Huebner, Sabine R. & Christian Laes (eds). 2019. The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
The introduction begins with the definition of what we mean by “single” in this context, then looks for Greek and Latin vocabulary that carries that meaning, as well as similar meanings in other ancient languages. The modern sense is “a person not married or in an exclusive relationship.” But cross-culturally, the vocabulary of singleness may emphasize celibacy, solitariness, or loneliness, or distinguish the state for men and women. But in modern international use, the untranslated English word “single” has come into use as a general and neutral term.
This contemporary review identifies three features of singleness that need not co-occur: not being legally married (or in an exclusive relationship); living alone, with associated economic and emotional consequences; and an implication of a transitory period in youth free of obligations. There follows a discussion of modern marriage demographics.
Pre-Christian classical society doesn’t correspond to those categories well. There was no official legal registry of marriages nor was marriage expected to involve exclusivity for men. Marriage was a contract: easily created, easily dissolved. Yet there were legal consequences to marriage, including inheritance, citizenship, and there were different forms of union for which the consequences varied.
The association of singleness with loneliness is also culturally dependent. Christian ideals around marriage, celibacy, asceticism, etc. changed how singleness was viewed.
Roman male citizens may have had an expected period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, associated with a certain lifestyle, but older unmarried men might also see bachelorhood as a lifelong option.
The pattern was different for women. Practices such as female infanticide may have skewed the demographics, putting more pressure on women to marry. Household and family responsibilities may have affected options for divorced or widowed women to remarry. The legal position of women could exacerbate the economic and emotional consequences of singlehood. The normative age of marriage was lower for women than men, reducing the opportunity for an identifiable lifestyle associated with unmarried women. The positive associations that Christianity gave to female virginity, chastity, and marriage resistance were a newly emergent phenomenon.
Given all this, where do we look for vocabulary that would identify “singleness” in classical society? For women, there was a change of vocabulary when a girl reached marriageable age, and in some cases vocabulary specific to a married woman. Terms for “unmarried” include Greek “anandros (f)” / “agamos (m)” or “eitheos” and Latin “caelebs”. “Eitheos’ usually refers specifically to a young unmarried man but may have sometimes been used of a young woman. Agamos/anandros may also be used for widowed people, but female widows or more commonly called “chera” in Greek.
Latin “caelebs” refers to the state of not being married, but it’s unclear to what extent it was used for women. It could also indicate a widowed man, but a female widow was typically “vidua.”
In Christian use, “caelebs” and associated vocabulary picked up the sense of sexually celibate. This set of vocabulary picks up associations with loneliness in late antiquity, but this may have a specific association with asceticism.
Greek and Latin literature include celebrations—sometimes ironic—of the delights of a (male) single lifestyle, free of responsibilities. In contrast, there was social pressure to marry, and some cultures imposed penalties for not doing so.
Philosophical literature, both before and after the Christian era, offered arguments for and against marriage. Earlier arguments for singlehood tended to address men, while Christian arguments expanded the audience to women, arguing for virginity as the preferred state. Arguments in favor of marriage present it as the “natural” state of humanity, necessary for the continuation of the species, and—for men—providing household support and the benefits of the wife’s labor.
The introduction now provides an overview of the volume’s contents: demographics, archaeological evidence, epigraphs, legislation, literature. A couple articles focus specifically on women. Other specific topics include Jewish society, the rising influence of Christianity in Late Antiquity, and some comparative material from other eras and regions.
I plan to skim for content related to women. The following articles with little or no relevance are not blogged separately.
Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches
Being Single in the Roman World
Singles in Judaism
Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single
This article looks at the demographics of pre-Christian Egypt to evaluate the claim that the presence of never-married adults is a Christian phenomenon. Roman legal and literary sources treat single adults as a special anomaly, such as Vestal Virgins or priests of Cybele. Augustine law encouraged marriage and even penalized potential heirs if not married. This applies only to the citizen class and specifically does not apply to those in the military, sex workers, and enslaved people.
