Medieval Studies Women's Life Cycles
Kim M. Phillips
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0124


The concept of “life cycle” presupposes stages of progression, transition, and decline. Medieval cultures inherited from antiquity a model of life as an arc from birth through maturity to decline and death and conveyed the imagery in the many versions of the “ages of man” schema. Yet, as recent scholarship has contended, it is not clear that the “ages” model easily transfers to women’s lives. For the latter, other paradigms had greater cultural purchase. The Christian ideal of degrees of chastity, which envisaged the reward merited by the individual at the time of death, spoke of the descending orders of virgin, widow, and spouse. This hierarchy of feminine virtue would have great impact upon the formation of Christian feminine identities, especially within the professed religious life. The ostensibly similar model of maid, wife, and widow is more adaptable to a theory of life cycles, as it charts a sequence of stages an individual woman might expect to pass through en route to death. Yet it maps awkwardly onto both the “ages of man” model and modern demographic frameworks that identify stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and old age and attaches age brackets to each, while women who never married are invisible in the “maid-wife-widow” model. Moreover, for as many as thirty to fifty percent of the population, life lasted no more than five years. Although it is an elementary mistake to infer from an estimated median age at death of around thirty-five that few people lived to see their late thirties, or that “old age” was hardly known, death could be expected to strike at any age. Perhaps this recognition contributed to the formation of perspectives on female lives that were less preoccupied with age brackets and more with sexual, familial, and marital status—categories which also underscored women’s relationships with men and reinforced cultural models of femininity. Scholars of women’s life cycles grapple with such problems to varying degrees. Some simply adopt the “ages” scheme, others work with modern demographic categories, and some tackle the problem of classification directly. Yet few works on medieval laywomen’s history (religious women are set aside here) are irrelevant to the topic, as all to some extent explore the lives of wives and widows, and many look also at female children, and possibly maidens, older women, and singlewomen. This article deals mostly with Christian women of the Latin West.

Reference Works

Since the beginning of the 21st century, some high-quality encyclopedias devoted to medieval women’s and gender studies have appeared. These draw on the intensive research into all areas of medieval women’s lives that has been undertaken in since the 1980s and on the personal expertise of the wide range of scholars chosen as authors for the encyclopedic entries. Wilson and Margolis 2004 and Schaus 2006 are equally indispensable for providing points of entry into all topics relating to medieval women’s life cycle, with a mix of short and longer entries on biographical, geographical, and thematic subjects, each written by a scholar chosen for his or her expertise in the subject and with introductory lists of items for further reading.

  • Schaus, Margaret, ed. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Comprehensive and authoritative reference work containing short thematic, biographical, and geographical entries on medieval women, femininity, and masculinity. Includes procreation and ideas on conception; girls and boys; adolescence; Christian marriage; widows; old age; death; and a wealth of other entries relevant to women’s life cycle with short guides to further reading.

  • Wilson, Katharina M., and Nadia Margolis, eds. Women in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.

    Also highly authoritative, this encyclopedia includes several thematic entries among its otherwise mainly biographical coverage, with excellent summaries on childhood, marriage, and widows, among other relevant themes, with useful guides to primary and secondary sources. A feature of the volume is inclusion of information on societies contemporary to the Latin West, including China, India, Japan, Byzantium, and the Middle East.

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