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Response to Review no. 686

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. 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. As I outline in the introduction, one of the scholarly traditions with which I align my book is that of studying interpretive schemes, models that divide society into various subgroups such as the much-studied scheme of the three orders or estates, and their relationship with a social reality. (1)

The other approach which has influenced me is one prominent within gender history, that of thinking about categories of difference and how they intersect. (2) I disagree with Froide that a key theme in the book is about how we as scholars should define the category ‘single women’ and I note how others have used the term, rather than criticise them for their choices. The book explores how a range of medieval classifiers – clerics who produced manuals related to confession and penance, justices in the king’s courts who adjudicated on appropriate personal designations in legal writs, local elites who ran guilds and provided information for tax listings, and scribes who worked for church courts, civic governments and parish guilds – used the category as a way into how women were conceptualised more generally. The focus on texts which use the category ‘single woman’ is one way of deconstructing a dominant classificatory scheme for medieval women, that of maid-wife-widow. Such analysis, then, is not just about women and marital status, but also about gendered ideas of virginity, widowhood, age, social status, occupational identity, and legal responsibility.

The book does argue that categories are culturally constructed and that terms might mean different things in different texts, but I do not believe that language is open to any interpretation. The book rather argues that meanings are situational. To some extent, then, the meaning of the category ‘single woman’ is contingent on the other categories used around it, such as ‘maiden’ and ‘widow’, whose meanings also shift. However, I also derive meanings from the context of the text. Each chapter situates the texts under discussion in their particular social and discursive contexts; rather than providing ‘backgrounds’, these contexts are in fact integral to understanding where the categories might be coming from and what impact the language use might have had. For example, in chapter three (‘The single woman in fiscal discourse’) the main case-study is the 1379 return for Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn, Norfolk, which classifies unmarried female taxpayers in a number of ways but is exceptional for a poll tax return in its occasional use of the Latin term puella. I do consider national-regional differences here by thinking about who compiled the return and what texts they might have been working from, in addition to the physical existence of the tax-payers. The Anglo-Norman tax schedule is discussed as are the existence of nominative returns for the 1377 tax. Such documents help recreate a fiscal discourse but I also conclude that not all the language use in this return stems from that particular discourse, which of course did not operate in a vacuum.

A key chapter in the book, then, is the first one (‘Classification in cultural context’), not mentioned in the review. It explores the associations that accrue to certain categories through their repeated use in particular contexts by influential cultural discourses, namely religious and legal ones. Much interesting work has been undertaken in recent years on the different meanings that the categories ‘virgin’ and ‘widow’ might have. (3) This chapter argues that the use of these categories in a religious discourse about chastity, a discourse which is widely disseminated and accepted, means that the categories often carry with them associations of chastity, which could influence their use in other discourses, or inflect their meaning, even when chastity is not an overt concern. (And it is probably worth noting here that the category ‘virgin’ itself encompasses a wide range of terms as there is no clear virgin/maid distinction between chastity/life-stage in any of the languages encountered in this study.) Second, it argues that because the category femme sole has a specific meaning as a legal construct in late medieval England (and the construct is expressed in Latin or Middle English in some texts), the associations of the legal construct – particularly that of economic responsibility – sometimes imprint themselves on the various terms even when the legal construct itself is not being intentionally evoked. It is such inflections that are then picked up in the case studies that follow.

To conclude this brief discussion of how my case studies of texts relate to the social and cultural world that produced and consumed them, I shall stay with the same case-study, the poll tax return which uses puella for some unmarried women and sola for others, of similar age. This chapter opens with a vignette, a story told in the chronicle of Henry Knighton, of how some tax commissioners attempted to extract payment in 1381 by lifting up the skirts of young girls [puellulas] to see if they were virgins. This lively story from the historical record was chosen because it not only dramatises the impact that classification by tax collectors could have on individuals outside of a text, but because it demonstrates that just because one is thinking about tax it need not follow that everything else gets left to one side. Throughout the study, then, I try to keep in play not just gender and marital status, but a whole host of factors such as sexuality, age, social status, household position, economics, law and religion.

Inevitably a response to a book review is not going to clarify all the subtleties of a book’s argument but I hope that I have encouraged some to read it for themselves.


  1. See O. G. Oexle, ‘Perceiving social reality in the early and high Middle Ages: a contribution to a history of social knowledge’, in Ordering Medieval Society: Perspectives on Intellectual and Practical Modes of Shaping Social Relations, ed. B. Jussen, trans. P. Selwyn (Philadelphia, 2001), pp. 92-143; P. Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 1-10; or, for a non-medieval example, R. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 113-21. Back to (1)
  2. See S. Farmer and C. B. Pasternack, Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 2003); S. Farmer, ‘The beggar’s body: intersections of gender and social status in high medieval Paris’, in Monks and Nuns, Saints and Outcasts: Religion in Medieval Society. Essays in Honor of Lester K. Little, ed. S. Farmer and B. H. Rosenwein (Ithaca, NY, 2000), pp. 153-71; and P. H. Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York, NY, 1991), pp. 225-30. Back to (2)
  3. See Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, ed. C. L. Carlson and A. J. Weisl (Houndmills, 1999); B. Jussen, Der Name der Witwe: Erkundungen zur Semantik der Mittelalterlichen Busskultur, Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte, 158 (Göttingen, 2000); S. Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, 2001); J. Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, c.1150-1300: Virginity and its Authorisations (Oxford, 2001). Back to (3)