- The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation
Unlike medieval Roman Catholic women, who had the option of spending virginal lives in convents, early modern women were expected to marry. This collection both reinforces the acceptability of single lives for medieval women, while also revealing single life options available to early modern women. Since this journal is geared toward the early modern period, I will focus on essays dealing with this period.
The collection contains an introduction and essays by eleven authors of which five focus on medieval texts: two on Anglo-Norman saints' lives (Jane Zatta, Paul Price), one on Malory (Dorsey Armstrong), and two on Chaucer (Laurel Amtower, Jeanie Grant Moore). The interdisciplinary essays on the early modern period primarily consider what the existence of various "types" of single women said about early modern English society and how these women were often perceived as a social threat. The various disciplines represented point out the necessity of looking in different places to understand the position of women in a society that rarely recorded their actions. For example, it makes a difference to our understanding of early modern women to know that the number of women who never married rose from about "ten percent in the birth cohort of 1566 to reach its peak of twenty-two percent in that of 1641" (Spicksley, 65), or that about 14.9% of all early modern women were widows, and they headed about 12.9% of all households (154).
These numbers may indicate that most early modern women did marry, but they also indicate that a substantial number of women had to find ways to survive outside of marriage. Spicksley's stunning article, "To Be or Not to Be Married: Single Women, Money-lending, and the Question of Choice in Late Tudor and [End Page 718] Stuart England," indicates that the 1571 legislation legalizing money-lending and setting interest rates at ten percent allowed a remarkable forty to sixty-three percent of women in her study area — Cheshire and Lincolnshire — either to live exclusively by money-lending or greatly supplement their incomes by such means. Given these facts, it becomes easy to agree with Spicksley's assessment that, for many women, the supposed necessity of marriage was "little more than a cultural myth designed primarily to bolster the status quo" (96).
Levy discusses the conflicted roles of widows as repositories of male memory and challenges to male autonomy in "Good Grief: Widow Portraiture andMasculine Anxiety in Early Modern England." She indicates that "widow portraits" were commissioned by a living husband to help maintain masculine memory through the carefully represented image of the (purportedly) grieving widow. Ultimately, though, these portraits were designed to alleviate male anxiety regarding female power, since widows — unlike other women — maintained a public and legal identity until they remarried. Levy also indicates the potential for deconstructing the project of the "widow portrait" by examining a triptych portrait of Lady Anne Clifford's family that she commissioned to "reposition" herself within her family's history.
Both Sedinger, in "Working Girls: Status, Sexual Difference, and Disguise in Ariosto, Spenser, and Shakespeare" and Susan C. Staub, in "'News From the Dead': The Strange Story of a Woman Who Gave Birth, Was Executed, and Was Resurrected a Virgin," examine the less visible servant. Sedinger looks at the prototypes of the Margaret character (Much Ado About Nothing) and how easily they are used by the male characters to destroy the honor of their mistresses. Staub considers the 1650 case of Anne Greene, a servant accused of and hanged for the murder of her illegitimate son, who miraculously revived as she was placed in her coffin. Anne was clearly a victim of infanticide prosecution, indictments for which increased by as much as 225 percent between 1576 and 1650. The victims of this legislation were primarily servants, since most were...