Ebba Strutzenbladh

Each month, we offer the spotlight to one of our funded researchers to exhibit their research projects in more detail.

The Featured Researcher for July was Ebba Strutzenbladh, with a PhD Project titled Women, Law and Landed Networks in the North-East of Scotland, c.1450–c. 1560.

HEI: University of Aberdeen.

Supervisors: Dr Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen), Dr Alison Cathcart (Stirling) and Dr Alan R. MacDonald (Dundee)

Portrait of Ebba Strutzenbladh

The North-East of Scotland in the later Middle Ages was a place existing in relative isolation within the Scottish realm. With extensive civic source material surviving from the burgh of Aberdeen, and with families like the Gordons of Huntly dominating the region with powers next to regal in nature, the North-East is an exciting case study within which to explore the nature of women’s power in late medieval society.

The narrative of women’s history is prone to moving between success story and tragedy. Medieval women are either powerful political and cultural agents defying modern prejudice about pre-modern misogyny, or disempowered victims of a pervasive, unchangeable patriarchy. The metaphor of ‘pawn or player’ looms large.[1] Increasingly, it is understood that the chess board of medieval political society was complex enough that the player, regardless of gender, may have at times acted as their own pawn, contrary to persistent modern fantasies of ‘uncomplicated male lordship’ where one supremely powerful man asserted his will upon all others.[2]

‘“Jonet Ogston with my hand”: signature on a 1505 charter’, catalogue number MS 3064/1/1/44 in University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections, licenced under CC By 4.0.
‘“Jonet Ogston with my hand”: signature on a 1505 charter’, catalogue number MS 3064/1/1/44 in University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections, licenced under CC By 4.0.

Against this background, I ask what the nature of medieval power was, in what specific ways women wielded power, and why this should matter to us today. The last question is of particular significance as a project on medieval women is able to destabilise the category ‘woman’, subject to so much current debate, and demonstrate that it is neither ahistorical and self-evident, nor unproblematically biological.[3]

My project does not perceive of women as an ahistorical group, but rather breaks down the legal categories attached to medieval women – ‘wife’, ‘spouse’, ‘widow’, ‘damsel’, and other terms signifying a particular familial and legal status – in order to illustrate how gendered legal labels are subject to the particular concerns and contexts in which they are used. Knowledge of the past will help us destabilise and subvert fixed understandings of the present.

Emphasising the ordinary

My project emphasises not the exceptional or the unusual, but the everyday and the routine; political life went on before, parallel to, and beyond the extraordinary political events during which political actors mobilised their networks and put their resources into practice to protect or defend themselves and their families. I study charters produced not just around times of crisis, and not just by widows whose rights had come under attack, but by husband and wife as a matter of routine. Agreement between spouses is a central theme in my work; medieval gender discourse situated the husband firmly as the head of the family and in particular of his wife, while political and legal influence was in fact usefully shared between spouses. Authority was jointly articulated when couples included in their charters the seals, signatures and shared networks that expressed their individual and familial identities. Thus, power was a collaborative enterprise, not a zero-sum game of domination and subjugation.

E-mail: e.strutzenbladh.20@abdn.ac.uk
Twitter: @strutzenbladh


[1] Christine Meek and Catherine Lawless (eds), Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women: Pawns or Players? (Dublin: Four Courts, 2003).

[2] Lucy K. Pick, ‘Networking Power and Gender at Court’: An Eleventh-Century Diploma and “Las Meninas”’ in Emma O. Bérat, Rebecca Hardie, and Irina Dumitrescu (eds), Relations of Power: Women’s Networks in the Middle Ages (Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2021), 45-66, 47.

[3] For an exploration of the term ‘woman’ and the necessity to historically situate it rather than perceive it as universal, see Denise Riley, ‘Am I That Name?’: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History (London: Macmillan, 1988).