In defense of their families: Women's malicious appeals in thirteenth-century England

Lecture by Sara M. Butler, King George III Professor in British History, Ohio State University.

At two-thirds of the total number of appeals (private prosecutions), women dominated appeals of homicide in thirteenth-century England. As C.A.F. Meekings argued in 1960, the reason why has much to do with the mode of proof: trial by combat.1

When a man appealed another of homicide, he was required to prove the truth of his accusation through battle; a woman was not. When she appealed, jury trial was the only acceptable option. As a result, families relied on women to press for justice on behalf of their wronged families, so that their fathers, brothers, and sons did not have to risk their lives. Meekings saw women as pawns, doing the bidding of the men in their families. Daniel Klerman has noted instead that the process itself still accorded women agency. He writes, ‘even when prosecution was the result of victimization or family pressure, it was still a form of power’.2

This paper will examine the records of TNA C 144, a little-studied class of documents which contains inquests into malicious appeals, that is, when the appellee argued that he had been accused of a homicide he did not commit out of hate and spite (de odio et atia). These purportedly malicious appeals provide us an opportunity to explore both the private and public authority that prosecution accorded to women. Privately, women exploited the appeals process to seek vengeance for private feuds, negotiate dowry rates, and seek financial security for the family’s future through blackmail. Publicly, as the acknowledged defenders of their families, women challenged gender norms and sought a greater position of power in law enforcement in thirteenth-century England.


1 C.A.F. Meekings, ed., Crown pleas of the Wiltshire eyre, 1249 (Devizes: Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Records Branch, 1960), 88.
2 Daniel Klerman, ‘Women prosecutors in thirteenth-century England’, Yale journal of law and the humanities 14 (2002), 310.