This post was written by Esther Brot, PhD student at King’s College London and History Day 2018’s postgraduate volunteer. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences.

Attending to Early Modern Women

Last month I ventured to Milwaukee, WI USA to attend the 2018 Attending to Early Modern Women: Action and Agency [ATW] conference. This conference provides a unique experience because it combines paper panels and workshops that cover innovative research and pedagogy.

This was my first time attending ATW and also my first time attending a conference of this size. Prior to arriving I was nervous that I would get lost at a conference of this enormity. As it turned out, the atmosphere of the conference was open and friendly. Attendees from graduate students to senior faculty members talked and exchanged information and ideas with no boundaries between them.

In the opening remarks, Merry Wiesner-Hanks, the conference organizer, talked about the different legs that upheld the study of early modern women. The conference pushes attendees and presenters to look beyond the confines of existing literature and disciplinary boundaries to think about new ways of researching women. Workshops covered material from looking at the #MeToo movement in conjunction with the English Civil War to nuns in the Lowlands and Italy. There were several plenary discussions in which series of three papers were given on a general topic, i.e. confrontation, collectivities. These papers carried on the general tone of the entire conference. One paper, presented by Dr. Caroline Castiglione, was on the pamphlet The Worth of Women written by Moderata Fonte. Another by Dr. Mihoko Suzuki considered the writings of Margaret Cavendish. The keynote given by Dr. Angela McShane of the Wellcome Trust, brought to light the lesser-known culture of female snuff through a material analysis of tobacco boxes. This conference provided intellectual stimulation and breadth, but also importantly introduced me and other first time attendees to a new academic group with open arms.

Giving a Workshop at a Conference

I along with three others led a workshop at the Attending to Early Modern Women conference entitled “Women and the Law in Early Modern Europe.” Leading a workshop at an academic conference sits somewhere between a workshop that might be held within a department and a panel at a conference. We started the workshop with brief presentations (1-2 minutes each) on our sources and questions on them to pose to the workshop. After this we had a deep and fast paced discussion. The attendees had a lot to say and in the end the result was a discussion that had only to be lightly facilitated by the conveners as the discussion shaped itself beautifully.

The purpose of this workshop was to facilitate discussion on women and to a lesser extent men’s engagements with patriarchy through the lens of law in early modern Europe- how women used the law to gain agency. To do this each of the workshop leaders provided a primary source prior to the workshop for attendees to read. Our primary sources covered a wide scope of material and also engaged with a wider definition of what constituted sites of law. One of the contentions of our workshop was that law did not only take place in the court, but could take place throughout life. If we consider that people talked about, negotiated etc. with the law outside of the context of the court room, that means we have to expand our exploration of sources. The activities and actions that might be a manipulation of law could be: talking with another woman about wills or inheritance or a series of information exchanges that have no direct bearing on legal documentation or action, but provide essential information to actors. Another way of thinking about this is institutionally; the primary source I provided was the diary of a gaol keeper from 1717. Gaols were an essential part of the institutional fabric of the legal system and connected the legitimacy of the courts to the legitimacy of the local government. The bureaucratic engagement over prison governance, prisoners petitions for better living conditions, fights and manipulations within the prison, are all engagements with law when viewed in a wider valence because the continuance and life of the prison was enabled by law and brought to bear on law. Additionally claiming rights, even if they were not in the venue of the courts, was a legal claim. Integrating governance at the institutional level might be the next step for thinking about women and law. The discussion of the workshop followed along these lines and took up a life of its own as attendees also brought their own research and experiences to bear on the general questions of the workshop.