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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #9 – Farmer 1999, “’It Is Not Good That [Wo]man Should Be Alone’: Elite Responses to Singlewomen in High Medieval Paris”

Full citation: 

Farmer, Sharon. 1999. “’It Is Not Good That [Wo]man Should Be Alone’: Elite Responses to Singlewomen in High Medieval Paris” in Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds.  Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  ISBN  0-8122-1668-7

Publication summary: 

While, no doubt, many lesbians in history made their peace with the need to accommodate marriage and family life, when designing a character who has the freedom to refuse marriage to a man, it helps to know what social and economic options would have been possible (or even normal) within your setting. There have been several excellent collections of papers (and even more monographs) on the topic of singlewomen, but I believe this was the first significant one to appear.

Farmer, Sharon. “’It Is Not Good That [Wo]man Should Be Alone’: Elite Responses to Singlewomen in High Medieval Paris”

Statistics and demographics can tell us where and when a woman or group of women living independently and unmarried would be reasonably common or even typical. But stories come from particularity. This article looks more anecdotally at how singlwomen were treated and described in medieval Paris: what occupations they might have, what living arrangements, what safety nets. And sometimes in the midst of dry historic archives you find the inspiration for a story. Sometime in the mid to late 13th century, three women traveled together from Chaumont to Saint-Denis in Paris: Amelot and two unnamed friends. When they arrived, they went to the house of Marguerite of Rocigny, who they seem to have known before coming to Paris, looking for a place to live. Marguerite didn't have room but sent them to her neighbor Emmeline where they took up lodging, with Amelot and one of her companions sharing a bed. (Which would not in and of itself been considered sexual, please note.) Shortly after arriving, Amelot suffered from a paralysis in one of her legs and assisted by her friends and by the two Parisian women, she repeatedly visited a holy shrine until she was cured. Doesn't that leave you wanting to construct a story around these women? Such are the seeds of stories that this project hopes to call to attention.

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The actual demographics are hard to reconstruct (see previous entry), in part because attitudes towards singlewomen affected how records were compiled. The belief that women should be "under men" led to ignoring those that weren't. Tax records didn't list wage-earners so entire classes of single employed women might be absent. Marital status is not always retrievable from how names were recorded. A woman recorded as “X wife of Y” is clearly married, but “X the Occupation” might or might not be. Singlewomen can be identified most clearly when the record identifies her as the daughter, sister, or niece of a man whose identity is irrelevant in context. (E.g., in a list of members of the embroiderer’s guild, an entry for “Jehanne the daughter of Giles the mercer” makes it clear that she is unmarried (or she’d be identified as her husband’s wife) and that she has an independent economic existence (as her father has a different occupation). Rich or noble singlewomen typically entered convents so those remaining single were more often artisan or working class. Some singlewomen were members of all-female guilds (a concept found only in records for three cities in this era). Other mixed-gender guilds included women, such as the poulterer's guild which explicitly gave singlewomen full membership rights. Other guilds with significant membership: Embroiderers, alms-purse makers. Singlewomen were also active in textile professions outside the guild structure e.g., wool combers, spinners. Many singlewomen were domestic servants, including those with this as a life-long career. There is anecdotal evidence for groups of singlewomen migrating together to the city and co-habiting and providing continued mutual support in times of illness or disability.  Tax records include evidence of specific pairs or groups of unrelated singlewomen living together across many years. These could include beguines (semi-religious women who took no formal vows and who might or might not live in designated “beguinages” under supervision).

Clerical responses to singlewomen were either to ignore them or to try to put them under male control based on Biblical principles of the "purpose" of women with respect to men (procreation, helpmeet). Religious women were "married" to Christ, eliminating this problem. Guidelines for topics for moralizing sermons directed at specific groups of people classified men by class and occupation, but women by marital and sexual status. Suggested sermon topics for female servants (who by definition would be singlewomen) focused on sexual sins, as did sermons aimed at prostitutes and peasant women. Servant women were viewed as a sexually promiscuous destabilizing force in the household.

Charitable responses to singlewomen focused on widows, nubile girls, and women under male authority. These responses were expressed in the form of residential foundations. Reformed prostitutes were also also a focus of charity.


Time period: 

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