Skip to main content Accesibility Help

Women, law and legal intervention in early modern Portugal

  • Darlene Abreu-Ferreira (a1)

Early modern Portuguese women had the legal right to engage in a number of official transactions, including granting and receiving sureties and powers of attorney. This was not the case for women in many other parts of western Europe, making the Portuguese example worthy of scrutiny for comparative purposes. This article looks at the unique position of women in early modern Portugal, and shows that upon close examination of the archival sources, the evidence points to a significant gap between women's legal rights and the cultural limitations that were imposed on women.

Au Portugal, à l’époque moderne, les femmes avaient le droit de s'engager dans certains processus juridiques, tel celui d’être cautionnée, de se porter garante, de recevoir ou de donner procuration. Nombre sont les régions d'Europe occidentale où cela n’était nullement le cas pour les femmes, c'est pourquoi l'exemple portugais mérite d’être considéré avec attention, à des fins de comparaison. L'auteur examine ici ce que la position des femmes portugaises avait d'original à l’époque moderne et, après un examen minutieux des sources d'archives, elle met en lumière à quel point l’écart était important entre les droits juridiques en principe accordés aux femmes et les limitations de fait, de type culturel, qui leur étaient en réalité imposées.

Im frühneuzeitlichen Portugal hatten Frauen einen Rechtsanspruch auf bestimmte Rechtsgeschäfte wie zum Beispiel die Stellung oder den Empfang einer Bürgschaft oder von Vollmachten. In vielen anderen Teilen Europas war dies nicht der Fall, weshalb es sich lohnt, das portugiesische Beispiel zu Vergleichszwecken genauer zu untersuchen. Dieser Beitrag wirft einen Blick auf die einzigartige Stellung der Frau im frühneuzeitlichen Portugal und unterzieht das Archivmaterial einer eingehenden Prüfung. Die Befunde deuten darauf hin, dass zwischen den Rechtsansprüchen von Frauen und den kulturellen Einschränkungen, denen Frauen unterworfen waren, eine beträchtliche Kluft bestand.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Women, law and legal intervention in early modern Portugal
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Women, law and legal intervention in early modern Portugal
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Women, law and legal intervention in early modern Portugal
      Available formats
Corresponding author
*Corresponding author. Email:
Hide All


1 Arquivo Distrital do Porto (ADP), Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 47, fo. 53v.

2 See, for example, Abreu-Ferreira, Darlene, Women, crime, and forgiveness in early modern Portugal (Farnham, 2015); Owens, Sarah E. and Mangan, Jane E. eds., Women of the Iberian Atlantic (Baton Rouge, 2012); Mattoso, José ed., História da vida privada em Portugal: a idade moderna, 4 vols. (Lisbon, 2011); da Cunha, Mafalda Soares and Franco, Juan Hernández eds., Sociedade, família e poder na Peninsula Ibérica: elementos para uma história comparativa (Lisbon, 2010); Coolidge, Grace E., ‘“A vile and abject woman”: noble mistresses, legal power, and the family in early modern Spain’, Journal of Family History 32, 3 (2007), 195214.

3 Mia Capiola, ‘Spousal disputes, the marital property system, and the law in later medieval Sweden’; Shennan Hutton, ‘Property, family and partnership: Married women and legal capability in late medieval Ghent’; Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘Married women, work and the law: evidence from early modern Germany’, all in Beattie, Cordelia and Stevens, Matthew Frank eds., Married women and the law in premodern northwest Europe (Rochester, 2013).

4 Hardwick, Julie, Family business: litigation and the political economies of daily life in early modern France (Oxford, 2009), 11.

5 Arquivo Distrital de Évora (ADE), Fundo Notarial, Domingos Pires (notary), Séries 174, fos. 80–3, Lianor Dangas, 18 November 1568.

6 Arquivo Distrital de Viana do Castelo (ADVC), Fundo Notarial, Manuel Martins da Costa (notary), No., fols. 118v–121v, Caterina Alves do Porto, 19 January 1647.

7 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 52, fols. 211v–212v, Madalena Gonçalves, 14 June 1661.

8 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 56, fols. 178v–179, Luzia, 4 March 1666.

9 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 56, fols. 159–v, Maria de Sousa, 14 February 1656. It should be noted that the vast majority of victims’ pardons found in notarial collections did not include a reference to the Velleianum, whether those pardons were granted by women or men. See Abreu-Ferreira, Women, crime, and forgiveness.

10 Gardner, Jane F., Women in Roman law and society (Bloomington and Minneapolis, 1986), 75. See also Thomas, Yan, ‘The division of the sexes in Roman law’, in Duby, Georges and Perrot, Michelle eds., A history of women in the west, 3 vols. (Cambridge and London, 1992), vol. I, 83137.

