Devising, Dying and Dispute: Probate Litigation in Early Modern England.
Few people currently think to turn to the wills, allegations, depositions, and sentences associated with the PCC and housed in the mighty National Archives for stories of marriages gone bad, prodigal sons, and cheating servants, but tales of familiar discord is just one tale that Lloyd Bonfield's Devising, Dying and Dispute seeks to tell. The other is a legal examination of the reasons behind the tightening up of will-making requirements, and particularly the effect that the Statute of Fraud (1677) had on the process. Bonfield more successfully engages with the law than with the family, but has nonetheless alerted us to the virtually unexplored and important source of social history, offering tantalizing glimpses of the stories that lie within.
Bonfield grounds his three-part volume with introductory chapters on the "culture of will-making." He describes a messy world that generated competing copies of single wills, multiple and antagonistic executors, questionable legacies, and a legal environment that placed the burden of sorting out fact from fiction on the judge. The two chapters of Part I clearly and succinctly set out the distinctive history of English will-making and its place in the Church Courts, the Statute of Frauds, and an overview of reasons behind testamentary litigation ("uncontested" probates and issues of mental capacity and coercion tie for the lead). Bonfield next outlines his hypothesis that frames two-thirds of the book: Was the Statute of Frauds adopted to decrease the level of litigation? If so, it only worked in decreasing the number of contested oral wills. Bonfield writes about legal issues with a simple and clear prose style that highlights the relevancy of 300-year-old legislation for today's world, as well as making quite technical aspects of the law understandable for those in other fields.
The second section is a fascinating and careful exploration of issues of mental capacity and coercion, particularly surrounding nuncupative wills. It is here that Bonfield's fine legal mind shines. Even with advanced "estate planning," last minute changes to a will could raise a slew of questions surrounding the testator's true intent, and it is here that we begin to see the less scrupuless side of human behaviour, as weak and dying individuals were subjected to manipulation and fraud. Bonfield's discussion of the legal understanding of mental incapacity has important implication for our understanding of growing old, as well as an appreciation of what was at stake for surviving friends and family.
The book's final section is at once its weakest and most exciting part. Entitled "Windows into Social Relationships," the final three chapters seek to explore the dynamics of "family relations" and "enigmatic human conduct" (p. 177). Chapter eight explores the issue of how to prove a valid marriage, a particularly vexing problem for judges in the face of multiple claimants for the role of "surviving spouse." Marriage certificates and even actual register books were drug into court, but not always with the intended effect. It seems that consummation and local repute as husband and wife carried more legal weight. "Discord and Disinheritance," Chapter nine, surveys a range of familial ties that were troubled or broken, divisions sometimes prompted by the contents of the will itself. There were parent-child disputes, as well as those between step-parent-step-child, between siblings, and between the testator and spouse. Bonfield is surprised to learn that the aggrieved engaged in name-calling, abusive language, and character assignation to right their perceived wrong, rather than violent acts in a world that Bonfield (rather troubling, given the population structure of the period) calls "nasty, brutish, and short." The final chapter is a short and unsatisfying, only seventeen-and-a-half page, look at the "myriad roles of women," and that comprised mostly of two case studies with the names and roles of the women involved stressed in bold font. A short conclusion, stressing "they were like we are" (p. 245; emphasis Bonfield's), is rounded out by a very useful appendix/"primer" on probate procedure in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
There is much to admire about this book, but social historians will find it frustrating in its grasp of the historiography. Perhaps because this book took shape during two hurricanes and many storms Katrina, Ike, Lily, Ivan, and Georges, to name a few--and notes were lost and then found, plus backed-up versions of the text needed to be reconciled, but the social history bibliography is thin and much of it dates from an earlier time. Significantly, several key social history texts are missing from his discussion. Laura Gowing's Domestic Dangers (Oxford, 1996), to use but one example, would have gone a long ways in foregrounding Bonfield's study, as she too used legal records to demonstrate women's legal agency, the nature of marital conflicts, and perhaps most usefully here, the use of language in verbal disputes as women took an active role in the recreation and maintenance of honour and reputation.
Bonfield is absolutely correct, however, in identifying the PCC wills as a rich and untapped source for social history, particularly that pertaining to unhappy families and broken social relations. This book has cracked open that source, showed us its potential, and laid the very necessary legal groundwork for understanding what it meant to individuals, families, and friends when someone died. While not itself a social history, Bonfield's book will be essential reading for social historians exploring what happened when someone devised, died, and disputed in early modern England.
Lynn A. Botelho
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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|Author:||Botelho, Lynn A.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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