Sunday, 15 February 2015

A Rage of Maidens and a Bevy of Ladies

‘Maidens’ is a delightfully old-fashioned word that sums up images of wholesome milk-maids blushing coyly when the handsome squire glances in her direction (or is that just me?) In the 15th century the change from girl to woman started at around 12 years of age, and represented a ‘perfect age’ in a romantic way. However, did you know there is a collective term for a group of maidens, and it is – a rage of maidens.
Vermeer's milk-maid

Apparently, in this context ‘rage’ is a derivative of a 15th century word which means to romp –or play wantonly. (There goes the image of coy blushes!) Whether this is a reflection on the social attitude of our maidens is anybody’s guess, however, the 15th century was perhaps more realistic about a woman’s nature urges than society was just a couple of centuries later.
An aristocratic lady
So what of more mature ladies? The collective term for them is perhaps more familiar to us – as a ‘bevy of ladies’ – (a bevy of beauties?) This term can be traced back to 1702 and John Kersey’s New English Dictionary. The term ‘bevy’ was also appropriate for groups of roe (deer), quails, or larks. Along with these other delicate creatures, our bevy of ladies was upper class and refined.
It is oddly appropriate to group ladies with livestock, because in the 18th century a woman was indeed the property of her husband and used mainly for breeding – her role being to produce heirs.
Roe deer

There was a less poetic term for her less salubrious sisters in arms, those who were paid for providing pleasure for men, and it is ‘a herd of harlots’. In medieval times prostitution was rife but widely accepted. St Thomas Aquinas wrote:
‘If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.’
A detail from Hogarth's 'The Harlot's Progress'
Society had its own way of dealing with prostitutes, preventing their company from sullying respectable women, by confining them to certain areas. However, it was natural for the prostitutes to seek out trade where it was most likely to be found. Therefore they congregated around taverns, universities, and popular bathing houses, and calling them a herd is perhaps another way of marking them as livestock. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Such sobering background that yields so much insight into how women were viewed. It really forces one to mull over what language does to opportunities for real living.


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