An interview with Rebecca Mason

Rebecca is pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Glasgow. She researches married women and property litigation in early modern Scottish courts, focusing on the extent to which wives could exert ownership of their landed and moveable property. Her PhD is funded by a UK wide AHRC-project entitled “Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice: Britain and Ireland, c.1100-c.1750”. She is a postgraduate administrative assistant for the Centre for Gender History, and tweets on upcoming events within the Centre and across Britain on @GUGENDERHISTORY


Hi Rebecca, tell me a bit about yourself.

I’m a PhD student researching early modern Scottish women and the law at the University of Glasgow. My research interests include the representations of women in pre-modern legal settings and the gendering of early modern legal texts, with my current research focusing largely on married women’s litigation within ecclesiastical and civil jurisdictions in early modern Scotland. Before embarking on a PhD, I studied for a Master’s in Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen’s University Belfast, my wonderful hometown. My Master’s dissertation focused on women and the gendering of warfare in medieval Ireland, and attempted to deconstruct the contemporary tropes attributed to medieval women’s presence in military engagements, using Irish law tracts, chronicles, hagiography and annals as my historical sources. In my spare time, I enjoy heading to the pub with my fellow PhD colleagues, who most definitely keep me sane in moments of self-doubt.

What does your PhD research focus on?

My PhD research largely focuses on married women’s involvement in property litigation in early modern Scotland.  In the most basic terms, my PhD will attempt to understand how married women cognized and protected their rights to their marital property within a legal framework, whilst understanding and mapping the various jurisdictions wives litigated within when asserting proprietorship of their landed and moveable assets. It is a topic that has been surprisingly overlooked in pre-modern historiographies, despite the abundance of extant archives surviving across Scotland. I am very lucky to be part of a UK-wide collaborative AHRC-funded project entitled “Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice: Britain and Ireland, c.1100-c.1750”. Our project seeks to gain a greater understanding of women’s involvement in the legal processes of Britain and Ireland, researching their agency (or lack thereof) in accordance to national boundaries, language, age, ethnicity, marital and social status, to name a few. If you are interested in hearing more about our project, check out

What is the most rewarding aspect of your PhD?

Uncovering accounts that have been overwhelmingly unobserved within the over-arching grand narrative on a daily basis. The surviving material detailing the lives and experiences of early modern Scottish women is diverse, with an abundance of evidence to support their widespread interaction with the legal system. Researching in an archive is an extremely rewarding experience, and I am very fortunate to spend much of my time unearthing exciting material. I am also extremely lucky to have participated in teaching a range of history modules to undergraduate students over the past academic year, and I have learned a great deal from our intellectually stimulating tutorials, to which I am forever grateful.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

Before I could attempt to research married women’s experience of the law, I had to familiarise myself with the origins, language and development of the Scottish legal system and the types of records that were to be found within each court, a subject that was entirely new to me upon starting the PhD project. For my research, I primarily use legal documents that are found in burgh (civil) and commissary (ecclesiastical) courts. Hundreds of thousands of these documents survive in archives across Scotland, however due to time constraints, I have decided to focus closely on litigation found in courts operating within and around Glasgow during the seventeenth- and eighteenth- centuries.  The documents are primarily written in Scots (some in Latin), with court clerks often hastily scribbling the proceedings of the court; to the lament of the palaeographer and the historian! To be able to confidently transcribe these complex legal documents, I enrolled in several archival courses offered by the University of Glasgow during the first year of my PhD. These classes greatly prepared me for my visits to the archive as they allowed me to collectively analyse documents with like-minded students interested in unpicking tricky hands. Aside from attending palaeography classes, I have found that the best way to understand difficult records is to visit the archive and to physically handle and read the document in question (if possible). It takes time, so patience is most certainly a virtue.

Extract of 17th century Scottish legal secretary hand. NRS: Glasgow Commissary Court [1670], CC9/3/23/555


What’s your own personal recipe for researching or writing successfully?

