- Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills, 1485-1603: Authority, Influence, and Material Culture by Susan E. James
In this striking study of women’s wills, Susan E. James brings forward a wealth of documentary evidence culled from extensive work with roughly 1,200 records in the largely untapped archive of early modern wills. Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills, 1485-1603: Authority, Influence, and Material Culture demonstrates that early modern women approached will-making not only as a means of fulfilling the Christian duty of disposing of one’s material possessions but also as a forum in which to craft their identities and project their voices and presence into the historical afterlife. Working across confessional and class lines, James is able to track the progression of religious, social, and economic changes that affected women’s lives through the watershed of the Reformation and thus identify aspects of women’s approaches to the end of life that either remained constant or shifted in this transformational period. The questions posed by this study are challenging and important. Do women’s concerns in will-making differ significantly from men’s, and if so, why and how? Are women in all social groups able to exploit the “legal and emotional tools,” as James calls them, to impress their desires on posterity and to commemorate their living bonds and relationships (p. 1)? And, despite institutional and scribal mediation, are women’s voices reliably preserved in wills? Are these documents, in effect, sites of early modern women’s autobiography and self-authorship?
In six rich and detailed chapters, James brings forward measured and careful evidence of women’s authoritative self-representation in their wills while usefully placing these documents within the changing cultural landscapes of pre- and post-Reformation approaches to death and commemoration (chapters one and two); women’s work (chapter three); and women’s acquisition of assets—land, money, and material possessions—and their disposal of wealth (chapters four, five, and six). Each of these areas yields valuable insights that collectively paint a picture of women as active and enterprising agents, seizing the opportunities presented to them by Tudor society to enforce their wills and control their memories. They accomplished this through bequests of material goods, by exploiting rituals of remembrance, by influencing the public sphere through charitable donations, and by ensuring the future custodial care of accrued wealth and assets. What is startlingly consistent, and inescapably convincing [End Page 265] in James’s handling of this material, is the degree to which each aspect of women’s last acts availed opportunities for them to define themselves as individuals in relation to, and to some extent apart from, the variety of social institutions—marriage, family, church, and guilds, among others—in which they lived. James asserts that “establishing identity and securing remembrance were an underlying subtext for nearly every will, male or female, rich or poor” (p. 93). Time and again, the details she draws from individual women’s bequests and her thoughtful interpretations of them stress the deft and persistent ways in which early modern women turned institutions and social infrastructures that might appear to limit their individuality toward opportunities for self-expression and self-commemoration. By positioning her investigation against the backdrop of the Reformation, moreover, James is able to bring out fascinating nuances in women’s dealings with changing definitions of sacred rites and objects as they dispose of their possessions. As the understanding of material objects changed, the meanings of their bequeathals shifted as well: a rosary presented by a Catholic will-maker as a devotional aid becomes a token of individual remembrance after the Reformation.
James’s final chapter on material culture, which discusses early modern women in the act of “undressing the house [and] undressing the body,” is perhaps the most rich and interesting in the book (p. 231). The chapter, too, is a methodological exemplar, demonstrating a profitable and beautifully articulated approach to dealing with objects in time; material bequests, James insists, “must also...