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15th c

LHMP entry

Chapter 6: The L-Word in Women’s History

This book as a whole is a “state of the field” analysis of women’s history as an academic discipline, and especially of women’s history (indeed, history in general) covering eras before the 19th century. This summary will cover only the chapter specifically on lesbian history.

There’s a rich amount of data on singlewomen and female-headed households in medieval Germany. Tax records for selected cities in the 14-15th centuries show between 17-25% of tax-paying households headed by women. Widows were often labeled as such in the records but it isn’t alway possible to clearly distinguish never-married women, though estimates suggest they may have been as many as half of these households. This continued in the 16th century with tax records indicating that 20-25% of tax-paying urban households were headed by women.

This is a complex, data-heavy survey of sources for the demographics of singlewomen, the overall (very complex) patterns that emerge, and an analys of the theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain those patterns. For my summary, I’ve rearranged the topics to try to focus on single variables at a time.

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.

Benkov reviews how the squeamishness of medieval legal texts in indicating how the word "sodomy" is applied to women's acts effectively erases the lesbian nature of their activity: “women with each other by detestable and horrible means which should not be named or written about.” Which text is placed beside for more simple and clear descriptions of men participating in anal intercourse. Crompton (1980) addressed the question of prosecutions of women for sodomy up to the French revolution, but little additional material has been added since.

Introductory chapter to a collection of papers on the topic described in the title. The collection in general addresses the question of women living outside the “nuclear family”, and especially looks at systems and categories rather than treating singlewomen as isolated anomalies.

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 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.

Chapter 3

This chapter compares similarities and differences in a related group of stories from both French and Arabic sources that use cross-gender disguise as a bridge to the possibility of same-sex relations. The French tales and their Arabic counterpart share enough themes and tropes to suggest a common inspiration, but the attitudes of the characters and the resolutions reflect their respective cultural differences.

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