Widows and Widowers

views updated


Sherri Klassen

Through most of European history, the death of a spouse created a crisis in social identity. Widowhood for both sexes called into question alliances between families that were forged in marriage, threatened the continuity of patrilineal wealth, and reduced the emotional and economic support for the surviving partner. Widowers could emerge with a relatively unscathed identity, their wealth and family intact. Widows, however, embodied many of the contradictions in European attitudes toward women and marriage. Widows were both the weakest and the most powerful women in their society, both dependent and independent, the least respectable of women and the most.


Widowhood refers to the state of being unmarried due to the loss of a spouse through death. In most legal and cultural definitions, remarriage terminates widowhood. The size of the population of widows and widowers, therefore, depends both on the frequency of deaths of spouses and on the frequency of remarriage. Before the twentieth century, marriages rarely lasted longer than thirty years and were almost as likely to be dissolved by the death of a wife as of a husband. The European population, however, contained more widows than widowers because the latter were likelier to remarry.

Estimates place the percentage of widows in Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries close to 11 to 14 percent of the female population. The visibility of widowers was much smaller; rarely would more than 5 percent of the male population be widowed at any given time. Fifteenth-century Florence provides an informative exception. Recording almost as much information as a census, the tax records there show that 25.1 percent of the female population over the age of twelve in 1427 was widowed. The large number of widows reflects a pattern in which women married very young to much older men, a pattern common to much of Renaissance Italy and perhaps more prevalent than once assumed.

Increasing female longevity combined with decreasing remarriage rates kept between 10 and 17 percent of the population of European women widowed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The two world wars of the twentieth century produced an increase of 5 to 7 percent in the number of widows. The proportion of widowers also dropped as women increasingly outlived their partners in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As life expectancy increased in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the age of widows also soared. The proportion of widows and widowers always increased with age because young men and women whose spouses died were more likely to remarry than were their elders. A sharp decrease in mortality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant that the death of a spouse became a much rarer experience for men and women under the age of sixty. On the eve of the French Revolution, 42 percent of the women in France who died between the ages of twenty and sixty were widowed at the time of their death; in the most recent census of France, only 1.9 percent of the women under the age of sixty were widows. This meant a reduction in the number of widows and widowers left supporting young children and an increased cultural equation of old age with widowhood. The diversity of widowhood decreased as a result. Previously, age and marital status had interacted in the social definition of womanhood; the experiences of widowhood depended on the age of the widow as well as on her class or social standing. By the late twentieth century, widowhood disappeared as a social and cultural category, though it remains a demographic one.

Widowers and relatively young widows frequently ended their widowhood with remarriage. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, approximately 30 percent of all marriages in France involved a widow or a widower. Fourteenth-century Tuscany shows the tendency for remarriages to be greater in the countryside than in urban centers, but this does not appear to have been the case in other regions of Europe. Eighteenth-century data confirm that widows were likely to relocate upon the death of a husband, but these moves were not always from the country to a town or city. In this period, one-half of all widowers and one-third of all widows remarried after the death of a spouse. The percentage to remarry dropped in the nineteenth century when increased life expectancy diminished the number of younger widows and widowers. Not only age but also the number of dependent children appears to have affected the widow or widower's decision to remarry. The vast majority of remarriages studied in sixteenth- to nineteenth-century France involved the marriage of one party with children to a spouse who had no children. Marriages were frequently made between partners of disparate ages throughout the period; instances where both partners were over the age of fifty became less rare in the early nineteenth century.

Demographics formed one of many factors determining the likelihood of widows and widowers to remarry. In European history since the Renaissance, the population's sex ratio was rarely imbalanced enough to alter marriage patterns considerably. Such an influence was evident in periods of high migration. Since men tended to emigrate in greater numbers than women, these periods showed unusually low rates of remarriage for widows. Apart from such aberrations, economics, legal systems, and family structures played a more powerful role in deciding whether widows would live independently, with family, or remarry.


In premodern Europe the loss of either spouse brought economic as well as personal suffering. The household, existing as an economic unit, relied on the contributions of at least two adult members. This was true for members of all levels of society. Though the wealthy were rarely threatened with starvation at the loss of a spouse, widows and a certain number of widowers in these classes felt their resources diminish. Peasant households and city dwellers alike could face severe economic dislocation when death deprived the household unit of one of its breadwinners. Widowers were most likely to overcome this economic dislocation by marrying again; widowers with young children often married within months of the death of their spouse. Widows might remarry, but they more often found other recourses in response to the economic strains of widowhood.

