What’s in a Name?

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

If a woman with a doctorate gets married, is she still a doctor?

While surname patterns amongst women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came up during my doctoral project, I have been reflecting recently on surnames and marriage for a personal reason. My partner and I eloped on 10 April 2021. Since we married, the amount of post and well-wishes I have received as ‘Mrs Macleod’ has been staggering, even though I haven’t changed my name on any of my social media platforms, and most of my family know I’m doctored. I know this is well-meaning and good intentioned. Addressing me as ‘Mrs Macleod’ is a celebratory nod to the commitment my partner and I have made to each other. But, it should also be said, there is no post coming through to ‘Mr Davis’, so the identity change is still one-sided and patriarchal. It certainly speaks to a continued difference between the male and female life courses, even in the twenty-first century. My marriage is somehow perceived as identity changing for me, where it isn’t for my partner. For a time, I thought I might change my surname when we married. As an American interloper, becoming a Macleod would be a strong re-branding as a Scottish historian. All this to say, I’m staying a Davis. Partly because I am lazy and the thought of changing my residence permit, my passport, my social security, and my driver’s license (etc., etc.) is very unappealing. I have no strong ties to my last name, it’s just a name; it’s very common. However, I have also built my academic career so far with my name, and I don’t want to have to add ‘(née Davis) to every future accomplishment for continuity.

Signing our marriage schedule behind Perspex (eloping in the time of Coronavirus)

Now, Reader, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with women in Scotland in the later Middle Ages. Didn’t women keep their natal surnames throughout their lives? The answer, for the most part, is, yes, they did. However, this pattern was just that, a pattern. Life is complicated now, and life was complicated then, so we might expect some deviation from this pattern. Today’s blog will look at historiographical interpretation of women’s surnames in late medieval Scotland and also look at women that changed their names and the motivations behind it.

Medieval women’s retention of the natal surname in historiography

The accepted pattern of surname use in late medieval Europe was that women most often continued to use their paternal family’s name, rather than change their name after marriage.[1] It is important to emphasise that medieval identity went beyond an individual’s name. An elite woman’s identity was explained through myriad ways, including further relational designations, titles, and the symbology of heraldry present in her seal, among other things, including her clothing. This is not to say that the surname was unimportant. It indicated membership of a kin group that afforded her authority through the collective power and importance of that group.[2] The same naming patterns that have been traced in northwest medieval Europe have also been found in scholarship on the Scottish nobility. However, the ‘exclusion’ of women from the marital families because of the retention of the paternal surname has perhaps been emphasised more. In 1983, Marshall argued that ‘a woman retained her maiden name throughout her life and never did sever connections with her own family’.[3] Similarly, Jenny Wormald argued in 1985 that

The use of the surname both for the particular family name and as the synonym for kindred demonstrates the nature of Scottish kinship in another way. When a woman married in Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is clear that she was regarded as providing a link with another kin group rather than becoming completely assimilated into her husband’s kin; for she did not take his name, which strongly suggests that she was considered as, for example, a Gordon who married a Hamilton, and not someone whose marriage made her a Hamilton.[4]

While a pattern of surname retention certainly holds up in the charter evidence, the implications as to why women retained their natal surnames, as posed by Wormald, perhaps does not. There is evidence of women who deviated from this pattern, taking their marital surnames, and the evidence suggests that they did so for a variety of reasons. Some created continuity between themselves and their children, others to reap the socio-political benefits of her husband’s name. The manipulation of identity via surname suggests a nuanced understanding of the ephemeral aspects of power and the ability of women to navigate the changing circumstances over the course of their lives to maintain their position, legally and politically, within Scottish elite society.


My last blog post on the life and career of Isabella, countess of Fife, discussed the use of the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter. I argued that her identification as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’ was an act of personal agency and political defiance in the adverse circumstances she found herself in during the 1360s with the Scottish crown.[5] The use of a marital surname, like Countess Isabella, for political reasons, can be traced elsewhere in the historical record. Eleanor Bruce (née Douglas) continued to use the Bruce surname in transactions after the death of her husband, Alexander Bruce, earl of Carrick (d.1333). A continued affiliation with the Bruce family, brought a certain social capital that Eleanor found useful in her own political career. She continued to designate herself as ‘Eleanor Bruce’ in her two subsequent marriages to James Sandilands and later to Duncan Wallace.[6] The continued use of the surname, and the prestige it carried, shows that elite women understood the authority imbued by direct connections to names associated with important lineages. Her social status was raised to countess with her first marriage to the earl, and the continued use of the title of countess and surname ‘Bruce’ emphasised the social status gained from this marriage.

The seal cast of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross (1394) NRS: Seal casts, matrices, and detached seals, RH17/1, no. 499 (drawer no. 20). Copyright of the National Records of Scotland.

Her continued use of the surname ‘Bruce’ may have also created continuity between herself and her husband’s lineage to protect their only child, Eleanor Bruce. We can trace the use of a marital surname by widows in a number of examples. The seal of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross, bears the surname of her first husband, Walter Leslie (d. 1382), in which the legend reads ‘SIGILLU EUFAMIE LESLEY DE ROS’. Her connection to the Leslie family by marriage was further corroborated by the heraldry in her seal, which features the arms of Leslie, on a bend three buckles. The charter, from which the seal impression was attached, was dated 1394, thus, she was still using it over a decade after the death of Leslie (the above cast was taken from the 1394 charter’s seal). Although she outranked her husband as countess, Walter Leslie was a favourite of David II, a crusader hero, and her marriage to Leslie had helped her gain control of Ross from her father in the 1360s. We might interpret her use of the Leslie surname and continued affinity with the Leslie family as a benefit to her son, Alexander Leslie, who would inherit the earldom and would be the first Leslie earl of Ross. Therefore, the use of the Leslie surname and the continued use of the Leslie arms might have allowed Countess Euphemia to continue to reap the benefits of a Leslie affinity and also created continuity between herself and her Leslie children who were going to inherit the earldom.

We might return to the question at the start of the blog, ‘what’s in a name?’ This blog post has offered up several answers to this question. In the later Middle Ages, the surname had the ability to carry with it prestige, authority, kinship, political cache, and chivalric reputation. While the pattern of natal surname retention amongst medieval women was more or less adhered to, there were deviations from this pattern. These deviations, of which we have only discussed a few, provide the historian with fascinating insight into elite identity construction and the myriad considerations women made when co-opting their husband, or more likely, deceased husband’s family name, in their own political careers.

[1] Geneviéve Ribordy, ‘Women’s names, women’s lives: the designation of women in late Medieval France’ Medieval Prosopography: History and Collective Biography 27 (2012), 120-2. For a general discussion of medieval naming practice, see Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 70.

[2] The historiography around medieval identity is extensive. For a discussion of group v. individual identity see, Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31:1 (1980), 1-17; David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Miri Rubin, ‘Identities’ in A Social History of England, 1200-1500, Rosemary Horrow, et al. (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 383-412.

[3] Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 (London: Collins, 1983), 21. It’s worth noting that these earlier arguments have been carried through in more recent scholarship. See, Jennifer C. Ward, ‘Noblewomen, Family, and Identity in Later Medieval Europe’ in Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations, Anne J. Duggan (ed.) (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 251;  Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent ‘Where is the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland?’ in Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 7.

[4] Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd), 79.

[5] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345); For a discussion of the wider context of this, see, Michael Penman, David II, 1327-71 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2004), 353.

[6] NRS: Papers of Lord Torphichen, GD119/149; GD119/150; GD119/158; GD119/160.  

The Life and Times of Isabella, countess of Fife (d.1389)

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

Isabella, countess of Fife, was female heir to the premier earldom of Scotland in the mid-fourteenth century. The daughter of Duncan, earl of Fife, and Mary de Monthermer, her life provides us with fascinating insight into the agency of an elite woman in late medieval Scotland. She had a tumultuous relationship with David II, which has often led to historical interpretations of her as a ‘pawn’ between the Scottish king and his powerful uncle, Robert Stewart, who was her father-in-law. I recently spoke about her political career with Kate Buchanan on Scotichronicast, but I would like to use this blog to explore her life in greater detail, offering a micro-history of the countess and the broader implications a re-appraisal of her life has on political histories of late medieval Scotland.

