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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #80d Beattie 2007 - Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Chapter 3)

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.

Chapter 3: The Single Woman in Fiscal Discourse

The chapter, while intriguing, veers off considerably from the thrust of the LHMP. The general relevance continues to be documentation for the presence and relative prevalence of economically independent unmarried women. While this status is unrelated to whatever those women’s sexual desires and activities may have been, it provides a basis for authors who prefer to keep their sexually adventurous female characters free of the encumbrances of a husband, living or dead.

* * *

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.

The documents were drawn up in various contexts, but local officials were involved in all of them in some way, either in providing information about the people being listed, or in the actual composition of the documents. The vocabulary used varies from place to place in the distinctions it makes, especially in how uniformly people are identified as married or unmarried. The specific that is the core of this study is one where most people (male and female) are identified explicitly in terms of marital status as well as any other categories that affect their assessment.

The tax rolls, in general, list people in descending order of socio-economic status (and thus in decreasing amount of tax paid), beginning with landed nobility, moving on to well-off craftsmen, and proceeding on to ordinary laborers and servants, with the truly indigent paying no tax. In the 1377 levy, all adults over the age of 16 were liable to pay tax. But in the 1379 levy, married couples paid a combined amount that was equivalent to the levy on a single man or single woman. This means that all women listed in the rolls in 1379 can be assumed to be unmarried, and thus the distinctions in labeling are addressing a different factor than marital status.

While men are identified as single (solus) or married (coniugatus), with a small number lacking this label for unknown reasons, they are also identified by occupation (incuding “servant”) or (in a very few cases) as their father’s son (indicating a young unmarried man still residing at home). Those men identified as servants are uniformly either unmarried or have no marriage status given, while those listed with an occupation are overwhelmingly listed as married (ca. 95%). In contrast, women (and these are all unmarried women, remember) may be identified as single (sola), as a maiden (puella), or as a widow (vidua) or have no status listed (some of which can be identified as probable widows based on other information). The second axis of identification is similar to that for men: occupation (including servant), relationship (daughter or mother), or none given.

If all the women were, by definition, “sola” then what purpose does this distinction serve? Beattie notes that some of it may simply have been habit: people were accustomed to making these distinctions for other purposes and retained them even when it made no difference to the tax. As with the men, there are strong correlations between the two types of labels. Female servants are always either “sola” (or with no marriage status given) and never maiden or widow. The same holds for those with listed occupations. Women identified as their father’s daughter are always labeled “puella” (maiden) and those identified as someone’s mother are unsurprisingly listed as widows. Those who have no relationship or occupational label fall into “sola” or “vidua” but never “puella”.

Shortcutting a lot of analysis, we see puella/maiden used to identify an unmarried girl still living at home. Vidua/widow (based on additional evidence) seems to carry two contrasting implications. For some there is a strong sense of inheriting the late husband’s tax basis, often indicating women who pay more than the basic assessment but have no occupation listed to account for a higher income. But just as often it occurs for women paying the minimum tax and seems to be used to flag them as in financial hardship due to a lack of (male) support. More than half the taxed women are servants, while perhaps 5% appear to be self-supporting by some other occupation. (The evidence of other rolls suggests that many may have been spinners, but higher assessments appear for women identified as brewers and ale sellers.) This low rate of self-employed singlewomen is not universal--the rolls for a different region list as much as 25% of unmarried women as “sola” but not as servants.

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