11 Kuehn, Thomas, Law, Family and women: toward a legal anthropology of Renaissance Italy (Chicago and London, 1994), 218.

12 Ordenações Afonsinas (1446), Livro 4, Título 18; Ordenações Manuelinas (1521), Livro 4, Título 12; Ordenações Filipinas (1603), Livro 4, Título 61. Henceforth, these collections shall be referred to as OA, OM, or OF, respectively.

13 Dixon, Suzanne, ‘Infirmitas sexus: womanly weakness in Roman law’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 52 (1984), 343–71.

14 OF, Livro 4, Título 46 and 60; OM, Livro 4, Título 7 and 13.

15 Marques, Mário Reis, O liberalismo e a Codificação do Direito Civil em Portugal (Coimbra, 1987), 21.

16 For references to the Senato Consulto Veleyano in some Spanish documents, see Francisco Tomás Valiente, ‘El perdon de la parte ofendida en el derecho penal castellano’, Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español, Serie 1a, No. 1, Tomo XXXI (Madrid, 1961), 91, here 55–114; Coolidge, Grace E., ‘“Neither dumb, deaf, nor destitute of understanding”: women as guardians in early modern Spain’, The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVI, 3 (2005), 681–2, here 673–93.

17 Hanley, Sarah, ‘Social sites of political practice in France: lawsuits, civil rights, and the separation of powers in domestic and state government, 1500–1800’, The American Historical Review 102, 1 (1997), 31.

18 OF, Livro 5, Título 131.

19 For examples of guarantees of mortgaged property values, see ADE, Fundo Notarial, Domingos Pires (notary), Séries 175, fols. 105–06v, 1570; Instituto de Arquivos Nacionais / Torre do Tombo (IAN/TT), Fundo Notarial (Lisbon) Caixa 4, No. 20, fols. 40–1, 1588.

20 OF, Livro 1, Additamentos, ‘Lei de 10 dezembro de 1602’, 256.

21 Arquivo Histórico Municipal do Porto (AHMP), Livro de Vereações, No. 65, fols. 343–44v, 20 May 1702.

22 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 23, fols. 256–8, Alexandre Pinto Machado, 5 December 1633.

23 No such examples were found for Portugal, but for an example of a wife's struggles with her husband's fraud in early modern England, see Wright, Danaya C., ‘Coverture and women's agency: informal modes of resistance to legal patriarchy’, in Stretton, Tim and Kesselring, Krista J. eds., Married women and the law: coverture in England and the common law world (Montreal and Kingston, 2013), 242–3.

24 ADE, Fundo Notarial, Domingos Pires (notary), Séries 175, fols. 129v–131; Séries 177, fols. 97v–99.

25 Arquivo Districal de Faro (ADF), Loulé, No. 1-1-4, João Mendes (notary), fols. 154–7v, 21 April 1604, and fols. 208–10v, 15 July 1604.

26 For the law governing the recuperation of that to which the guarantor pledged, see OF, Livro 3, Título 92.

27 ADF, Fundo Notarial (Loulé), Joo Mendes (notary), No. 1-1-6, fols. 142–5v, 22 April 1608.

28 For references to Portugal's sumptuary laws, see OF, Livro 5, Título 60 and 100, for instance.

29 The monetary unit in early modern Portugal was the real (réis in plural) and the cruzado, and for most of the period under discussion, a cruzado was worth approximately 400 réis. An English source from the early seventeenth century reported that 1,000 réis was equivalent to 12 shillings and 6 pence. Marques de Almeida, A. A., Aritmética como Descrição do Real (1519–1679), 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1994), vol. I, 172–7; Anon., The anatomy of the English nunnery at Lisbon in Portugal (London, 1622), fo. 10.

30 ADE, Fundo Notarial, Domingos Pires (notary), Séries 175, fols. 139v–141, 1570.

31 The literature on women and widowhood is vast, but see, for example, Kippen, Kim and Woods, Lori eds., Worth and repute: valuing gender in late medieval and early modern Europe: essays in honour of Barbara Todd (Toronto, 2011); Couchman, Jane and Crabb, Ann eds., Women's letters across Europe, 1400–1700: form and persuasion (Aldershot, 2005); Nader, Helen ed., Power and gender in Renaissance Spain: eight women of the Mendoza Family, 1450–1650 (Chicago, 2004); and Hardwick, Julie, ‘Widowhood and patriarchy in seventeenth-century France’, Journal of Social History 26, 1 (1992), 133–48.