The early years, c.1320/9-1358

As the daughter of Duncan, earl of Fife, and Mary de Monthermer, and granddaughter of Ralph de Monterhmer, earl of Glouchester, and Joan of Acre [daughter of Edward I], the young Isabella had family ties on either side of the Anglo-Scottish border. What little evidence we have of her early life suggests she spent periods of time in both Scotland and England. Her exact date of birth is not known, but it was sometime after 1315, since her father and Robert Bruce agreed a male entail that year. The entail was to ensure that the earldom of Fife passed to the earls of Menteith if the earl of Fife failed to sire a child, as his wife, Mary, was detained in England at the time.[1] The entailing of the earldom was important, because the earl of Fife had the privilege and obligation of crowning the king of Scotland.[2] Thus, it was important to keep this duty and rights to Fife separate from the royal dynastic line. This entail would affect the countess’s later political career, as David II used the entail as a means to create a new earl of Fife after the death of her father in 1353.

There is evidence that her mother spent time between England and Scotland in the 1320s and 1330s, however, it is difficult to tell whether or not Isabella accompanied her in this travel.[3]  The family was captured in Perth in 1332 by supporters of Edward Balliol, and held in custody.[4] Isabella and Mary de Monthermer were separated. Her mother does not seem to have had a difficult captivity, as she continued to receive weekly payments, and later an annuity, from Edward III, as well as a residence and summer and winter clothing.[5] She later returned to Scotland in 1345, with safe conduct granted by Edward III.[6] While it is not entirely clear why Mary returned to Scotland, it may have been due to the shifting political situation, as David II’s return to Scotland in 1341 had seen a gradual improvement of the Scottish cause and she may not have been able to maintain her lifestyle in England as a Scottish countess. The earl of Fife was, in fact, captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross a year later in 1346, and he was granted clemency from execution for treason due to his wife’s ‘blood-relationship’ with the English king, and we might assume that she intervened on his behalf.[7]

The Battle of Neville’s Cross from a 15th-century manuscript of Froissart’s Chroniques Image©Wikimedia Commons

It is more difficult to locate the young Isabella in the sources. She seems to have been put into custody (wardship) in Northumberland, with William de Felton, a knight, acting as her guardian. According to Sir Thomas Gray in his chronicle, Scalacronica, she had been

…destined to be sold into marriage to Robert the Steward of Scotland; but for love, she took for her husband William de Felton, a knight of Northumberland, who had her in his ward [en garde] at the time.[8]

It is difficult to assess in what capacity she was Felton’s ward because the language of wardship is the same as more hostile forms of custody, including imprisonment.[9] Given the fact that Felton assumed her custody in the 1330s, her presence in his household may have been that of hostage, after she was captured in Perth in 1332. While the exact date of her marriage to Felton is unknown, Michael Penman has posited that it occurred sometime in 1338, since she gave birth to a son, named Duncan, in 1339.[10]

It is also difficult here, to assess Isabella’s consent to her first marriage. The narration by Gray certainly strips her of any agency, as her only other option was to be ‘sold into marriage’ to the Steward of Scotland. As a chivalric history, Gray’s account emphasises the romantic love between Isabella and Felton, which may be grounded in historical truth, but we also need to consider the power dynamics at play in the relationship. As her legal guardian, we might ask whether she had the power to refuse the marriage. This is something that Ruth Mazo Karras has noted is ‘inherently coercive’ even if a relationship does eventually become consensual.[11] I am by no means refuting Gray’s characterisation of their relationship as a loving one, but I think it is important to consider the motivations behind his writing and whether he was interested in expressing the power dynamics at play in their relationship realistically.

She named her son Duncan, which perhaps indicates her eventual plans to return to Scotland and claim Fife as heir. She remained in northern England for another twenty years, and only returned to Scotland after the death of Felton. Her son Duncan never made the journey north with her. He seems to have been training for an ecclesiastical career and was never mentioned in the Scottish sources.[12]

Meanwhile, the earldom of Fife had been granted to William Ramsay, the husband of one of David II’s mistresses, in 1353 after the death of Isabella’s father, Duncan. Robert the Steward had also acquired a number of her father’s estates since 1353. I would propose that her new status as widow gave her the freedom of movement to return northward, but I think she may have also returned to Scotland at the behest of her mother, Mary de Monthermer. While there is no surviving evidence to corroborate this, it seems well-timed that Isabella returned to Scotland coincided with the external threats to the integrity of the Fife and its estates. Regardless of the motivations for her return, Isabella’s advent to Scotland certainly frustrated David II’s plans for the earldom and she quickly enlisted the help of a former suitor, Robert the Steward, to help her regain her birth right.

Countess of Fife, 1359-1371

In a number of documents, she asserted herself as heir and claimaint to Fife, with Robert the Steward supporting these documents issued in 1359 as witness. She also made use of his seal to authenticate at least one charter, as she did not yet have her own.[13] By 1360, her rights to the earldom were secured and she issued another charter that year, again styling herself as daughter and heir of Duncan, the former earl.[14] Sometime between 1360 and 1361, she married her second husband, Walter Stewart, son of Robert the Steward. She additionally commissioned a seal, which featured a tree with two branches, from which hung two shields. If we read the seal from the perspective of the sealer (and bearer of arms), not the viewer, we see the arms of her natal lineage, Fife, in the dexter [right] position, and the Stewart arms in the sinister [left] position. Trees are strongly associated with lineage and dynasty. We might read this seal as Isabella’s ambitions for her second marriage into the Stewart family, and the aligning of herself and Fife with a powerful family.

The seal of Isabella, countess of Fife ( from a charter dated 1369), NRS: Papers of the Earls of Morton, GD150/20. Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

The marriage, however, was short-lived. Walter died in 1362, as we have charter evidence of Isabella referring to herself again as a widow and commemorating Walter that year.[15] David II saw this as an opportunity to separate Isabella from her Stewart kin, and the next ten years would witness a third marriage for the countess alongside this separation. She was subsequently married, or forced to marry, Thomas Bisset, a favourite of David II. However, while her activities may have been closely monitored by the Scottish king, she made her displeasure known. She continued to use her seal depicting the Stewart arms even during her marriage to Bisset. She also used the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter, in which she styled herself as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’.[16] We might read the use of the Stewart surname as her own defiance to David II’s attempts at controlling her. It certainly shows a deliberate assertion of her continued affiliation with the Stewart family, despite her physical separation from them. Her marriage to Bisset ended with his death in 1366. Shortly thereafter, she was forced to resign her rights to Fife to John Dunbar.[17]

Resignation and Retirement (1371-1389)

After David II died in 1371, Countess Isabella re-resigned her earldom to Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith, the brother of her second husband. She cited coercion in this indenture as a means of nullifying her previous resignation in favour of Dunbar.[18] She tasked Robert Stewart with the responsibility of regaining the earldom from John of Dunbar. She also used this indenture to protect herself and her mother, so that she might enjoy retirement in her advancing age. She arranged for tenements to support both herself and Mary de Monthermer in life rent, with each reverting to the new earl of Fife after their deaths. She also stipulated that she would maintain access to Falkland Palace (the comital seat) for her use as and when she needed it, while also asking the earl to maintain and treat her as he would his own mother. She did remain somewhat active following her ‘official’ retirement in 1371. She appears in a charter dated 1373 styled as ‘the former countess of Fife’ in which she grants an annuity from the barony of North Berwick to Margaret Hoge and her son John.[19] She likely died in 1389, as Robert II issued a charter that same year confirming her indenture agreement with his son, Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith.[20]

Falkland Palace Image©Wikimedia Commons

Pawn or player?

