Skip to content Skip to navigation
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.

Contents summary: 

Beattie’s work looks at the classification of women for social and legal purposes with respect to marriage status--maid, wife or widow--and the consequences for those who did not fit neatly into those categories, as well as the intersectionality of gender categories with social status and age. As the title indicates, this classification system is viewed through the lens of the singlewoman, a category that could be disruptive depending on whether it is considered as encompassing such states as “not-yet-married young girl” and “widow” or whether it is found as a residual catch-all for those women who do not fit easily into the “official” categories of virgin, wife, and widow.

Two types of classification schemes are relevant: interpretative (a normative system which concerns itself with theoretical organizational systems, such as the “three estates” of social class) and labeling (which looks at the de facto identification of specific individuals or cases and constructs a classification system upwards from that data). Medieval society had a strong interest in interpretive classifications as a way of understanding and enforcing divine order as realized in the physical world. Label-based classification systems are most easily extracted from texts with a practical function, such as tax or court records, where the social classification is not a primary focus but rather one of multiple factors that affect outcomes.

Women were often considered as standing entirely apart from interpretative classifications such as the three estates. They might, in some cases, be treated as a fourth group entirely outside of the estates (but with their own internal structure), or might be classified with respect to the husband or father’s status. Some expanded the virgin-wife-widow framework to also include the categories of prostitute and servant. Within this system, the singlewoman (if interpreted as “never married but available for marriage” and thus excluding widows and nuns) has no obvious place and so may be entirely unrepresented in the literature.

Beattie’s work begins from actual textual use of the label “single woman” (first appearing in Middle English in the early 14th century), alongside Latin and French parallels (sola and femme sole) to identify how the category was used in context and what factors led a woman to be identified as such rather than in some other category.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Within the context of penitential literature (concerned with the identification and classification of sins), the strict position is that there is no conceptual position for the sexually active singlewoman who was not a prostitute (with a slight allowance for the concubine--sexually active with, but not married to, a specific man--as contrasted with the prostitute who was "common to all"). But detailed treatises such as the early 15th century Jacob’s Well reveal more differentiation. The list of degrees of active lechery (with 14 graduated levels) makes distinctions for marital status or religious profession in evaluating the severity of the sin. But when one pulls out pairings between a “single man” and various categories of women, one finds a differentiation between a single woman, a common woman (i.e., prostitute), a widow, a maiden, and a wife. Sex with a single woman constitutes the least severe sin while that with a wife (not one’s own, obviously!) constitutes the most severe of this set.

Penitential manuals were intended as a guideline for confessors in eliciting and addressing different types and degrees of sin. Therefore while they may not be a reliable guide to actual behavior, they provide indications of relative degrees of concern and anxiety around different topics. In this context, it is notable that the references to women in many penitential manuals are almost exclusively in the context of sexual sins. Sexual sins fell into a set of basic categories: fornication, adultery, incest, vices against nature (under the label “sodomy” but without the narrow modern meaning), violation of virgins, and rape/abduction, with in some cases the addition of sacrilege and prostitution. Within these, there are gradations depending on the status of those involved, but the one relevant for the category of singlewomen is fornication, where a distinction is made if the female partner is “a woman not bound by a vow” (i.e., not a nun), a “common woman” (i.e., prostitute), or a “vowed widow”. Since sex with a married woman is covered under adultery, and sex with a virgin is covered in a separate category, then “a woman not bound by a vow” must be the case of a singlewoman who cannot be classed as a prostitute. (Though this could include widows who were not bound by a vow of chastity.) And, similarly to the Jacob’s Well list, this case is considered the least severe type of sexual sin.

Thus, in this classification, a singlewoman is defined by what she is not: a virgin, a wife, a woman vowed to chastity either as a widow or a nun, or a prostitute. But conversely, for a singlewoman to be sexually active was regarded as less sinful than for any other category (except, of course, a wife within marriage).

In a slightly different genre of text, “the seven states of chastity”, the lines are drawn slightly differently than those for active sexual sins. Here we see a hierarchy (I believe this is from least virtuous to most virtuous) of:

  • 1. virgins until marriage
  • 2. the never-married who are not virgins (with women in this category identified as singlewomen in some texts)
  • 3. the married
  • 4. the widowed
  • 5. life-long virgins
  • 6. clerks in holy orders
  • 7. men (and sometimes women) of religion

That is, there is no special virtue in being chaste if you're a young never-married girl, because that's your expected default state and you haven't made an active choice to remain chaste (unlike the life-long virgin, who has presumably made an active choice to be so). The never-married woman who has had sex at some point but now has chosen chastity is more virtuous than the virgin, presumably because she has made that active choice, but less virtuous than the married woman who is chaste (i.e., faithful and virtuous) within her marriage.

Sorting this out (and keeping in mind that the context is people who are currently practicing chastity), a singlewoman is defined as a never-married woman who has at some past time been sexually active and who has not taken a vow of chastity. The category is different in focus from the one that emerges from the frame of fornication, but similar in effect.

Contents summary: 

This chapter looks at the labeling of women in a series of tax rolls from the later 14th century. The series of taxes occurred in close enough succession that interesting patterns can be identified in the documents used to track and record them. At the same time, the nature of the levies changed slightly, especially in terms of how women were treated, which provides the context for the examination in this chapter.

