Lloyd Bonfield


This article constitutes a preliminary report on cases involving women that appear in a manuscript authored by Chief Justice Peter King during the first seven years of his tenure as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in early eighteenth century England. While the 327 cases he reported in the manuscript run the gamut of the procedural and substantive matters that vexed early modem Englishmen, the cases isolated and discussed hereinafter are the fifty-five cases in which women were a party to the litigation observed. By so doing, isolating cases in which women appeared as litigants, we may catalog the legal issues that touched the lives of women during the period and discern the substantive law that these disputes generated. No sophisticated thesis on the legal position of women during the period can be teased from the cases. Rather, the cases allow historians to derive a more nuanced and textured understanding of the circumstances of women's participation in the early modern English legal order. Moreover, by observing the legal issues and the context in which they arose in cases that involved women therein, we may relate the narratives illuminated in the cases to the broader role of women as participants in the economy and society during the earlier years of Britain's commercial revolution.