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Historisk tidskrift 134:2 • 2014

Innehåll (Contents) 2014:2

Uppsatser (Articles)

Vad var en hustru? Ett begreppshistoriskt bidrag till genushistorien

Christopher Pihl & Maria Ågren

Fulltext (pdf)


What’s in a word? The history of the Swedish female title hustru

In Swedish medieval and early modern sources, women were often referred to as hustrur (plur.). The word still exists and its meaning is “a married woman”. The widespread use of the title has been taken to indicate that women were routinely described in relation to their husbands, which allegedly bears witness to their subordinated position in medieval and early modern society.

As this article shows, however, hustru had several interlinked meanings in the past. It was not an unequivocal descriptor of marital status since both married and widowed women were referred to as hustrur. Nor was it necessarily a descriptor of marital status. Hustru could refer to a woman’s capacity to assume responsibility and to govern. While this has been noticed in Svenska Akademiens ordbok, the standard Swedish dictionary, the quantitative importance of this usage has not been emphasized in the historiography. Thanks to the Gender and Work database, it can be demonstrated that the meaning of hustru as “woman who governs” was probably the predominant one in sources describing women’s and men’s work in medieval and early modern Sweden. This conclusion confirms results presented for the German-speaking area (Wiesner 1998), Portugal (Abreu Ferreira 2002) and England (Erickson 2013): titles corresponding to Swedish hustru did not only (and sometimes not at all) refer to a woman’s status as married.

In view of the distinction made in law between married women (who were under marital guardianship) and widows (who enjoyed the same rights as men), the ways in which hustru was used may seem puzzling. If a widow was considered to have a higher status than a married woman, we would expect a clear linguistic distinction between widowed and married women. But this was not the case. Widowed women were often described as hustrur, such as in the case of “hustru Anna Svensdotter, widow of Bengt Larsson”. In this and numerous other cases, hustru clearly did not mean a married woman. Instead the example should be understood to mean “Anna Svensdotter, who is an adult woman capable of governing a household and who is also the widow of Bengt Larsson”. In contexts such as this, the word hustru did not signal a relationship to a man but, rather, the capacity to assume responsibility. This argument is further supported by the work of Jacobsen (1995) and Andersson Raeder (2011).

With time, however, hustru lost the meaning of “woman who governs”. Only the meaning “married woman” remained. Only after this shift does it make sense to see hustru as a word signalling a woman’s relationship to a man.



Sweden, early modern, conceptual history, gender history, database, female titles, women’s work, marital status