"'Deserving' and 'Undeserving' Wives: Earning and Forfeiting Dower in Medieval England"

Michigan Law Authors
Areas of Interest
Publish Date
Journal of Legal History
Publication Type
Journal Article

Under the rules of the medieval common law, widows were normally entitled automatically to a third share of their late husband's lands as their dower. A series of case beginning in the middle of the thirteenth century indicates, however, that widows were only entitled to their dower if they had been old enough to ‘earn’ their dower by the time their husbands died and that this meant being old enough to engage in full sexual intercourse. Under the provisions of chapter 34 of the statute of Westminster II (1285) it also became possible for wives to forfeit their claim to dower for adultery. The following two decades provide evidence of around 100 cases in which these provisions were invoked. These two developments suggest that during the second half of the thirteenth century there was a significant shift away from seeing dower as an automatic entitlement arising out of any valid marriage to seeing it instead as a ‘reward’ for service rendered by the wife during marriage.

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