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The Profession of Widowhood: Widows, Pastoral Care, and Medieval Models of Holiness
by Katherine Clark Walter
Catholic University of America Press, 2018
eISBN: 978-0-8132-3020-7 | Cloth: 978-0-8132-3019-1
Library of Congress Classification BV4528.W35 2018
Dewey Decimal Classification 261.835883

The Profession of Widowhood explores how the idea of ‘true’ widowhood was central to pre-modern ideas concerning marriage and of female identity more generally. The medieval figure of the Christian vere vidua or “good” widow evolved from and reinforced ancient social and religious sensibilities of chastity, loyalty and grief as gendered ‘work.’ The ideal widow was a virtuous woman who mourned her dead husband in chastity, solitude, and most importantly, in perpetuity, marking her as “a widow indeed” (1 Tim 5:5). The widow who failed to display adequate grief fulfilled the stereotype of the ‘merry widow’ who forgot her departed spouse and abused her sexual and social freedom. Stereotypes of widows ‘good’ and ‘bad’ served highly-charged ideological functions in pre-modern culture, and have remained durable even in modern times, even as Western secular society now focuses more on a woman’s recovery from grief and possible re-coupling than the expectation that she remain forever widowed. The widow represented not only the powerful bond created by love and marriage, but also embodied the conventions of grief that ordered the response when those bonds were broken by premature death. This notion of the widow as both a passive memorial to her husband and as an active ‘rememberer’ was rooted in ancient traditions, and appropriated by early Christian and medieval authors who used “good” widowhood to describe the varieties of female celibacy and to define the social and gender order. A tradition of widowhood characterized by chastity, solitude, and permanent bereavement affirmed both the sexual mores and political agenda of the medieval Church. Medieval widows—both holy women recognized as saints and ‘ordinary women’ in medieval daily life—recognized this tradition of professed chastity in widowhood not only as a valuable strategy for avoiding remarriage and protecting their independence, but as a state with inherent dignity that afforded opportunities for spiritual development in this world and eternal merit in the next.

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