Widows and the Elderly

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Widows and the Elderly


The Independence of Widows. In the High Middle Ages single women were supervised by their fathers, and wives were controlled by their husbands. Widows, however, were able to exercise considerable personal and economic independence—despite changes in inheritance customs, property law, and marriage provisions that had significantly weakened women’s economic autonomy. Some widows were poor, and law, morality, and social conventions considered them among the most vulnerable members of society, but many women found widowhood the most pleasant stage of life.

Economic Advantages. On the death of her husband, a widow was given back her dowry, had the use of her dower, and frequently was the executor of her husband’s estate and guardian of the children. All these responsibilities were hers by law and by right, without male supervision. In the highest ranks of society a widow might have charge of considerable amounts of land and movable wealth. In fact, a widow frequently had much more wealth and land than a younger woman could bring as a dowry to a marriage. In this light, the feudal lord’s desire to control the marriage of his vassal’s widow is understandable. Her land and wealth could empower an enemy or turn an ally into a rival. By the same token her remarriage could significantly extend the lord’s ties of friendship and loyalty. Medieval records include many cases in which lords tried to arrange marriages for unwilling widows and instances of widows buying their freedom to remain unmarried. Among the aristocracy, it was not uncommon for a wealthy woman to be widowed two or three times and then—after a series of arranged marriages—to seek to lead a single life by taking a vow of perpetual chastity. This arrangement freed her from marriage but did not require her to live in a religious community.

Widows of Tradesmen and Farmers. In the lower reaches of society, widows also gained economic control of their property, which might include the family farm, craft shop, and tools of a trade. Widows were highly prized as marriage partners because their wealth usually exceeded a single woman’s dowry. Marriage to a widow could also provide a propertyless man with the land and family that might otherwise be out of reach. Similarly, it could allow an apprentice or journeyman to become a master and guild member. On a farm widowhood was difficult. Because the household economy was based on the labor of both husband and wife, the death of the husband, especially one whose children were too young to take over his tasks, left the family shorthanded. In such cases, widows who did not remarry had to hire help. Whether in town or country, a widow with young children usually managed better with a new husband to share the burden. If a widow were childless or had adult children, however, remaining single offered a freedom and autonomy she had not hitherto experienced.

The Elderly. The Ten Commandments admonished children to honor their parents. Medieval moralists understood this obligation to be a lifelong commitment, not one that ended when the child reached adulthood. Thus, medieval society expected children to care for their aged parents. There were, however, many opportunities for, and instances of, intergenerational conflict. At most levels of society, in town or country, a child, especially the heir, could not expect to start a new household until he succeeded to his father’s estate. Among the aristocracy, a knight could not achieve full manhood, receive his title, and be able to assume the privileges and responsibilities that came with the family’s estate until he had inherited it. A rural villager, who stood to inherit much less land than a noble, remained landless and dependent until his father’s death. Thus, along with facing physical and perhaps mental decline, the elderly were vulnerable to pressure from their children. As elderly villagers became unable to perform the hard physical labor associated with agricultural work, they faced difficult decisions about how to support themselves.

Vulnerable Dependents. The difficulties that could develop between the generations were amply attested to by preachers, moralists, and writers. Many examples used by preachers to illustrate their sermons featured aged parents who were harshly treated by their adult children. Most frequently, the elderly described by preachers were victims of their children’s greed and had been cast out of the house into the cold, left to eat scraps, or to starve outright. The morals of these stories usually involved divine intervention on behalf of the elderly parent. In other examples, an abusive parent was threatened in old age with similar treatment from his own child. Such stories served to highlight how the vulnerability of the elderly and to illustrate the cycle of interdependence that characterized medieval family life.

May-December Relationships. Another point of tension between the generations arose in situations where older men had married younger women. The young men of the community were likely to resent the older man for removing her from the pool of marriageable women. Moreover, if this marriage was the older man’s second, he might have adolescent or adult children who feared that the younger wife, as potentially a young widow, might deprive them of their inheritance for years to come. The marriage of a widow might also elicit resentment from young women who saw a potential husband removed from the pool of eligible men.

