Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN: 9780199283415; 191pp.; Price: £45.00
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Date accessed: 9 February, 2023
The history of single women in pre-modern Europe has begun to attract a good amount of attention in the last decade. Thanks to historians such as Judith Bennett, Kim Phillips, Ruth Mazo Karras and P. J. P. Goldberg, we now have some knowledge about single women in medieval England, particularly about their working lives, their youth, their sexuality and contemporary attitudes toward them. (1) Beattie herself has also been contributing to the scholarship on the topic for the last few years, and her work has so far stood out for her ability to find the choice vignette and to provide lively stories from the historical records. Since many of her articles have appeared in edited collections, not all readers may be familiar with her work, and this monograph gives new readers a chance to engage with Beattie's arguments. As Beattie is the first to admit, her book is more about how medieval people classified women by marital status, rather than about single women per se. This work places Beattie firmly among those doing some of the most interesting theorising about singleness in the past.
This monograph provides a window into medieval English ideas about marital status and theories of categorisation, rather than a social history of the women being categorised. The book is a series of case studies in which Beattie examines the categorisation of single women in varying contexts and by different groups. Specifically, she looks at the classification of single women in religious texts, tax subsidies and guild records, as well as in civic and probate documents. Beattie's understanding of a range of medieval sources is truly impressive here. Already known as an attentive reader of sources and genres, Beattie is at pains to show the reader the nuances of each type of record that she uses. The downside of this it that she includes long explanations of documents and how historians have read them before we get to her interesting analysis. Nevertheless, her presentation of the debates on and the caveats attendant in using religious texts, tax records, guild records and court documents will be very useful for postgraduates studying medieval history.
One of the key themes of Beattie's book is how we as scholars should define the category 'single women'. While in my own work on early modern England I found the word 'singlewoman' to mean a woman who has never married, Beattie argues that the same term had more varied connotations in the medieval period. (2) In one context - the 1413 Statute on Additions [Titles] - the term 'single women' included never-married women and sometimes widows, in essence women without husbands. Nevertheless, in the same time period but in a different context - penitential discourses on chastity - contemporaries could use the term to only mean never-married women. I am persuaded by Beattie's argument that the term 'single women' had varying meanings depending on the context; but, as Beattie herself shows, the term 'widow' gained wide acceptance in various types of records over the medieval period, and I would argue this is why 'single women' eventually came to mean unmarried women who were not widows, e.g. never -married women. Beattie argues strongly that her definitions come out of the sources, and that others who have worked on single women have created modern classifications into which they have inserted women in the past. This is a tad ungenerous and overstated, since, for instance, my use of the compound term 'singlewoman' comes directly from the sources as well. But Beattie's point that we must pay attention to nuance and difference and not generalise about the meanings of terms over time is well taken.
Beattie's attention to language and nuance is important, but as she shows us, language was a tricky thing in the Middle Ages. When sorting out just who was being classified and what terms were being used, she has to take into account Latin, law French, and English words. 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'. (3) Her reading of the same preacher's manual to which Karras referred, the Fasciculus Morum ('Little Bundle of Morals'), shows that while the text defined fornication as intercourse with widows, prostitutes or concubines, it did not rule out the possibility of non-virginal and never-married women that did not fit into the above three categories. 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 1379 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. Some used the Latin terms solus/sola, vidua, and puella (which Beattie translates as single, widow, and maiden/girl, respectively). 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. 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. 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'. 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 1413 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 1413 Statute since the earliest uses of this vernacular term that she can find come afterwards - in the 1430s and 1440s. 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.
- Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800, ed. J. M. Bennett and A. M. Froide (Philadelphia, 1999); K. M. Phillips, Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540 (Manchester, 2003); R. Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford, 1998) and see note 3; and P. J. P. Goldberg, Women, Work, and Lifecycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300-1520 (Oxford, 1992). Back to (1)
- A. M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2005). Back to (2)
- R. M. Karras, 'Sex and the singlewoman' in Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800, ed. J. M. Bennett and A. M. Froide (Philadelphia, 1999), p. 104. Back to (3)
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)