In general, Roman Egyptian society followed the “Mediterranean marriage pattern” which involves early marriage for women and a significant age gap, with men being older, a universal expectation of marriage, and no lifecycle period of unwed labor for (free) women.
The data for this analysis comes from surviving census records from approximately 0 to 250 CE. Available records include 400 documents which record 250 households and nearly 500 individuals. Most were lower or middle class. Approximately 11% were enslaved people. Census records were completed by household, counting all those at the same residence, including names, relationships, and identifying characteristics. They do not indicate marital status directly, though it can be interpolated from other relationships, if the spouses are in the same household. Divorce was easy and common and often simply for incompatibility.
Rarely, the word “parthenos” occurs to identify an unmarried young woman, but it does not automatically mean “virgin” in the sexual sense. Pre-marital chastity was not required for pre-Christian Egyptian women, though it could be a concern for upper class Romans and became a general expectation in Christian society. Compare also to Jewish concerns for virginity. Marital status is referred to explicitly by widows to emphasize their legal vulnerability, but not typically by divorced or never-married women.
Marriage was created by cohabitation and ceremony, but not by legal formality. Widows might head their own household (with children) without remarrying. There are examples of widows protesting a daughter’s marriage when the daughter had been a business asset.
So what are we looking for in the census that would fit in the category “single.” Based on normative life stages, the author settles on defining “single” as anyone 15 or over, currently not married (defined as the absence of a spouse in the household), but regardless of whether the person has had children and regardless of the rest of the household composition. This will be a diverse group in terms of age and life situation. The evaluation excludes people who were not legally able to marry.
Out of 1116 people whose situation can be reconstructed from records almost half (554) were 15 or older. Of these, almost half (232) were single, as defined above. Unlike the “northern pattern” which included lifecycle employment for young unmarried people, there were no free domestic servants. The census identifies 253 households, of which 132 included at least one single person.
Looking at gender, of the 232 singles, 109 were women. And as women comprised roughly half of the 15-and-over population this meant women and men were equally likely to be single, and roughly half of all adults of either gender were single. Of these 109 single women, 49 had children living with them, and so may well have been married in the past. [Note: Given the reference to children typically living with their father’s extended family after divorce or parental death, this statistic seems to beg for some explanation. It would be interesting to know the ages of the children in this set. Was this primarily older widows living with their adult children? Is is the assertion that the children of disrupted families typically lived with the father’s family over-blown? See the comment about widows with children heading households.]
So 60 women-–about a quarter of all adult women-–have no evidence of ever being married (of those, some may have been previously married, but had no living children). This is a much higher proportion than for otherwise similar Mediterranean societies at various times that have been studied demographically.
Children created a significant social distinction. A widow with children could head a household while a childless widow or never-married woman would belong to a near relative’s household. (Typically a male relative, but presumably the adult daughter of a widow could belong to her mothers household and there is reference to this).
Therefore “single women” do not constitute a homogeneous group. But since children typically remain with the father’s family in the case of divorce or one parent’s death, male demographics also provide information regarding the proportion of never married people (which may be under-counted for women, when relying on the presence of children as an indicator.)
[Note: of course men and women aren’t directly comparable because one possible pattern would be for a smaller group of men sequentially marrying multiple women, resulting in lower never-married rates for women and higher rates for men.]
Men typically married younger women, giving women a good chance of outliving their husbands. But widows, especially older ones, often chose not to remarry. Men who married young would have wives of similar age (due to age limits for women to be considered marriageable), but those who married (or remarried) later were typically more than 10 years older than their wives. Overall this led to a surplus of single younger men and some men who never had the opportunity to marry.
Of the 283 adult men in the census (excluding enslaved people), 91 did not have a wife or their own children living with them, meaning about 1/3 of all men gave no evidence of ever having been married. (Though they may have had past childless marriages or ones where the children had died, similarly to the stats for women.) This also means that the vast majority of single men (3/4) had no living children, while ¼ were single with children.
