosphere that allowed for the exchange of ideas was created, and scholars and students were drawn to Aragon. [End Page 259]
During the Later Middle Ages, the north Mediterranean saw important developments in Law. This included a transformation of the legal culture through the reintroduction and academic study of Roman and canon law. Kelleher sees a flourishing within the studied culture of Law in Aragon in that period. In her opinion, the fourteenth century was critical to the development of Aragon's legal system, as the changes did not remain academic or theoretical, but came into practice immediately and intensively. Aragonians, men and women alike, were eager to use the opportunity to rebuild the social fabric and made increasing use of the legal system.
Through an examination of unedited court records, Kelleher attempts to demonstrate that, in the context of both Roman and canon law codes and community expectation, women actively participated in the formation of the legal culture, and in doing so pushed against the boundaries of their lives.
As both Roman and canon law made their ways into the legal systems of Aragon, the attitude of Roman law towards women took root there. There was a solidification of the perception of women as simple-minded creatures who had limited capacity to take care of their own affairs. They were also viewed as fragile, making it an obligation to care for them within the general Christian duty towards the weak and poor. This attitude led to an irresolvable collision when courts were required, in order to protect a woman's rights, to grant her autonomy in the management of her property or custody over her children. Often women were forced to go to court due to being perceived as light-minded yet fragile. These women were typically under the control of their male relatives who did not work in their best interests.
It was usually for matrimonial causes that women needed legal aid. The definition of that concept was very wide and covered all the facets of marriage in a woman's life. It included women whose husbands abused them, kept a public relationship with other women, wasted their dowries, or mismanaged the family's funds, widows seeking financial autonomy, often so they could support their underage children over whom they were seeking guardianship, women who were adulterous or accused as such by various elements in their community, and even unmarried women, who were always under close social scrutiny. These situations created endless nuances of social and legal definitions.
Kelleher leads us through women's struggles in the entangled web of the growing legal system of Aragon, showing the skills they needed to demonstrate in order to deal with the contrasting attitudes towards them. One fascinating topic that arises is the women's need to navigate the different, but parallel legal systems, so as to use them to their best advantage. The dilemmas they faced, included seeking legal aid versus reaching an arrangement within the [End Page 260] extended family, appearing in court personally or sending a delegate, and to which legal authority within the complex system a woman should turn for aid. The author does not ignore non-Christian groups of women, the Jews and the Muslims, and points to how their religious alignment made them much more vulnerable.
Kelleher's fascinating book is impressive for...