I don’t think I can adequately respond to this with a substantiated answer, I’m afraid! I think everyone has different writing habits that can sometimes seem odd to our colleagues. Personally, I prefer to write under pressure. A looming deadline always forces me to rethink the direction of my research. I also seem to confidently write after spending a few weeks in the archive. As I collate data, I start to believe in the quality of my research, and my style of writing certainly benefits from this. I also find it useful to share drafts of my work with fellow students and early career researchers. Collegial support is imperative, and I truly appreciate the encouragement and guidance from the early modernist cohort and gender experts within the University of Glasgow, including the rest of project team.

Tell me about a formative influence on your work; it could be a person, a book, or a piece of advice.

My PhD supervisors, Professor Alex Shepard and Dr. Karin Bowie, are most definitely my models of how to be an academic. They are both personally supportive, intellectually challenging, and academically accomplished – I honestly could not ask for better supervisors.

Are there any support networks you’ve found useful?

The Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow forms a collective network of students and academics from a wide range of disciplines interested in including discussions of gender and feminism in scholarly debate. I have greatly benefited from this network in myriad ways. For instance, financial support from the Centre greatly assisted Hannah Telling (fellow gender PhD student) and I in the organisation of the yearly Centre’s Public Engagement workshop on ‘Parenting and the Law’, which explored the law’s regulation of parenting within a wide range of historical and contemporary legal frameworks. The support I have received from academic staff within the Centre has also enabled me to foster links with scholars from a variety of scholastic institutions. Later this week I am travelling to the University of Oxford to meet with members of the Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity, in bid to foster personal and institutional links with gender historians outwith Scotland. Finally, the work undertaken by the PGRNS committee has greatly encouraged inter-disciplinary discussions of gender and feminism across a wide range of subjects, and has fostered the creation of a network linking students from diverse methodological practices interested in the study of gender.

If you weren’t doing a PhD, what else would you be doing?
If I wasn’t studying for a PhD, I would probably be working within the courts. I am utterly fascinated by the inner workings of the legal system, and how access to justice can be curtailed by various mediating factors beyond the control of those seeking retribution. I am currently undertaking a summer internship kindly funded by the SGSAH with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS), and I am presently based in the Supreme Courts in Edinburgh. In this role I have been trusted with developing an archiving framework to facilitate the preservation and promotion of unidentified records found across the SCTS estate; which includes property deeds from Cromwell’s Protectorate in the 1650’s, to court proceedings and papers related to the Lockerbie Bombing from the 1990’s.  As such, this project will identify records of legal and historical importance, and will produce an archiving policy for SCTS staff to implement and build upon following the completion of the internship. The archive will hopefully be open to legal experts, academics and members of the public interested in the history and development of the Scottish justice system by Spring 2018.

What advice would you give to those wanting to pursue a PhD in gender history?

I would advise potential PhD students to familiarize themselves with the various networks and organisations affiliated with the study of gender/feminism/history within the chosen institution before contacting potential supervisors. To show knowledge of on-going research networks and current research students and staff within a department is impressive, especially when you haven’t previously studied at that institution. I also greatly benefited from the various research seminar series at Queen’s University, Belfast, during my Master’s degree, as it allowed me to meet with current PhD students who were encouraging and supportive of my own preliminary research interests.  I would also advise those wanting to pursue a PhD in gender history to liaise with their potential supervisor as soon as possible. It also helps to demonstrate some knowledge of their own research interests, as it shows how determined you are in securing them as a supervisor, and how their research interests correlate with your own. It also helps to be open to applying to PhD studentships that may not necessarily match with your original funding proposal. To those embarking on a PhD, or in the process of completing a PhD, make sure to take a break from your research and set aside time to yourself at the weekend or in the evening – it is imperative to put your personal and physical wellbeing before your academic work.


-Interview by Lois Burke. If you’d like to feature in a research interview, please get in touch with PGRNS!

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