Bachelor’s degree

Now, it’s one degree hotter here, but what’s the origin of the Bachelor’s Degree and in what ways is that history gendered? 

The term bachelor in the 12th century referred to a ‘knight bachelor’, a young squire in training for knighthood. In the early 14th century, the meaning expanded in English to mean ‘young, unmarried man’ and by the end of the 14th century to also refer to junior members of guilds or universities. These establishments were strictly reserved for boys since girls’ education was of little concern in the Middle Ages. 

As guilds flourished in Europe between the 11th to 16th centuries, they formed an important part of the economic and social fabric of that era. These institutions were structured similarly to the Collegia of the Roman Republic, which was an association of numerous private fraternities with specialized functions, such as craft or trade guilds, burial societies, and religious groups. Members of the faculties were licensed to teach, and degrees were in effect the professional certifications that they had attained the guild status of a “master”. 

Reflecting on this, it seems the term has been attached to men through the circumstance of the way society was organised, rather than a deliberate exclusion of women. The expansions in the meaning of ‘bachelor’ followed the associations that were frequently connected with the original meaning. A young squire was usually a role performed by a young unmarried boy who didn’t have the authority of a ‘knight’, a ‘vassal’, but was socially eligible to take up such a role in due course through a display of his capabilities. This term was then co-opted within the more structured ‘brotherhoods’ or guilds that developed in the centuries to follow. ‘Bachelors’ came to be associated with an entry level or stage of learning towards ‘mastership’. Yet, whether voluntary or not, the term bachelor has come to acquire a gendered meaning. 

This sort of expansion in meaning occurs through linguistic collocation, whereby words are habitually juxtaposed with another word or words. Upon use, either word can partially take on the meanings of the frequently paired words. The history that led to the term “bachelor’s degree” and not “spinster’s degree” is a symptom of women’s exclusion from participating in society and their lack of agency in defining a role for themselves or being able to move across hierarchical categories on their own accord. To that end, though the origins of the term ‘spinster’ also started off as an occupational term to simply mean someone, usually a woman but possibly a man, who spun yarn or thread, it became collocated with a woman without a husband who might have to rely on spinning as a source of income. By the 18th century, the term was loaded with derogation, to mean “a woman still unmarried; especially one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid”. 

In other words, although both spinster and bachelor refer to unmarried individuals, the latter came to become synonymous with education, mastership, and knowledge, the former saw negative characteristics attached to it as if the (woman) spinster had failed societal expectations because unmarried. Interesting how patriarchy works its way through language, right?