Many studies of female lordship have worked to problematise the portrayals of women as ‘pawns’ in mainstream medieval histories. The notion of women being ‘players’ imbues their lives with greater agency than has previously been considered for elite women. Looking at the micro-history of the life and times of Isabella, countess of Fife, has shown how we might re-assess the agency of elite women in late medieval Scotland and the role they played in Scottish politics. While any isolated event from the countess’s life might be interpreted as her being a ‘pawn’ to be used by the men in her families, if we look at evidence from across her life, and perform a close reading and analysis of the language of her charters, we see a woman well-equipped to handle the attempts at coercion and control from various men. We also see, between the lines, the relationship between Isabella and her mother, Mary de Monthermer, and the ways in which they both worked to secure a future for the title and estates associated with Fife that they wanted.

[1] RRS, V, 355 (no. 72).

[2] John Bannerman, ‘MacDuff of Fife’ in Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship, and Community. Essays Presented to G.W.S. Barrow, Alexander Grant, et al. (eds.) (Edinburgh, 1993), 22.

[3] CDS, vol. III, 138 (no. 736); 139 (no. 741).

[4] Chron. Bower (Watt), vol. 7, 83.

[5] CDS, vol. III, 239 (no.1312); 243 (no. 1333).

[6] CDS, vol. III (no. 1445).

[7] CDS, vol. III, 271 (nos. 1485, 1486).

[8] Sir Thomas Gray, Scalacronica, Andy King (ed. and trans.) (Woodbridge, 2005), 148-9.

[9] Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170-1509 (Farnham, 2011), 13.

[10] Michael Penman, David II, 1329-71 (East Linton, 2005), 103.

[11] She makes this argument when discussing the tutor/pupil relationship of Abelard and Eloise, see, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (London, 2012), 131.

[12] CPP, vol. I, 210; CPL, vol. III, 428. My thanks to Steve Boardman for these references.

[13] NRS, GD122/1/141.

[14] RRS, VI, 269 (no. 239).

[15] NLS: Adv. MSS, Ch. A. 10.

[16] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345).

[17] RMS, II, App. II, 624 (no. 1624).

[18] NLS, Charter No. 698.

[19] RMS, vol. I, 161 (no. 443).

[20] Robertson (ed.), Topography and Antiquities in the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, vol. II, 31.

The strange disappearance of Euphemia Leslie

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

CW: violence against women, coercion, murder, rape

Euphemia Leslie was the female heir to the earldom of Ross in the early fifteenth century. She was the daughter of Alexander Leslie, earl of Ross, who died in 1402, and Isabella Stewart, daughter of Robert Stewart, duke of Albany. Her paternal grandparents were the countess of Ross, Euphemia, sometimes styled Leslie, and the crusading hero, Walter Leslie. The premature death of her father set into motion a dispute over her guardianship between her maternal grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her aunt and uncle, Mary Leslie and Donald, lord of the Isles. The escalation of this dispute culminated in the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, which resulted in a tactical draw. By 1415, Euphemia disappears from the historical record. Did her grandfather kill her to gain control of Ross? Did she take the veil, disappearing from public life to carry out a life of quiet contemplation in a nunnery? This blog will give an overview of Euphemia’s life, as far as we can reconstruct it in the historical record, highlighting the danger some young female heirs faced at the hands of their male guardians in late medieval Scotland. While this blog post takes the tone of a true crime story, I would like to emphasize that Euphemia Leslie, as historical subject, is treated with care here. Her life and experiences are often treated as marginalia to political histories of these events. I look to place her experiences and her disappearance at the forefront, and in so doing illuminate broader issues relating to the treatment of women in later medieval Scotland.

Euphemia Leslie, ward and female heir

Laws governing elite wardship were less precise than laws governing wardship amongst the non-elite in late medieval Scotland. The guidance for elite guardianship was based on hierarchy, which could be manipulated to suit relatives looking to assert control of a ward’s landed estates while amassing great political power. Sue Sheridan Walker’s research on guardianship in medieval England has shown that control over a ward was never finalized, rather a claim to the guardianship of a child might be challenged at any time.[1] This was precisely the case for Euphemia Leslie, whose guardianship was disputed by two family members, namely, her grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her uncle, the lord of the Isles. According to the author of the Sleat History, a seventeenth-century family history commissioned by the MacDonalds, Albany swiftly claimed the guardianship of Euphemia, because she was so young.[2] This arrangement was contested openly by her uncle, Donald, lord of the Isles.

The earldom of Ross offered the lord of the Isles further mainland expansion, while it offered the duke of Albany northward expansion. ©Wikimedia Commons

His dispute, however, was not about the maintenance of the child, however, but rather over control over her inheritance, the earldom of Ross. Steve Boardman has drawn attention to the language of Albany’s charters issued in Ross in 1405 where he designated himself ‘lord of the ward of Ross’.[3] Boardman has argued that the self-styling was Albany’s attempts to show his authority in the region, which had been contested by the lord of the Isles. The title also tells us something else, which relates to medieval laws of guardianship in Scotland. The self-styling articulates quite literally his authority, namely, his control of his granddaughter’s person (her body), within his own powerbase in the earldom of Menteith. It shows an awareness of the legal distinction between guardianship over a child and the child’s estates, which could fall to two different people.

Euphemia’s Resignations

By 1415, Euphemia Leslie was of a marriageable age. On 3 June, the bishop of St Andrews received a papal dispensation for the marriage of Euphemia to Thomas Dunbar, son of the earl of Moray.[4] However, this marriage never took place, and, as narrated by the Sleat historian, she was ‘persuaded by flattery and by threats to resign her rights to the earldom of Ross’ by her grandfather, the duke of Albany.[5] Of course, it is important to remember that this account was written centuries after the events took place, by a historian of the MacDonald family, so the characterization of Albany should be expected here. It is worthwhile, then, to turn to the charter evidence to assess whether we can glean coercion from the contemporary records.

On 15 June 1415, it was confirmed that she had resigned her earldom, and other properties, to her uncle (Albany’s son), John Stewart, earl of Buchan, with a reversionary clause further specifying the inheritance of these estates to another uncle, Robert Stewart, if John were to die without children.[6] The language of this charter was clear in its expression of the volition of Euphemia. It stated that she ‘neither by force or fear or by mistake but in her sheer and spontaneous consent and in her pure and uncorrupted virginity’ resigned these properties.

There are several things to unpack here. First, I have not been needlessly obtuse in explaining these documents. The consent of Euphemia indicated in the charters is mediated to us by her grandfather, the duke of Albany. The resignation survives in confirmation charters issued by the duke, which validated the ‘will’ of his granddaughter, Euphemia. What may be happening here instead is legitimacy, via consent, being written into the resignation at the behest of the duke, to avoid further legal dispute over the resignation of Ross and her accompanying estates. Second, we also see her virginity, ‘pure and uncorrupted’, mentioned in the document. While this would have had moralizing elements, it also serves a legal purpose. It emphasizes her marital status as an unwed heir, and it also highlights her sexual continence, which was important in the case of female wards, whose estates could be forfeit in instances where they had participated in irregular sexual relationships. It is difficult, however, to fully assess the extent to which the resignations of her estates was Euphemia’s ‘will’, as her actions are filtered through her grandfather’s charters.


There are no further indications of Euphemia’s whereabouts following the June resignations in the historical records. Again, the Sleat historian reported that some people believed that Euphemia did not resign her land willingly, and ‘thereafter was bereaved of her life, as most men thought by contrivance of the governor’.[7] In contrast, Ranald Nicholson has echoed the guesswork of Sir James Balfour Paul in the Scots Peerage and suggested that she became a nun after the resignations of June 1415.[8] However, we don’t have any clear indication in the historical record that this was the case, which we might expect for a woman of her status and family connections.

Did she become a nun at St Mary’s Priory of North Berwick, as some have suggested? ©Wikimedia Commons

Writing difficult histories

The high-profile case of Euphemia Leslie as female heir and ward, later disappeared after her holdings were successfully exploited, exemplifies instances of female vulnerability in late medieval Scotland. Her experiences underscore the potential threat of violence against women at the hands of men.