[Note: given that we observed that about a half of currently-single women had children living with them, this suggests the possibility that currently-single men were more likely to have been never-married than currently-single women. But I think these numbers also raise questions about the claim that children typically went with their father's household, unless the vast majority of the single-with-children women were widows as opposed to divorcées. If so, this would have been a useful clue to apply to hypotheses about relative numbers of divorced versus widowed women.]
The pressure and opportunities for marriage varied according to gender and age. The normative pattern was for women to be married by 20 and for men to experience pressure if still unmarried by their mid-30s. But having been married, the pressure to remarry was lower, e.g. for widows with children. And the high proportion of singles reflect these differing pressures.
In Roman Egypt inheritance was not gendered – daughters inherited equally with sons, and children inherited from both parents. Spouses did not inherit from each other. The typical household structure involved multiple married couples related by the male line, with their children, including unmarried adult daughters and married sons. Women, when divorced or widowed, usually returned to their father’s household. Women with surviving parents and unmarried siblings tended to marry later (mid 20s) while those whose parents were dead or with married brothers tended to marry earlier. The author suggests that this tendency might reflect social dynamics where there was increased friction between a young never-married woman and her sisters-in-law when sharing the same household. Or that women who expected to receive a substantial inheritance, but whose parents were still alive, may have felt either enabled or pressured to postpone marriage.
By some statistics, 3/5 of women had married by age 20 and nearly all by their late 20s. How then do we explain the relatively higher rate of single women in their mid 20s? The author suggests it may represent childless divorcées or widows (whose children lived with their father) who had returned to their birth household. But interpreting these statistics involves guesswork and assumptions.
The article now presents some case studies.
Several more examples are given, focusing on single men living in extended households.
The overall conclusions are that, despite the social context that assumed marriage as the normative life, a significant proportion of the Roman Egyptian population was unmarried at any given time, either never married or not remarried after divorce or spousal death. The reasons in specific cases are nearly impossible to uncover, but personal circumstances could clearly affect both the ability and the desire to refrain from marriage. Yet the lives, expectations, and more informal liaisons of these singles are absent from letters and documents of the time, which helps provide the illusion of universal marriage.
This raises the question of whether the rise of religious singlehood in the fourth century under Christianity was a true demographics shift or simply a new option for reframing the context of singlehood.
The legislation in discussion here was only relevant to upper class women, but also to freedmen/freedwomen of the elite. The intent was to regulate behavior around marriage, divorce, and sexuality, but we must distinguish theory and practice. These notes will primarily cover women and the effects of the law were strongly gendered.
Instituted by Augustus in the 1st century, most of the content of the acts were repealed by Constantine in the 4th century. They did not survive to become part of the Justinian code which influenced later medieval law. There were three separate sets of acts, two on marriage and one on illicit sexual activity. But the contents were later combined and so it’s hard to distinguish the original structure.
The goal of the laws was for men between 25 and 60 and women between 20 and 50 to be married and procreating. Unmarried people were penalized by not being allowed to inherit except from close relatives. Childless couples were restricted in what they could will to each other.
Widows and divorcées were allowed a grace period varying between six months to two years before being required to remarry or face the penalties. If such restrictions on inheritance meant there were insufficient eligible heirs, the remainder of the estate went to the public treasury. (Parents and legitimate children could always inherit.) The exemption for close relatives meant that singlehood did not affect legacies from anyone up to second cousins or closer kin. So the effects were not as severe as the intent.
Conversely, adhering to the law’s intent resulted in benefits. A woman who had three or more children was freed from the requirement to have a male legal representative, and could act for herself legally and financially. Freedwomen (former slaves) gained the same after four children (but only if the children were born after she was freed).
