I wanted some more discussion of how we can know what groups of women contemporaries were classifying when they used the Latin term sola, which she translates into the English 'single'. And the same goes for the term soluta. These terms are even less transparent than English ones. The book also makes an interesting and persuasive contention about medieval views of the sexuality of single women. Beattie particularly takes issue with Ruth Mazo Karras's contention that 'there was no conceptual space in the medieval scheme of things for a sexually active singlewoman who was not a prostitute'.
While it is always difficult to argue a point based on absence of overt evidence, Beattie once again reminds us of the nuances of language. Beattie's assertion that medieval people had more categories for single women than just virgin and whore is on firmer ground in her reading of Jacob's Well , a discourse on the 14 degrees of lechery. The text refers to maydens [virgins], wydewes, comoun wommen [prostitutes], and syngle wommen.
Beattie interprets this as meaning that there was a classification for unmarried women who were not virgins, widows or prostitutes. I could suggest a counter interpretation: that the term 'syngle wommen' here may also refer to older never-married women who were no longer viewed as maydens or young women in a pre-marital state.
This points to one of Beattie's key contentions: language is open to interpretation. However, since this is a text on sexuality, I think Beattie is probably correct that women were here being categorised by sexual and marital status and not by age or life cycle. Beattie's chapter on how single women appear in the poll tax revisits previous work she has done that usefully reminds us of the socially constructed nature of supposedly transparent and formulaic sorts of documents like tax returns.
Other returns made more use of occupational, familial or household terms, such as daughter or servant, to categorise single women. Beattie shows that assessors seem to have used puella to indicate a daughter at home in contrast to 'servant' for a young woman working outside the home. She argues that the terms puella and vidua both had an economic inflection; in the first case, of financial dependence, and in the second, of financial assessment according to the deceased husband's status.
This chapter also brings up the issue that there were regional variations in the terms used by tax assessors for single women.
Gender Roles of Women in the Renaissance
I would have liked much more of a discussion on Beattie's part about geographical, regional, or local variations if any in how contemporaries categorised single women. It seems integral to her book's argument that language and the meaning of terms and categories varied by context. Since Beattie makes use of sources from all over England - London, Bishops now Kings Lynn, Norwich and York - she does not confine herself to the meanings created by contemporaries in only one region, such as the southeast, for instance.
More on this would have been interesting.
In the next chapter, Beattie examines the appearance of single women in 14th-century guild returns, registers and account books. Even though the guilds in question are religious and not craft organisations, she finds that the categories of 'single woman' and 'single sister' have an economic and legal inflection and she argues they are analogous to the legal category of femme sole, a legally and economically independent woman.
Beattie also points out that the references to single women in guild records do not necessarily mean these women were members in any numbers. For example, a return that said a woman could join if she paid a certain fee, only means she could theoretically join the guild, for in reality the fee may have been too high for most women.
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While wives also appeared in guild records, they paid a lower fee than single women, and their husbands were the actual payees. Beattie found that other guild records preferred to use terms for single women that had moral rather than economic associations and that evoked chastity. In guild registers, for instance, the latin terms virgo and puella are always used for young single women. There was no term for a young man that had associations of virginity, rather, the Middle English word 'sengilmen' appeared.
Beattie describes the use of 'sengilman' as a vernacular shift in the later 15th century, but it is not clear why virgo did not undergo a similar vernacular shift to 'maiden'.
Women in the Middle Ages
Beattie makes a significant point when she argues that contemporaries had a vested interest in labelling young women 'maidens' and thus emphasising their chastity, while young men were described in neutral terms as 'sengilmen'. But since this argument is important it probably merited its own chapter and a longer disposition. In the last chapter of the book Beattie examines the term 'single woman' as a personal designation in court records and probate documents.
She argues that the growing use of the term 'single woman' was influenced by the actions of the central government, in particular the Statute of Additions, which attempted to standardise personal additions in legal documents. The justices decided the term 'singlewoman' was an appropriate addition for unmarried women. But since the term vidua continued to be used for widows, 'singlewoman' was largely applied to the never-married.
Beattie attributes the introduction of the term 'singlewoman' into English society to the Statute since the earliest uses of this vernacular term that she can find come afterwards - in the s and s. She says the term only came to be widely used in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and it operated as a variant of maiden rather than widow. This chronology is in line with what I have found and it helpfully provides a context for why 'singlewoman' is one of the words for never-married women in the legal documents of the early modern period.
Beattie does take issue with my assertion that there was a transition in the 17th century from using the word maiden to using 'singlewoman', or its more common counterpart, 'spinster'. She, I think correctly, argues for more complexity, saying any transition occurred in different records, at different places and at different times, and that sometimes the change was from singlewoman back to maiden, instead of the direction I posited.
Since I based my argument on probate and civic records from Southampton, Bristol, Oxford and York, I think Beattie is right that we might be seeing variations over region and record. Ultimately though, by the 17th and definitely by the 18th centuries, the terms 'maiden' and 'virgin' are outmoded and largely unused in English legal, civic, and economic records although still apparent in literary genres.
Beattie's arguments for the late medieval period help me understand how much more single women were defined and classified within a secular context in the early modern era, compared to a more religious context in medieval England. With the Reformation and the disappearance of vowed virgins or nuns, as well as the increasing secularisation of both English society and its records, contemporaries eschewed the use of terms with virginal and religious connotations to classify women.
Rather, the terms with economic and legal inflections, such as 'spinster' and 'singlewoman' dominate by the end of the 17th century. Beattie's final chapter is a great example of how the work of medievalists can assist historians of more recent centuries to contextualise their own work. While Beattie has written her book for a specialist medieval audience, I hope historians of gender and of later periods will also take a look. They will be rewarded with an example of how to do careful social and cultural history that never strays from the sources but that also offers a fruitful analysis of those same documents.
I am grateful to Amy Froide for her comments on my book; it is interesting to read the reaction of an early modern scholar of women and I am pleased she recommends the book to those who study gender or practice social and cultural history in later periods. As she picks up, though, the book perhaps has most to offer to medievalists.
I am therefore grateful to the editors for this opportunity to elucidate the approach taken in the book and to clarify some of my arguments and findings. As Froide comments, this is not a social history of single women.
Swinging Singles and Lesbian Opportunities
The book is concerned, though, with the social and cultural world in which unmarried women, as well as other men and women, lived. While it does consist of a series of case studies, which put a text at the centre of the narrative, the underlying motive is to relate such texts to the world that produced and used them. This study is therefore revealing of the multiplicity of ways in which dominant cultural ideas impacted on medieval women. It also offers a way into the complex process of social classification in late medieval England. All societies use classificatory schemes in order to understand and to impose order on society.
This study views classification as a political act: those classifying must make choices about what divisions are most important or about who falls into which category, and such choices have repercussions. When those classifying choose what defines a group or how an individual should be labelled, they choose between certain variables, such as social status, gender, or age, and decide which to prioritize. This study does not isolate gender as a variable, but examines how it relates to other social cleavages. Keywords: single women , medieval women , classification , marriage , virginity , cultural ideas , gender , age , religion , law.
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- 08.11.03, Beattie, Medieval Single Women.
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