Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800

Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800

Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800

Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800

Synopsis

Highlights the important minority of women who never married and addresses the critical matter of differences among women from the perspective of marital status.

Excerpt

When we imagine the villages, towns, and cities of Europe before 1800, we see these places bustling with nuclear families — husbands, wives, and their children. We know, of course, that some people were neither spouses nor children, but they appear to us as random individuals caught temporarily at awkward points in the game of making marriages and sustaining conjugal families. Orphans needed surrogate parents; adult daughters and sons awaited marriage; widows and widowers missed old partners and perhaps sought new ones. Indeed, marriage was so much the destiny of most adults in traditional Europe that in some languages — English among them — the words for “wife” and “husband” could be synonyms for “adult female” and “adult male.” To be grown up was to be married.

What we imagine is largely true. Most women and men in Europe before 1800 did marry and raise children together. Their songs, stories, and art consistently represented marriage as the usual life for both sexes, and in the lessons of their rabbis, priests, and ministers, they drank even more deeply from the cup of marriage. Unlike Protestants and Jews, Catholics were taught to revere holy celibacy above marriage, but even they learned that ordinary lay folk could expect to take good comfort from married life. In traditional Europe, boys and girls grew up expecting that they should and would find partners of the opposite sex, get married, and breed children. In both theory and practice, marriage was normative.

Yet what we imagine is only part of the story. Marriage might have been normative, but many people never married, and many others lived single for many years — through their teens, twenties, and sometimes even thirties — and then later lived alone as widows and widowers. Unmarried persons — singlewomen, bachelors, widows, and widowers —were more common in some times and places than others, but they always constituted . . .

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