VIU Student Press

The dead speak in sixteenth-century wills

Cathryn Spence. Photo courtesy of VIU.
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For VIU historian Cathryn Spence, wills are a deadly serious business. They are not, however, merely legal documents. They also offer rich insights into the everyday world of ordinary people who lived in days gone by. “The importance of making a will in modern societywith its investments, properties, and consumer cultureis clear,” says Spence, “but making a will was no less important in the early modern period.” She also notes that, “when the majority of people owned relatively few possessions, the importance of those items cannot be overstated.”

In an Arts & Humanities Colloquium presentation at 10 am on Friday, November 24, Spence, Department of History, is going to examine will making in sixteenth-century Scotland, focusing on women’s wills. The talk is entitled “The Rights of the Dead: Women and Wills in Early Modern Scotland.”

While her presentation does address the wills written by single women (widows, servants, and never-married women), for the most part it examines the will making practices of wives. Testament writing was theoretically open to all members of society in early modern Scotland, but a married woman still required her husband’s consent to write a will. This raises a number of questions, and in the presentation Spence considers the proportion of surviving sixteenth-century Scottish wills that were written by women (and by wives in particular), as well as how the practice of will-making was affected by whether one was a man or a woman. She also looks at the significance of marital status in influencing a woman’s ability to write a will. 

In England, married women’s will making declined markedly beginning in the middle of the fourteenth century. “But,” says Spence, “married women in Scotland continued to make wills in great numbers through the sixteenth century and beyond.” This is good fortune for modern historians, as careful examination and analysis of these testaments does much to illuminate what these women actually did some 500 years ago. The presentation also looks at what these wives chose to bequeath to others, and what conditions they attached to these bequests.

How these women chose to distribute their worldly goods, and the exhortations and rebukes that accompanied their bequests, provides a window into everyday life in the sixteenth century. The wills also allow insights into the economic activities these women engaged in during their lives. For historians, they also broaden understandings of relations between men and women in the early modern period, and they expose the nature of family ties. “The information contained in these wills gives a lively voice to the departed as they articulate long-overlooked details of the lives, relationships, and emotions of these women,” says Spence.

Professor Spence has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and an MA from the University of Guelph. She is the author of Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scottish Towns (published in the Gender and History series of Manchester University Press in 2016), which won the Women’s History Network Book Prize for 2017, and is co-editor of the Edinburgh Housemails Taxation Book, 1634-6 (Boydell, 2014). She has also written several chapters and articles that explore the intersecting topics of Scottish women, credit and debt, and work. Her research interests include urban and economic history, and the impact of gender and socioeconomic status when navigating economic relationships in early modern Western Europe. At VIU she teaches courses on world history, medieval and early modern history, women’s and gender history, and death.
The talk promises to be stimulating and is open to all. As always, students are especially welcome. There will be refreshments.