what extent are books of advice or "conduct books" accurate guides to
relationship between husbands and wives in the Tudor and Stuart period?
To the writers of the Tudor and Stuart
"books of advice on marriage", there is no doubt what a marriage should
be like. They set out clearly the roles of a husband and wife, and harshly
criticized those who did not conform to this prescribed ideal. If these
"books of advice" were few and far between, then their contents, and perhaps
their very existence could be deemed insignificant, but because they are
fairly numerous, and were published and republished constantly in the latter
half on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they must at least be
considered worthy of study. What is more, the arguments each advance are
very similar in nature. When looking at these 'conduct books', two fundamental
questions arise. Firstly, do they actually reflect relationships between
husbands and wives in this period, or do they merely represent an ideal;
an ideal that was ardently strived for, but badly fallen short of ? Before
one can begin to answer these questions, it is perhaps necessary to look
at what exactly these 'conduct books' said.
There were several prominent conduct book
writers, among them William Whateley and William Harrington, but arguably
the most outstanding was William Gouge. His Of Domesticall Duties, written
in 1622, was widely read and went into several editions. These writers,
whether Catholic or Protestant, were largely concerned with the power relationship
between spouses, and the duties of each. They fervently advocated the authority
of the husband who was said to be both the spiritual, and actual head of
the marriage. Gouge stated ;
"He is the highest in the family, and has
both authority over all and the charge of all is committed to his charge,
he is as king in his own house." (1)
And Henry smith in 1591;
"Man is to his wife in the place of Christ
to his church." (2)
A wife was to obey and submit herself to
her husband in everything he commanded, as long as what he asked was not
immoral, even if it was against her will. William Gouge stated;
"She may do nothing against God's will,
but many things she must
do against her own will if her husband
require her." (3)
Once the writers had established the nature
of the power-relationship between a married couple, they usually went on
to describe the different duties belonging to each partner. Thomas Smith
defined them as such;
"The man to travail abroad; the wife to
save that which is gotten, to tarry at home, to distribute that which comes
of the husband's labor for nurture of the children and family of them both,
and to keep all at home neat and tidy." (4)
The two worldly spheres were thus easily
divided between the sexes. The external world belonged to the husband,
and the internal to the wife. Without a doubt a woman's place was very
much within the home, her primary duty being to look after her husband
and children, putting their needs and welfare before her own.
To what extent are these books an accurate
reflection of a husband and wife relationship in the early modern period
? It is perhaps difficult to say with any degree of certainty, as each
marriage was unique, and the relationship between spouses depend then,
as now, to a considerable extent on their individual characters, the circumstances
surrounding the actual marriage, and their social status. A couple in exactly
the same social position with the same number of children could have totally
different kind of relationship. Yet it is perhaps possible to have internal
differences, but for the framework of marriage to stay the same. Wrightson
"...each couple needed to work out for
themselves their marital roles within the context of their general expectations
It is with the framework of marriage that
the 'conduct book' writers are mainly concerned. They state what they believe
the individual roles of a couple should be, but they leave some leave way
in the actual everyday performance of these roles. As long as a wife acknowledged
her inferiority, and behaved always in a way that befitted her status and
role as wife and mother, then she could do whatever she liked. The married
world the writers were advocating was not an arbitrary one, even if it
would seem so by modern standards, as the emphasis was always on companionship,
the need for love and affection, and the sharing of domestical duties.
Henry Smith in his Preparative to Marriage stated;
"...a marriage is called Conjugium which
signifieth a knitting or joining together, showing that unless there be
a joining of hearts and knitting of affections together, it is not marriage
indeed, but in show and name, and they shall dwell in a house like two
poisons in a stomach and one shall ever be sick of the other." (6)
Dod and Cleaver put forward that husbands
and wives should discuss important matters as long as the wife remembers
who is the head and airs her opinions accordingly;
"She may in modest sort show her mind,
and a wise husband will not disdain to hear her advice, and follow it also
if it be good." (7)
The husband may have been superior, but
he was not to be a tyrant, rather a loving guide and companion. The writers
disagreed over whether a husband should use physical punishment against
his wife, and although in general they believed that a husband did have
the right to modestly chastise his wife if she was failing to live up to
his expectations, it was not a recommended course of action.