Widowers benefited economically as well as personally from remarriage. A new wife brought with her a new dowry or marriage portion—wealth that the widower could use for as long as they were married. Among the elites the portion a wife contributed to the marriage could be considerable, and family businesses often relied on the dowry as capital. A widower without children was usually required by law to return his wife's marriage portion to her family. Those who fulfilled this obligation saw their capital dissipate at the moment of widowerhood. A widower with children would not normally lose control over his first wife's dowry—this would remain in his trust until his children would inherit—but he gained a second dowry and a valuable assistant with a subsequent marriage. Though the marriage portion could significantly affect the household economy of artisans, the urban poor, and the peasantry as well as the wealthy, widowers from these classes also sought to replace the lost income provided from the deceased wife's labor.

A widow suffered greater economic loss with the death of her spouse than a widower of the same social standing. Though the legal regimes varied, widows were often excluded from any inheritance from their husbands' estates. Both Roman law and common law, the two systems that predominated in European legal practice, dictated that a certain amount of the estate must be assigned to the widow. Under Roman law widows were entitled to the dowry that they brought with them into the marriage. The heirs were obligated to liquidate enough of the estate in order to return the portion to her. Under common law the heirs needed to provide the widow with one-third of the couple's common goods.

Occasionally, the wealth that the widow could claim through her marriage portion was considerable. In Renaissance Italy merchants married young women with exorbitant dowries and used this wealth to establish their businesses. In the highly volatile family clan system operating in the Renaissance Italian city-states, large amounts of wealth transferred at marriage served to bond families together. When a woman was widowed young, her family saw an opportunity to create new, advantageous matrimonial ties. Far from being empowered by the wealth they controlled, these widows had few choices but to follow the dictates of their families since their wealth had made them vital to the family status. The men who relied so heavily on their wives' income feared this outcome. A widow's remarriage deprived her children by the first marriage of the use of her wealth. Disputes broke out when the husband's family refused to pay the widow the amount she had brought into the marriage for fear she would leave the children of this marriage destitute.

The property that widows controlled bolstered their authority in the family and helped them economically maintain the family unit. In addition to the portion due back to widows in their marriage contracts, some women gained property or assets of their own through inheritance. Though some of the legal regimes excluded women from their husband's estates, other relations and friends frequently bequeathed items or money to women. These amounts remained theirs alone when the women were widowed. Where the law did not forbid it, husbands sometimes bequeathed the bulk of the estate to their wives. When this was the case, and the widow controlled considerable wealth, her children relied on her for their economic future since she controlled the inheritance that would allow them to establish themselves in a trade or take over the family plot of land.

When not awarded a full estate, widows were frequently awarded the rights of usufruct during their widowhood. Under Roman law, when the heir was a minor, the testator could name a guardian in his will who would manage both the finances of the estate and make decisions regarding the child's education and upbringing. In most cases the heir would be the couple's eldest son and the widow would be named guardian. This allowed her control of her late husband's wealth for as long as her son was a minor and guaranteed her custody over her son. If she chose to remarry, however, the guardianship would pass to one of the child's paternal relatives. This restriction on the widow's custody of her children remained in effect in many parts of Europe until legal reforms in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Occasionally, nineteenth-century women petitioned to be allowed to remain the guardians of their children even after they had remarried, arguing that they had needed to remarry in order to support the children who were now being denied them. These women were caught in a bind—while the legal system pressured them against remarriage, economic survival pressured them toward it.

The rights of usufruct afforded the widow less power over her children than outright ownership, but even in these cases widows controlled the purse strings of the family. The practice of widows claiming the usufruct of the estate sometimes exceeded the boundaries of the law. This is particularly true of France, where adult children tried in vain to gain access to their paternal inheritance while their mothers were still alive and living on the wealth of the estate. In addition to providing the widow with a home and economic well-being, the use of the estate gave her the power, by passing on (or withholding) necessary amounts of capital at opportune moments, to determine the education and training of her children, set the amount of her daughters' dowries, and influence the timing of their marriages and professional decisions.

