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
A study of the classification and meaning of female singlehood.
Chapter 5: 'Singlewoman' as a Personal Designation
It is always amusing when one of my academic passions intersects an entirely different academic passion. In this case, we see the collision of research into economically independent women with research into naming practices and the negotiation between names as arbitrary labels and names as distinguishing identifications.
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Medieval English practice allowed for a fair amount of variability in how a specific person was named in a legal document. Surnames were not fixed and the popularity of certain given names, occupations, and descriptive nicknames meant that the clear distinction of individuals could be difficult. The Statute of Additions instituted in 1413 attempted to address the problem of clear and distinct identification by suggesting specific types of additional personal designations for use. [Note: I have a separate fascination for historic naming practices and the factors that affected how people were identified and distinguished. I confess I’d never heard of the Statute of Additions before and now I want to look into it further. One serious philosophical issue in discussing naming practices is determining the rather hazy dividing line between “names” and “descriptions of identity”.] Among the “additions” suggested for distinguishing women was “singlewoman”. Although it was suggested for any unmarried woman, in actual use, widows were more often identified by that more specific status, and therefore “singlewoman” was, in practice, a label for the never-married.
In fact, the appearance and increasing frequency of use of the term “singlewoman” in English documents of all types corresponds closely to the Statute of Additions, and a causal relationship can be supported by looking at other terms recommended by the Statute, such as the use of “gentleman” and the regular addition of the place of residence to names.
Among the discussions of suitable additions, “singlewoman” and “widow” are both approved for distinguishing women, whereas “maid” or “virgin” do not appear in the guidelines and “servant” is dismissed as too vague and not sufficiently attentive to social status. This correlation does not mean that the use of “singlewoman” was entirely driven by legal use. The earliest known attestations are all from non-legal contexts. The increasing appearance in documents is due to the adoption of the everyday descriptive term as a legal “term of art”. But even in legal contexts, the use of singlewoman was not simply for its distinguishing value, but tended to be used when the status of being single and never-married was relevant, as when discussing an inheritance that would be designated for a woman’s dowry, or when a resident of York was granted the “freedom of the city” (i.e., given independent legal rights within the city) which would not have been relevant if she had been married.
The text of the chapter provides an extensive array of examples of contexts in which women are identified as singlewomen in 14-16th c. legal and civic records. (There is a bit of a side discussion noting that when “spinster” is used to identify women in 16th century records, it is clearly a literal occupational term--which can be held by married women--and not the designation of a never-married woman that later evolved.)