Some historians believe that the 'conduct
books' are a good indication of the relationship between husbands and wives,
and the nature of the family in the early modern period. Ozment in his
book When Father's ruled, states;
"The advice of moralists may not have
been so far from peoples actual practices as modern historians have tended
to believe. The way life should be lived and the way it is lived, the ideal
and the fact of existence, have a certain reciprocity." (8)
And Alison Wall believes that they do reflect
expectations of marriage, especially expectations relating to the role
of the wife. She states;
"Justices of the peace, and judges of
the ecclesiastical court, expected women to be obedient to their husbands;
to display due submission; to be chaste before and after marriage, and
faithful during it." (9)
Certainly it can be seen from contemporary
diaries and letters that there were marriages which fitted this mold. Isaac
Archer said in 1668;
"I found my wife perfectly devoted to
please me, and I blessed God for giving me one with a meek and quiet spirit,
and well disposed, and apt to take in the best things. I found she was
patient under her sickness, and willing to hear any instruction from me."
And Thomas Folly in 1675;
"She was a most loving wife and tender
nurse to me, if she at anytime offended me, she could not be quiet until
she had acknowledged her offence and was reconciled." (11)
There is also some indication that these
roles were accepted by women themselves. Lady Colton wrote to her daughter;
"You have subjected yourself to him
and made him your head...it is an extreme obloquie and disgrace in the
end to herself, to have the woman the talker, and over bouldly undertakenge
to speak or answer her husband being in place." (12)
However, it is debatable whether the 'conduct
books' do accurately reflect a typical husband-wife relationship in this
period. Philip Stubbes may have written in 1591 A Christal Glasse for Christian
Women, and in it lavishly praised his deceased wife Katherine, who according
to him was the model of womanhood, and so may have Thomas Folly and Isaac
Archer so praised their wives, but arguably these wives, if they truly
were so virtuous, were the exception. Had they been the norm, then there
would have been no cause to venerate them, and it must be remembered that
it was in the husband's own interest to present as favorable an image of
his wife as he could as this would greatly enhance his own reputation.
The very existence of these books suggests
that the ideal was not being reached. Doris Parsons comments on the works
of William Whateley;
"It may at least be gathered from all
this rhetoric that the married folk around Banbury were sorely in need
of advice, that husbands tended to beat their wives and that wives were
ready to scold their husbands." (13)
If everything is working as it should,
there are no need for changes. A man who can drive hardly needs instructions.
For such books to be published and to be widely dispersed, there must have
been a demand, or if not a demand, at least a need. Far from accurately
reflecting the status quo, it is likely that the books were the anti-thesis
of what marriage was generally like. The very title of William Whateley's
A Bride Bush alone suggests this;
"A Bride-Bush or A Wedding Sermon: Compendiously
describing the duties of Married persons: By performing whereof, Marriage
shall be to them a great Helpe which now finde it a little hell." (14)
Similarly William Gouge in his influential
Of Domesticall Duties, outlines what the ideal relationship should be,
and then goes on to say how badly it is being forsaken, especially by the
wife. He says that wives should be meek, humble, obedient, should willingly
subject themselves to their husbands, and always speak to them reverently,
but, on the contrary is;
"...the wappish and shrewish disposition
of many wives to thier husbands, who care not how hastily and unadvisedly
they speak to them." (15)
"Contrary to the aforenamed subjection
is the opinion of many wives, who think themselves every way as good as
their husband, and no way inferior to them." (16)
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."
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 emphasizes 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
He plainly asks;
"Where is a good wife to be found ?"
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 recognized 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 behavior 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."
