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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #80b Beattie 2007 - Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Chapter 1)

Full citation: 

Beattie, Cordelia. 2007. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-928341-5

Publication summary: 

A study of the classification and meaning of female singlehood.

Chapter 1: Classification in Culture Context

The identification of a woman as a "singlewoman" was in no way a straightforward description with respect to marriage status. The opening chapter serves to challenge the simplistic understanding of women's categories as fixed definitions, even within a particular era.

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This chapter looks at the social construction of women’s categories. “Widow” (and its equivalents in other languages), for example, has varied in meaning across time, and has variously meant “woman with no man to represent her legally”, or “woman with no male source of economic support”. The Christian focus on remarriage versus sexual chastity introduced new concerns and nuances, with “vidua” sometimes indicating a woman under a vow of chastity, with “relicta” distinguishing more generally a woman left behind after a husband’s death. Similarly, the categories of “virgin” and “wife” do not have objective and static definitions. This chapter focuses on the ways these categories are constructed and used in 13th century English religious texts.

Until around the mid-12th century, the chastity-focused hierarchy of virtue placed the “untouched virgin” at the top, the chaste widow next, and the married woman lowest (ignoring entirely those who fell outside, such as prostitutes). After that, there was a shift to focusing on chastity as a virtue for all life stages. “Virginity” as such was most praiseworthy when specifically chosen and dedicated to God, while even “technical” virgins might be considered unchaste by their behavior, and thus not virtuous. “Chastity” in this context is not a synonym for sexual abstinence, but indicates not only confining sexual activity to within marriage but acting in a way consistent with that ideal.

The genre of ad status sermon collections offered suggested texts aimed at different social groups. Those aimed at women could be divided into four different sets of concerns: those for young, unmarried virgins, those for wives, those for widows, and those for women in religious life. Among the concerns that are covered are different understandings of what chastity means within each group. (In contrast, sermon groupings aimed at men tended to differentiate by social class.) The moral implications of these categories carry over when the same labels are used in other contexts, such as legal contracts, where a woman might proclaim her virtue to bolster her legal right to dispose of or acquire property.

The law was not a single coherent system in medieval England but layers of overlapping jurisdictions. With regard to women, courts were less concerned with the nuances of marital status than with whether a woman was femme coverte (i.e., “covered” by her husband’s or some other man's legal agency) or femme sole and with the legal right to own and bequeath land and property in her own right. Femme sole was not equivalent to “unmarried”, for many categories of unmarried women did not have independent property rights. For example, young girls would be under the legal guardianship of a father (or other guardian) and could not manage their own property. Similarly, some married women might be legally femme sole if their specific circumstance gave them the right to acquire and dispose of property without their husband’s approval. For example, a 14th c. law collection from London noted that a married woman practicing a trade would be treated as femme sole with respect to that trade if she practiced it without his help or interference. (Though the contexts are primarily discussing the husband’s protection from liability for his wife’s activities and debts in that context.) One consequence of this is that a woman identified in a legal context as femme sole cannot automatically be assumed to be unmarried (including widows). But it remains that a married femme sole was claiming a status equivalent to a singlewoman, that is, the use reinforces the existence and importance of the unmarried femme sole in defining this legal status. Indeed, it highlights the ability of married women (particularly in an urban environment) to engage in independent economic activities from their husbands as if they were singlewomen (in contradiction to the common misperception that pre-modern married women were always the “property” of their husbands).

These various classification systems point to the intersection of the understandings of marriage as the locus of authorized sex and childbearing, the context for the transmission of property, and the context for the organization and differentiation of household labor.

Given the normative paradigm of women’s lives, historical demographers are particularly interested in the presence and prevalence of singlewomen as a key indicator of marriage patterns and birthrates and the social forces that affected them. At some eras in urban centers in England, never-married women might constitute 30-40% of all adult women, which had causes and consequences in wider social and economic trends. High percentages of unmarried women indicated wider access to paid labor, though it often came as women moved into low-wage, low-skill jobs as men moved into more skilled positions. (And therefore did not necessarily indicate a leveling of opportunity between the genders.) It is also pointed out that women might be delaying marriage or never marrying due to the choices and economic positions of their potential husbands, rather than due to their entirely independent choices. Furthermore, singlewomen were not a monolithic group with regard to social attitudes. Later chapters will look at how subgroups within this category emerge from the data.

Time period: 

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