‘Living as a single person’: Marital Status, Performance and the Law in Late Medieval England

‘Living as a single person’: Marital Status, Performance and the Law in Late Medieval England

By Cordelia Beattie

Women’s History Review, Volume 17, Number 3, 2008

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(oniugium) of a priest joining hands of a man and a woman. Royal, f. 375.

Introduction: In 1316 Semeine, son of Henry le Servant, appeared before the King’s Bench, one of England’s central courts of justice, on a charge of having abducted Isabel, the wife of William de Cornwall, and taken away some of William’s goods.

As Isabel’s husband, common law gave William the use and control of any property that she had brought to the marriage, and it was perhaps these goods that are being referred to here. Semeine’s defence was that on the day of the alleged charge he considered Isabel to be his legal wife and had done so for more than a year. Further, ‘this Isabel at the time of the making of the contract of matrimony between her and the same Semeine and for days and years before was living as a single person at Great Yarmouth and was regarded as single’. He alleged that banns were published in the parish church of the vill of Great Yarmouth and no one raised any objectionto their marriage, a statement that supports his contention that the community also thought Isabel was single.

Isabel, though, was evidently ‘single’ only in the sense that she did not live with her legal husband. Semeine also reports that William had successfully brought a case before an ecclesiastical court to have the marriage of Semeine and Isabel annulled, on the grounds that Isabel had already contracted marriage with William. 

It might seem odd, in a special issue concerned with single women, to begin with an example that pertains to a (twice) married woman, but one approach to the vexed question of how we define the single woman is to think further about definitions of marriage, that is, about what it is that makes someone ‘married’ as opposed to ‘not married’.

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