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. Continue reading “What is a ‘spinster’? Spinster mothers in the seventeenth century.”