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Widows in the Early Middle Ages: Between Freedom and Exclusion

Widows in the Early Middle Ages: Between Freedom and Exclusion

Widows in the Early Middle Ages: Between Freedom and Exclusion

By Aneta Pieniądz

Acta Poloniae Historica, Vo.98 (2008)

Introduction: The acceptance of Christianity by the German societies of the newly-arising medieval Europe opened a long process of Christianization understood as a cultural change that embraced all spheres of life. The clash between old and new norms and values led to the rise of a more or less coherent system of rules that determined the individuals’ way of thinking and behaviour, and caused the transformation of the whole social organization. This multi-plane process, slow and frequently eluding direct observation, can be traced mainly in those areas of social life where the cultural dissonance gave rise to the strongest tensions, and consequently was best recorded in the sources. Hence we may best learn the mechanism of those changes by studying the influence of new cultural patterns on the social groups especially sensitive to change, that is mainly those which were, for various reasons, socially underprivileged and subject to strong, contradictory pressures. In this context it would be worthwhile looking closer at the evolution of the social role of widows — a category doubly underprivileged, both by reason of their sex and position within the kinship structure, and whose status underwent considerable changes u n d er the influence of Christianity.

In traditional societies, as they appear both in the studies of ethnologists and historians, widows as persons who had remained in the closest contact with the deceased, were treated as indirectly belonging to the sphere of death, so fear-inspiring and dangerous to people; hence, as a rule, they were em braced by restrictions and prohibitions which for a certain time removed them to the margin of social life. This period — which in anthropological terms can be defined as a prolonged period of passage — allowed a woman to adjust socially and psychologically to her new role, and at the same time protected the community against the threatening and uncanny powers liberated by death. The manifestation of pain shown by a widow after her loss was also of an essential symbolic value to the group of kinsmen to which the deceased belonged, it was an element of a complex ritual that accompanied the reconstruction of the order undermined by death.

Deprived of the support she found in her husband whose status determined her position and relations with other people, the widow found herself outside the social positions designated an d regulated by law an d custom; this was the reason for the equivocal and indefinite character of her situation at this stage of her life. At any rate, one can hardly speak of widows as a distinctive social category; widowhood was perceived as a transitory period, preceding a new marriage, which finally let the woman leave that temporary status and recover a stable position in society. Thus the social role of a widow was defined, just as in the case of other unmarried women, mainly by the expectations of her relatives concerning her next marriage. For her kinship group her personal value was appraised mainly according to her usefulness in establishing further family relationships or retaining her ties with the family of her first husband by marrying some of his relatives.


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