Skip to main content

Introduction Single and the City: Men and Women Alone in North-Western European Towns since the Late Middle Ages

  • Chapter

Abstract

The history of single people, be they divorced, widowed or never married, has rarely been considered a happy one. Until the late twentieth century, the single status was not a desirable state in most cases. In a society that expected everyone to marry, singles were stigmatised, marginalised and had a hard time making ends meet. This image of vulnerable singleness dominates the historiography and permeates all early modern and nineteenth-century literature. In Jane Austen’s work, for instance, a woman with no fortune could not hope to survive if she did not have a husband. This is in sharp contrast to the image in contemporary mainstream culture and media. Fiction and films, such as “Bridget Jones” or television series like “Ally McBeal” that emphasise the singleness of the main characters, depict unmarried women, and to a lesser extent men, living in trendy cities, making their own money, answering to no one and living life to the fullest. The sitcom “Sex and the City” especially celebrates the urban single lifestyle. In their representation of empowered, confident singles, these series, which invaded our screens in the late 1990s, are indicative of how the status of singles has changed over the years.1

Keywords

  • Material Culture
  • Single Woman
  • Urban Economy
  • Unmarried Woman
  • Early Modern Period

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1057/9781137406408_1
  • Chapter length: 24 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-1-137-40640-8
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Hardcover Book
USD   109.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. These studies tend to concentrate on early modern women especially. For England: Amy Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bridget Hill, Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660–1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Pamela Sharpe, “Dealing with Love: The Ambiguous Independence of the Single Woman in Early Modern England”, Gender & History 11:2 (1999), 202–32

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  4. Christine Peters, “Singlewomen in Early Modern England: Attitudes and Expectations”, Continuity and Change, 12:3 (1997): 325–45

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  5. Olwen Hufton “Women Without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of Family History, 9 (1981), 355–76

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  6. Judith Bennett and Amy Froide, eds, Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250–1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Betsy Israel, Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, Liberty, a Better Husband: Single Women in America: The Generations of 1780–1840 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)

    Google Scholar 

  9. Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850–1920 (London: Virago Press, 1985).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Silvia Evangelisti, Margareth Lanzinger and Raffaella Sarti, and an edited volume by Lanzinger and Sarti, Nubili e celibi tra scelta e costrizione (secoli XVI-XLX) (Udine: Forum, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Geneviève Guilpain, Les célibataires, des femmes singulières. Le célibat féminin en France (XVIIe-XXIe siècle) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Jean Claude Bologne, Histoire du célibat et des célibataires (Paris: Fayard, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Catherine Dollard, The Surplus Woman: Unmarried in Imperial Germany 1871–1918 (New York/ London: Berghahn Books, 2009)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 11

    Google Scholar 

  15. John Hajnal, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective”, in D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley (eds), Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography (London: Arnold, 1965), 101–43.

    Google Scholar 

  16. This trend is quite pronounced, although its strength varied from region to region. On average, the age at marriage in western Europe fluctuated during the early modern period between 26 and 28 years for brides, and 28 and 31 years for grooms. Isabelle Devos and Liam Kennedy, eds, Marriage and Rural Economy: Western Europe since 1400 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Katherine Lynch, “The European Marriage Pattern in the Cities: Variations on a Theme by Hajnal”, Journal of Family History, 16:1 (1991), 83.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 75

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  19. Dykstra and Poortman examined the impact of economic resources on the likelihood of remaining single in the Netherlands, and found that having many resources resulted in an increased likelihood of partnership formation for men, and a decrease for women. Pearl A. Dykstra and Anne-Rigt Poortman, “Economic Resources and Remaining Single: Trends over Time”, European Sociological Review, 26:3 (2010), 277–90.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  20. Martha Vicinus, “The Single Women: Social Problem or Social Solution?”, Journal of Women’s History, 22:2 (2010), 191–202.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  21. For example, see: John Henderson and Richard Wall, eds, Poor Women and Children in theEuropean Past (London/New York: Routledge, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Derek Philips, Well-being in Amsterdam’s Golden Age (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008)

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  23. Manon van der Heijden, Richard Wall, Ariadne Schmidt, “Broken Families: Economic Resources and Social Networks of Women who Head Families”, Special issue of History of the Family, 12:4 (2007) 224–25

    Google Scholar 

  24. Bruno Blonde, De sociale structuren en economische dynamiek van’ s-Hertogenbosch, 1500–1550 (Tilburg: Stichting Zuidelijk Historisch Contact, 1987) 55–60.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Janine Lanza, From Wives to Widows in Early Modern Paris: Gender, Economy, and Law (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 116–20

    Google Scholar 

  26. Ariadne Schmidt, Overleven na de dood: weduwen in Leiden in de Gouden Eeuw (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2001), 146–54.