Napoleon's legal reforms brought legal consistency to the inheritance and custody rights of widows across most of Europe, and the resulting legal system remained in effect until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Napoleonic Code ensured widows a portion of the joint estate but gave fathers control of the custody of their children and allowed the patriarch the power to dictate educational and other life choices of his heirs in his testament. Widows also needed to obtain permission from a family council before they were permitted to remarry while maintaining custody of their children. Property disputes between widows and their children continued throughout the nineteenth century, dying down as a result of demographic shifts rather than legal adjustment.


When Napoleon conquered new lands, he imposed the French Civil Code, or Napoleonic Code, on much of continental Europe. Most of these countries maintained remnants of this civil law well into the twentieth century. The following passage outlines the restrictions placed on widows with regard to their children. Although this law broke with the Roman law tradition allowing fathers to name a guardian other than the children's mother, it still allowed the fathers to name an assistant, and it required a family council meeting before widows could remarry and maintain custody. The passage is from chapter 2, section 1 of the 1930 version of the Civil Code.

Article 389. The father is during the lifetime of the husband and wife the legal administrator of the property of their children who are under age, and are not emancipated. . . . When the father is deprived of the administration, the mother becomes the administratrix in his place and stead. . . .

Article 390. After the dissolution of the marriage by the natural or civil death of the husband or wife, the guardianship of the children who are under age and not emancipated belongs as a matter of right to the survivor of the father or mother.

Article 391. The father nevertheless may appoint a special adviser to the surviving mother as guardian, without whose advice she cannot take any steps in connection with the guardianship. If the father specifies the purposes for which the adviser is appointed, the guardian shall be able to act without his assistance in all other matters.

Article 395. If the mother who is guardian wishes to remarry, she must call together the family council before the celebration of the marriage, and such council shall decide whether she may retain the guardianship. . . .

Article 407. A family council shall be composed, in addition to the Justice of the Peace, of six blood relatives . . . of whom half shall belong to the paternal side and half to the maternal side, following the proximity in each line. . . .

Source: The French Civil Code, 1930


Efforts to strengthen the position of the household patriarch in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legal reforms bolstered the widow's legal position. Over the course of these centuries, the household acquired a more significant legal role, with the head of the household wielding power as the monarch ruling over his or her subordinates. A widow with dependent children ruled her household with most of the same rights and authority that her late husband had exercised. Unlike a married woman, a widow could engage in business in her own name, form contracts, speak in court, and make decisions with regard to the other members of her household. Economic power bolstered the widow's moral authority over her children and generally provided her with a level of respect from her children that rivaled the respect given to her late husband.

Before the emergence of the modern state, citizenship was often defined by household status. Such a definition allowed the women who headed their households to enjoy the same privileges and partake in the same responsibilities as the men who headed households. In some towns and corporate bodies, this included voting privileges and eligibility to hold minor offices. As the heads of their households, widows also paid taxes and contributed to the funds for maintaining a military force.

As head of the household, a widow with the usufruct of her husband's estate governed the estate in his absence. Noble widows governed the people on their lands in addition to administering the lands. Under feudal systems, a widow could administer justice and resolve disputes, control the various monopolies, arrange for relief in times of famine, and raise her own army. As feudal systems gradually disintegrated over the early modern period, noble widows lost their position as rulers. The centralized monarchies that emerged offered no equivalent position for noble or royal widows. With the exception of Catherine II (the Great) of Russia, sovereign power was never passed to a king's widow in the early modern period. When a royal widow ruled, she did so as a regent for an underage son. Though royal governments spawned bureaucracies with officials whose offices were passed from one generation to the next, widows played no role in this transmission and were excluded from offices and bureaucratic work.

Though barred from the government, widows did have special privileges allowing them to operate their deceased husbands' businesses and trades. Widows were particularly active in moneylending and banking, dominating these fields especially if they had no adult sons to usurp their roles. Artisan women had the right to take over the family business and participate in the guilds or trade associations as full members. Some of their rights were gradually reduced between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but for as long as an artisan economy remained, widows operated workshops on much the same footing as masters. These women became masters in the trade through their connection to their deceased husbands. In regions where a married woman could not engage in financial transactions or conduct business in her own name, widowhood provided her with commercial independence. Artisan businesses could, however, be difficult for a widow to operate alone. Since artisans generally established their businesses and married at approximately the same time, their businesses relied on the work of both partners. While a widower might remarry to replace the labor of his wife, a widow retained her business only so long as she remained a widow. Widows, then, relied heavily on assistance from their children and from paid laborers or journeymen, who replaced some of the labor lost by the husband's death. In some of the legal regimes, a widow could pass her business to a new husband if this husband was a journeyman in the same trade. Many widows, however, chose not to remarry and preferred to continue their family trade as the head of both the household and the family workshop.