It also raises important questions about how to sensitively approach histories of violence, coercion, and threat against women in the Middle Ages. As W. Mark Ormrod recently noted, parliamentary proceedings regarding rape can come across as property disputes. Further to this, concern for women tended to often be over high status women.[9] Similarly, the coercive control experienced by Euphemia Leslie at the hands of her grandfather received more attention in the sources because of her high status as heir to Ross and the national unrest caused by the dispute over her and the earldom’s guardianship. While there is a sensitivity to the legal intricacies of laws of guardianship and wardship in the surviving evidence, it is difficult to glean Euphemia’s personal agency or concern for her, as a minor. We cannot say for certain whether the motivations of Albany or the lord and lady of the Isles were out of concern for the well-being of the young heir or merely an opportunity with which to gain control of Ross property.  These topics require careful handling in their interpretation, with an acknowledgment of the trauma potentially experienced by historical figures like Euphemia. Telling their stories, even though difficult, is important. Rather than reduce Euphemia to a ‘pawn’ between two men competing for her guardianship, we can glimpse her as an individual caught in a difficult set of circumstances.

[1] Sue Sheridan Walker, ‘Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England’ Feminist Studies 3:3/4(1976), 110.

[2] J.R.N. MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, vol. I (Edinburgh, 1914), 28.

[3] Stephen Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (East Linton, 1996), 259.

[4] Francis McGurk (ed.), Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1394-1419 (Edinburgh, 1976), 317.

[5] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[6] NRS: Register House Charters, RH6/243; RMS, vol. II, 650 (app. 2, nos. 1976, 1977).

[7] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[8] Ranald Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1978), 233-35; SP, vol. VIII, 242-3.

[9] W. Mark Ormrod, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (Cham, 2020), 95-114.

‘Coming out of my cage’: The political agency of Isabella, countess of Buchan

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

© Wikimedia Commons

The processional frieze located in the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh is a vibrant synthesis of Scotland’s national history. William Brassey Hole’s frieze tells Scotland’s story through 155 portraits from the nineteenth century, proceeding back in time to Scotland’s Stone Age. One of the figures that features alongside the heroes of the Scottish Wars of Independence is Isabella, countess of Buchan, who stands behind Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Her identity is communicated by her dark blue robes with golden garbs (wheat sheafs), the heritable insignia of the earldom of Buchan, of which she was countess by right of marriage. However, the depiction of the countess here perhaps misrepresents the lineage with which she claimed a place amongst the figures of the first Scottish War of Independence, as her relationship to Bruce and her political activities in 1306 were afforded by the privileges of her natal lineage. Within this post, I will give a brief history of the countess’s political agency in 1306 and how her public support of the Scottish cause resulted in her imprisonment in Berwick. This highlights some of the methods and questions I asked of later source material in my essay on female imprisonment in fifteenth-century Scotland, which was Runner Up for the Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman Essay Prize 2020 (article hopefully forthcoming).

Isabella, countess of Buchan, inaugurator of the king

 Robert had himself crowned as King of Scotland at Scone, on the feast of the annunciation of Our Lady [25 March 1306], by the Countess of Buchan, in the absence of the earl her son, who was staying in England at his manor of Whitwick, near Leicester, and to whom the office of the coronation of the kings of Scotland belonged in hereditary.[1]

The inauguration of Bruce, as depicted in an installation at Edinburgh Castle ©Wikimedia Commons

So recorded the northern English chronicler, Sir Thomas Gray, in the mid-fourteenth-century Scalacronica. It is worth noting that he got some of the finer points wrong. The countess inaugurated Bruce on behalf of her natal family, in the absence of her brother, not her son, as indicated by Gray. The privilege of kingly inauguration belonged to the earls of Fife and Isabella acted as representative of her lineage in this public ceremony. While Gray noted that Isabella participated in the inauguration in his text, she is not mentioned by name in contemporary Scottish chronicles. Walter Bower’s fifteenth-century Scotichronicon, for example,  merely stated that Bruce was ‘crowned in the fashion in which the kings of Scotland were customarily distinguished’ with no mention of the countess.[2] However, we cannot be sure whether the exclusion of the countess from Scottish chronicle accounts arose from unease around her role in the inauguration, the sense that she had assumed a function unsuited to her sex, or a determination to present Robert’s creation as king as entirely legitimate and conventional at a time with Scottish sovereignty was in crisis. We can see the role the countess played in Scottish sources is similar to her later depiction in the frieze, a political figure behind the scenes of Scotland’s history.

‘Lock her up!’, Michael Flynn in 2016 and Edward I in 1306 (probably)

It is with Isabella, countess of Buchan’s political agency and direct involvement in the public performance of Bruce’s inauguration that I would like to consider alongside the events that came to pass in 1306. The countess was arrested in November of that year at the command of Edward I of England alongside members of Bruce’s family. It was further stipulated in Edward’s order that the countess of Buchan and Bruce’s sister Mary and his daughter Marjorie were to be put in ‘kages’ at the locations of their imprisonment.[3] Isabella was held in the newly captured Berwick castle in the Scottish Borders.[4] Gray noted that ‘she was put in a wooden hut, in one of the towers of Berwick Castle, with criss-crossed walls, so that all could watch her for spectacle’.[5] The caged imprisonment and ‘spectacle’ of the countess of Buchan was an attempt on the part of the English king to publicly assert his authority in the region, and to openly humiliate the countess after her inauguration of Bruce earlier that year. For Edward I, her behaviour might have been construed as treasonous, as she also possessed estates in England and had been resident there before the events of 1306, thus a subject of the English crown.

Ruins of Berwick Castle today ©Wikimedia Commons

The women arrested in association with Bruce and the Scottish cause have come to collectively be known as the ‘Bruce women’. These women are a particularly useful example because they highlight the ambiguity that accompanies attempts at assessing women’s political agency and culpability for treason in medieval law. Current research on women and imprisonment often asks the question of whether women are ‘guilty by association’ rather than guilty in their own right. We might ask this question of Bruce’s family members, who were likely captured in order to exert coercive control over the Scottish king. The countess of Buchan allows us an opportunity to tentatively answer the question of female culpability, however, as her imprisonment directly correlated to her public activities in 1306. Importantly, her imprisonment conditions were further controlled by the English king. Visitors were to be monitored closely and she was not allowed to speak to anyone that was Scottish, male or female.[6] The analysis of the evidence of the countess of Buchan’s imprisonment requires a degree of ‘reading between the lines’ here to assess why her access was restricted. Limiting her daily interactions and prohibiting Scottish visitors might indicate the countess’s political agency as a Scottish noble. Her active participation in Bruce’s inauguration may have deemed her a real threat to English rule in Scotland, marking her a public figure of the Scottish cause. We might understand her imprisonment, then, as evidence of her potential power as a resistor to Edward I, which may explain the harsh treatment of the countess and public spectacle of her incarceration at Berwick.

A LNER travel poster depicting the caged imprisonment of the countess of Buchan.

Narratives of female political agency remain ambiguous and require a degree of reading primary sources ‘against the grain’ to assess the extent to which women might have been feared opposition to hegemonic (male) authority. Studies of women’s imprisonment are a significant, if still lightly-developed sub-topic of the field of women’s and gender history. The study of it is not without its difficulties. Annette P. Parker has noted the virtual invisibility of imprisoned women in historical narratives.[7] We might never be able to clearly assess female culpability for crimes of treason, as the surviving historical record is too patchy for definitive conclusions. However, it does not mean we should stop asking these challenging questions of the source material and why historically (and even now) we seek to cage politically powerful women in positions of opposition.

[1] Sir Thomas Gray, Scalacronica, Andy King (ed. and trans.) (Woodbridge, 2005), 52.

[2] Chron. Bower (Watt), vol. 6, 317.

[3] CDS, vol. ii, 496 (no. 1851).

[4] Sir Francis Palgrave (ed.), Documents and Records Illustrating the History of Scotland the the Transactions between the Crowns of Scotland and England, vol. I (London, 1837), 558.

