Law, Land, and Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800

Eileen Spring.

Published February 1997. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-4642-1.

Eileen Spring presents a fresh interpretation of the history of inheritance among the English gentry and aristocracy. In a work that recasts both the history of real property law and the history of the family, she finds that one of the principal and determinative features of upper-class real property inheritance was the exclusion of females. This exclusion was accomplished by a series of legal devices designed to nullify the common-law rules of inheritance under which–had they prevailed–40 percent of English land would have been inherited or held by women. Current ideas of family development portray female inheritance as increasing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Spring argues that this is a misperception, resulting from an incomplete consideration of the common-law rules. Female rights actually declined, reaching their nadir in the eighteenth century. Spring shows that there was a centuries-long conflict between male and female heirs, a conflict that has not been adequately recognized until now.


“[A] significant and highly original study.”
– Choice

“[A] lively and combative book. . . . It will be quite impossible for social or legal historians in the future to ignore the arguments presented here; the subject will never be quite the same again, and that is a real achievement.”
– Times Literary Supplement

“Eileen Spring has brought a fresh vision to the history of land law. . . . This is the best kind of feminist history. . . . A highly original and provocative book which overturns a great deal of accepted wisdom, with implications for legal, family, and women’s history.”
– Continuity and Change

“This is an admirable study, lucidly and economically argued, which makes its points about the inequitable treatment of heiresses-at-law and widows clearly and forcefully. . . . It deserves to be read not only by specialists in the development of the law of property, but by all those interested in the propertied élite of late-medieval and early-modern England.”
– Cambridge Law Journal

“Eileen Spring has written a fine and provocative book that asks us to reexamine many of the accepted views of the development of English land law. . . . Spring accomplishes an essential goal in writing legal history, she makes a highly technical and complex topic accessible to a wide audience and she does so with a timely twist.”
– Law and History Review

“An intelligent and engaging book that is a major contribution to both the history of law and the history of women. Ingeniously original, Spring’s work is sure to generate a great deal of rethinking on the part of those interested in the social history of land law.”
– Morris S. Arnold, United States Court of Appeals

A 1995 Choice Outstanding Academic Book

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