The adultery law focused more on penalties. A married woman who had sex with any man other than her husband committed a crime. The penalty was for half her dowry and 1/3 of her other property to be confiscated. She also lost the right to ever marry again. Enforcement required accusation (typically by the husband or father) and conviction. Part of the intent of having legal penalties was to discourage husbands and fathers from simply killing the adulterous woman outright. But husbands could be penalized if they failed to accuse unfaithful wives of adultery.
Women weren’t able to accuse their husband of adultery. For a man to have sex outside marriage was not a crime unless his partner was in a prohibited class, such as a “respectable” woman or a male citizen. Only another man could accuse a man of adultery, based on the status of the woman he was committing adultery with.
The omission of men from this discussion is not only because of my own focus, but because the laws focused on controlling women’s behavior—and specifically the behavior of “respectable" high ranking women.
Widows who had at least one child were free of the inheritance restrictions if they did not remarry, otherwise they had a grace period before it kicked in. In an age of high child mortality, the laws spelled out how long a child had to survive to “count” for the inheritance rules.
But keep in mind that most Romans would only expect an inheritance from within the exempt degrees of relationship and so would not be disadvantaged by remaining single or declining to remarry. Only the very wealthy were inclined to leave legacies to more distant kin or to friends, and they were also those with the social power to protest the laws to some effect.
The laws also forbade the marriage of people from families of senatorial rank to freedmen/freedwomen, actors, or sex workers. (The article has many more details on this aspect that is not relevant to the Project.)
This article compares the literary figures of Dido and Camilla as commentary on Roman attitudes toward deliberate singleness in women. Very briefly, Dido begins by representing the faithful widow, resolved to remain loyal to her dead husband by never remarrying. Her subsequent relationship with Aeneas can either be seen as a betrayal of this ideal or adherence to a different ideal that a childless woman should remarry. But her unhappy end implies that the relationship with Aeneas was inadequately virtuous.
Camilla also resists marriage, but as an Amazonian warrior committed to virginity and war. She represents the “man-like” woman who rejects normative womanhood and is admirable only in a masculine framing. Her dedication to virginity, while given lip service as admirable, is seen as a waste, and the nature of her death in battle can be seen almost as a “corrective rape” motif. [Note: my label, not the author’s.]
The author suggests that hypothetical Roman ideals around female chastity were contradicted by more pragmatic attitudes idealizing procreation and motherhood.
This article looks at the associations in Roman society between singleness in women and sex work, whether directly or as a procuress (lena). Although focused on women, this chapter has no particular relevance to the Project.
This article uses early Christian funerary inscriptions in the city of Rome as a data source for life-long singleness, allowing for a quantitative and statistical analysis. The corpus of relevant inscriptions includes over 40,000 items though many are fragmentary. As the vast majority of inscriptions from this period are funerary in nature, and due to the typical content of such inscriptions, we have perhaps 20,000 epitaphs that include not only the name, but also age at death, length of marriage (if any), and references to familial relationships. In date, they range from the early 3rd to mid-7th century CE, thugh most fall in the century between the death of Constantine the Great and the early 5th century.
Several caveats are necessary. Due to social differences in burial preferences, these inscriptions are less likely to belong to the social elite. Due to Christian avoidance of identifying people by social status, it is not possible to make group distinctions between enslaved people, freedmen, and citizens. In addition, the shift from use of the tria nomina name formula to the use of a single name can make family connections difficult to trace. The epigraphic information rarely touches on questions of divorce and remarriage.
Given these caveats, the criteria used to classify an inscription as referring to a “single” person are: of marriageable age and not in a spousal relationship at the time of death (regardless of reason). Three women are used as examples to introduce the analysis.
Maximilla died in 389 at age 51. She was the daughter of a diaconus (deacon), but the epitaph was commissioned by a friend, the daughter of a man of senatorial rank. Maximilla is described as virgo (virgin) and ancilla Dei (female-servant of God). There is no reference to a spouse. It is a reasonable conclusion that she never married and may have deliberately chosen a life of consecrated virginity.