[5] Gray, Scalacronica, 53.

[6] Palgrave (ed.), Docs., vol. I, 358.

[7] Annette P. Parks, ‘Rescuing the Maidens from the Tower: Recovering the Stories of Two Female Political Hostages’ in Feud Violence and Practice: Essays in Medieval Studies in Honor of Stephen D. White, Tracey L. Billado and Belle S. Tuten (eds.) (London, 2010), 279.

I’ve talked and written about female imprisonment and political power before:

What’s her %$@#! name? Women, Representation, and Outlaw King

“Lock her up!”: Women, power, and (medieval) history

Further Reading (by no means exhaustive)!

Matthew Bennett and Katherine Weikert (eds.), Medieval Hostageship, c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker (London, 2017).

Tracey L. Billado and Belle S. Tuten (eds.), Feud Violence and Practice: Essays in Medieval Studies in Honor of Stephen D. White (London, 2010).

Jean Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe, 1100-1300 (Basingstoke, 2002).

Theresa Earenfight (ed.), Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (Leiden, 2018).

Guy Geltner, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to Present (Amsterdam, 2014).

Paul Friedland, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France (Oxford, 2012).

Kate Mann, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2017).

E. Amanda McVitty, Treason and Masculinity in Medieval England: Gender, Law and Political Culture (Woodbridge, 2020).

W. Mark Ormrod, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (Cham, 2020).

Katie Stevenson, Power and Propaganda: Scotland, 1306-1488 (Edinburgh, 2014).

Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170-1509 (Farnham, 2011).

Heather J. Tanner (ed.), Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham, 2019).

Christiana Bisset: A Micro-History of a Scottish Widow

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

Christiana Bisset, lady of Clerkington, was active during the 1330s and 1350s. She was the daughter of David Uvyeth and the widow of John Bisset, a knight. A series of donations made to Newbattle Abbey, in Midlothian, allow us to construct a micro-history of Christiana’s experiences as a fourteenth-century widow, while also thinking about broader themes relating to life (and afterlife) in medieval society.

Newbattle Abbey: Christiana’s favourite local monastery

Newbattle Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by David I in 1140. It was the daughter house of Melrose Abbey and later famed as the site where the Declaration of Arbroath was drafted. Christiana made a series of donations to the monks at Newbattle in 1338, including 2 shillings that was the annual rent she received from William Ramsay, lord of Dalhousie, for the water that ran through her Clerkington land to his mill.[1] In these donations, she made clear her personal favouritism of Newbattle and her close relationship with the monastic community.

Newbattle Abbey today. After its life as a medieval monastery, it was a stately home and is now an education institution. ©Wikimedia Commons

The personal circumstances of Christiana Bisset seemed to have changed by the 1350s, as she re-negotiated her gifts to the chapter in 1356 and 1357. In June 1356, she arranged with the monks that she would keep her pension of five merks annually during her lifetime, which would revert back to the monastery after her death. The specific rationale for this agreement was that she had already made gifts to them and thus would be a reliable source for future income. Why did she need to renegotiate these terms in the late 1350s? Her change in financial security may reflect economic hardship after the Black Death, which first arrived Scotland in 1349/1350 (and later, again, in 1362). She entered a final agreement with the chapter in September 1357, in which a notarial instrument was issued, ratifying her previous gifts to the monks and stipulated that she was to be buried ‘at the entry to the chapter, so that the monks tread over her tomb as they come and go’.[2] Her final resting place would be within the walls of Newbattle.

The Community of the Living and the Dead

Her donations to the Cistercian chapter included pro anima clauses that mentioned her pre-deceased kin, namely her father and her husband, as well accounting for her spiritual well-being.  Pro anima clauses were a section of the charter that indicated who the document commemorated and, importantly, whose souls were to be prayed for in connection to the gifts made to the religious community. Christiana, as the surviving member of her family, was tasked with the responsibility of taking care of her pre-deceased kin’s souls, as well as arranging for the care of her own soul. The final 1357 agreement arranged for her body to be buried in a conspicuous part of Newbattle. Not only would her soul be prayed for, but the monks would literally be treading over her remains, serving as a daily physical reminder of their deceased patron. As Kathleen Nolan has pointed out, the place of burial bridged ‘the gap between the living and the dead’.[3] Recent work on pro anima clauses has suggested that this feature of the medieval charter also showed the community between the living and the dead. In both the text of the charters and in her requests for her burial, Christiana Bisset was caring for her spiritual well-being and the well-being of her deceased family.

The micro-history of Christiana Bisset’s widowhood offers us insight into the individual circumstances of a woman of the lower nobility living in fourteenth-century Scotland. Her life also touches on broader themes of life in medieval society. We can see the relationship between the living and dead at work in the text of her gifts to Newbattle, offering donations to the monks in exchange for prayers for the sake of the souls of her father, her husband, and herself. We see this too with her specifications regarding her burial at Newbattle, making sure that the monks were tripping over her remembering her after she was gone. We also see the vulnerability of widowhood when faced with economic hardship and how she had to re-negotiate the terms of her gifts to maintain herself in the aftermath of a pandemic, something perhaps more relatable to us in the midst of the current global crisis.

Not much of Christiana Bisset’s life can be traced outside of the series of donations she gave to Newbattle Abbey in the mid-fourteenth-century. It is through these donations that we know her family relationships and her relationships with her wider secular and religious communities. However, these series of donations provide us with valuable insight into the role of women of the lesser nobility in religious patronage on a local level.

[1] NRS: GD40/1/48.

[2] NRS: GD40/1/57.

[3] Kathleen Nolan, ‘The Queen’s body and institutional memory: the tomb of Adelaide of Maurienne’ in Memory and the Medieval Tomb, Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo with Carol Stamatis Pendergast (eds.) (Ashgate, 2000), 84.

Primary Sources

NRS: Papers of the Kerr Family, Marquises of Lothian (Lothian Muniments), GD40

Further Reading

Jessica Barker, ‘Legal Crisis and Artistic Innovation in Thirteenth-Century Scotland’ British Art Studies 6 (2017).

Victoria Anne Hodgson, ‘The Cistercian Abbey of Coupar Angus, c.1164-c.1560′, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Stirling, 2016).

Katy Jack, ‘Decline and Fall: The earls and earldom of Mar c. 1280-1513′, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Stirling, 2017).

Emilia Jamroziak, Rievaulx Abbey and its Social Context: Memory, Locality, and Networks (Turnhout, 2005).

Emilia Jamroziak, ‘Spaces of lay-religious interactions in Cistercian houses of Northern Europe’ Parergon 27:2 (2010), 37-58.

Kathleen Nolan, Queens in Stone and Silver: The Creation of a Visual Imagery of Queenship in Capetian France (New York, 2009).

Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo with Carol Stamatis Pendergrast (eds.), Memory and the Medieval Tomb (Ashgate, 2000).

Women, Authority, and ‘Male’ Spaces

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

Glamis Castle Archives

As we settle in to Lockdown 3.0 here in the UK, I can’t help but look back at my archive trips of 2019, misty-eyed for times when archives were open and we could travel to get our history fixes (and conduct research) unimpeded.

Situated outside the village Glamis, in Angus, Scotland, Glamis Castle has been the seat of the Lyon family since the fourteenth century, and has connections to the current royal family. It may also sound familiar, dear Reader, even if you are not a Scottish medievalist because of its association with Shakespeare’s MacBeth. The dramatic character resides at Glamis in the play, which differs from the historical MacBeth, as the castle was not built until 1372. However, it has strong associations with the Shakespearean drama, and it was even the setting for the recording of Almost Tangible‘s 2018 podcast recording of the play. (See my review of the podcast here).

Glamis Castle, what a beaut. Definitely lived up to my romantic expectations of what doing historical research would be like.