The documents were drawn up in various contexts, but local officials were involved in all of them in some way, either in providing information about the people being listed, or in the actual composition of the documents. The vocabulary used varies from place to place in the distinctions it makes, especially in how uniformly people are identified as married or unmarried. The specific that is the core of this study is one where most people (male and female) are identified explicitly in terms of marital status as well as any other categories that affect their assessment.

The tax rolls, in general, list people in descending order of socio-economic status (and thus in decreasing amount of tax paid), beginning with landed nobility, moving on to well-off craftsmen, and proceeding on to ordinary laborers and servants, with the truly indigent paying no tax. In the 1377 levy, all adults over the age of 16 were liable to pay tax. But in the 1379 levy, married couples paid a combined amount that was equivalent to the levy on a single man or single woman. This means that all women listed in the rolls in 1379 can be assumed to be unmarried, and thus the distinctions in labeling are addressing a different factor than marital status.

While men are identified as single (solus) or married (coniugatus), with a small number lacking this label for unknown reasons, they are also identified by occupation (incuding “servant”) or (in a very few cases) as their father’s son (indicating a young unmarried man still residing at home). Those men identified as servants are uniformly either unmarried or have no marriage status given, while those listed with an occupation are overwhelmingly listed as married (ca. 95%). In contrast, women (and these are all unmarried women, remember) may be identified as single (sola), as a maiden (puella), or as a widow (vidua) or have no status listed (some of which can be identified as probable widows based on other information). The second axis of identification is similar to that for men: occupation (including servant), relationship (daughter or mother), or none given.

If all the women were, by definition, “sola” then what purpose does this distinction serve? Beattie notes that some of it may simply have been habit: people were accustomed to making these distinctions for other purposes and retained them even when it made no difference to the tax. As with the men, there are strong correlations between the two types of labels. Female servants are always either “sola” (or with no marriage status given) and never maiden or widow. The same holds for those with listed occupations. Women identified as their father’s daughter are always labeled “puella” (maiden) and those identified as someone’s mother are unsurprisingly listed as widows. Those who have no relationship or occupational label fall into “sola” or “vidua” but never “puella”.

Shortcutting a lot of analysis, we see puella/maiden used to identify an unmarried girl still living at home. Vidua/widow (based on additional evidence) seems to carry two contrasting implications. For some there is a strong sense of inheriting the late husband’s tax basis, often indicating women who pay more than the basic assessment but have no occupation listed to account for a higher income. But just as often it occurs for women paying the minimum tax and seems to be used to flag them as in financial hardship due to a lack of (male) support. More than half the taxed women are servants, while perhaps 5% appear to be self-supporting by some other occupation. (The evidence of other rolls suggests that many may have been spinners, but higher assessments appear for women identified as brewers and ale sellers.) This low rate of self-employed singlewomen is not universal--the rolls for a different region list as much as 25% of unmarried women as “sola” but not as servants.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Medieval English practice allowed for a fair amount of variability in how a specific person was named in a legal document. Surnames were not fixed and the popularity of certain given names, occupations, and descriptive nicknames meant that the clear distinction of individuals could be difficult. The Statute of Additions instituted in 1413 attempted to address the problem of clear and distinct identification by suggesting specific types of additional personal designations for use. [Note: I have a separate fascination for historic naming practices and the factors that affected how people were identified and distinguished. I confess I’d never heard of the Statute of Additions before and now I want to look into it further. One serious philosophical issue in discussing naming practices is determining the rather hazy dividing line between “names” and “descriptions of identity”.] Among the “additions” suggested for distinguishing women was “singlewoman”. Although it was suggested for any unmarried woman, in actual use, widows were more often identified by that more specific status, and therefore “singlewoman” was, in practice, a label for the never-married.

In fact, the appearance and increasing frequency of use of the term “singlewoman” in English documents of all types corresponds closely to the Statute of Additions, and a causal relationship can be supported by looking at other terms recommended by the Statute, such as the use of “gentleman” and the regular addition of the place of residence to names.

Among the discussions of suitable additions, “singlewoman” and “widow” are both approved for distinguishing women, whereas “maid” or “virgin” do not appear in the guidelines and “servant” is dismissed as too vague and not sufficiently attentive to social status. This correlation does not mean that the use of “singlewoman” was entirely driven by legal use. The earliest known attestations are all from non-legal contexts. The increasing appearance in documents is due to the adoption of the everyday descriptive term as a legal “term of art”. But even in legal contexts, the use of singlewoman was not simply for its distinguishing value, but tended to be used when the status of being single and never-married was relevant, as when discussing an inheritance that would be designated for a woman’s dowry, or when a resident of York was granted the “freedom of the city” (i.e., given independent legal rights within the city) which would not have been relevant if she had been married.

The text of the chapter provides an extensive array of examples of contexts in which women are identified as singlewomen in 14-16th c. legal and civic records. (There is a bit of a side discussion noting that when “spinster” is used to identify women in 16th century records, it is clearly a literal occupational term--which can be held by married women--and not the designation of a never-married woman that later evolved.)

historical