What is a ‘spinster’? Spinster mothers in the seventeenth century.

While definitions are vital for our understanding of the past, the use of the term ‘spinster’ can often prove problematic. There are at least two reasons for this. First, by the beginning of the seventeenth century it was clear that the term ‘spinster’ had emerged as the newest marital descriptor of that period, even though it had begun its life as an occupational designation for women (and was occasionally applied to men too). As a result, we cannot always be absolutely sure whether it was intended to have occupational or marital significance, although the context usually provides enough clues for us to make a good guess. This difficulty is somewhat reduced when we are looking at church court material. As an addition in court, ‘spinster’ was increasingly used in the context of ecclesiastical law, both in probate courts and in those dealing with moral and religious litigation, to refer to the never-married.

A further problem for historical analysis is that while the early modern use of the term ‘spinster’ did have a specific application to women that were not, and as yet had not been married, the description now carries with it a number of other cultural signals – not just of singleness, but also of chastity, childlessness, desperation (often sexual) and failure. Part of the problem is the distance between the creation of the term, and its historical development: from the eighteenth century onwards the model of spinster was cleverly interwoven with that of the old maid to discourage entry by those who might otherwise be drawn to consider its benefits. Such ideas still have considerable cultural strength. (See for example http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/31/dont-call-me-a-spinster. Incidentally, cats and frustrated sexual desire often figure in this imagining).

One of the great joys of primary research, however, is the way it challenges your preconceptions. Several years ago, while researching the economic activities of never-married women in the seventeenth century, I was intrigued by a number of wills of spinsters that made reference to one of more of what appeared to be their natural children. I noted them down, intending to look at them later, and only now have had time to think about them again. The numbers were not huge. Out of a sample of probate documents of around 1500 women, whose designation at death suggested they had never been married, I collected around 30 (2 per cent) that included a reference to a child. This is likely to underestimate the full amount, however; wills did not survive for all the cases I looked at, and probate inventories rarely provide evidence of children. Even where wills do survive, information about children is often minimal, especially when instructions were recorded in haste as death approached. A case in point is that of Jane Bedwell, spinster, of Houghton in Sussex, whose nuncupative will was created on January 20, 1644/5. I have quoted it in full below:

‘Memorandum that about the xxth day of January in the yeare of our Lord God 1644 Jane Bedwell of Houghton in the country of Sussex Spinster being sick in body but of perfect memory made her last will & testament nuncupative in manner & forme following or to the like effect. That is to say First she gave unto Jane Bedwell her Child xiid. And all the rest of her goods Chattels and Credits she gave and bequeathed unto Henry Bedwell her Uncle and unto Mary Bedwell the wife of her brother John Bedwell equally to be devided betweene them two. These being witnesses Thomazine Court widdowe & Alice Stemp the wife of George Stemp.’

Jane’s inventory has also survived. Like those of many single women, it revealed that she had few material possessions. Nevertheless, her estate was valued at £4 10s – close to £676 by today’s standards. Her clothing, along with ‘the money in her purse’ was valued at 30s, but Jane – like many of her contemporaries – was also in possession of a further £3 held in the form of credits. (With thanks to West Sussex Record Office for permission to cite from EPI/29/107/011, and STC I/21/21)

Her probate documents offer only a minimal amount of detail about her life. We do not know her age, for example, but we could imagine her as having been relatively young: she had an aunt and uncle still living; and she referred to her daughter as a child. Nor do we know her occupation. Her possessions did not include anything that linked her to spinning, and she was probably a servant. That her brother also has the surname Bedwell suggests that she was as yet unmarried, an interpretation that is lent further support by the existence of her will, since relatively few married women in this period appear to have made one. Her lack of household goods suggests that she was not living independently at her death, and she may have been residing with Thomazine Court, the widow who witnessed her will, or Mistress Jane Palmer, who owed her the £3 that was listed on her inventory. Was her child living with her or elsewhere? Maybe Jane had already made arrangements for the care and upbringing of the child with her sister-in-law Mary and her Uncle Henry, given that she chose to bequeath only 12d [c. £8] of her estate to her daughter and the remainder to be shared between them. But what was the nature of the relationship that resulted in the birth of the child? Jane Bedwell’s case looks like it might have been a classic example of abandonment, either by a guilty master or a feckless lover, or perhaps the result of some unfortunate quirk of fate that had prevented her making the expected transition from pre-marital intercourse to the marital bed. Given the year of her death, this failure may have come about as a direct or indirect result of civil war.

My collection of spinster mothers includes women from a variety of social and economic positions, all with their stories to tell. I hope to have time to develop a more detailed analysis of their documents later, but for now offer the unfortunate Jane Bedwell as an example of the problems we face in moving backwards in time: in the seventeenth century, the term ‘spinster’ had not yet gathered all the baggage it carries with it today.

Judith Spicksley lectures in Economic History in the Department of Economics and Related Studies at the University of York. She researches the economic and social history of the early modern period, and has special interests in single women and credit, debt and slavery, and medicine and infertility.

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