Unmarried People

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Unmarried People



Class Strategies. What about people who could not or chose not to get married? In eastern Europe, with a much earlier average age at first marriage, the number of people who never married was small, and most of them were in convents or monasteries. In southern Europe, most men married, but wealthy or middle-class women who chose not to marry, or whose parents could not raise a dowry large enough to obtain an appropriate husband, ended up in convents, whose standards about strict living were often not very high so that the women lived the same comfortable lifestyle they would have on


The vast majority of people in Renaissance and Reformation Europe married, and there are few comments from those who did not marry about the single life. This poem is one of the few, by Anna Bijns, a writer and poet in Antwerp.

Unyoked Is Best! Happy the Woman Without a Man

How good to be a woman, how much better to be a man!
Maidens and wenches, remember the lesson you're about to hear.
Don't hurtle yourself into marriage far too soon.
The saying goes: “Where's your spouse? Where's your honor?”
But one who earns her board and clothes
Shouldn't scurry to suffer a man's rod.
So much for my advice, because I suspect—
Nay, see it sadly proven day by day—
‘T happens all the time!
However rich in goods a girl might be,
Her marriage ring will shackle her for life.
If however she stays single
With purity and spotlessness foremost,
Then she is lord as well as lady. Fantastic, not?
Though wedlock I do not decry:
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.
Fine girls turning into loathly hags—
Tis true! Poor sluts! Poor tramps! Cruel marriage!
Which makes me deaf to wedding bells.
Huh! First they marry the guy, luckless dears,
Thinking their love just too hot to cool.
Well, they're sorry and sad within a single year.
Wedlock's burden is far too heavy.
They know best whom it harnessed.
So often is a wife distressed, afraid.
When after troubles hither and thither he goes
In search of dice and liquor, night and day,
She'll curse herself for that initial “yes.”
So, beware ere you begin.
Just listen, don't get yourself into it.
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.
A man oft comes home all drunk and pissed
Just when his wife had worked her fingers to the bone
(So many chores to keep a decent house!),
But if she wants to get in a word or two,
She gets to taste his fist—no more.
And that besotted keg she is supposed to obey?
Why, yelling and scolding is all she gets,
Such are his ways—and hapless his victim.
And if the nymphs of Venus he chooses to frequent,
What hearty welcome will await him home.
Maidens, young ladies: learn from another's doom,
Ere you, too, end up in fetters and chains.
Please don't argue with me on this,
No matter who contradicts, I stick to it:
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.
A single lady has a single income,
But likewise, isn't bothered by another's whims.
And I think: that freedom is worth a lot.
Who'll scoff at her, regardless what she does,
And though every penny she makes herself,
Just think of how much less she spends!
An independent lady is an extraordinary prize—
All right, of a man's boon she is deprived,
But she's lord and lady of her very own hearth.
To do one's business and no explaining sure is lots of fun!
Go to bed when she list, rise when she list, all as she will,
And no one to comment! Grab tight your independence then.
Freedom is such a blessed thing.
To all girls: though the right Guy might come along:
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.
Regardless of the fortune a woman might bring,
Many men consider her a slave, that's all.
Don't let a honeyed tongue catch you off guard,
Refrain from gulping it all down. Let them rave,
For, I guess, decent men resemble white ravens.
Abandon the airy castles they will build for you.
Once their tongue has limed a bird:
Bye bye love—and love just flies away.
To women marriage comes to mean betrayal
And the condemnation to a very awful fate.
All her own is spent, her lord impossible to bear.
It's peine forte et dure instead of fun and games.
Oft it was the money, and not the man
Which goaded so many into their fate.
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.

Source: Kristiaan P. G. Aercke, “Anna Bijns: Germanic Sappho,” in Katharina M. Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), pp. 382-383.

the outside. In 1552 in Florence, for example, there were 441 male friars and 2,786 nuns out of a population of 59,000; the difference resulted not from women's great religious fervor, but from a staggering increase in the size of the dowry required for a middle- or upper-class marriage. Families placed their daughters in convents instead of trying to find husbands for them, because convent entrance fees were much lower than dowries.

Unmarried Poor. Entrance fees for convents were too high for poor women, however, and special institutions were opened in Italian cities by the Catholic Church and municipal governments for young, attractive unmarried women to allow them to earn a dowry and thus perhaps a husband. Women whose marriage chances were seen as unlikely in any case were also often sent to conventlike religious institutions, where they did not take formal vows and worked at spinning or sewing to support themselves. Unmarried poor women and men also worked as domestic servants for their entire lives, living in the household of their employer and therefore being under his control.

Few Opportunities. In the cities of northwestern Europe, the number of unmarried people was more significant; historians estimate that between 10 to 15 percent of the northwestern European population never married during this period, and that in some places this figure may have been as high as 25 percent. Unmarried people, especially women, often moved to cities in search of employment as domestic servants or in cloth production; they frequently found work spinning wool, a situation reflected in the gradual transformation of the word “spinster” from a label of occupation to an epithet for an unmarried woman. The types of employment open to most unmarried people were generally poorly paid; households headed by unmarried people (and widows) were always the poorest in any city; unattached women, in particular, often had to live together in order to survive.

Controlling the Unwed. In the late Middle Ages, city governments worried about how to keep unmarried people from needing public welfare, and in the sixteenth century, cities began to view single women living independently as a moral, as well as an economic problem. They were “masterless,” that is, not under the authority of a responsible older man. It was during this period that greater stress was being laid on the authority of the husband and father, and unmarried people living alone were perceived as a possible threat to public safety and the proper social order. Unmarried men were regarded as more likely to get drunk and engage in fights than married men, and spinsters risked getting pregnant out of wedlock. Laws were passed forbidding unmarried people to move into cities and ordering them to find a place of residence with a married couple. (Such laws were also passed, and enforced, in colonial New England.) Men who were not married were not allowed to become masters in craft guilds or participate in city government. Both Protestant and Catholic authorities increasingly viewed marriage as “natural”—for everyone in Protestant areas and for all those who were not clergy or members of a religious order in Catholic areas—so that people who did not marry were somehow “unnatural” and therefore suspect.

Open Opposition. Some men were proud of their decision to remain unmarried, flaunting their independence to authorities and moving around frequently rather than settling down. It was more difficult for women to move, and some women internalized the stigma attached to never being married. This was particularly true for middle- and upper-class Protestant women, whose letters discuss ways they fulfilled their Christian duties without being a wife or mother, such as taking care of elderly parents or serving the needy. Not all women agreed that marriage was preferable, however, and some celebrated their unmarried state. The most eloquent expression of this situation was a poem by Anna Bijns, a sixteenth-century Antwerp poet.


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

John Henderson and Richard Wall, eds., Poor Women and Children in the European Past (London & New York: Routledge, 1994).

Margaret R. Sommerville, Sex and Subjection: Attitudes to Women in Early-Modern Society (London & New York: Arnold, 1995).