Retirement Contracts. One way that the elderly could provide for their support in old age and accommodate pressure to pass on their land to children was through retirement contracts. In these contracts an older couple, or a surviving widow or widower, drafted an agreement giving conditional use of the land to a designated person, usually one of their children, but sometimes a more-distant relative, such as a niece or nephew, or even a landless stranger. The Bible warned, “Give not to your son . . . power over yourself while you are alive, and do not give your estate to another” (Ecclesiasticus 33.20). Nevertheless, these agreements were extremely popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the large European population created a great demand for land and little new land was becoming available for cultivation. A retirement agreement allowed an otherwise landless young person the chance to work a plot of land and start a family.

Obligations. In exchange for the right to work the land and inherit it on the death of the owner, the recipient agreed to provide the retiree with food, clothing, shelter, and whatever else the agreement specified. The agreements were frequently detailed, enumerating, for example, the amount of wheat or the number of pairs of shoes to which the retiree was entitled annually. Other agreements carefully partitioned the family house, indicating the entrances, fireplaces, and rooms to which the retiree had access. In other agreements the elderly couple negotiated to have a separate house built for them, stipulating the size and appearance, including the number of windows and doors. Other conditions might include having their laundry done for them, having fuel provided, or even having a horse to ride.

Imposed Agreements. Sometimes these contracts were imposed on aging tenants by a lord or a community after it became clear that the elderly people could no longer work the land. This kind of arrangement was recorded in the manor court and was perceived to be of benefit to all concerned: the lord continued to collect rent; the community provided for its aging members; and a young person was given access to land and the ability to establish a new family. If retirees were not well off, the arrangements might include not only their land and cottage, but also all their household goods, farm implements, and animals, and even their clothing and other moveable goods.

Protective Provisions. To protect the retiree from any abuse of the terms, retirement agreements were usually conditional. If a younger person did not meet all the provisions of the agreement, the land reverted back to the elderly owner. The conditions and reversion of ownership were enforced by the lord, the manor court, and the community in general. It was considered to everyone’s benefit for these agreements to be enforced with integrity.

The Destitute Elderly. The most vulnerable of the elderly were those who were without property or family to care for them. Coroners’ records provide examples of elderly vagrants who died of exposure. Some of these unfortunates were poor members of a village community, while others may have been dispossessed from their lands or even thrown out by their children. Records indicate the occasional case of an elderly person being forced to beg even though an adult child lived in the village. One sermon included a story about an elderly woman who ceded her property to her son and daughter-in-law in exchange for food and lodging but was then forced from the house and consigned to the life of a beggar. One night, when the young couple was about to sit down to a fine chicken dinner, the old mother came to the door begging for something to eat. The son hid the chicken in a chest while he got rid of the old woman. When he returned to retrieve the chicken, it had been transformed into a snake that wrapped itself around his neck and would not let go. The snake insisted on taking the man’s food away, just as he had deprived his mother. These kinds of tales were aimed to keep greedy children from neglecting their dependent parents.

Charity. Medieval society recognized the perilous existence of some of its older members. For example, it was common in village communities to allow the elderly to glean in the fields after the harvest as a means of supplying themselves with grain. Gleaning was difficult work, however, and could be performed by only the relatively able-bodied. The parish clergy and local religious houses were also sources of charity, distributing food and clothing, and occasionally providing shelter and burial.

Bequests. The wills of elderly people who were in relative good financial circumstances provide quite a different picture of old age during the medieval period. Men took care to leave bequests to their wives, children, and sometimes grandchildren. The wills of widows often included bequests to their children, friends, neighbors, distant kin, godchildren, and servants. Many explicitly mentioned servants who had cared for them during illness or their declining years.


Elaine Clark, “Some Aspects of Social Security in Medieval England,” Journal of Family History, 7 (1982): 307-320.

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

David Herlihy, “Age, Property, and Career in Medieval Society,” Aging and the Aged in Medieval Europe, edited by Michael M. Sheehan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), pp. 143-158.