‘Under my battlements’

I have always thought of Glamis as Lady MacBeth’s castle. As a character, she drives the plot of the drama forward, and she is depicted in having a direct role in the rise (and subsequent fall) of MacBeth. The phrase she utters at the end of Act I, ‘under my battlements’, referring to her surrounding environs at Glamis struck me as an undergraduate and stuck in my brain about women and their occupation of ‘male’ space, like the fortress of a castle, which simultaneously functioned as a domestic environment of the elite household. And I have thought about Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth’s understanding of her social and political positions and whether we can trace these in historical figures from late medieval Scotland.

The seal of Euphemia Stewart, countess of Moray and Strathearn (1369)
NRS: Papers of the Earls of Morton, GD150/22
Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

My trip to Glamis was to seek out the seal of Euphemia, Queen of Scotland, wife of Robert II, which was dated to a charter from 1375 and held at Glamis. While she did not operate out of Glamis Castle, the archive holds an impression of her seal from 1375, detached from its accompanying charter. And the seal gives us an opportunity to think about identity construction of historical women in late medieval Scotland.  I was particularly excited to view this seal in person, as there are few examples of queen’s seals from the fourteenth century in Scotland. I was also excited to compare her seal design to the earlier design of her seal that she used as countess in the 1360s. This round seal featured the front of a castle (battlements) with two side turrets, with a female figure standing at the centre, holding a shield over the front of the castle. The heraldry featured within the seal design featured arms associated with Moray, Strathearn, and Ross, nods to her natal and marital kin from her first marriage. What was most striking to me, however, was the depiction of the female figure, unique amongst the other seals of Scottish countesses. When I first encountered the seal in 2014, I whispered to myself, ‘under my battlements’ (belated apologies to all those near me in the NRS). I was struck by the visual representation of female power that was reminiscent of Lady MacBeth’s assertions about her castle.

The seal of Euphemia, Queen of Scotland (1375)
Copyright Glamis Castle Archives
Illustrated depiction of the Queen’s seal from John Pinkerton, Iconographia Scotica Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland (London, 1797).
Copyright Britton-Images

The later seal of Euphemia, after becoming Queen of Scotland, is also round, and depicts a female figure in a mantle standing within a canopied niche, holding a sceptre in her right hand and touching a chain around her neck with her left hand. In side niches on either side of the body, lions support shields bearing the arms of Scotland and the arms of Ross (the lions are missing from the eighteenth-century interpretation). A visual representation of her queenly authority, again situated within a representation of the built environment and showing her claims to elite status by birth and royal authority through marriage.

Women in ‘Male’ Spaces

In the last blog, I highlighted new work that is being done on women in assumed ‘male’ spaces. The sigillographic representations of Queen Euphemia provides us with an opportunity to explore this further. The career of Euphemia as queen is difficult to trace in the contemporary records. Amy Hayes has drawn attention to available evidence of her career as queen. Importantly, she has emphasised the delayed coronation of Euphemia as Scotland’s queen. Her husband, Robert II, was inaugurated king of Scotland in 1371, but she was crowned queen in 1373. She has pointed to this later ceremony as being rooted in issues of succession, as her status as queen would have elevated the status of her sons rather than her stepsons. The identity construction in her seal, then, provides us with important evidence of how she conceived of her authority as queen. Her seal prioritises her royal status, showing the shield bearing the arms of Scotland (a lion within a double tressure) in the right side of the seal’s visual field. The left shield bears the arms of her natal family, Ross (three lions rampant). The two seals of Euphemia, first as countess and later as queen, convey the identity of a Scottish aristocrat that understood her place within the noble and later royal household. Both seals emphasise Euphemia’s relationship to noble and later, royal, lineages in her identity expression, using the built environment to frame her authority. We might think about how these representations of identity in women’s seals using the built environment speaks to their place within the ‘male’ spaces of the castle and elite household and how women operated as female lords and queens from these spaces within the male-coded structures of power and authority.

Further reading on Queen Euphemia:

Amy Hayes, ‘Euphemia of Ross: The Surprise Queen’ History Scotland

Steve Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (East Linton, 1996).

The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh, 2018).

Women and Power, Part Two

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

This is the second blog on the theme of women and power in the Middle Ages. Click here for Women and Power, Part One.

What follows is a brief historiographical overview of themes I engage with in my research on elite women in Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Now that you know more about me, I thought I would offer you a primer on the topic, as I will be engaging with the ideas presented here through a focussed discussion of primary sources from my doctoral work in the next few blog posts. I’ve included a reading list at the end with links to historians and works that have influenced by own thinking.

The ‘decline’ of women in the later Middle Ages

Since the 1970s, cycles of debate about women’s power and position within medieval society have grappled with issues of periodisation and the question of ‘decline’. The 1973 McNamara/Wemple thesis posited a decline in women’s access to participation in power structures in the eleventh century, echoing the arguments advanced a decade earlier in George Duby’s work on family structure, which was known as the ‘Duby thesis’. Both conceptualisations relied on a change in the organising of families around male lineage with a shift from horizontal to vertical family structures. This shift supposedly prioritised primogeniture inheritance to preserve the family’s wealth and position within elite society. One of the results of this theoretical shift was that the importance of women in family and in politics was downgraded.

The ‘decline’ of women was also linked to a supposed difference between public and private power. Women could exercise power through their position within the family, but they were not afforded access to ‘public’ spheres of power – namely government institutions and public offices. It was generally accepted that women could exercise power from within the elite household, as extensions of their gendered roles. However, women’s influence beyond the private sphere has been thought of as diminished as a result of increased importance of male lineages and bureaucratisation of medieval government.

Work of feminist scholars on elite women in the last thirty years has problematised the notions of ‘decline’ in status for women in positions of power after the year 1100. Most recently, the edited volume of Heather J. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (2019) issued a call-to-arms to researchers of women’s and gender history to prove, once and for all, women who exercised power after the year 1100 were not ‘exceptional’, rather they were commonplace. The movement advocates for the inclusion of women into political narratives of medieval Europe.

While current scholarly thinking has advanced the political histories of female ‘lords’ and expanded definitions of female power to include the aspects of ‘soft’ power, such as influence, popularity, and attractive leadership, the notion of ‘decline’ has been harder to shake from medieval chronologies. Katherine J. Lewis has commented on a continued historiographical perspective that assumes women were placed outside the political structures of medieval governance by the later Middle Ages. Indeed, even the most recent cycle of the debate of women and power has merely shifted the ‘decline’ in female status to the fourteenth century.

 We need to question the ‘decline’ proposed by existing chronologies of the Middle Ages. These chronologies assume change, even if it occurred later than previously proposed by the Duby and McNamara/Wemple theses. Could the narrative of women’s history in the Middle Ages not be one of continuity? Judith Bennett’s notion of ‘patriarchal equilibrium’ becomes useful here. While the structures of power may have transformed during the Middle Ages, the status of women’s position within these structures might not have. While these spaces might have been ‘male’ in theory, were these spaces ‘male’ in practice?

There is exciting new work being done on women in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period that problematises the assumptions made about women and their public selves. There is an ongoing reappraisal of the law of guardianship that rendered women ‘invisible’ during marriage. There are new gendered analyses of the law, which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of medieval legal systems as well as the gulf between law and practice. Additionally, there have been recent studies that have challenged the notion of ‘male’ space in castles and parliament. The Theresa Earenfight edited volume Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (2018) shows the myriad ways in which these spaces can be culturally understood. The late W. Mark Ormrod’s book Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (2020) interrogated the ‘male’ space of medieval parliament and exposed the ways in which women appeared and made use of parliament in England.

When investigated, the notion of ‘decline’ and ‘exclusion’ of women in the later Middle Ages does not hold up. The evidence reveals a more nuanced historical reality than simple binaries. It suggests that the periodisation of women’s power in the Middle Ages ought to be eschewed completely, embracing the complexity and messiness of late medieval source material to further our understanding of women, power, and agency.

Reading List

Selected works on women, power, and patriarchy (this list is by no means exhaustive, but rather reflects works that have been key to my own research in addition to the works specifically named above).

Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, Cynthia Postan (trans.) (London, 1977).

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Arthur Goldhammer (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1980).

Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Jame Dunnett (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1994).

