27 May 2016

My Characters Lived In 14th-Century England - The Freedom of the Widow

By Blythe Gifford

After having written seven books set in medieval England, I still wrestle with one immutable fact.  Throughout this time period, a woman was always described in relation to men in her life.  She was a daughter, a wife, a mother.  And a woman’s “career choices” were three:  marry, become a prostitute, or become a nun.  Yes, women did work in trade and beside their husbands running estates.  We can find examples of strong women in any era.  But when you look at the societal structure for women at this time, there were few roads to independence.

Christine de Pizan, an Italian widow,
earned her living as a writer.

Interestingly, one of these was to become a widow.  It was, in some cases, the only time in a woman’s life when she might have an independent legal and financial identity. 

Certainly after a husband had died, a woman often remarried.  And though a woman tended to wait a decent interval before remarrying (long enough to make certain she did not carry any children by her deceased husband), a “wealthy widow” was an attractive target.  Not every woman had the choice of widowed independence and a poor widow, literally, was among the most down trodden in all of society, so poor, perhaps, that she was forced to drink water instead of ale.

But for a certain class of women, having fulfilled her duty to marry and have children, the death of a husband could open a world of opportunity not available to other women.  

Among those who gained opportunities were urban women in trade.  Although many guilds restricted membership to men, women typically worked beside their husbands.  In the event of a man’s death, a woman might keep the business running, and, often, the guild would turn a blind eye.  In addition, marrying a guild member’s widow could be a path to guild membership, giving a widow some possibility of choice over her next husband.

The situation was different for the nobility.  A noblewoman’s marriage typically included a dowry, designed to protect a woman should her husband die before she did, a common occurrence.  The children, typically, would inherit the major holdings.  The “dower lands,” would serve as a sort of insurance, providing for the widow during her lifetime and for any children not entitled to inherit their father’s property.

The Magna Carta gave widows the right not to be forced to marry.
Hence a “dowager,” which now has connotations of an aging woman, was simply a widow with some land of her own.  This term, and many others associated with this transaction, actually came into the language after the 13th and 14th centuries, but they described situations and statuses that occurred earlier.  A “dower” was, confusingly, both something the wife brought to a marriage and money or property the husband gave to the wife’s family.

And to make it more confusing, a "dowry" could also be wealth a woman brought to the marriage but was not necessarily allowed to keep in the event of her husband's death.
At any rate, after her husband’s death, with a little property of her own, a woman had a chance for independence that she could not achieve any other way.  Among the lessor known rights granted in the Magna Carta was the promise widows would not be forced to marry.  (This has been called “one of the first great stages in the emancipation of women,” by J.C. Holt in Magna Carta.)  As a result, many did not remarry, or chose to marry for reasons of the heart.  (They were, of course, supposed to have the approval of their feudal lord before wedding.)

In fact, in thirteenth century England, “independent noble widows were ubiquitous,” according to Linda Mitchell.  “They controlled large amounts of land, they frequently preferred to remain single, and they were fully capable of handling their families and their tenants with an iron fist.”  (“The Lady is a Lord: Noble Widows and Land in Thirteenth-Century Britain,” Linda E. Mitchel, Historical Reflections, Vol. 18, No. 1) http://www.jstor.org/stable/41298944

Of course, it was never that simple.  This dower property was supposed to stay with the widow, transferable to a new husband should she remarry.  Her husband was supposed to keep the dowry intact, but although it was “her” money, “he” had total control over it during the marriage.  And because we are talking, in some cases, about substantial money, other family members might not want the widow to take the property from the estate.  We have ample evidence of lawsuits over who had rights to what. 

The Wife  of Bath, Chaucer's famous widow.
And, as time went on, the laws and customs changed in ways that whittled away the opportunities for a widow’s independence.   Complex systems of land trusts and ownerships developed.  While some of them protected the holdings from being sold or taken away, the fact that the property was tied up in trust opened some widows to being pressured to “cash out” the holdings, often for a sum much less than their total worth.  By the fourteenth century, a larger portion of the dowry transferred to a prospective husband tended to be in cash rather than land.  This was wonderful for younger sons who needed income but more problematic for a woman who might find the money gone after his death[1] .  A widow might have been promised a percentage of the husband’s holdings instead of specific land.  But if the family wealth shrank during the marriage, that portion might not be all that had been expected. 

Of course, this summary generalizes across time and space.  Every situation was different.  But when we think of an independent widow in medieval England, we have as an example one of the most famous widows of medieval England:  Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who had been married five times.  While she is, as far as we know, fictional, her forthright, outspoken attitude may be a clue to the freedom that many women felt when they were free of the constraints of married life.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published ten romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders.  WHISPERS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, was a June 2015 release from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com

Author photo Jennifer Girard


 [1]The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages: The Fourteenth-Century ...Givens-Wilson


Mary Preston said...

Apart from the fact that you lost your husband, being a widow sounds like a kind of freedom.

Blythe Gifford said...

Exactly, Mary. For some women, it could indeed be that.