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Not So Silly, but Still Sely

Monday, September 2, 2019 - 07:00

The use of the word “sely” in this paper’s title is likely to be confusing to anyone not versed in the historic development of the word. Originally (in Anglo Saxon) “saelig” meant “blessed, holy” and was typically applied to religious figures. The meaning shifted in Middle English (as sely) to meaning “worthy, noble, excellent” and sometimes with the sense “fortunate, lucky, prosperous.” One can trace the connections: holy people are worthy and considered to have inherent nobility, and one can conclude that worthy and noble people may have achieved that state due to good fortune and luck.

But then the word took a sideways shift. Lucky, prosperous people are assumed to be happy. And “sely” began being used with a range of meanings in the field of “lucky, happy, pleasant”. It’s likely that this is the sense Chaucer intended when he described the young and sexually-desiring widow Dido as “sely”. (She would be an odd candidate for being considered “holy” though perhaps she would fit “noble, worthy”.)

By the 15th century, the type of  happiness and good nature described by “sely” was no longer considered to derive from good fortune and inherent virtue, but rather from a state of innocence of evil. Not innocence from evil, but an obliviousness to the bad things in the world. “Sely” came to mean “innocent, harmless” and then “simple (minded), guileless, foolish gullible.” One finds the word used to describe people with intellectual disabilities, perhaps in parallel with calling them “innocents”.

Once associated with a lack of intellectual capacity, new meanings attached themselves from the common social fate of such persons: “weak, helpless, defenseless” and by extension “wretched, unfortunate, miserable” leading to use as “worthless, trifling, insignificant”. The word has come into modern English as “silly.”

Those familiar with folklore and old ballads may also have encountered the variant “seelie” and “unseelie” as applied to categories of the Fair Folk, with the Seelie Court being those who are generally friendly towards humans (drawing from some of the earlier positive senses) and the Unseelie Court being those who are hostile. (Historic usage data from

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Full citation: 

Amtower, Laurel. 2003. “Chaucer’s Sely Widows” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

Chaucer’s Sely Widows

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. They could represent themselves in law to protect these rights, although this required the skills and knowledge to navigate the legal system. Remarriage could offset some of these handicaps, but conversely had disadvantages. On remarriage, the widow would once again come under a husband’s legal control, though she might negotiate to regain independent legal control over assets from her previous marriage.

Widows were expected to be chaste, but did not have the (hypothetical) ability to “prove” that chastity with their body that virgins were expected to have. They were “unruly” bodies--sexually active but no longer “ruled” by a husband. This paper looks at the concept of widowhood in Chaucer, where widows are often used to represent men’s sexual anxieties. Throughout his writings, widows most often are allowed to “speak” in the text only as a voice for their dead husbands. The exceptions are the sexually aggressive Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales) and the clandestinely sexual Criseyde (in Troilius and Criseyde).

Chaucer’s younger widows generally express a desire for the married state and often are depicted as remarrying. Barriers to remarriage are typically thrown up by their potential partner. These men see them as “safe” targets of sexual interest. Their widowed state is used as an excuse for their sexualization.

The widows use language to have power in the world, either to punish their persecutors or to create justification for their way of life. The Wife of Bath and Criseyde lay verbal claim to their identities in part by claiming that marginal status as widow, rather than in imitation of a single state. Traditional paths are no longer available to them, leading them to question and challenge the status quo.

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