The growing cult of domesticity and a shift toward industrial work patterns in the early nineteenth century combined to eliminate privileges afforded to widows in business and the trades. When the guild system dissolved, the opportunities for widows to operate small businesses faded. The industrial employer preferred unmarried women whose place in industry was short-term. Widows were likelier to find employment in domestic service or retail trades. The middle classes and the nobility had, by the nineteenth century, embraced an ideal of female domesticity. Though middle-class families built businesses upon marriage alliances, these alliances provided widows with no place in the family firm. In the nineteenth century widows, as much as married women, resided within the domestic sphere.


While the privileges afforded widows allowed some to succeed, others lived on the brink of destitution. Both artisan widows and widows of the laboring classes keenly felt the economic dislocation that accompanied widowhood. Widows with small children and elderly widows without children were particularly vulnerable to poverty—the first because they needed to support dependents and the second because they needed to support themselves. Widows fought poverty with the labor of their own hands. Research for seventeenth-century London shows that only 15 percent of all widows were unemployed. Widows became destitute when work was insufficient for economic survival.

If a widow's income was insufficient, she first turned to family members for assistance. Those who had only young children or none sought aid from their siblings and cousins, occasionally gaining help from the families of their husbands. Older widows relied on their own children for assistance; far more elderly women than men could be found living as dependents in one of their children's homes. Widows with land or businesses relinquished control of this wealth by signing it over to one of their offspring in return for a promise of care in old age. A successful widowhood depended upon a strong relationship between the widow and her adult children.

When family support was lacking, widows, who had long been recognized as members of the "deserving poor," turned to charity for assistance. Biblical exhortations urged Christians to give alms to assist poor widows and orphans; widows appeared in disproportionately large numbers on the English Poor Law lists and in Catholic countries received parish charity. Widows could depend on assistance from their local churches, the sympathy of their neighbors, and private charities. Guilds and mutual aid societies maintained funds to assist the widows and orphans of their members, though these funds rarely provided more than funeral expenses. In Victorian England, when etiquette even for the poor demanded funerary pomp, mutual aid burial societies grew into organizations of mammoth proportions.


In 1405 Christine de Pisan, herself a widow, wrote a book of advice to Frenchwomen of various social standings. The following passage complements the statistical information that suggests that widows who could manage financially frequently preferred to avoid a second or subsequent marriage.

Of Widows Young and Old

Because widowhood truly provides so many hardships for women, some people might think it best for all widows to remarry. This argument can be answered by saying that if it were true that the married state consisted entirely of peace and repose, this indeed would be so. That one almost always sees the contrary in marriages should be a warning to all widows. However, it might be necessary or desirable for the young ones to remarry. But for all those who have passed their youth and are sufficiently comfortable financially so that poverty does not oblige them, remarriage is complete folly.

Source: Christine de Pisan, A Medieval Woman's Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies, trans. Charity Cannon Willard (New York, 1989), 200–201.

In exceptional cases, pensions and insurance schemes assisted some widows as early as the eighteenth century. The Netherlands and Prussia were pioneers in this area, but other countries followed over the course of the nineteenth century. The early schemes usually provided pensions for the widows of civil servants and soldiers. The size of the pension was based on the husband's rank and the value of his service to the state. French Revolutionary widows petitioned the government for pensions by citing both their own poverty and the exemplary service performed by their late husbands. The practice continued into the twentieth century. The widows of veterans received pensions after each of the two world wars—an expense that asked the states to dig deep into their national pockets.

Despite a continued recognition of the needs of the widow and the growth in their numbers, social welfare reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not address widows as a unique category of women. Reforms aimed at increasing the birthrate provided benefits to young mothers. Though the reforms were geared toward married women, since they were enacted in the interwar years, many of the young war widows with children would have benefited as well. Older widows benefited from old age pensions but, unless they had contributed with their own wages to the insurance schemes, they received a much smaller allowance than their husbands received in their own old age. In Britain after World War II, William Beveridge's social insurance plan provided need-based relief for widows with children who were seeking training or employment. The plan included both a cash payment and child-care subsidies.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, husbands also began to plan more diligently for the support of their widows. Life insurance offered planning and security to working- and middle-class couples. Moreover, inheritance practices no longer excluded widows from their husbands' estates. Husbands felt a keen sense of responsibility; providing for a secure widowhood had become a matter of masculine pride. Private responsibility continued to supersede state responsibility in the case of impoverished widowhood. When the state did provide assistance, this was offered for the travails of old age or maternity and was not tied specifically to widows.


