Fast forward to Medieval Europe. The legalities of marriage had actually changed very little. Again, the most common kind of marriage was understood simply by the couple's living together for a time period.


It was in this context - in early part of the Middle Ages - that the root of our word “widow” starts to appear. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is before 825 in the Vespasian Psalter: “Sien bearn his asteapte & wif his widwe.” (Orphaned is his son & his wife a widow.) Note the interesting use of the word orphan when the mother is still alive... again, these terms seem to have far looser perimeters than we assign to them. It also reflects a male-centric worldview.

The verb form appears in the Middle English period. From the 14th century Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi: “Ik am nu widuit of mi spus.” (I am now widowed of my spouse.)

The Indo-European root -"widh" - means to separate, to be empty. The root in Latin is the source of the word: divide. These words imply a state of being rather than a legal condition.

The only sources historians have to determine the civilian histories of widows and widowers are surviving household accounts, personal wills and letters. Historical archives of letters and correspondence indicate that widows were sought after for marriage in Europe in the middle ages. Likely this reflects a motivation to increase power and wealth among families.

Chaucer's Wife of Bath was purported to have “husbands five”. King Henry VII's mother had four husbands. Some wills specified a requirement for their widows to “remain a widow” and not remarry. The Earl of Pembroke stated in his will "wyfe .. . remember your promise to me take the ordyre of widowhood as ye may be the better mayster of your owne, to performe my wille and to help my children, as I love and trust you." They had seven children.

If remarried, these women were no longer considered widows. This might further indicate that the understanding of this word implies that they are no longer left desolate, forsaken, abandoned and empty.

Fast forward to Colonial America. Since there were few courts or churches available... everyone, including aristocrats, were again back to getting married by living together and declaring themselves husband and wife. These were referred to as common-law marriages.


Today, surveys estimate that the marriage rate in the U.S. is half what it was at its peak after World War II. Some sociologists posit that we are returning to a "pre-modern pattern" where upper-class people marry to protect their holdings while many others don't marry at all.

With a declining marriage rate as well as delayed or lengthened engagements, we are presented with a lack of words and language for a large population who have lost a significant life partner – people who have endured great personal disruption and hardship, who are immersed in, as I term it: a harsh grief wilderness.

Either the language can become more flexible or new words must be developed to give voice to many people who have loved deeply, committed fully and endured great loss. 

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Podcast music - 

Little Things in Life by Tim Week

Their Story, Them Seeing by Puddle of Infinity

The Bluest Star by The 126ers

Thank you all musicians for your lovely and generous work.

Kim Gosney