During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, women in England might occupy several different social categories in accordance with their life stages, lifestyles, and economic status. Among these, the category of "single woman" is surely the largest and most complex, including not only "life-cycle" single women — widows or young women who might eventually marry — but also women who never married: well-born "spinsters" provided for by their families, entrepreneurs, wage earners — many of whom were servants or farm workers — nuns and the handicapped (the latter also often sheltered by the church), unwed mothers, crossdressers, some of whom may have been lesbians, kept women, and prostitutes. The exaggerated range of experiences to which each of these lifestyles and professions is open leads to a dizzying picture of the category of unmarried women in the Middle Ages and early modern period. That is to say, since at some stage in her life, if only the earliest, every female is single, every woman is a life-cycle single woman and grist for our mill.
There is no shortage of grist. As Maryanne Kowaleski's recent study of single women observes, some thirty percent of all women were single in the late fourteenth century. And yet single women play only a peripheral role in the official
Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide, eds., Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250–1800
(Philadelphia. 1999), 2.
See Olwen Hufton's superb historical account, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women
in Western Europe 1500–1800 (New York, 1998).
Maryanne Kowaleski, "Singlewomen in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: The Demo
graphic Perspective," in Singlewomen in the European Past, 46, 326. The mid-seventeenth century
was another demographic high water mark for single women. Note that Kowaleski's seventeenth
century statistics are only for lifelong single women: see "Singlewomen," 53. For other studies on
the demographics of single women, see Vivien Brodsky Elliott, "Single Women in the London
Marriage Market: Age, Status and Mobility, 1598–1619," in Marriage and Society: Studies in the
Social History of Marriage, ed. R. B. Outhwaite (New York, 1981), 81–100; David R. Weir,
"Rather Never Than Late: Celibacy and Age at Marriage in English Cohort Fertility, 1541–1871,"
Journal of Family History 9 (1984): 340–54; Roger Schofield, "English Marriage Patterns Revisited,"
Journal of Family History 10 (1985): 2–20; L. R. Poos, A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex
1350–1525 (Cambridge, 1991), esp. 148–58 and the chapter on servants, 183–206; and P. J. P.