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widows

In many societies, widowhood gave a woman the best chance at economic independence combined with control over her marital status.

LHMP entry

This article concerns the visual genre of “widow portraits” created as a symbolic representation of the widow’s status and a depiction of her mourning. These were not typically painted at the widow’s direction after her husband’s death, but rather were commissioned by the living husband to ensure that he was properly mourned...at least symbolically. Ironically, in some cases, they represent women who predeceased their husbands. Thus, they are not representations of the woman herself as an individual, but as defined in relation to her marriage and her husband.

The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands.

Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions.

This book is a study of inheritance patterns for women as their parent's daughters (as opposed to inheriting from more distant relations or unrelated persons), based on a collection of London wills dating to 1300-1500. Within this historic context (i.e., 14-15th century London), 15% of women never married.

Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis. 

The article looks at category differences between never-married women and widows. There can be a problem with conflating the two despite superficial similarities. Widowhood was more respectable, while singlehood was both pitiable and suspect. Singles were sometimes twice as common as widows, only emphasizing differences in treatment in the records. Widows were viewed as being a deputy for her late husband but the never-married were expected to be dependent, either on a father or as a member of another (male-headed) household.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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