Cassia Sophrosyne was commemorated in 402 by her niece Cassia Vindicia. Although Sophrosyne’s age is not given, the fact that she had an adult niece suggests she may have been past the age of expected marriage. Sophrosyne is described a a virgo sacra (sacred virgin) respected for her sexual abstinence, and Vindicia identifies herself as a virgo Deo dedicate (virgin dedicated to God), though her age is not known.
The contextual information for these three women is atypically detailed, and it’s possible that such details over-represent a religious motivation for singlehood (as other reasons would not be celebrated for posterity). In addition, all three belonged to the social and economic elite. Therefore caution must be observed in extrapolating from the more detailed inscriptional data.
Singlehood can either be mentioned explicitly, or implied by the lack of reference to a spouse, with the latter being more common. Many inscriptions contain only the name of the deceased (which indicates gender) accompanied by formulaic expressions. Most often, there is no mention of what the relationship is to the person doing the commemoration, and the author has chosen to exclude these from analysis as no conclusion about singlehood can be made. Another problematic group are epitaphs that indicate they were arranged for by the deceased themselves—a context that suggests but does not prove single status.
Searching for more certainty, the author considers what explicit language might indicate single status. “Caelebs” is a good candidate but in funerary inscriptions seems to be limited to military veterans. “Vidua” (widow) may also be used to indicate an unmarried woman (as opposed to a woman whose husband had died but who might have remarried). (There seems to be a suggestion that “vidua” might also be used to mean “never-married”?) Overall, the author concludes that the use of specific terminology is unhelpful in identifying those unmarried at death.
Use of the word “virgo” is also a problem for interpretation as it is associated primarily with young women (up to age 25), and doesn’t absolutely correlate with unmarried status. Overall both female and male virgins are highly likely to be never-married, but it may sometimes refer to a married person in a chaste relationship. To confuse the issue, the words virginia/virginius are used almost exclusively for married people and seem to refer to virginal status at the time of marriage. The phrases “virgo Dei” or “virgo sacra” seems much more likely to refer to a deliberate never-married state, on religious principles, but these phrases are quite rare and there is some indication the label would only be applied after reaching a certain age. And in contradiction to this interpretation is Ioviniana who was described as “virgo sanctae memoriae” but also as a wife and mother.
The use of the formulas “ancilla Dei” or “servus Dei” [Note: typically translated “servant of God” but with a nod to my classicist friend who emphasizes this point, a more contextual translation is “slave of God”] seem to refer purely to religious devotion with no implication regarding marital status, with some explicitly noted as being married.
References to the status of clergy carries no indication of singlehood as there was no requirement for clergy to be unmarried, though it was considered an ideal.
The author once again comes to a conclusion that identifying singles via specific keywords in the inscriptions is fraught with uncertainty. He moves on to an analysis of inscriptions in which it is married status that is explicitly indicated. Based on the demographic data in the inscriptions, a normative life course for married people can be identified, after which this can be used as a context for evaluation. Then a metric can be established to categorize people who had passed the normative age for marriage (at the time of death) but for which no explicit reference to marriage was present.
After much hedging about, he suggests that women married between the ages of 14 and 21, and men between 20 and 25, with an average for women of 20 and for men of 26. This estimate might be corroborated from inscriptions that include an age at death and length of marriage, but there are relatively few that contain this data. This approach suggests that women married between 12 and 27 (with 90% married by that age) and men between 18 and 34 (with 90% married by that age).
After yet more hemming and hawing about what weight can be put on the data, th author proposes that for lower estimates of expected age at marriage, perhaps 1 out of 7 women were unmarried at death and 1 out of 4 men; while for higher estimates of expected marriage age, perhaps 1 in 10 women and 1 in 7 men were unmarried at death. But then he notes only that this 1/10 and 1/7 no doubt included some single people, though not necessarily never-married ones.