The widow's social and cultural identity was shaped by her relationship to her deceased spouse. Trappings of widowhood reminded society that the widow was not truly independent, that her apparent independence derived from her unrelenting bond with the husband beyond the grave. Widows defined their social and cultural identities in a terrain dominated by two opposing stereotypes—that of the virtuous and dependent widow and that of the powerful, independent, and licentious widow. The widower occupied a very different land. While a woman's identity has, to varying degrees throughout European history, been tied to her relationship with a man, the reverse was not true for male identity. Thus the loss of a wife impinged on a man's identity to a much smaller degree than the loss of a husband impinged on a woman's.

In having been joined and subordinated to her husband through marriage, a widow became a liminal character upon her husband's death, existing between death and life. Even the name by which the widow was known reasserted this liminality. Although naming patterns varied, widows normally continued to use their dead husband's name as their own and were identified as "the widow Brown," either as their whole name or as an appendage to their birth name, as in the French pattern: "Marie Petit, veuve [widow of] Bonhomme." Research on seventeenth-century England has shown that women who were widowed twice chose to identify with their more prestigious dead husband, whether or not this was their more recent marriage. This practice demonstrates that widows consciously exploited their relationship with deceased husbands to build up their own prestige and status.


Widowhood began with a period of mourning replete with the symbolic liminality of widows, who withdrew from the world of the living, rejecting social life, sexuality, and sumptuous goods. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, aristocratic widows underwent a period of isolation in their houses or bedchambers upon the death of their husbands, often resting on particular beds and chairs taken out of storage only in times of mourning. Pious widows in mourning rejected any hints of sexuality, and custom forbade remarriage and flirtation during that period.

Better than any of the other mourning customs, widow's weeds demonstrated the widow's position between life and death. Mourning dress, common in European history from at least as early as the fourteenth century, imitated the garb of the monastic communities and originally placed equal demands on male and female mourners. Black was adopted as a color for mourning by the sixteenth century as an imitation of the religious habit first worn by the Benedictine monks. Just as monks and nuns ritualistically enacted a death to the world, so too did mourners ritualistically reject the world of the living for their period of mourning. Both men and women in mourning wore long robes with hoods, usually in black, through most of the early modern period.

While mourning was ungendered in the sixteenth century, three centuries later mourning etiquette had become distinctly feminine. As regular fashions diverged, mourning clothes became less imitations of the monastics and instead somber reflections of everyday clothing. By the nineteenth century men wore black suits and women dressed in silk or wool black dresses suitable only for mourning. Women withdrew from social life for several months, whereas men simply attached a black armband to their sleeves and carried on their business. The greatest difference between male and female mourning was the length of time each was to dedicate to grief. Eighteenth-century French court etiquette dictated that widows mourn their husbands for a year and six weeks; widowers wore mourning for six months after the death of their wives. Mourning for women reached its grandest scale in the mid-nineteenth century, when widows were expected to be in various stages of mourning for two and a half years and widowers for only three months. Many older women continued to wear mourning beyond the prescribed period. In so doing these widows continued to express their marital status in their personal appearance, representing themselves as defined through their spouse and his death.

For royal and aristocratic widows, representations of their marital identity could help confirm their status and establish their authority. Queen regents in particular wore opulent mourning clothes that explicitly reminded their subjects that their authority was derived from their connection to the deceased king. Obedience to the mourning queen depended on her connection to this past as much as on her role as mother of the next king. Mary, queen of Scots, arrived in Scotland as a widow and drew the entire Scottish court into mourning with her—a fine emblem of the unity of the court behind her. By the nineteenth century, however, mourning no longer evoked authority. When Queen Victoria went into mourning, politicians feared that she would destroy the position of the English monarchy by withdrawing so completely from politics and world affairs.


In addition to asserting a connection to a deceased spouse, mourning clothes indicated virtue, and many wealthy widows chose to emphasize this aspect of their widowed identity. Retirement had been a common preference for aristocratic women from the early Middle Ages. Church fathers admonished widows not to remarry, and widows who remained faithful to their dead husbands enjoyed a certain prestige throughout the history of Christian Europe. Many of the first women's convents were founded by widows and indeed housed more widows than never-married women. By the sixteenth century, convents frequently took in wealthy widows as lodgers; they followed a less rigorous rule than the nuns but lived within the walls of the convent and participated in parts of the liturgy.