    Google Scholar 

  27. See for example Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, “Market Wage or Discrimination? The Remuneration of Male and Female Wool Spinners in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic”, Economic History Review, 63 (2010) 165–86

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  28. Sandra Cavallo, “Bachelorhood and Masculinity in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy”, European History Quarterly, 38:3 (2008), 375–97.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  29. Silvia Evangelisti, Margareth Lanzinger and Raffaella Sarti, “Introduction”, European History Quarterly, 38:3 (2008), 367.

    Google Scholar 

  30. A recent and worthwhile example is Simonton and Montenach, eds, Female Agency in the Urban Economy: Gender in European Towns, 1640–1830 (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Ariadne Schmidt, “Women and Guilds: Corporations and Female Labour Market Participation in Early Modern Holland”, Gender and History, 21:1 (2009) 170–189

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  32. Beatrice Moring, ed., Female Economic Strategies in the Modern World (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Judith Spicksley “‘Fly with a duck in thy mouth’: Single Women as Sources of Credit in Seventeenth-Century England,” Social History, 32:2 (2007), 187–207

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  34. See also the discussions by Martha Vicinus, “The Single Woman: Social Problem or Social Solution?”, Journal of Women’s History, 22:2 (2010), 191–202

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  35. Cordelia Beattie, Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  36. Theo Engelen and Jan Kok, “Permanent Celibacy and Late Maniage in the Netherlands, 1890–1960”, Populaüon-E, 58:1 (2003), 67–96.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  37. Amy Erickson, “The Marital Economy in Comparative Perspective”, in Maria Agren and Amy Louise Erickson (eds), The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain 1400–1900 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 15.

    Google Scholar 

  38. See, for example, Nathalie Le Blanc, Solo: Waarom steeds meer mensen alleen wonen (Antwerpen: Bezige Bij, 2014)

    Google Scholar 

  39. Gretel Van den Broeck, Leven zonder lief: de liefdes van de single (Leuven: Van Halewyck, 2001); and Klinenberg, Solo.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Richard Wall, “Leaving Home and Living Alone: An Historical Perspective”, Population Studies, 43:3 (1989), 372.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  41. Merry Wiesner has found a similar pattern of all-male residencies and male bonding in sixteenth-century Germany. There, it mainly concerned journeymen who showed particular hostility towards working women. When they endangered public order, some city governments even tried to suppress such shared housing arrangements. Merry E. Wiesner, “Wandervögel and Women: Journeymen’s Concept of Masculinity in Early Modern Germany”, Journal of Social History, 24:4 (1991), 767–82.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  42. Peter Laslett, “Family, Kinship and the Collectivity as Systems of Support in Pre-Industrial Europe: A Consideration of the Nuclear-Hardship Hypothesis”, Continuity and Change, 3 (1988), 153–75.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  43. Myriam Carlier, “Solidariteit of sociale contrôle? De roi van vrienden en magen en buren in een middeleeuwse stad”, in Myriam Carlier, Anke Grève, Walter Prevenier and Peter Stabel (eds), Hart en marge van de stedelijke maatschappij in de late middeleeuwen (Leuven: Garant, 1997), 71–91

    Google Scholar 

  44. Richard Wall, “Beyond the Household: Marriage, Household Formation and the Role of Kin and Neighbours”, International Review of Social History, 44 (1999), 55–67

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  45. Katherine Lynch, Individuals, Families and Communities in Europe, 1200–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  46. Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001)

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  47. Tine De Moor, “Single, Safe and Sony? Explaining the Early Modern Beguine Movement in the Low Countries”, Journal of Family History, 39:3 (2014), 3–21.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  48. Research by Dykstra also indicates that the absence of supportive friendships, rather than simply being single, is an important factor in loneliness: Pearl A. Dykstra, “Loneliness among the Never and Formerly Married: The Importance of Supportive Friendships and a Desire for Independence”, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 50:5 (1995), 321–29.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  49. Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2009), 42–89.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Although Daniel Roche must be credited with having paid a great deal of attention to domestic servants in his ground-breaking account of the changes in material culture among the eighteenth-century residents of Paris: Daniel Roche, Le peuple de Paris. Essai sur la culture populaire au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  51. Jan De Vries, The Industrious Revolution. Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references

Authors

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Copyright information

© 2015 Ariadne Schmidt, Isabelle Devos and Bruno Blondé

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Schmidt, A., Devos, I., Blondé, B. (2015). Introduction Single and the City: Men and Women Alone in North-Western European Towns since the Late Middle Ages. In: De Groot, J., Devos, I., Schmidt, A. (eds) Single Life and the City 1200–1900. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137406408_1

Download citation

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137406408_1

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-349-57246-5

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-137-40640-8

  • eBook Packages: Palgrave History CollectionHistory (R0)