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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #80e Beattie 2007 - Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Chapter 4)

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 4: The Single Woman in Guild Texts

Beattie's work continues highlighting the lives of never-married women in medieval England via the use of different category labels and how those so labeled are portrayed. For those who think of guilds only in the sense of occupational guilds, the dynamics of a social guild may take a little getting used to. For the financial aspect, I use the frivolous analogy to a gym membership, but a better parallel for the social aspects would be fraternal organizations like the Masons or Elks or Rotary clubs or the like. In the world of my Alpennian novels, the lay "mystery guilds" are intended as deriving from this sort of social guild (but with semi-magical ceremonies as the central activities rather than purely religious ones).

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This chapter is concerned not so much with craft guilds but with “social guilds” which served as semi-social semi-religious associations that provided various types of support to members. An analysis of the organizational and membership documents of these guilds indicate that the assumed default member was a married man whose wife may or may not have also had membership privileges. All of them made allowances for single men to join, and many made explicit provision for single women as well. The expected relationships between these types of members can be seen most clearly in the payment of dues. [It may help to visualize modern gym memberships, with their initiation fees, monthly dues, and various options for family membership.]

Typically a new member would pay an initiation fee and then a regular annual (or quarterly) fee to maintain membership. In some cases, a wife would pay the same annual fee as her husband but have the initiation fee waived, but in other cases she could be a member without any additional fee. A single man would pay the initiation fee and regular dues, and if he married his wife would have the same discounts available as before. A single woman would pay the initiation fee and regular dues, but if she married her husband might enjoy a reduced initiation fee but it was not necessarily waived as for a new wife. An unmarried woman who was a sister of a guild member might sometimes get a “family rate” the same as if she were married to a guild member.

This all relates to women’s category labels in ways that suggest nuances of how women related to the guilds. Some guild documents make no reference to women as “singlewomen” at all, only as maidens (virgo, puella) or widows. While this may indicate that members gained membership through a male relative (fathers or late husbands), it may also be a means of advertising the good reputation of the guild members, that never-married female members are “virgins” with no whiff of the “have had sex but never married” sense that “singlewoman” could have in the moral literature. Over time, “singlewoman” (and “singleman”) begin being used more frequently, but in the case of women it is generally displacing “maiden” and thus indicating the never-married rather than simply the “not-currently-married”.

This chapter includes a great deal of interesting information on the membership and dynamics of social guilds in 14-16th century England, but that pretty much sums up the material of relevance to the lives and possibilities of never-married women.

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historical