All in all, the paper takes a great deal of time and analysis to conclude that we can’t really be certain about anything except in the few specific cases where the person’s singleness is explicitly noted in the inscription. But there are some interesting data tables for specific keywords in the inscriptions and graphs for some of the demographic patterns.
This paper explores different modes of singlehood through the lives of three elite men. There is a brief discussion of single women mentioned in the epistles of one of the three: Libanius, a 4th century professor of rhetoric in Antioch. The women in question are widowed mothers of his students, most of whom did not remarry and who experienced certain struggles as a result, as well as their status having consequences for the students in question. But there are few details and Libanius’s concern is primarily for how their status affected their sons.
This article focuses primarily on women who chose a single/celibate life for religious reasons in the late 4th and early 5th century. In earlier Roman society, while modesty and chastity were desired virtues for the young, unmarried woman, it was for the purpose of entering marriage as a virgin, not as an end in itself. However shifts in social expectations due to Christianity created the idea of choosing singlehood as a deliberate strategy for religious purposes. For some, it might have been a decision made for them as early as infancy, for others the choice might arise (whether their own or imposed) as they approached or entered a marriageable age. Such a life path was often framed in the context of abstaining from other social privileges of the “good life”.
There is a discussion of how likely it was that the girl herself was the driver of these decisions, given the age at which they would have been made. Hagiography (and especially martyrdoms) focused on narratives where young women refused marriage or chose celibacy in direct contradiction to their parents’ wishes, and often at the cost of severe punishment and coercion. However the author suggests that these narratives were unlikely to reflect everyday reality.
But to what extent would such a life of religious singleness be recognizable as “a single lifestyle”? In general, the young women would remain living with their parents (whereas male ascetics might leave to join a monastery). The expectations for their behavior were nearly identical to those for a not-yet-married woman: domesticity, modesty, and restriction from the public sphere. Among the elite, however, there could be a performative aspect to their lives where it was important that they be seen to be extreme in their piety and renunciation. At the same time, the existence of young unmarried women in the household could be considered a hazard to the family’s reputation if she were accused (rightly or wrongly) of impropriety.
Separate ascetic communities for women were not an option at first, but elite households that supported their daughters in this lifestyle sometimes evolved into a “magnet” for other women, developing into a non-familial community. If such communities involved women who came to asceticism later in life, they might bring with them children who would initially grow up in the ascetic community but might not remain as a devotee.
Some of the anxieties surrounding these dedicated virgins were addressed by the development of the concept of being a “bride of Christ.” Marriage returned as the central organizing expectation of women’s lives, but in a form that allowed for chastity. For these “single women,” solitariness was not a part of their experience. Largely, they continued to live as part of familial communities, bowing to parental expectations, and ruled by the behavioral expectations for all unmarried women.
This is a relatively general article, reiterating the themes of how social changes under Christianity created a context in which not marrying (or not re-marrying) could be considered a viable life choice, whether it involved a retreat into an ascetic community or continued presence in the secular world. Singlehood itself was not the goal, but rather an acceptable mode in which one could devote oneself to religious causes and activities.
The discussion is anecdotal, presenting various stories of different types of unmarried life. One of particular interest to the Project for tangential reasons is worth quoting:
A woman named Martha, suffering from chronic illness, went to a shrine “where other women, mostly suffering from demonic possession, lodged, separated by curtains and awaiting a cure. Being a kind and good-hearted person, she never missed an opportunity to serve and console those of her companions who were in pain. In the event, the saints visited her a few times, but to her disappointment, they granted her only partial relief, causing her to raise her voice in protest. It was under these troubled circumstances that a woman who had moved in next to her fell in love with her. Her name was Christina, and she was a married woman, the wife of one of the clergy of the Church of Saint Laurentius. Oddly enough, her infatuation functions as a catalyst in the story. As she was about to step into the curtained-off space Martha occupied and set about seducing her, the saints were forced, as it were, to intervene and offer Martha a complete cure.
