The medieval maiden: young womanhood in late medieval England
By Kim M. Phillips
PhD Dissertation, University of York, 1997
Abstract: Studies of youth or adolescence within medieval perceptions of the life cycle are of increasing prominence within medieval studies. However, most such studies take young manhood as their point of focus, with less attention paid to young womanhood. In a different vein, studies of medieval women are tending towards greater attention to particular life cycle phases, especially to wifehood and widowhood. With the exception of a few essays, or sections in longer studies, youth as a phase of women’s life cycle has received less attention. This thesis takes in both the fields of studies of medieval youth, and of medieval women, in its analysis of representations of young womanhood in late medieval England.
The first task addressed is that of determining whether or not a separate phase in women’s life cycle, between childhood and fully-fledged adulthood, existed in late medieval English culture. Having suggested that such a phase is indeed discernable, but that one must not be too rigid in setting its boundaries, representations of the medieval maiden (which is the term preferred here) within a wide range of discourses are examined. The meanings of maidenhood come mostly from groups other than the young women themselves, and each group expresses its own particular interests, desires and agendas in the construction of the various maidenly identities. Thus there is no single, unified definition of young womanhood in this culture. However, certain themes are recurrent, including the degrees of autonomy to which young women had access, and the ideals of femininity to which they were subject. Overall, it is argued that the dominant defining theme of the phase was a tension between the state of sexual and psychological maturity, and the necessity for chastity. That tension could pose problems, but it could also represent a peak of feminine desirability. In this latter regard, it is argued that maidenhood represented a notion of the perfect age of woman.
A maiden childe and a wenche hatte puella, as it were clene and pure as be blake of be y3e, as seib Isidre. For among aide at is iloued in a wenche chastite and clennes is iloued most. Men schal take hede of wenches for bey bene hote and moist of complexioun; and tendre, smal, pliaunt, and faire of disposicioun of body; schamefast, fereful, and mury, touchinge be affeccioun; delicat in clothinge. For as Senec seib, semelich clobinge bysemeb hem wel at be chast wenchis [et cetera]. Puella is a name of age of soundenes wiboute wem, and also of honeste. So seib Isidre. For comounliche we vsen to clepe maydenes wenchis. And a maide hatte virgo and hab bat name of grene age, as virga, ‘a 3erde’ is iseide as it were viridis ‘grene’. Obir a maide hab bat name virgo of clennes and incorrupcioun as it were virago, for sche knowib not be verrey passion of wommen. So seib Isidre.
It is unlikely that either John Trevisa, author of this Middle English translation from 1398-9, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, author of the early thirteenth-century Latin original, or Isidore of Seville, the early medieval author to whom both later authors turned as their authority, had extensive day-to-day contact with the puellae, maidens or wenches whom they might have expected to conform to their model of youthful femininity. The image of the young woman as an idealised paragon of feminine virtue might have seemed as fantastical as a unicorn, or as foreign as a dromedary, to the medieval parents of young unmarried women. And yet this image is important in late medieval English culture because it represents an ideology about the identity of girls and young women. It is an ideology which is presented by an elite and privileged few, and of elite and privileged males at that, yet it is one which may have had its basis in, and some impact upon, wider cultural notions of young womanhood. The key themes of the puella’s identity as described – her chastity, her purity, the delicacy and beauty of her body, her modesty, humility and openness of manner, and her freshness, incorruption and lack of “feminine passions” – seem fundamental to a late medieval English idea of young womanhood. The implications of this ideal, and the other key themes which defined maidenhood as a stage in women’s life cycle, will be the subject of this thesis.