Georges Duby, ‘Women and Power’ in Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe, Thomas N. Bisson (ed.) (Philadelphia, PA, 1995, 73-80.

Theodore Evergates (ed.), Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia, PA, 1999).

Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford, 2002).

Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003).

Erin Jordan, Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2006).

Bronach Kane and Fiona Williamson (eds.), Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (London, 2013).

Katherine J. Lewis, ‘Women and Power’ in Historians on Gower, S. Rigby (ed.) (Woodbridge, 2019), 323-50.

Amy Livingstone, Out of Love for My Kin: Family Life in the Lands of the Loire, 1000-1200 (Ithaca, NY, 2010).

Kimberly LoPrete, Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord (c.1167-1137) (Dublin, 2007).

Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, ‘The Power of Women through the Family in Europe’ Feminist Studies 1:3/4 (1973), 126-41. (republished in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), 83-101.

Jo Ann McNamara, ‘Women and Power through the Family Revisited’ in Gendering the Master Narrative, Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.) (London, 2003), 17-30.

Linda E. Mitchell, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England, 1225-1350 (London, 2003).

Linda E. Mitchell, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman (London, 2016).

Joel T. Rosenthal, The Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth Century England (Philadelphia, PA, 1991).

Dr Rebecca Mason (University of Glasgow) is doing really exciting work on married women in early modern Scotland.

Other work on marriage and laws of guardianship:

Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester, 2011).

Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 1200-1800 (Manchester, 2003).

Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot, 2008).

Charlotte Vainio, ‘Empowered Spouses: Matrimonial Legal Authority in Sweden, 1350-1442’ in Authorities in the Middle Ages: Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, Sini Kangas, et al. (eds.) (Berlin, 2013), 285-306.

Heather J. Tanner, ‘Women’s Legal Capacity: Was the Thirteenth Century a Turning Point’ in Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages, Albrecht Classen (ed.) (Turnhout, 2019), 81-98.

I had surgery during a global pandemic

When I started this blog in October, dear Reader, I promised that it would be an academic cum personal blog. At the time of writing that first post, I was incredibly ill and underwent emergency surgery two weeks after it was published online. In fact, I posted my second post, ‘Women and Power, Part One‘, moments before getting in a taxi to go back to the hospital for MRI scans, more blood work, and more consultations with the surgeon. I should say, I do not endorse this sort of life/work balance and I only continued to keep the blog going in October with the fear of precarity as an ECR weighing down on me. If I could go back in time, I would have been gentler with myself and allowed myself the space and time to heal mentally and physically from my surgery without pressuring myself to keep up my academic persona. This was the motivation behind my hiatus during the festive period. Here, I want to reflect on the importance of listening to your body during the PhD and advocating for yourself and your health.

30 October 2020

I had an emergent laparoscopic cholecystectomy with bile duct exploration. What this means in non-medical speak is I had my gallbladder along with four gallstones from my bile duct removed by keyhole surgery. It was a success. However, I experienced minor complications, namely, inflammation of the cartilage around my rib cage, which kept me in hospital for two nights for pain management and is an issue I’m still coping with when I overexert myself. A good, if painful, lesson on listening to my body and resting when I need to. My surgery was the conclusion of months, if not years of pain, that was ignored and diminished by myself and my doctors as ‘PhD stress’.

A pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, internet.

July 2017

I had my first gallstone attack while I was home in North Carolina visiting my family for a short ‘break’. I put ‘break’ in inverted commas here because even though I was away from my home university, I was still putting myself under extreme pressure to continue to work on my thesis as I entered my final years as a PhD researcher. At the time, I dismissed the pain as muscle spasms, since they were confined to my mid-back, right shoulder, and rib cage. As a varsity long-distance swimmer in high school, I had an old shoulder injury, which I assumed was the root of the cause of the pain exacerbated by the discomfort of international travel with heavy suitcases. Over the next few years, I had a few more attacks, which I easily dismissed as stress-induced indigestion, assuming the obvious cause of my physical symptoms was the PhD. I would continue to blame my physical symptoms of illness as ‘PhD stress’ well into 2020 when I was working toward my thesis submission.

March 2020

I began to have gallbladder attacks 3-4 times a week. I convinced myself that it was merely a correlation between these episodes, the stress of submission and the stress of submission during a global pandemic. I assumed that the symptoms would disappear as soon as I hit send on my email to college with my thesis enclosed.

Dear Reader, they did not.

April 2020

I had an attack every night after I submitted and by the Thursday I finally deemed myself ill enough to phone my GP. Maybe it’s an ulcer. Maybe it’s acid reflux. The GP was quick to dismiss these symptoms, suggesting they were probably caused by my stress levels (and weight – still unimpressed about being fat-shamed in 2020!) and she prescribed an acid reducer and told me not to call back unless the symptoms had not improved. The symptoms didn’t improve. I called back in two weeks time and was assured that acid reflux symptoms could be ‘quite painful’ while she ordered more tests. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the next few months, but needless to say, the tests were inconclusive, I started to feel marginally better and I assumed that we had gotten to the root of the problem.

25 September 2020

I was done with the PhD. Doctored. My stress levels were relatively minimal. I was back at work in the restaurant I work at part-time. I had been offered teaching for the autumn semester. Life was pretty good all things considered. That night in September, my partner made one of his signature pasta dishes (meatballs and mushrooms), full of creamy, cheesy, goodness. What came next was the longest and worst gallstone attack of my life. It lasted 18 hours and it was still 2 days more before I started to feel anything approaching ‘normal’. As I no longer had a PhD to blame my symptoms on and it happened immediately following a fatty meal, the cause was more obvious. More tests were ordered. My blood work came back slightly abnormal. I was still too young to cause much worry about complications from gallstone disease, so I attended an ultrasound scan. The radiologist confirmed I had gallstones. I had another attack that day, likely caused by the agitation of my gallbladder during the scan. Having finally had an attack during business hours, the GP was able to see me and quickly decided I needed to go to hospital. I spent the next week in and out of the hospital for more tests and finally the MRI scan, which confirmed that I had four gallstones in my bile duct, which made my case emergent as I was at risk of the duct rupturing, causing serious complications. I was incredibly lucky that within five weeks of my major gallbladder attack (likely when the stones moved into the duct) that I was having surgery to remove it.

Dear Reader, the irony is not lost on me that while I was starting a blog titled ‘An Errant Academic’ errant gallstones had simultaneously gone for a wander and were wreaking havoc on my health and my body.

Two of the four unexpected body modifications of 2020. Here’s to 2021 seeing a return to more fun body mods, like a new tattoo or piercing.

This health crisis taught me a few things.

  1. It is frustrating that initially I had to continually advocate for myself to my GP in April when my symptoms became increasingly unmanageable. I hope that telling a woman she is probably just fat and stressed will no longer be an appropriate ‘diagnosis’ someday.
  2. I dismissed my own symptoms and wrote them off as ‘PhD stress’. ‘PhD stress’ and its physical manifestations should never be normalised. Maybe it’s not entirely healthy to blame all physical discomfort as ‘just’ the PhD. Maybe, more importantly, the fact that the PhD can take such priority and exact such a toll on physical and well-being ought to be interrogated.
  3. The NHS is a beautiful, wonderful thing. As an American, I had several friends from the US reach out to express their sympathies that in an already difficult year I had to face unexpected medical costs. I was happy to tell them that I hadn’t gone into debt by getting sick. Something that is far too common in the American healthcare system.

I am incredibly lucky that I was able to have surgery during a global pandemic, as weird as it sounds. It saved my life. Now to listen to my body more in the future and honour it by not allowing the expectations of my academic persona to overtake my mental and physical well-being.