“Thanks to this unique – or at least very rare –attestation of (would-be) lesbian eroticism in Byzantium, we once again gain an insight into the life of a single woman at the troubles she might have faced because of her singleness.”
[Not: The event and its framing may not be entirely positive, but it brings the potential for acting on same-sex desire into view at a time when evidence is otherwise scarce.]
This article is a narrowly-focused study of single, once-married women in Coptic Egypt, concerning their difficulties due to that state and the support networks available to them. It draws on non-literary evidence primarily from the 6th to 8th century from the area around Thebes. The evidence includes letters and incidental legal documents and focuses on local conditions at a village level.
The data shows women acting independently in a variety of economic contexts, but within this it can be difficult to distinguish married versus unmarried women. Widows tend to be easiest to identify, due to the use of specific vocabulary for them, or the tendency to reference their late husband. In other cases, the composition of specific households can be reconstructed from the evidence, even if larger demographic patterns are elusive.
Among these, we can sometimes identify households consisting of an adult woman and her children, with no husband/father present. While specific reference to a husband/father can identify a widow, the absence of an expected reference cannot distinguish between death, divorce, or the absence of any prior marriage.
Marriage and divorce were (still) relatively informal practices and Coptic records rarely refer to the actions directly. However there were economic and social pressures to remain married. Coptic Christian authorities viewed adultery as the only valid reason for divorce. And those who divorced for other reasons might be ostracized. But some references indicate that other reasons/contexts existed, and the only known surviving divorce agreement simply notes that the couple “agreed together and separated.”
Church officials encouraged widowed or divorced women to remain unmarried for moral reasons. Older widows were encouraged to become nuns. But more practical matters of finances and inheritance played a part, as well as the availability of support for from the wider family.
A man’s will might specify that his widow could not inherit if she remarried, likely out of concern that his property not leave the control of his descendants. But widows did remarry and the inheritance complications sometimes show up in the records. Some widows were wealthy enough that they could choose not to remarry. Some never-married women were wealthy enough that remaining so was an option.
The inventories recorded when women willed their property to religious institutions can document some significant resources, such as multiple houses and a share in a bakery or houses plus a share in a church property. Some no-longer-married women had significant business activities which might be large enough to involve employees.
Either in addition to property and business income, or as a substitute for them, close family we’re an important resource for unmarried women. An elderly widow might live with one of her children, or receive physical assistance even though financially comfortable.
A widow with no immediate family might turn to religious officials for substantial or social support that would typically be provided by family. (I’m skipping many of the fascinating individual stories.)
Women’s lack of ability to pursue their own legal matters as forcefully as a man could, meant that widows often needed a male figure to act for them. Sometimes religious leaders were asked to intervene on behalf of widows in disputes with their relatives. But it was also the case that secular authorities might be turned to for similar assistance.
Widows are easier to identify as such in the records than divorcées. In addition, there was a religious duty to provide support to widows, but the church frowned on divorce, therefore divorcées may have been less motivated to seek assistance when needed. But there is one record of a woman divorced by her husband who sought assistance in pursuing support from him for her children, as promised in their divorce contract.
[Note: If this feels like a somewhat random list of the circumstances widows might find themselves in, that’s an accurate understanding of the article’s contents.]
As a comparison from an extremely different time and place, the author looks at marriage patterns in 15-16th century Bruges and Antwerp in the Low Countries. This culture followed what is known as the “West European marriage pattern” involving a relatively late age for first marriage, a small age gap, and a significant adult population who had not yet married or might never marry. In these urban centers, newlyweds expected to establish an independent household, so marriage was delayed until a sufficient nest egg could be accumulated, often through wage labor by both parties.
