2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

At the Margins of Society? Single Women and Their Wills in Late
Medieval London

Tze-yan Jessie Woo

Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

There has been an ongoing debate on the status of medieval women in England. The “pessimistic view” sees that the life cycle of women was limited to the household and that women were governed by the head of the household, such as their fathers and husbands. Women were attached to their husbands after marriage and were unable to gain an independent economic and social status in the society. However, some historians did not jump to this conclusion and took a more optimistic view, arguing that medieval women actually lived in a “Golden Age,” because women could control their own financial status and maintain their own businesses after the death of their husbands. However, both arguments only concerned how women gained or lost social status by examining their marriage status. It is indeed the case that marriage was the social norm for women in medieval England, but it is still necessary to exam the position of unmarried women. This research uses the wills of single women in London through the period 1450-1570 to reconsider their status and shed the light on their social circles, and concludes that single women were definitely not marginal members of society.


Keywords: England, women, London, wills, late medieval, unmarried