Florilegium: Volume 28 (2011)
In 1990, Margaret Wade Labarge published a seminal article on medieval widowhood and religious devotion, arguing that “among the upper classes widowhood could provide for the first time in a woman’s life a freedom of action and choice that she had not previously enjoyed.” She pointed out that not all medieval widows were elderly, and indeed, one of the widows whose life she explored, Loretta, countess of Leicester, was widowed in her early twenties. Such women might wish to avoid remarriage for a variety of reasons, yet their lives were far from over even if they were widowed in their thirties or forties: Loretta lived well into her eighties. Labarge outlined a number of “second careers” that widows might undertake in the secular world, though her article focused on women who “turned to an active religious life and, in reality, took up a new career.”
She argued that “Because of their superior social position these women had the luxury of a choice among several patterns of religious life, as recluse, or nun, or mystic living a devout life in the world.” Labarge concentrated on the influence that widows in the religious life could exercise, presenting one example of each of these three patterns: Loretta, countess of Leicester, who became a recluse by 1221; Ela, countess of Salisbury, who founded Lacock Abbey in 1232 and entered it as a nun, serving as abbess for nearly twenty years; and St. Birgitta, wife and daughter of Swedish nobles, who influenced popes and kings through her mystical Revelations.