The German Empress And "She"

Allen Matkins
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Allen Matkins

Anyone drafting a legal document will at some time or another have to deal with the problem that English personal pronouns refer to the perceived biological gender of its referent.  Historically, attorneys tended to use male personal pronouns (he/his/him) and perhaps include a boilerplate provision stating that the masculine includes the feminine.  Section 12 of the California Corporations Code follows this approach.  Some writers tried to avoid the gender wars by eschewing the use of masculine and feminine pronouns altogether.  The drafters of the California General Corporation Law (which is a title within the Corporations Code) took this approach.  In fact, the GCL was the first major California law to eliminate the masculine pronoun.  However, the purity of the GCL has been spoilt somewhat by later amendments that use "he or she" (e.g., § 318) or "him or her" (e.g., § 178).

What does this have to do with a German Empress?  Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I.  Because she had been the consort of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, she was often referred to as "the Empress".   After King Henry died, Stephen of Blois claimed the English throne.  As Henry's heir, Matilda contested Stephen's claim.  After Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln, Matilda proceeded to London to be crowned as queen.   The Londoners, however, did not accept Matilda as their queen and she fled the town.  The Peterborough Chronicle (part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) describes what happened next:

"Þerefter com þe kynges dohter Henries þe hefde ben Emperice in Alamanie.  nu wæs cuntesse in Angou.  com to Lundene te Lundenissce folc hire wolde tæcen.  scæ fleh . . . ."  (Afterwards King Henry's daughter that had been Empress in Germany,  now was countess in Anjou, came to London.  The London folk would take her.  She fled . . . . )

The Peterborough Chronicle was written in an early Middle English dialect, the highlighted word scæ in the above passage is the first known use of the personal pronoun "she".   Bennett, J.A.W., Gray, Douglas (ed.). Middle English Literature at p. 259.  One theory is the English speakers developed the pronoun in response to the loss of grammatical gender in the transition from Old English to Middle English.   Thus, the demise of grammatical gender ironically created a need for a pronoun that reflected biological gender.  The above passage contains another first.  This is the first known use of the word "empress" (Emperice) in the English language.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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