Even when the will to marry existed, circumstances might make it impossible. And in a social context where marriage was not always possible, choosing not to marry stood out less. What consequence did that have? And did those consequences differ for men and women? Studies of singlehood often focus strongly on women, but this article explores both women’s and men’s single circumstances.
In theory, the marital status of men in Antwerp and Bruges did not affect their legal status, and so that status might not be mentioned overtly, as it typically was for women. Women’s legal status depended heavily on whether they were never-married, married, or widowed. Married women could enter certain types of legal contracts on their own, while singlewomen and widows were expected to have a male agent who acted for them. The importance of marital status shows up in how women are referred to in legal records in terms of their relationship to the relevant male relative “wife of” or “daughter of.” Widows are more visible as their own identities and they were often allowed to be their own legal agents. [Note: the article seems to contradict itself several times regarding the allowance for widows to be their own legal agents. Not just in terms of theory versus practice, but I think there’s a wording error when the topic is first introduced.]
We can also find differences between the prescriptive legal theory and the de facto activities of women reported in the record. One study of 14th century Ghent suggests that married women had far more real ability to act independently of their husbands than legal theory would suggest. This same de facto legal competency is seen in the accounts of widows in 15-16th century Antwerp, despite the official position that they were legally incapable and needed a male guardian to act for them.
Further, in an era when marriages were often clandestine or of challengeable validity, the categories of “single” and “married” could shade into each other.
Unmarried women were economically vulnerable, even setting aside the sharp differential in male and female wages for similar work. As the Middle Ages came to a close, trade guilds became increasingly closed to women as members, and hostile to women freelancers. Young men went into trade apprenticeships while the primary employment for young women was increasingly restricted to domestic service, which was viewed as a temporary lifecycle occupation.
But dynamics were shifting for men as well. It was no longer a given that apprenticeship would lead to independence as a master. And guilds developed feedback loops that increasingly favored the children of existing masters. Strategic marriage and the support of one’s father in law it could be critical to professional success.
There were identifiable strategies that single women (and widows) used to address economic pressures. Joining together in households or informal communities provided security and companionship.
[Note: This section brings in a much wider scope of time and place than the article’s nominal topic, so it’s hard to tell what it’s trying to demonstrate. I feel like this article lacks a clear overall point.]
This article summarizes various “ways of being single” in Catholic society of one particular Tuscan community in the first half of the 19th century.
Permanent celibacy is defined for this purpose as being never-married by age 50. While out of line with normative expectations, permanent celibacy was accepted under certain conditions, e.g., for those with religious vocations. But certain economic strategies also required an acceptance of permanent celibacy when only the eldest son was expected to marry and beget children (to avoid diluting the inheritance), with other sons taking up religious, military, or diplomatic careers rather than marriage, and surplus daughters either entering religious life or performing household support activities for a married sibling. In a context where marriage was the only licensed means to producing children, control of access to marriage by the family was also a means of population control when resources or land was scarce. This could result in 15% of men and 12% of women never having access to marriage. (The social dynamics involve other complications, so this is a simplification of a simplification.) The vast majority of these never-married individuals were part of complex extended-family households, although solitary singles and members of smaller nuclear households also occurred. While these permanent singles were excluded from full access to social rights and privileges, they were not stigmatized, unless it were viewed as a personal whim rather than part of a family strategy.
Living alone as a one-person household was another option for singles, and its acceptability was highly contextual. If the solitary state was due to household attrition—the death of other members or the natural fracturing of the family into smaller units on a life-cycle basis—then there was not typically any stigma or marginalization. The solitary state tended to be unstable, with such persons typically joining another family unit or moving to an urban center for opportunity. However if the solitary state was perceived as voluntary or due to family rejection or the individual failure to form a family unit, then they might face social disapproval, especially if female. This was more often the case in rural areas than urban ones. These solitaries were likely to be never-married in younger age ranges, and much more likely to be widowed (especially female widows) in older age ranges.