The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England
This book is a focused study of the use of the category ‘single woman’ in late medieval England. In a culture in which marriage was the desirable norm and virginity was particularly prized in females, the categories ‘virgin’ and ‘widow’ held particular significance. But the law gave unmarried women legal rights and responsibilities that were generally withheld from married women. The pervasiveness of religion and the law in people's day-to-day lives led to a complex interplay between moral and economic concerns in how medieval women were conceptualized. The result is different unmarried women are marked out as ‘single women’ in different contexts. This study is therefore revealing of the multiplicity of ways in which dominant cultural ideas impacted on medieval women. It also offers a way into the complex process of social classification in late medieval England. All societies use classificatory schemes in order to understand and to impose order on society. This study views classification as a political act: those classifying must make choices about what divisions are most important or about who falls into which category, and such choices have repercussions. When those classifying choose what defines a group or how an individual should be labelled, they choose between certain variables, such as social status, gender, or age, and decide which to prioritize. This study does not isolate gender as a variable, but examines how it relates to other social cleavages.