EARLY MODERN HISTORY
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] To what extent are books of advice or "conduct books" accurate guides to the relationship between husbands and wives in the Tudor and Stuart Period?
Certainly there is evidence for the existence of termagant wives. Edmund Harrold for example wrote in his diary for the twenty fifth of June, 1712;
"I observe that it's better to keep good decorum and to please wife; it makes everything pleasant and easy." (17)
Although the book Conjugium, Conjurgium (1673) by William Ramsey is not typical of the Tudor-Stuart 'conduct book', and is fiercely attacked by the anonymous writer in Marriage Asserted (1674), it does give an interesting insight into the actual practice of marital relationships. The book begins by advocating an ideal, and in line with the others emphasises the need for the wife to submit herself totally to her husband, however, the main argument of his book seems to be to discourage men from entering the state of matrimony. What is seen as "a little hell" (18) to Whateley, is clearly a big hell to Ramsey. He mentions the qualities a man should look expect in a wife, but then goes onto say;
"...if thou canst meet with such a wife, then thou mayst be happy... But when we find...an hundred thousand shipwracket; for one that arrive to his sweet haven of contentment in marriage; it should make thee, methinks tremble and fear to enter into this tempestuous and dangerous ocean."(19)
He plainly asks;
"Where is a good wife to be found ?" (20)
Although the purpose of "Marriage Asserted" is to defend the state of marriage against the criticisms aired by Ramsey, it too implicitly suggests that not all is as it should be, although unlike Gouge and Ramsey this author believed that this was due to shortcomings in both partners, not only in the wife. He says that although there are many women who;
"...are monsters of nature, guilty of all crimes which by the laws of God and Man are so accounted; so there are numbers that dignify their sex." (21)
It can be gathered from these pieces of evidence that not all wives were willing to accept their supposed inferiority. It is perhaps not surprising that men felt the need to reaffirm their superiority. Alison Wall argues that the marital world advocated by the 'conduct books' was what males wanted it to be, reflecting their ideals rather than the truth. She states;
"...men wrote mirrors for matrons, but the mirrors reflected male dreams of marriage." (22)
She argues that these books were bought by males and read by them. There is also a suggestion that men were not totally oblivious to the subordinating effect such ideas had on women. It may be argued that it is only with the benefit of hindsight that it is possible to see these books as a means of reinforcing the status quo, but some men at least recognised the benefits of disseminating such ideas. John Evelyn wrote in 1704;
"...be careful to educate them accordingly; humble, modest, moderate, good housewives, discretely, frugal, without high expectations which will render them discontented, melancholy, and sometimes resolve to dispose of themselves meanly and prove a continual burden and reproach." (23)
A disobedient wife was not only a threat to a man's peace of mind, but to his reputation. However the situation cut both ways. A man was nothing if his wife was undisciplined and unrespectable, and it reflected badly on her if her husband and family were neglected. This duality was sometimes implicitly aired by the women themselves; Lady Payton wrote to her daughter;
"...be careful that whatsoever you doe, to love honer and obey your husband in all things that is fitting for a reasonable creature. In this you shall show yourself a vertuous wife whos pris in not to be valued." (24)
and Maria Touchet, who married Thomas Thyne in 1601, gave the impression of accepting her husband as her head, but a closer examination of her words suggests that far from accepting her inferiority, she knew how to use these ideals to manipulate her husband. When aggrieved over his refusal to allow her to run his estate in his absence, she cleverly wrote;
"...I am both sorry and ashamed that any creature should see that you hold such a contempt of my poor wits, that being your wife, you should not think me of discretion to order...your affairs in your absence, but if you be persuaded that it is most for your credit to leave me like an innocent fool here, I will more contentedly bear the disgrace. Others...can wonder (as they well may) that my advice and consent (being in right to be mistress there) should in no cause be taken, no not so much as in choosing of servants." (25)
When trying to assess whether the 'books of advice' are an accurate reflection of married life in this period, it is perhaps necessary to look at who wrote the books and the audience for whom they where addressed. Different social groups may have had different perceptions of marriage. It is probable that the ideal prescribed by men such as Gouge was meant to be universal, and the advice to be just as relevant for the masses as well as the elite, but in all likelihood, it is probable that the books were disseminated amongst the middle and upper classes. Not only because a large majority of the masses were illiterate, but because the contents of the books would seem to suggest a privileged audience. There are constant references to estates and servants, but for the masses this would be irrelevant as they had neither servants or estates. Certainly the modes of behaviour referred to in the books were not really practical for the average plebian wife. Prescribing the ideal duties of husband and wife was all well and good for those who had the time to read them , but the average husband and wife did not. The wife had far more important things to worry about than the way she was supposed to address her husband. She just had to get on with living. She could hardly sit with her feet up absorbing the words of Whateley when she had three of four hungry children to feed and provide for. Neither could she sit and contemplate the morality of taking the initiative in household affairs - she often had little choice. The income of many families, especially at the end of the sixteenth century when incomes were low, and prices high, was not enough to live on. It was often essential for the wife to work either outside the home, or by producing goods from within to supplement her husband's wages. Gottleib states;
"The wife of a poor labourer in a town could not afford to pay attention to the theory that men's proper role was to support their families. She did whatever work she could find, sometimes on her own selling fish or fruit in the market, sometimes in the employment of entrepreneurs who paid her for sewing, spinning, or embroidery." (26)
