The Life of a Single Woman in Fifteenth-Century England

Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Sara Butler, Loyola University New Orleans
“The Life of a Singlewoman in Fifteenth-Century England.”

Sara M. Butler

To date, the study of singlewomen in medieval England has been largely theoretical in nature, analyzing prescriptive literature (poems, legislation, sermons) in order to gain a deeper understanding of the role of singlewomen within the larger category of women (usually conceptualized as maid, wife, widow). All of this work has given us some gravely needed insight into attitudes towards and expectations of single women in medieval English culture: yet, the theoretical basis needs to be grounded more closely in a reality. The purpose of this paper is to start looking to that reality and answer some of the following questions:  what can the courtroom evidence tell us about the life of a singlewoman? What were her living arrangements? How did she support herself? Was her life one of perpetual dependence, or was it possible for a singlewoman to be independent? And, in order to build on the research that has gone before, how did singlewomen survive in a world that failed to acknowledge their existence?

This paper will draw primarily on a sampling of records relating to financial disputes (over rents and rental agreements, land, credit, purchases, pawns, etc) involving singlewomen in the fifteenth-century Common Bench, as well as some fifteenth century court of Chancery petitions. Common Bench was England’s central court for dispute resolution in medieval England; by the fifteenth century, the court had achieved such popularity that it offers the best possible insight into a cross-section of English society. Chancery petitions, which emanated from roughly the same grouping of individuals as Common Bench but from a court thought to be a particularly appropriate forum for women’s grievances, were more detailed in nature and are thus useful to illustrate some of the larger issues that this paper address.

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