Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Amtower, Laurel and Dorothea Kehler, eds. 2003. The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. 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.

Contents summary: 

As usual, the introduction to this collection includes laying out the basic concepts of the topic, a review of the existing literature, and then summaries of the papers that discuss how they relate to each other.

Among the social categories for women, “singlewomen” is a complex that includes widows and pre-married women as well as never-married women. It can include well-born “spinsters” and economically independent businesswomen, as well as wage earners (including domestic and agricultural laborers). Existing research includes some in-depth statistical surveys of singlewomen across time and space, but studies have rarely included literary studies and typically begin their focus in the 16th century.

This collection discusses methods for recovering the lives of singlewomen from a broader cultural perspective. Good previous publications in the field include Bennett & Froide (Singlewomen in the European Past), Lewis et al. (Young Medieval Women), Hufton (The Prospect Before Her). All share a focus that women can’t be reduced to a single category or experience. A given woman’s life can represent multiple experiences.

This collection focuses mainly on representation of singlewomen, especially literary representation. It notes how the division of singlewomen into sub-classes masks their pervasive presence in society. There is a discussion of different sub-classes within the category. Each era has a normative model of women’s lives, and those who don’t fit are stereotyped and argued away as non-typical. These essays discuss those various contexts and how they sustain or contradict the model of patriarchal restrictions on women’s options.

The collection is divided into “Celebrating Chastity”, “Repudiating Marriage”, “Imaginary Widowhood”, and “Sexuality and Re-virgination.” One focus of the papers is on the potential agency of singlewomen. How was singlehood understood as an available and even positive choice? The remainder of the introduction is a summary and contextualization of the contents.

Contents summary: 

This paper looks at three female Anglo-Saxon saints, as depicted in Anglo-Norman hagiography: Osith, Etheldreda, and Modwenna. The women are doubly “other” within the texts: Anglo-Saxon lives being portrayed for a readership of Norman churchmen, and women being portrayed by and for men.

Their lives as singlewomen are significant for their temporal proximity to the audience (as compared with legends of early female saints such as Catherine and Margaret). But they’re also interesting in how these women are used to protect the claims of their associated monastic houses against the Norman religious establishment. There is a focus on their intellectual succesion: the Anglo-Saxon religious houses as the establishers of Christianity in Britain. These biographies are used to justify the legal privileges of their houses as pre-existing the Anglo-Noman church and therefore not being subject to its control. The women’s symbolic exemption from the normative female role was used to support the institution’s exemption from external control.

Of the three women, two marry and one is a “career virgin” but both of the married women resist the married state and win their freedom to serve God instead. Unlike the classical virgin martyrs who are obliterated physically by their moral victory, these women are successful socially as well as morally and live fulfilled lives of religious devotion.

The paper provides details of the manuscripts and their texts. In contrast to earlier Anglo-Saxon versions of their hagiography, which presented religious and secular lives as incompatible, the Anglo-Norman versions of the biographies use the structure of virgin saints’ lives to advance socio-political goals. In the process, the women are shown resisting male authority using “feminine” means that traditionally would be framed more negatively. The details of the biographies are interesting but not germane to the LHMP.

Summary: each finds a strategy to resist marriage (or the duties of marriage) and emerge successfully as a virgin-by-choice established in a religious life. This struggle and success is then presented as an analogy for attempts by Norman religious and secular authorities to claim power over the religious houses that they founded.

Contents summary: 

The legend of the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria became immensely popular in the 14-15th century. It presents the fairly standard story of the Christian daughter of a pagan ruler who resists marriage and supports the Christian community despite increasingly violent threats and punishments. With her increased popularity in the later middle ages, there is a shift from the tone of the earlier texts as “passio” (focused on suffering and martyrdom) to a more detailed “life story” (focusing on the details and context of the subject’s life).

Unlike legends of virgin martyrs who resist marriage after--and due to--converting to Christianity, Katherine is still pagan when she initially resists marriage. She is not resisting as a “bride of Christ” who is therefore unavailable to an earthly bridegroom (which stories omit singlehood as an option) but rather because she sees no need to marry in order to be an effective ruler to her people. She envisions the perfect husband who might overcome her objections but only as a hypothetical impossibility (not recognizing that she is describing Christ). Thus, her legend creates a transition between “bride of Christ” as the only alternative to marriage, and singlehood for its own sake.

This theme is even more developed in John Capgrove’s version of the biography (mid 15th century) which focuses on individual and personal details of Katherine’s life and the reasons for her choice of singlehood. He depicts Katherine as expressing a desire for a single vocation apart from a focused dedication to Christ. Capgrove’s Kathering uses the idea of the “perfect man” whom she’d be willing to marry as a rejection of marriage, not a premonition of Christ.

