Katharine Geldenhuys

title.none: Beattie, Medieval Single Women (Katharine Geldenhuys)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.003 08.11.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Katharine Geldenhuys, University of the Witwatersrand,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Beattie, Cordelia. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 179. $80 978-0-19-928341-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.03

Beattie, Cordelia. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 179. $80 978-0-19-928341-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Katharine Geldenhuys
University of the Witwatersrand

Classification helps us to organise our world psychologically and in this way is a useful tool for society. However, it is also at the root of much prejudice and unfair discrimination--the case of classification carried too far. My own home, South Africa, is of course a prime example and although apartheid has, thankfully, been abolished, it sadly remains a society strongly based on social classification. The point of my detour of thousands of miles and years is that Cordelia Beattie's book should be relevant not only to scholars of gender and the Middle Ages but to the wider contemporary community. Harping on the applicability of medieval studies to the modern world is one of my personal bugbears but perhaps I am preaching to the converted in this instance. So on with the business at hand...

Cordelia Beattie states: "Classification is a political act in that it entails value-laden choices about where divisions should be drawn, and about what those divisions mean" (144). At the outset, Beattie identifies two broad schemes of classification, to be used throughout her text: interpretative schemes (involving the division of society into subgroups) and the labelling of named individuals.

The book is divided into five chapters, the first four concentrating on interpretative schemes of organization and the fifth on the labelling of individuals. The first chapter investigates "Classification in Cultural Context" and points out the further subdivision of distinctions between the classification of women in terms of Christianity versus their legal categorization.

Chapter two, taking the religious route (so important to European medieval society), deals with "The Single Woman in Penitential Discourse," specifically with regard to lechery and chastity. The meaning of the term "single woman" as used in such discourse and how it compares with the use of other groupings such as "widow," "virgin" or "whore" in such texts is taken into account.

The next two chapters explore the legal possibilities. In "The Single Woman in Fiscal Discourse," Beattie uses the nominative tax returns of 1379 (when only unmarried women were taxed) from Bishop's Lynn, Salisbury, Derby and Howdenshire for what they can reveal about how these communities perceived unmarried females by considering the use of the term "single woman" as opposed to other classificatory terms like "widow" or occupation. Chapter four, "The Single Woman in Guild Texts," examines 1388-9 guild returns and the register of the Guild of the Holy Cross, Stratford-upon-Avon (1406-1535). Beattie argues that the implications of the legal concept femme sole (a woman not under the coverture of a man and consequently economically and legally independent) are alluded to by the use of terms such as "single woman" and "single sister" in such texts. In addition, in instances where the category "maiden" is used in preference to "single woman," differing attitudes to the sexuality of single men and single women may be indicated.

The final chapter focuses on "'Singlewoman' as a Personal Designation" and contends that the term "singlewoman" was generally (though not solely) used to refer to the woman who had never married.

Throughout the text, Beattie highlights the intersections religious/moral and legal/economic of the "singlewoman" category in the late medieval documents which she examines. Finally, she emphasises the importance of context in the consideration of the implications of any use of the "singlewoman" label, as well as indicating the importance of not taking any single example as universal.

Medieval Single Women is written and presented with immense clarity. The text mainly surveys practical documents to demonstrate uses, and deduce values, of the term "singlewoman" in order to explore the politics of this classificatory label in the societies of late medieval England--rather than over-abundant philosophising on the term. It would certainly serve as a useful resource for medieval scholars whose work focuses on gender, while also having broader applicability to other areas of social investigation.