I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

In Britney Spears’ 2009 concert tour, ‘Circus’, the pop star opened her act within a gilded cage, dressed as a ringmaster, performing several songs from this cage while acrobats and dancers performed around her. Her 2009 tour was the first tour she had undertaken in five years and it was part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate her image and celebrity following her public breakdown of 2007. The events leading up to her breakdown in 2007 and her subsequent hospitalisation, including a 51/50 involuntary hold, would lead to her psychiatrists diagnosing her as ‘gravely disabled’, meaning that she was considered a danger to herself and others. Significantly, having a ‘grave disability’ is also a legal status. Her father, Jamie Spears exploited this diagnosis, and pursued a conservatorship of Britney’s estate. While this arrangement was considered temporary at the time, the status of ‘grave disability’ stripped Britney of her personal agency, as she was not even entitled to her own legal representation whilst under the care of her father. She has been, in effect, under the control of her father and her managers since 2008, with the court upholding the terms of her conservatorship as recently as this year. Given the wider context of Britney’s personal life and legal status, as well as the creative influence she had had throughout her career, we might read her performance and the spectacle of the cage as a visual commentary on her lack of agency in 2009.

Britney performs ‘You Want a Piece of Me?’ (© Wikimedia Commons)

As a child of the ‘90s, I grew up with Britney Spears. Her first album, …Baby One More Time was the first cassette I bought with my allowance (I know, I’m really aging myself here). Britney Spears was a pop star that resonated with so many young women because of her perceived confidence, agency, and autonomy in her early work. This was especially fascinating as a young person growing up in the southern United States, just like Britney (a Louisiana native) where the sexual mores and expectations were decidedly chaste. The fallout of her mental health crisis of 2007 did not immediately strike me as troubling. I took in the salacious gossip around Britney’s public divorce, and then public breakdown without questioning the narrative that was being put forward or what any of that might have to do with feminism (I was a teenager). However, the ongoing legal struggle she has had with overturning her conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement, present an interesting intersection with my research into medieval women’s agency and legal capacity.

Modern law regarding conservatorship, at least in the United States, is not all that dissimilar to laws of wardship that we see in the Middle Ages. The law of wardship in Scotland, as prescribed in Regiam Majestatem, aligned more or less with English Common Law in how guardianship and wardship was to be handled. A minor’s estates and property were placed into the custody of their guardian until they reached a legal age of majority. This differed based on sex. For elite men, this was linked to their ability to perform military service, and they were able to inherit their property at twenty-one. For elite women, their age of majority was lower (fourteen) and tied to an age deemed legally acceptable to marry. The legal expectation was that their guardians would keep their inheritance safe and were expected to restore the inheritance to their ward. For elite women, the laws of wardship had further coercive possibilities, as their guardian controlled who they could marry, and if they were sexually incontinent, they risked losing their inheritance. Thus, wardship was twofold. There was guardianship of the person and guardianship of their estates. This could be controlled by one person, or multiple people, and I emphasise it here to underscore the limitations that wardship imposed on an individual’s personal agency and access to resources. It is perhaps not surprising that these relationships were exploited.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears functions basically along the same lines, although some of the moralising aspects of medieval wardship have been dropped from discussions of her father’s control over her estates. Jamie Spears makes the decisions regarding his daughter’s recording schedule, album release, and performances. He pays himself a salary out of her financial estate to cover the ‘cost’ of his administration of it. What was intended to be a temporary fix, while Britney received professional help, is now a twelve-year-long engagement with no end in sight. This is particularly troubling given the fact that Britney and her father have always had a strained relationship. And we might look to her early career for examples of her attempts to gain autonomy from her father. For instance, she bought her mother a new house in her hometown following the success of her first album with the expectation that this would give her mother the freedom she needed to leave Jamie.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears presents us with an important contemporary example of the ways in which patriarchal legal systems work against women. Because a judge ruled in her father’s favour after she was deemed ‘gravely disabled’, Britney Spears has not had an independent legal status for twelve years. It has affected her ability to use legal representation independently from her father. The celebrity of Britney and the high profile of her case is likely to set legal precedent and influence rulings in cases like this in the future. The title of this post, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ comes from her first studio album, and the first cassette I bought, …Baby One More Time. It implies a liminality, an existence in between two categories, and may have commented on Britney’s sexualisation while still a teenager. It also hints at her current liminality within her current conservatorship, in which her free will and autonomy is seriously curtailed. We might also think about the liminality of women more generally in legal systems, both historical and contemporary and the ways in which these systems, written by and for men, benefit men at the expense of female agency and autonomy. The Equality Act (originally conceived of in 1974 and currently a bill in the US Congress) continues to be debated and remains contested even though passage of it would provide more concrete prohibitions on discrimination that would benefit a number of marginalised groups that are not currently protected by law. Britney’s case shows us the importance of feminist interpretations of the law and the worrying continuities between women’s historical legal capacity and the way in which current legal systems can be exploited to continue to disempower women. It lays bare the insufficiencies of patriarchal legal structures that continue to leave women, and others, in the margins.


All discussion of Scots law and the Regiam Majestatem reference Thomas M. Cooper (ed.), Regiam Majestatem and Quoniam Attachiamenta (Edinburgh: 1947).

‘Britney Spears loses court bid to remove father’s control over estate’

Bianca Betancourt, ‘Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans are Demanding to #FreeBritney’

Barbara Ellen, ‘Whips with Everything’

Constance Grady, ‘Why Britney Spears’s fans are convinced she’s being held captive’

Scottish Feminist Judgments Project

Wondery’s Even the Rich Podcast, #FreeBritney four-part series

I’m a SurVIVA, Part Two

Recommended listening: Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’

Last week, I covered prepping for the virtual viva in ‘I’m a SurViva, Part One’. I recommend reading that before reading about my experience of the viva on the day.

The Virtual Viva

The virtual setting for the viva is markedly different from the in-person setting. This is not a negative, it’s nice to be in your own home, rather than having to go into university and sit in florescent lighting in an uncomfortable chair. The examiners are also in their own homes. It makes the process feel more personal than it would on campus. Procedurally, I was allowed someone in the room with me for support, so my partner sat off camera near me, which was a nice way to feel a bit calmer through the process. You are also allowed to have a supervisor sit in with their camera and mic muted. While it may seem weird to have a ‘ghost’ in the room, since they aren’t participating, I find I have a hard time remembering everything when I’m in high stress situations, so I liked having someone there to take notes and observe to help me through the post mortem of the viva afterward.

One of the biggest advantages of the remote viva was that I only had to look professional from the waist up. I wore a nice blazer and my loosest and least professional (but most comfortable) jeans. I kept the light soft in the room, and made sure to burn a candle an hour before so the room smelled lovely (aromatherapy is a way I cope with my anxiety). All of this being said, it is harder to mentally get into the remote viva, since it’s just online, rather than in-person, so take deep breaths once you’re in the ‘room’ and allow yourself a moment or two to mentally arrive.

The biggest take away from my remote viva is that it’s okay for there to be silences during the viva. It means you’re thinking about the question! As a person with an anxious brain, I often speak too soon in an effort to avoid silence, but I consciously tried to let myself think before I answered each question. I would bullet point various ideas I had on my notepad, which allowed me to order my response. If you don’t understand a question, it’s okay to ask for your examiner to re-phrase of re-frame it. The chair should tell you at the beginning, but you’re allowed to ask for breaks. I also found that the remote setting made it easier for me to take deep, clearing breaths after each question/response without it being noticeable.

My anxious brain didn’t even entertain this as a possibility, but you should also prepare for your examiners to like your work and be excited to ask you questions about it out of interest!

The excitement is palpable. The newly minted Dr Davis.


The remoteness of an online examination can feel anti-climactic after you sign off from the meeting. To combat this, I had booked a supervision meeting for right after my viva so we could debrief and discuss the viva together. Afterward, my partner and I had a small celebration planned; Seamus had put a bottle of fizz in the fridge to celebrate the moment. We then celebrated that weekend with his parents with more fizz and bagging another Munro (although we didn’t mix the two)! Whatever you enjoy doing that can help mark the occasion, do it. It’s a big accomplishment, even if you achieved it without getting out of your pyjama bottoms.

We walked from Glenn Muick to Lochnagar and back again. Couldn’t think of a better way to shake off the metaphysical weight of the PhD.