Price considers the question of why a text with this angle should become particularly popular in 15th century England. He suggests it is part of a trend for lay people, and especially lay women, taking ownership of their religious lives. Price provides as supporting evidence other works by Capgrove that are clearly designed and intended for a female patron and reader. There is a shift in women viewing religious life as requiring rejection of the world to including religious devotion as part of a secular life. There is a comparison to anchorites (religious recluses not part of a convent community) who reject the model of religious devotion as a “bride of Christ” and for whom a broader set of options and motivations are considered valid.

Contents summary: 

This paper begins by looking at the function of single men in chivalric literature as being free to pursue courtly love and service to all women only by not being bound to a specific woman. But the single woman--the one who requires rescuing because she has no man to act for her--is what makes the male character’s reputation possible. The paper discusses how their performance of gendered acts and relationships creates gender concepts in chivalric literature, relying on the contrast of “active man” and “passive woman.” This paper does not address singlewomen as independent actors, but as filling a role within the male/female social economy.

Contents summary: 

This is a fairly extensive research paper in two parts. The first looks at the demographics of singlewomen in Late Tudor and Stuart England, along with some of the social forces that affected women’s inclination and ability to avoid marriage. The second part looks specifically at the occupation of money-lender as an option for women to support themselves or to supplement other forms of income.

Demographic studies indicate that the percentage of never-married women in England during the period in question ranged from 10% (the cohort born in 1566) to 22% (the cohort born in 1641). Contemporary literature indicates anxiety about a “man shortage” as a contributing cause. Society was structured around the expectation of monogamous heterosexual marriage, but increasingly there was a perception that marriage was in decline. This perception was of particular concern in the context of considering an increase of population as a desirable goal. Marriage was, in theory, an expected life stage for all women, and male-authored literature depicted women as strongly desiring marriage and aiming to achieve it at a relatively young age.

Because of these attitudes, female singlehood was viewed as being due to a situational lack of opportunity, e.g., as a result of male mortality during the English Civil War, due to greater male participation in emigration, and due to plague. Other concerns focused on male choice not to marry and blamed that, in turn, on women’s behavior. The atmosphere of sexual license in the Restoration court was felt to encourage men to decline marriage in favor of less formal arrangements. This perception led to legal measures to encourage marriage with special taxes on bachelors and childless widowers. There was little discussion at the time of women who were single by choice, although some hint of this concern appears in satirical attacks on spinsters.

But moral literature around marriage also recognized that not all people were suited to marriage, especially those who were not able or disinclined to procreate. Some individuals were advised (or chose) not to marry due to not being suited to the physical and emotional demands of marriage. In other cases, an individual might remain single to to being unable to convince their family of the suitability of their chosen partner.

The most widely accepted reason for not marrying was financial. The north-western European marriage pattern involved formation of a new, independent household on marriage. This required an accumulation of goods and capital, as well as stable employment. A woman’s “marriage portion” was considered an essential contribution for the economic success of the match.

Women of the lower classes acquired this portion from work, legacies, gifts, or charity. Such women generally worked outside the home from their mid-teens until marriage. But work opportunities were contracting in the 17th century. Charity offered to women often took the form of money or goods to enable marriage. Legal regulation of marriage often targeted foreigners or internal migrants who were felt to be “competing” with local women for marriage opportunities. Other statutes were aimed at delaying marriage, such as apprenticeship regulations that required an unmarried state.

Overall, the result was a significant population of mobile, unmarried poor. For example, rural servants were highly mobile. Gender-related differences in migration patterns also affected marriage opportunities. Curiously, disease also contributed to a “surplus” of unmarried women, with men being twice as likely to contract the plague and five times as likely to die from it, though the data is not entirely clear on this point. Similarly, emigration strongly favored men. The next part of the article focuses on an overlooked demographic: women who remained single by choice. [Note: the author identifies them as women who remained “celibate” by choice, but that’s a different question.]

What factors drove this? The 17th century saw increased freedom of choice in marriage partners. There was a general shift from a focus on marriage as a community-oriented action to marriage as an individual action, with an emphasis on personal autonomy and individual happiness. That individual happiness was not necessarily tied up in marriage. For example, Blanche Perry, a maid to Queen Elizabeth I, chose to remain single in order to devote herself to Elizabeth’s service. In other cases, women related their chosen singlehood to the inability to marry a specific preferred partner. In other cases, they ascribed singlehood to “God’s will.”

Popular literature of the day often humorously debated the joys of a single life as contrasted with marriage. This was more typically focused on men, but in the later 17th century the debate was engaged in more seriously by women who were focused on religious celibacy both within formal ecclesiastical institutions and as lay women. Women writers such as Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, and Jane Barker wrote of “single” life in the context of female friendship or as a positive state in the face of negative attitudes toward “spinsters.”

The choice to remain single required financial stability. Demographic data from the middle ages shows a link between women’s marriage rates and economic autonomy. The labor shortages of the late 14th and early 15th centuries were paralleled by an expansion of unmarried women working outside their household of birth, especially in towns. This included a sharp increase in the rate of never-married women. Even for those who married, marriage might be delayed later in life.

While women’s labor was often marginal and badly paid, the article now focuses on one economic opportunity available to some women: the profession of money-lending.

In England, lending money for interest (with a statutory rate of 10%) was legalized in 1571 (though it occurred on a less regulated basis earlier). It was part of a complex system of many types of financial arrangements, making details hard to track. Female moneylenders are also often not mentioned in the historic records of the time, therefore the field is researched primarily in the context of a small number of prominent and wealthy women. This article expands that data to a wider demographic by use of probate inventories that note lending arrangements that were outstanding at the time of death. While these records show that 40% of all persons were engaged in lending, singlewomen were over-represented with 50-60% engaging in moneylending. This holds across all income levels. Income from loan interest often supplemented other income sources available to singlewomen, such as spinning.

The interest return on a sum equivalent to a woman’s typical marriage portion was roughly similar to the typical wages for the same economic class, although wages were generally supplemented by room and board. But lending did not preclude other economic activities. The singlewomen in this study also engaged in farming, renting out animals, dairying, textile production and processing, along with more poorly paid manual labor. It’s unclear to what extent singlewomen chose this path deliberately, but if chosen, it was a sustainable lifestyle. Most loans were within their own community and class, and served as a communal financial resource against economic fluctuations.

Women whose fathers had died had legal control of their inherited marriage portion either at marriage or at majority. And with marriage typically occurring after the age of majority and a higher male death rate, this meant that many singlewomen were in a position to control their assets. Wills typically left cash to daughters more often than to sons (sons being more likely to get real estate and goods). [Note: but see Staples 2011 for counter-evidence to the claim that sons were more likely than daughters to get real estate.]

As married women’s property came under the legal control of her husband (unless there was a special provision in the marriage contract -- a case only typical for widows), singlewomen had more ability to serve as lenders than married women did. This legal situation also provided a motivation to remain single if they wanted to keep control of their property.

The economic independence of moneylending may have given singlewomen more control over the timing and choice of marriage, or as a way to avoid marriage entirely. Women also sometimes viewed moneylending as a type of charitable activity.

Contents summary: 

Comic drama traditionally relies on and enforces the stereotypes and norms of heterosexual marriage. Most Elizabethan comedies do not present female singlehood and independence as a viable option, even when used as a transitional motif in the plot. Comedic resolutions overwhelmingly require the pairing off of single women into heterosexual marriages. Female resistance raises the questions: Must women marry? And must women marry men? Rarely are those questions answered in the negative. John Lyly stands out in offering a negative response. The pairing and marriage of two women (one to be magically transformed into a man) in Gallathea is as close as he comes to offering marriage as a desirable goal for women.

Although anywhere between 5 to 27% of early modern English people remained unmarried, singlewomen received little representation in literature. Lyly is the only early modern playwright who regularly features them. Comedic works are more likely than other genres to acknowledge singlewomen, as they represent an essential conflict in the plot. At the same time, comedy has the potential to highlight the absurdity and artificiality of compulsory heterosexuality. In Lyly’s court plays (Campaspe, Sappho and Phao, Gallathea, and Endymion), only the first involves the central female character marrying a man. His single female characters fall in various categories: chaste goddess, unmarried virgin, old hag. The attitudes he displayed toward these characters is similarly varied, from admiration to sympathy to contempt. He acknowledges the understanding of heterosexual marriage as both compulsory and a patriarchal structure that subjugates women.

These plays were all performed for Elizabeth I, who was the ultimate role model of the time of a powerful singlewoman, though scholars typically focus on how this affected men, not how it could have inspired women. Descriptions of Elizabeth’s reaction to romantic comedies often noted that she took dramatic debates over the desirability of marriage personally. (And, no doubt, many of them were intended to convey a personal/political argument to her.)

Moralists viewed unmarried women as inherently wanton and sexually uncontrolled. The politics of the question of the queen’s marriage was complicated in that her sister Mary had been married (the approved state) but was massively unpopular, while Elizabeth, though single, was loved. Moralists’ arguments that women should obey and serve their husbands complicated the case of a female ruler. Either that position argued against female rulers marrying, or it argued against having female rulers at all.

Earlier in Elizabeth’s reign, drama was a medium for courtiers to comment on Elizabeth’s unmarried state. By Lyly’s day, the marriage debate was essentially over. But drama still had a role to play in making sense of that situation. The role of “virgin goddess” was an obvious one, but Lyly’s works go beyond that to normalize female singlehood. He focuses on issues of subject and sovereignty, and the negative potential: rape, exile, death, and virgin sacrifice.

Lyly’s Venus sees heterosexual love as being about the (desirable) subjugation of women. For her, singlewomen are an affront to be conquered. Lyly’s Sappho finds the resolution of her desire for (the male) Phao untenable and remains single, thus conquering Venus. Similarly, Cynthia in Endymion, will not countenance marriage to her lower status suitor, though multiple secondary characters in Endymion are married off at the end in a resolution imposed punitively by Cynthia. The individual pairings represent negative tropes about marriage.

In Gallathea and Campaspe, the characters avoid the fate they are initially presented with. In Gallathea this fate is to be a virgin sacrifice, in Campaspe, the heroine is a prisoner threatened with rape by the conqueror Alexander and this situation is equated with the essence of marriage. In Gallathea, the two women at risk of virgin sacrifice instead fall in love with each other in an egalitarian desire not paralleled in heterosexual relationships. Instead of accepting marriage/sacrifice, they escape the system entirely. The marriage that concludes the play reveals gender to be arbitrary and capable of being chosen, rather than an essential characteristic. Their love is entirely symmetric and reciprocal. And despite Venus’s promoise to change one of them (randomly) into a man, the play ends at a point when both are still women. The running theme in Lyly’s heroines is that love demands this equal and reciprocal relationship and cannot thrive in a hierarchical and asymmetric coupling.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands. Through speech, she is able to claim the power to define her own history and identity, rather than have it defined for her, as her last husband attempted to do by teaching her woman’s “traditional” place. From one angle, she can be seen as mangling the meaning of the sacred texts she uses to justify her story, but from another angle she can be seen as deliberately re-making them for her own ends. The remainder of the article is a detailed analysis of how the Wife of Bath represents herself within her tale to lay claim to an androgynous and authoritative identity.

Contents summary: 

This article concerns the visual genre of “widow portraits” created as a symbolic representation of the widow’s status and a depiction of her mourning. These were not typically painted at the widow’s direction after her husband’s death, but rather were commissioned by the living husband to ensure that he was properly least symbolically. Ironically, in some cases, they represent women who predeceased their husbands. Thus, they are not representations of the woman herself as an individual, but as defined in relation to her marriage and her husband. The paintings represent men’s anxieties that their wives would not mourn them, but would see widowhood as freedom and a desired state--a sentiment reprseented in popular literature of the time. The article is fascinating, but has very little relevance to the Project.

Contents summary: 

Despite their statistical commonness, singlewomen were treated as an anomaly without a recognized role in society, especially after the Reformation removed the option of convents as a marriage-alternative in Protestant countries. The feminist historians’ goal of recovering women’s identities has leaned on two assumptions: that “single” women were rarely actually alone, and that unmarried women’s identities can be revealed in their relations to other women. [Note: this is not necessarily implying romantic relationships.] Recent [as of this publication] critiques of these approaches can be found in two collections: Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800 and Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England. [Note: this is on my shopping list of books to track down.] But this latter approach overlooks the importance of barriers of class between women and seeks to identify a unitary “woman’s experience.”

This article takes a literary criticism approach to three versions of the story of Ariodante and Ginevra (an episode that appears in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) that addresses the problem of that “false coherence” of women’s lives. As a whole, the article has little relevance to the Project.

Contents summary: 

This article examines the social and legal background of a sensationalized “marvel tale” about an unmarried woman hanged for murdering her newborh child and then discovered to be still alive. The article largely centers on attitudes towards infanticide, especially of children born outside marriage. There isn’t much that’s relevant to the Project.

Contents summary: 

This article looks at the legal case brought in 1613 by Frances Harding for annulment of her marriage, based on the claim that her husband was unable to have sexual intercourse with her. Her argument was that, as she desired to become a mother, she needed the marriage annulled so that she could marry a more capable husband. The testimony and questioning in the case largely centered around physical “proof” of her virginity, as her husband was known to be sexually active with other women. While the relevance of the article to the collection’s theme is along the lines of “how can a married woman also be single?” it doesn’t have much relevance to the Project.