It could perhaps be argued that the companionship emphasised by the 'conduct books' applied more to couples at the lower end of the social ladder than those at the top, they simply had to work together and perform their individual roles in order to provide for the family. The women of the upper classes may have been essential to the family in terms of her financial and social worth, but arguably she contributed less to the well-being of the family. In many ways it could function fairly well without her as the children were taken care of by nurses, and the cooking and cleaning by servants. Such women were very much "kept women", and so, far more vulnerable to male domination, and a feeling of being dependant on men, whether a father or husband. Wrightson argues they were;
"...more ornamental and idle - more possessions to be displayed than partners." (27)
For the lower classes dependancy was mutual. In the sixteenth century, England was predominantly agricultural, and so agriculture was the main line of work for most. Such work is strenuous and thus the husband would depend on his wife to give him the food he needed, and she dependant on him to provide it, not only for himself, but the whole family. The conduct book advocated a meekness, but arguably this was far more appropriate for an upper class woman than a lower. To Gouge and Whateley, meekness was a trait of perfection, but to the labouring farmer, it could be more of a hindrance than a help. He would need a wife who was independent, strong, forceful, could keep the children disciplined, could deal with people, use her initiative, and know how to strike a bargain at the market place. If she had to consult her husband on every single matter, neither of them would get much done. This does not mean to say that she did not regard her husband as the superior partner, in all likelihood she did. As has been seen, such beliefs were aired in private letters between women of the aristocracy, and in age which was constantly advocating male supremacy, it is difficult to see how this would not have penetrated the culture of the masses.
It is perhaps significant that the majority of the 'conduct books' were written by Puritans. It is perhaps therefore no coincidence that the height of these books was the seventeenth century when Puritans were politically prominent. Wrightson goes as far as saying that they were a "Puritan genre" (28). Certainly both Gouge and Whateley were Puritans. Therefore, considering that these books were written predominantly by one religious denomination, it is necessary to ask how representative they were of society in general. It is impossible to say conclusively, but it would seem that the books were in large part a reflection of puritan attitudes to marriage, not representative of society as a whole. To begin with, although the Puritans were politically prominent in the mid-seventeenth century, arguably they only constituted a relatively small percentage of the population. Puritanism is also known for it's extremity in relation to moral issues. It is therefore not surprising that they would have rigid, perhaps rather extreme views on the institution of marriage. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have been the age of patriarchy, but is unlikely that theory always converted into practice, or even that the theories were unanimously accepted. It is significant that Gouge felt it necessary to justify and defend his view of marriage. His words suggest that the marital state he was advocating, and the subordinate state of women, was far from the norm;
"This just Apology I have been forced to make, that I might not ever be judged (as some have censured me) 'an hater of women'." (29)
Some historians would dispute this, Kathleen Davies argues that the Puritans were not necessarily advocating a new view on marriage, but that they were merely continuing a tradition, and reflecting established beliefs on marital duties and the inferiority of the wife. Wrightson also argues that there was nothing new in the type of mutuality they were advancing and that they were very much;
"...part of the Christian mainstream." (30)
But whether this is true or not, it is likely that the views of the very religious, puritan or even Catholic, were not typical of the views of society at large or reflecting the actual practice of marital roles in reality, especially in private. Wrightson argues that there was a difference between the way families behaved in private and in public;
"The picture which emerges indicates the private existence of a strong complementary and companionate ethos, side-by-side with and often overshadowing theoretical adherence to the doctrine of male authority and public female subordination." (31)
It is certainly plausible that publicly husbands and wives conformed to the ideal, it was detremental for the family's reputation if they did not, but that privately, their relationship was more equal and loving.
Are 'conduct books' an accurate reflection of marital relationships in the early modern period? Arguably in many ways they are not. As Alison Wall argues they may have reflected to some extent male perceptions of marriage and the formal expectations of society, but in all likelihood the actual relationships between couples was different. It would seem that the authors, themselves only representing a small percentage of the population, were merely presenting and advocating an ideal. Had marital relationships been as the authors suggested they should be, there would have been no viable reason to write the books in the first place. It can be gathered from the contents of the books themselves that not all women were willing to play the role of the subordinate wife. Neither would such a role be practical for the women of the lower classes who had to be strong willed to adequately provide for the family. There may have been some marriages that conformed to this ideal, especially perhaps among the upper classes where the women had less family responsibilities, and whose status dictated a certain pattern of behaviour, but even among these women there is reason to believe that the model wife described by the writers was a rare breed. In all, it would seem that the books were just what they claimed to be; guides to help a couple work out their marital difficulties, and the difference between the marital relationship which men such as Gouge and Whateley emphasised, and the actual practice in everyday life - the difference between the ideal and the reality - was, in all probability, immense.