32 For a look at women investors, see Spickley, Judith, ‘Usury legislation, cash, and credit: the development of the female investor in the late Tudor and Stuart periods’, Economic History Review, New Series 61, 2 (2008), 277301.

33 ADVC, Fundo Notarial, Manuel Martins da Costa (notary), No., fols. 98v–100, 1645–1647.

34 ADE, Fundo Notarial, João Baptista de Carvalho (notary), Séries 662, fols. 188–9v, 1660.

35 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Sé, No. 57, fols. 273v–275, here fo. 274v, 18 February 1668.

36 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Sé, No. 49, fols. 147–8v, 20 November 1658; No. 54, fols. 89v–90, 12 February 1663; No. 57, fols. 172–v, 29 April 1667.

37 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Sé, No. 49, fo. 147v, 1658.

38 For an examination of the difficulties that individuals experienced in receiving payments for debts, see Matthews, Stephen, ‘Money supply and credit in rural Cheshire, c. 1600–c.1680’, Continuity and Change 24, 2 (2009), 258–60.

39 Jamie Smith, ‘Legal protection for wives of absent husbands in late fourteenth-century Genoa’, in Kippen and Woods eds., Worth and repute, 253.

40 Karen Pearlston, ‘What a feme sole trader could not do: Lord Mansfield on the limits of a married woman's commercial freedom’, in Kippen and Woods eds., Worth and repute.

41 IAN/TT, Fundo Notarial (Lisbon), Caixa 3, No. 17, fols. 14v–16, 1 December 1586.

42 The long title means that Gaspar de Sequeira was a knighted nobleman, member of the royal court, and an honoured citizen of Porto.

43 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 1, 3a Se, No. 45, fols. 129–31v, 1573.

44 For the laws requiring office holders to be married, see OF, Livro 1, Título 94. For a study about women and office holding, see Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, ‘Women and the acquisition, transmission, and execution of public offices in early modern Portugal’, Gender & History, forthcoming, and Abreu-Ferreira, Darlene, ‘Female foul language and foul female agents in pre-modern Portugal’, Ler História 71 (2017), 932.

45 See note 36.

46 For a discussion of the link between credit and masculinity, see Shepard, Alexandra, ‘Manhood, credit and patriarchy in early modern England c. 1580–1640’, Past & Present 167 (2000).

47 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 47, fols. 225v–228, 1657. The signature by a woman was rare, due to the low literacy rate among women in early modern Portugal.

48 OF, Livro 1, Título 88, Nos. 4–9. In early modern Portugal, a child was considered an orphan upon the death of one or both parents.

49 For an overview of the situation in England, see McIntosh, Marjorie K., ‘The benefits and drawbacks of femme sole status in England, 1300–1630’, Journal of British Studies 44, 3 (2005).

50 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4,1a Se, No. 45, fols. 18v–19, 1654. For the legislation on the grace period allowed in cases of civil suits and illnesses, see OF, Livro 3, Título 9, Nos. 8–10.

51 For an examination of the key role played by notaries in credit transactions, see Hardwick, Julie, The practice of patriarchy: gender and the politics of household authority in early modern France (University Park, PA, 1998), especially ch. 2.

52 See, for example, a power of attorney document ordered by Briatis Afonso and on behalf of her grandchildren, written as if everyone implicated was present, but the document was left unfinished, and unsigned, because ‘it was no longer necessary’. ADF, Fundo Notarial, Jacinto José dos Santos e Melo (notary), No. 1056, Castro Marim, fols. 52–4v, 6 December 1685.

53 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4,1a Se, No. 36, fols. 182–3v, 22 March 1646.

54 Hardwick, Family business, 201.

55 Kent, Susan Kingsley, ‘Gender rules: law and politics’, in Meade, Teresa A. and Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. eds., A companion to gender history (Oxford, 2004), 86109.

56 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 1, 3a Se, No. 52, fols. 114v–116, 1575.

57 The royal ordinances stipulated that, in cases of the power of attorney, the only restrictions that existed were those placed on minors: boys under 14 and girls under 12 could not grant power of attorney. OF, Livro 3, Título 29.

58 A significant exception to this rule was the case of nuns in Portuguese convents, many of whom were called to witness notarised documents related to convent matters.

59 OF, Livro 4, Título 80–6.

60 ADP, Fundo Notarial, Po. 4, 1a Se, No. 53, fols. 26–26v, 13 September 1660.

61 AIN/TT, Fundo Notarial (Lisbon), Caixa 3, Livro No. 13, fols. 103v–105, 21 January 1586.

62 Dixon, ‘Infirmitas sexus’, 365.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Continuity and Change
  • ISSN: 0268-4160
  • EISSN: 1469-218X
  • URL: /core/journals/continuity-and-change
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed