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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #80a Beattie 2007 - Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Introduction)

Full citation: 

Beattie, Cordelia. 2007. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-928341-5

Publication summary: 

A study of the classification and meaning of female singlehood.


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Beattie’s work looks at the classification of women for social and legal purposes with respect to marriage status--maid, wife or widow--and the consequences for those who did not fit neatly into those categories, as well as the intersectionality of gender categories with social status and age. As the title indicates, this classification system is viewed through the lens of the singlewoman, a category that could be disruptive depending on whether it is considered as encompassing such states as “not-yet-married young girl” and “widow” or whether it is found as a residual catch-all for those women who do not fit easily into the “official” categories of virgin, wife, and widow.

Two types of classification schemes are relevant: interpretative (a normative system which concerns itself with theoretical organizational systems, such as the “three estates” of social class) and labeling (which looks at the de facto identification of specific individuals or cases and constructs a classification system upwards from that data). Medieval society had a strong interest in interpretive classifications as a way of understanding and enforcing divine order as realized in the physical world. Label-based classification systems are most easily extracted from texts with a practical function, such as tax or court records, where the social classification is not a primary focus but rather one of multiple factors that affect outcomes.

Women were often considered as standing entirely apart from interpretative classifications such as the three estates. They might, in some cases, be treated as a fourth group entirely outside of the estates (but with their own internal structure), or might be classified with respect to the husband or father’s status. Some expanded the virgin-wife-widow framework to also include the categories of prostitute and servant. Within this system, the singlewoman (if interpreted as “never married but available for marriage” and thus excluding widows and nuns) has no obvious place and so may be entirely unrepresented in the literature.

Beattie’s work begins from actual textual use of the label “single woman” (first appearing in Middle English in the early 14th century), alongside Latin and French parallels (sola and femme sole) to identify how the category was used in context and what factors led a woman to be identified as such rather than in some other category.

Time period: 

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