While some widows were drawn to the radical movements of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation of the seventeenth century saw much wider-scale involvement of widowed women. The Catholic Reformation movements seemed to allow widows to work in the world without divorcing themselves from their families and community. Such women had found retirement to a convent impossible because of their duties to their children and obligations to manage estates. Groups of pious, wealthy widows banded together in seventeenth-century Italy, Spain, and France to do good works and minister to the urban poor in the growing cities of the early modern period. Such pious women had found marriage restricting their devotional lives and welcomed the freedom that widowhood offered. Together with St. Vincent de Paul, the widow St. Louise de Marillac established a group of laywomen, both widows and unmarried women, who visited the poor and tended the sick. These "daughters of charity" administered a good deal of the local parish charities from the seventeenth into the twentieth century. Likewise a group of widows gathered in Paris with the assistance of St. François de Sales to form a moderate religious community known as the Sisters of the Visitation. The order was designed with the particular needs of widows in mind—the members were permitted to leave the community periodically in order to deal with their family obligations. Through these activities, religious widows formed a niche for themselves that relied on their independence, control of wealth, and moral status as widows.

The independence even of virtuous women in widowhood was, however, frequently a contentious issue. Most of the religious movements that involved widows in active work in the early seventeenth century were within decades converted into contemplative orders—convents in which nuns engaged in very limited work and restricted themselves to life within the confines of convent walls. These nuns might teach or nurse the sick within a hospital, but they lost the flexibility that had made the orders particularly attractive to the independent widow. When widows began to participate in ministering to the poor in the late nineteenth century, they did so alongside married women and under the leadership of younger, unmarried women. Though many widows still devoted themselves to their faith, they found no institutional expressions for it and no active ministry.


Independent and solitary widows posed threats to the male social order. While some social structures sought to confine widows in remarriages or within the families of their birth, for most of the European past widows headed their own households and acted as free agents. Though many of these widows won sympathy and respect, others garnered suspicion and censure.

Though widows were not to be found in large numbers in the criminal elements of society, numerous widows in premodern Europe developed a reputation for dabbling in the occult and wielding power through witchcraft. Even before the rage of witchcraft trials in the seventeenth century, various widows were credited with manufacturing and selling charms or divining the future. Approximately half of the individuals prosecuted in the early modern offensive against witchcraft were widows, most of them childless and between the ages of forty and sixty. Many of these widows had built up reputations as witches over the course of a decade or longer. Neighbors, long wary of these solitary figures with their sharp tongues and vague threats, eventually denounced the women when the legal system turned its attention to witchcraft as a crime.

Though the denouncing neighbors feared the widow's muttered curses, the judicial witch-hunters suspected her unbridled sexuality. The most pernicious stereotype of widowhood was that of the independent and sexually licentious widow. According to the witch-hunter's manual Malleus maleficarum (The hammer of witches; 1486), older women without legitimate sexual outlets engaged in intercourse with the Devil so as to satisfy their insatiable sexual desires. Medical theory supported the belief that the female sexual appetite grew with age and that widows, having tasted the pleasures of sexuality, became voracious in their desires after being denied them by the death of their spouse. In addition to erudite theory, popular fears and fantasies created images of wanton widows. The widow's uncontrolled sexuality remained a topic of humor and anxiety throughout most of European history, appearing as a trope in the theater of the seventeenth century, the libertine novels of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and cartoons and pornography in the nineteenth. The libertine widow was seen as controlling her own sexuality, disregarding her connection to her late husband and manipulating the minds and bodies of the men around her.


One of the most famous literary widows is the marquise de Merteuil of Choderlos de Laclos's epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses (1782). The widow here is in complete control of her sexuality and manipulates the people around her through deception and sexual power play. By the late eighteenth century, libertinism portrayed a widow's sexuality as dangerous not because of her unbridled and voracious appetite but because of the control it could hold over men and the havoc created by a widow whose sexuality was not channeled through male ownership. The following passage is a letter from the marquise de Merteuil describing her early life as a widow.

Monsieur de Merteuil's illness interrupted these soft occupations; I had to follow him to town whither he went for medical aid. He died, as you know, shortly afterwards; and although, taking it all round, I had no reason to complain of him, I felt nonetheless keenly the value of the liberty my widowhood would give me and I promised myself to make good use of it.

