Spinsters and the ‘Right to be Offensive’

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this 'an amorous encounter'. I think she's pissed off at being groped, frankly.

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this ‘an amorous encounter’. I think she’s pissed off at being groped, frankly.

This blog post started out when I came across yet another version of a conversation I’ve heard far too often: the conversation where someone insists upon their right to say whatever they like and declares that anyone who objects is curtailing their ‘Free Speech!’

The argument usually goes something like this:

“You can’t claim such-and-such is offensive! My [fictional] elderly granddaddy has always called people retards/feminazis/darkies and he always addresses women as gels/darling/sweetheart in a professional context! It’s nothing personal. You’re just professionally offended!”

Now, I’ve never been convinced that suggesting certain terms might be best avoided is really akin to handing down a lifetime sentence to the Gulag. But what’s been bothering me more is the way that ‘history’ is brought into this discussion as an authority. This happens in two ways:

Type 1 arguments claim that, all oppression in question is in the past, a quaint historical relic if you will, such that ‘feminazi’ no longer has any meaninful connection to the regime that murdered millions and was notoriously extra-horrific towards women. Type 2 arguments take the opposite line. History allows us to use offensive words, don’t you know, ‘retard’ just used to mean ‘slow,’ and back in the day ‘cretin’ was a medical term for someone with congenital learning disabilities and it was perfectly acceptable to point and laugh …

Obviously, facepalm is a perfectly acceptable response to all of this, but since I am wordy, I didn’t stop there. I’m not about to take on users of the English language en masse, so I want to consider one specific – and hopefully, not too emotive – example of perjorative language and history. The word ‘spinster’ in a modern context has pretty negative connotations. We associate it with an idea we accept is outdated and with images of poor Mrs Bennett, hell-bent on getting her daughters down the aisle with the nearest available member of the landed gentry. The word itself refers to the idea that women who were unmarried stayed home and spun wool – ‘spinster’ is just the feminine form of the word ‘spinner’.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

In medieval England spinning was represented as a quintessentially feminine activity. So much so that, during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the rebels’ slogan ran:

“When Adam delved [dug] and Eve span, Who then was the gentleman?”

Even the rebels, keen to reorder the social hierarchy, were entirely unable to conceive of the hierarchy of gender as anything but natural and predetermined, a state of affairs going back to Adam and Eve.


A medieval man and woman joust, the woman armed with her spindle.

Images of women fighting, or beating their husbands with their spindles, used this stereotype to put women in their place. How could a woman with her spindle be anything but absurd when she tried to be less than subserviant? Yet this stereotype of the ‘spinster’ – an unlovable unmarried woman reduced to the dull household tasks that define her – has another side to it in medieval England. 

In medieval England the wool trade was huge, the most important industry by far. The enormous, cathedral-like parish churches of medieval Norfolk and the Cotswolds, are known as ‘wool churches,’ because the wool industry paid for their building. Brasses to the memory of these great merchants show off their dependence on the riches that came from the wool.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

There’s even a rhyming couplet wool merchant John Barton had engraved on his house:

‘I thank God and ever shall: it is the sheep hath payed for all.’

Even today, the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords is a woolsack, reminding us that England’s wealth came from wool. By about the fifteenth century, though, England’s wool trade had changed in nature, turning from a trade in raw wool to a trade in cloth: and that meant wool must be spun and woven before it was sold. The word ‘texere’ (to weave) is the same word from which we get the modern word ‘text’: a book is literally something woven together out of words, just as the medieval economy was woven from women’s spinning. My lovely mate helped me untangle the meanings behind this word, which go right back to the fourteenth century – just the time when these changes were starting to happen.

 These ideas even informed the iconography of the Virgin Mary. I have posted previously about the popular image of the Virgin, reading a book as she hears the angel Gabriel tell her she is to be the mother of Jesus. But before Mary was pictured reading, she was pictured spinning. These two ideas were in fact conflated for medieval people. Spinning defined a woman’s role in life, but so too did the teaching of reading – it was a truism to observe ‘it is a woman who teaches children their letters’. 
Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v. The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v.
The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

The idea of the woman as a spinner of words, a weaver of text, had a more than etymological rightness to it.

We could try to reclaim  the term ‘spinster,’ to use it to remember the vital contribution medieval women made to England’s most important economy, a contribution misogyny systematically denies. But we know medieval women did not get widespread recognition for the economic value of their spinning. It’s the sheep, you notice, that get a devout prayerful thank-you, not the women! And the fact the term survives as a derogatory one is evidence that, in this battle of the sexes, the spindle lost. We need to respect the historical connotations of terminology, and to acknowledge that the structures of oppression in which most offensive words are rooted are seldom as ‘historical’ as we might wish: for many people, they’re still a lingering part of life.

To get back to ‘free speech’ and the derogatory connotations of words: I don’t wish to ban or censor people who want to use terms like those above. I don’t even want to censor people who wish to use their personal right to free speech to witter on about, for example, the fictitious Islamo-Judaic conspiracy to kill us all using only cocktail sticks and gefilte fish. But I do want to make the point that the right to free speech does not entitle you to a particularly positive response. If you speak your mind, others are perfectly entitled to claim that what you say is offensive, disgusting, and should never cross any decent person’s lips. That’s their right to free speech. And that is what we have: the right to speak, the right to object loudly, eloquently and passionately when we disagree, and the right to take refuge in silence when we want to ignore someone else exercising their right to free speech.

Citing ‘history’ as your precedent doesn’t get you any more rights in this debate.


If you’ve read the brilliant YA novels of Cynthia Harnett, you will recognise the above quotation as being the one Nicholas wishes his father would use on their house in Burford. The level of research she put into her novels is just stunning – I can say completely seriously that aspects of them prepared me very nicely for my postgraduate work! I mention this partly because I love Cynthia Harnett and her work should be better known, and partly because a friend of mine is currently working on her second novel and it’s so exciting seeing (and occasionally getting to help with) bits of her research into Tudor England. It’s like preparing a thesis, but you get to let your imagination go to work on all the fun bits.

I also want to share this blog, which I’ve just come across, and which is such a cool idea. It’s experimental archaeology: learning about fifteenth-century spinning techniques by reconstructing what was done.

I’ll end with this, just because it’s so darn cute. It’s the Holy Family at work, with Mary of course busy with her weaving. Check out Jesus’s little wheeled walker!

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.


About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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9 Responses to Spinsters and the ‘Right to be Offensive’

  1. that walker is SO cool 🙂

  2. @resurgamblog says:

    Also “when Adam dug” refers to a medieval scorn(yes, even then) of born into hierarchies…. I love little nuggets like that which illustrate a mind set not so very detached from our own…

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      I agree … I love how it sounds (to me anyway) *exactly* like that leftie, so-good-in-so-many-ways kind of unthinking sexism we still get.

  3. Pingback: Sleeping Beauty and the Lesbians | Jeanne de Montbaston

  4. jo says:

    Thank you for a very interesting blog. What especially stood out to me was the thanking of the sheep, but later it was women thanklessly (?)working with what the sheep had “given” that brought the country wealth.
    It’s infuriating how women’s hard work are not mentioned and instead hidden, and then later generations can pretend or be misled into thinking that women didn’t do anything interesting or important or useful in the past. No, we always have.

  5. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    Thank you for such a nice comment. And yes, that’s absolutely what I feel!

  6. I am writing about the ballerina as a spinster. Especially because the rise of the ballerina coincided with the rise of the industrial revolution. I am taking the stance that we can reclaim the word spinster, especially as it relates to the craftivism movement.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Oh, that sounds fascinating – especially the timing, as you say. I would love to read up on this.

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