Elite women and power in Late Medieval Scotland, 1296 to 1458.
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date10/10/2025
Davis, Rachel Meredith
This thesis is a case study of elite women in late medieval Scotland, which contributes to the ongoing re-assessment of women and power in medieval Europe called the ‘Beyond Exceptionalism’ movement. The debate around women and power has been recurrent within the discipline of women’s and gender history since the McNamara-Wemple thesis of 1973, which posited a decline in women’s access to power from c.1050. While aspects of their thesis have been dismantled, the paradigm it created has had a lasting effect on the absorption and inclusion of women into master narratives of medieval history. Women that exercised power after the eleventh century continue to be classified as ‘exceptional’ even if the number of women who ruled within medieval north-western Europe during the subsequent centuries suggests their participation to be regular and routine. However, women’s and gender historians have still argued that a decline in women’s status did occur, shifting it to the fourteenth-century. Within the field of medieval Scottish history, the analytical prejudice of women’s ‘exceptionality’ can be traced within political narratives of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and systematic study of elite women’s activities has yet to be done. Drawing on the scholarship of women’s and gender historians, this thesis explores the ways in which women exercised power in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Scotland through a careful analysis of the language of women’s charters and seals, as well as other sources that illuminate elite women’s authority. The main inquiry of the thesis is divided into three chapters and uses the female life course stages – daughter, wife, and widow – as categories of analysis throughout to assess how women exercised power in Scotland. The first chapter examines women’s power through the family with an examination of surviving charter evidence. The evidence presented in this chapter represents the core of the primary source research of this doctoral project. It approaches the evidence through prosopography and micro-history, uncovering that elite Scottish women’s use of the categories of ‘daughter’, ‘wife’, and ‘widow’ were politically strategic and earlier relationships were often called upon later in life in their exercise of power. The second chapter examines the visual language of women’s seals, and it suggests that women were innovators in sealing convention in Scotland through their use of heraldry to express their oftentimes complex relationships to kinship groups. This counters long-held assumptions about medieval women’s seals and heraldry as being essentially formulaic. The third chapter re-examines instances of potential coercion experienced by women as daughters, wives, and widows – through analysis of wardship, land resignations, and imprisonment, which has been used as evidence of elite women’s vulnerability. Through analysis of the language of a variety of texts, the chapter suggests that these instances reveal women’s importance, and latent or potential power as political actors. This thesis re-interprets the role of elite women in late medieval Scotland from 1296 to 1458. It argues that rather than ‘exceptions’ to a patriarchal rule, elite women’s activities as female lords were wide-ranging and routine. The findings of this thesis suggest that the study of elite women and their exercise of power can provide another way of interpreting how diplomacy was conducted and that historians of Scottish lordship and politics ought to include the aims and ambitions of elite women as full political actors in order to understand power in late medieval Scotland. Importantly, the findings challenge the persistent periodization of women’s and gender history that posits a weakening in women’s power by the later Middle Ages. This thesis argues that while fourteenth- and fifteenth-century women had to cope with increasingly bureaucratic structures, characteristic decline cannot be mapped onto women’s roles in politics. Rather, their actions were comparable with their eleventh-, twelfth-, and thirteenth-century predecessors in Scotland as well as medieval northwest Europe.