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
A study of the classification and meaning of female singlehood.
Chapter 2: The Single Woman in Penitential Discourse
A simplistic view of the medieval moral position on sexually active women holds that sex outside of marriage automatically puts one in the category of prostitute, whether or not a financial transaction is involved. But more detailed (and thus more nuanced) moral literature enables a different understanding to emerge under the social category of "singlewoman". The existence of this category presupposes a sexually active life outside of marriage that does not automatically place the woman in the category of prostitute. This is not the definition of "singlewoman" as strictly used under law, but the two uses could not help but color the overall understanding of the term.
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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:
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.