Genealogy, Christianity and Islam

Studying Genealogy can be as dry as dust. Yet every now and then a genuine nugget of gold is unearthed. Some years ago Buff and I unearthed a will made by one of her ancestors. It showed clearly the legal status of women at that time. Here is the beginning of that will, with the bolding done for my emphasis. It is dated to April 1729, less than 300 years ago.


In the Name of God Amen I Susanna wife of Robert Elsome of Whittlesey within the Isle of Ely in the County of Cambridge Blacksmith being of sound and perfect mind memory and understanding by virtue of a power for that purpose to me given by my said husband Robert Elsome in and by one Sunand[?*] it in writing bearing even[?] Date herewith or by virtue of any other power or Authority whatsoever to me given by my said husband Robert Elsome do (by and with the consent of my sd husband justified by his signing of these presents[?] make and ordain this to be my last Will and Testament in manner and form following . . .

The only legal reason Susanna was able to write the will was because her husband allowed her to do so. It was required that he, a blacksmith, declare her to be of sound and perfect mind, memory and understanding. And he had to do it in writing.

These quaint little folkways were justified by a reading of the Bible which proved that woman was inferior to man. Therefore man ruled his household by divine right and all within; wife, children and servants, were subject to his will. In reality, this was a case of the Bible being bent to fit the folkways of the Saxons and Normans who successively ruled in England. After all, it was the English who burned Joan of Arc, not because she was a general fighting against them but because she wore men’s clothing!

The accepted reading of the “fixed and unchangeable” Bible has since relaxed as women have gradually gained their independence from the tyranny of men and their institutions.

With my kangaroo mind, jumping from one subject to another, I wonder if the perceived subjugation of women within Muslim society through the use of Koranic authority is of a similar nature. FGM being justified in some parts of the world and not others through the pronouncements of the Imams, the Saudi experience where women are required to wear the totally black burka in a climate where white would be much more comfortable, the Afghanistan Mujahadeen rulings that women were not permitted to leave their abode even to get food. The list goes on.

Will the move away from their tribal origins lead to the Islamic Authorities to relax their differing interpretations of a woman’s place in society?

It is interesting to see the origin of the strange word in the will extract above.


* Sunnud or Sanad.. A deed of grant, charter, patent, warrant (From the Urdu and Arab = signature, deed). According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary it was first used in Britain in 1759.

6 responses to “Genealogy, Christianity and Islam

  1. Sehr geEhrter AerChie

    Interessant – wie immer, sehr interessant [as always, very interst-ink]

    Are you able to scan a copy of the beginning of the will for our delectation & translation ?

    Reading these old hand-written documents can be surprisingly difficult – it often helps if you know what the Words are saying even before you start reading the document

    eg the expression “William Compost” was clearly & obviously “William TEmpEst”, but only because I already knew this and not from looking at the letters which appears to be C-O-mp-O-st

    It was a particular surprise to deduce “Richard Spencer the Watchmaker” … the December 1811 letters for Watchmaker being otherwise indecipherable

    1. In Inglaterra even as late as 1874, a Married Women could (often) not join in a Conveyance of Land without (1) the Consent of her Husband and (2) a Commissioner for Oaths signing a Declaration that (a) he had explained the said Conveyance to the hereinbefore-mentioned Married Lady and that (b) the said lady had understood the said explanation (an inherently unlikely tale, if you had the aforesaid Indenture of Conveyance before you)

    2. However, I am not aware of ladies (married or otherwise) being disqulaified from making wills without their Husband’s consent – perhaps instead Buff’s ancestress was exercising by her will a Power of Appointment given to her by her Husband under a Deed made on the same day (“of even date”) as the lady’s will – did the lady’s Young Man sign the will ?

    * I could explain “Powers of Appointment”, but while I am a very sad specimen of Aquila-dom, I don’t think you (or your divers & manifold eggregious readers) are sufficiently sad to be interested

    3. “one Sunand[?*]” – I have never come across this expression, but I wonder if you are mis-reading it

    4. “these presents” is not a mystery – it is a common expression meaning “this Document” or “these present words” – without seeing the original, I cannot be definitive, but I think that you can almost certainly remove this question mark, unless there is something in the original to justify a doubt

    Your obedt servt etc

    G E


  2. This was very interesting.

    I wonder myself how the Islamic world will come back to the Quranic origins of gender equality.

    I am currently reading Abou ElFadl’s The Great Theft, Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. There you will find some of the answers as to how woman got into the situation in Saudi and some of the other areas. I highly recommend the book – it is easy reading and highly informative. We could do a book discussion on my blog if you’d like.

    As for FGM – I’d like to say that it is not something that is allowed by Islam or something that Islam has recommended. There are actually verses in the Quran that one could use to argue against it. However, just as Christian missionaries and even Jewish societies turn their cheek to this practice which is highly a cultural tradition, Islam does so as well. You’ve just inspired a post. Let’s see if I can research this a bit.


  3. Pingback: Tribalism and Islam « Samaha

  4. Herr G eaGle, For your (and any other aficionado of olde worlde scribbles) I have updated the post above with scans of a photocopy of the will. As for “her Young Man”, Susannah died within days of making her will and her eldest child would have been born around 1706. I guesstimate her date of birth as being around 1680-1690. She was close to Wisbech, a noted international port in those days and owned land which made her important.

    samaha, I shall look out for that book. Isn’t it interesting how religions collect bits of other, older religions as they move from their place of beginning. Christmas is not a Biblical event, nor is All Hallows (Halloween). As for the flagellants of medieval Europe (and the Phillipines of today) – enough said. – moving to your blog to continue discussion.


  5. Dear Archie

    The Will seems very interesting – did you get it from the Public Records Office or is it from some old Title Deeds ?

    I need either new Spectacles or new eyes, but the 1st extract is too faint & too small for me to read – any chance of a bigger, sharper version

    I think you may have mis-read one or two words, whch I should be able to supply, with the benefit of a more readable sample

    Forget the arabic Sunand – the mysterious “word” in the 2nd extract is :

    by one surrender in writing

    I’d enjoy a copy of the next word (I can see only the bottom slice)

    I expect that the rest of the Will shews what the Surrender relates to

    I remain your obedient servant etc

    G Eagle


  6. Herr G eaGle, Your suggestion of a larger copy has been dealt with, should you care to investigate your electronic mailing system. I still have doubts about “Surrender” as, unless there is a legal meaning I wit not, it fails to make sense in the context as I read it. The copy of the will came to us from a fellow researcher from Victoria (Aust) who had obtained copies from the Records Office, probably the Cambridgeshire office.

    The grateful recipients of your assistance are suitably grateful and thankful for your interest.


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