My mother expected I should go into a convent or return to live with her. I refused both courses; all I granted to decency was to return to the country again. . . .

I began to grow weary of my rustic pleasures, which were too monotonous for my active head; I felt a need for coquetry to reconcile me with love, not to feel it veritably but to inspire and to feign it. In vain I had been told and had read that this sentiment could not be feigned; I saw that to do so successfully one had only to join the talent of the comedian to the mind of an author. I practiced myself in both arts and perhaps with some success; but instead of seeking the vain applause of the theatre, I resolved to employ for my happiness what others sacrifice to vanity.

Source: Choderlos de Laclos, Les liaisons dangereuses, trans. Richard Aldington (New York, 1962), 180–181.

A widow's sexuality called into question her fidelity to her late husband. Because widows acted as liminal beings—their identity depending on the bonds that transcended death—their sexuality was still liminally owned by their husbands. The power of this bond was reflected in remarriage taboos that existed in various degrees of strength in most places and periods of the European past. In Renaissance Italy both widows and widowers broke taboos when they remarried. Custom dictated that widowers pay a sum of money to their neighbors when remarrying to compensate for disrupting the social order through their act of pseudobigamy. Remarriage to a widow required a larger payment. Refusal to pay resulted in rough music and vandalism. On the other hand, observers of nineteenth-century French peasantry were astonished to see widows and widowers arrange new marriages on the occasion of the deceased spouse's funeral feast. Elsewhere, remarriage taboos were expressed in the amount of time a widow or widower was required to remain unwed. The period was generally longer for women than men. In late seventeenth-century England, remarriage within ten months of the death of a husband could bring charges of petty treason against the widow-bride. By the late nineteenth century, widows who remarried within the prescribed two and a half years brought scandal upon themselves. Only through the ritualized transitions within the mourning period was the widow's sexuality freed from the grasping hand of her buried spouse.


Although the number of widows increased, widowhood lost much of its cultural meaning in the twentieth century. Demographically, even with the surge of young widows produced by the two world wars, widowhood continued to be increasingly confined to the latter two or three decades of life. Widows, then, became part of an already marginalized population in European society, and age became the more significant category defining them both legally and culturally. In combination with altered definitions of marriage and womanhood, the aging of the widowed population deprived widowhood of much of its earlier cultural meaning.

A watershed in the decline of the significance of widowhood occurred with the two world wars of the twentieth century. Already before the outbreak of war, women had begun to construct their identities with less attachment to their matrimonial ties. The war accelerated this process by producing a great number of widows at the same time that it demanded women perform war service and recognized women's actions quite independently from their positions as wives and widows. In responding to the demands of total warfare, women dropped their mourning rituals and costumes. Women in World War II were warned that to wear mourning clothes displayed a lack of patriotism; each fallen husband was to be applauded as a hero rather than mourned as a personal loss. When war widows did band together to seek pensions or attend memorials, they were invariably conservative women, holding onto a cultural identity marker that was quickly growing irrelevant. For the majority of widows, although they continued to mourn privately, their authority and independence no longer bore any connection to their special bonds to men who rested on the other side of death.

See also other articles in this section.


Bideau, Alain. "A Demographic and Social Analysis of Widowhood and Remarriage: The Example of Castellany of Thoissey-en-Dombes, 1670–1840." Journal of Family History 5(1979): 28–43.

Blom, Ida. "The History of Widowhood: A Bibliographic Overview." Journal of Family History 16(1991): 191–210.

Bremmer, Jan, and Laurens Van den Bosch, eds. Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood. London and New York, 1995.

Diefendorf, Barbara B. "Widowhood and Remarriage in Sixteenth-Century Paris." Journal of Family History 7(1982): 379–395.

Hufton, Olwen. "Women Without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century." Journal of Family History 9(1984): 355–376.

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy. Chicago, 1985.

Klassen, Sherri. "Old and Cared For: Place of Residence for Elderly Women in Eighteenth-Century Toulouse." Journal of Family History 24(1999): 35–52.

Lanza, Janine. "Family Making and Family Breaking: Artisan Widows in Eighteenth-Century Paris." Ph.d. diss., Cornell University, 1996.

Prior, Mary, ed. Women in English Society, 1500–1800. London and New York, 1985.

Taylor, Lou. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. London, 1983.