The Trap of Poverty
Although many widows survived and prospered after the death of a husband, for
many of these women material want was the end of a long and difficult trajectory.
Widows were not predestined to become destitute. Many of them had assets that
they employed shrewdly to support themselves and their families. Simply being
alone did not dictate that a woman would inevitably fall into destitution. Nor was a
widow of means sure to squander her wealth through ineptitude or naiveté and end
up poor. But the situation of widows presents a puzzle, an instance when
perception and experience did not coincide. In the minds of contemporaries,
widows brought to mind images of poverty. So too the emphasis for historians has
been the poor widow.1 Because both Church and secular authorities saw them as
the most deserving of the poor, they generally enjoyed a privileged relationship to
relief even as resources for other ranks of the poor diminished. Yet in spite of the
expectations of their contemporaries, many widows managed to support
themselves even in the face of difficulties. But poor widows remained a part of the
early modern landscape, along with the successful women we have looked at.