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widows

In many societies, widowhood gave a woman the best chance at economic independence combined with control over her marital status.

LHMP entry

Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis. 

The article looks at category differences between never-married women and widows. There can be a problem with conflating the two despite superficial similarities. Widowhood was more respectable, while singlehood was both pitiable and suspect. Singles were sometimes twice as common as widows, only emphasizing differences in treatment in the records. Widows were viewed as being a deputy for her late husband but the never-married were expected to be dependent, either on a father or as a member of another (male-headed) household.

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.

Within the context of penitential literature (concerned with the identification and classification of sins), the strict position is that there is no conceptual position for the sexually active singlewoman who was not a prostitute (with a slight allowance for the concubine--sexually active with, but not married to, a specific man--as contrasted with the prostitute who was "common to all"). But detailed treatises such as the early 15th century Jacob’s Well reveal more differentiation.

This chapter looks at the labeling of women in a series of tax rolls from the later 14th century. The series of taxes occurred in close enough succession that interesting patterns can be identified in the documents used to track and record them. At the same time, the nature of the levies changed slightly, especially in terms of how women were treated, which provides the context for the examination in this chapter.

This chapter is concerned not so much with craft guilds but with “social guilds” which served as semi-social semi-religious associations that provided various types of support to members. An analysis of the organizational and membership documents of these guilds indicate that the assumed default member was a married man whose wife may or may not have also had membership privileges. All of them made allowances for single men to join, and many made explicit provision for single women as well.

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.

This chapter looks at the social construction of women’s categories. “Widow” (and its equivalents in other languages), for example, has varied in meaning across time, and has variously meant “woman with no man to represent her legally”, or “woman with no male source of economic support”. The Christian focus on remarriage versus sexual chastity introduced new concerns and nuances, with “vidua” sometimes indicating a woman under a vow of chastity, with “relicta” distinguishing more generally a woman left behind after a husband’s death.

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