Women in the medieval English law courts have too often been regarded as passive objects of legal restrictions. Their true position in the courts is best revealed by their own actions as seen in the plea rolls, the records of proceedings in the royal courts. A study of only one form of legal action gives a limited view of women's prospects; this study explores both civil and criminal actions in order to determine the true extent both of the restrictions on women and the accomplishments they were able to make.
In the civil law, actions of right highlight the additional restrictions placed on women by the distinctive patterns of sharing by which women held land, as well as the pervasive interest of males in women's landholding. The widow's actions of dower, however, strongly favored her by removing some of the defendant's advantages of delay and choice of proof; the result was that widows won over seventy per cent of the cases they brought to a conclusion. Even here, however, there was a small but growing male presence.
In the criminal law, women who complained of rape, though they fared most poorly of all women at law, were only slightly worse off than were male victims of wounding, the only other non-fatal crime against the person, and were active in restoring any loss to their marriageability the rape might have caused. Women who brought other criminal charges, on the other hand, found the court so sympathetic that it overrode its own stated principles to aid them.
Though more subject to more restrictions than has been realized, women were capable of more activity on their own behalf than has previously been imagined. There were women who overcame all the obstacles the law could place in their way; in some areas women were favored by the court in unexpected ways; and throughout the courts women were using the system to win from it more than, on the face of things, the system was ever prepared to grant them.