It could perhaps be argued that the companionship
emphasized 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
dependent 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 dependency 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 dependent 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 laboring 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
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
"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."
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 detrimental 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 behavior, 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 emphasized, and the actual practice in everyday life - the
difference between the ideal and the reality - was in all probability,
1. K. M. Davies, "Continuity
and Change in literary Advice on Marriage", in R. B. Outhwaite (ed) Marriage
and Society (London, 1981)
2. L. Pollock, "'Teach her
to live under obedience': the making of women in the upper ranks of early
modern England', Continuity and Change, 4,2, (1989)
3. N. H. Keeble, The Cultural
identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman (London, 1994)
4. R. Houlbrooke (ed.), English
Family Life (Oxford, 1988)
5. S. D. Amussen, An Ordered
Society (oxford, 1988)
6. K. Wrightson, English
Society 1580-1680 (London, 1982)
7. A. Wall, "Elizabethan
precept and Feminine practice",
History, 75, (1990)
8. M. Prior (ed.), Women
in English Society 1500-1800 (London, 1986)
9. A. Fraser, The Weaker
Vessel (London, 1984)
10. W. Seymar, Conjugium
Conjurgium 1673/by William Ramsey and Marriage asserted 1674/ Anonymous
(New York, 1976)
11. B. Gottlieb, The Family
in the Western World from the Blackdeath to the Industrial Age (New
12. C. Camden, The Elizabethan
woman (New York, 1975)
13. D. M. Parsons, The
English woman in History (London, 1957)
14. N. L. Jones, The Birth
of the Elizabethan Age (Oxford, 1993)
15. S. E. Ozment, When
Fathers Ruled (Cambridge, 1983)
1. William Gouge, "Of Domesticall
Duties" (1622) cited in K.Wrightson,
English Society 1580-1680 (London,
2. Henry Smith "A Preparative
to Marriage" (1591) cited in N. H. Keeble,
The Cultural identity of
Seventeenth-Century Woman (London, 1994) p.148.
3. William Gouge, "Of Domesticall
Duties" (1622) cited in K. M. Davies, "Continuity and Change in literary
Advice on Marriage", in R. B. Outhwaite (ed), Marriage and Society
(London, 1981) p.69.
4. Thomas smith "De Republica
Angorium" cited in N. L. Jones, The Birth of the Elizabethan Age
(Oxford, 1993) p.111.
5. S. D. Amussen, An Ordered
Society (oxford, 1988) p.92.
6. Henry Smith "A Preparative
to Marriage" (1591) cited in N. H. Keeble, Op. Cit. p.148.
7. John Dod and Richard Cleaver
cited in S. D. Amussen, Op. Cit. p.42.
8. S. E. Ozment, When
Fathers Ruled (Cambridge, 1983) p.70.
9. A. Wall, "Elizabethan
precept and Feminine practice",
History, 75, (1990)p.27.
10. Isaac Archer (1688) cited
in R. Houlbrooke (ed.),
English Family Life (Oxford, 1988) p.79.
11. Thomas Folly, (1675)
cited in R. Houlbrooke, Ibid. p.88.
12. L. Pollock, "'Teach her
to live under obedience': the making of women in the upper ranks of early
modern England', Continuity and Change, 4,2, (1989) pp.247-248.
13. D. M. Parsons, The
English woman in History (London, 1957)p.109.
14. William Whateley, "A
Bride-Bush" cited in C. Camden,
The Elizabethan woman (New York,
15. William Gouge, "Of Domesticall
Duties" (1622) cited in N. H. Keeble, Op. Cit. p.158.
16. William Gouge, "Of Domesticall
Duties" (1622) cited in N. H. Keeble, Ibid. p.155.
17. Edmund Harrold, (Diary
entry for 25 June, 1712) cited in R.Houlbrooke, Op. Cit. p.66.
18. William Whateley, "A
Bride-Bush" cited in C. Camden, ibid. p.314.
19. William Ramsey, "Conjugium
Conjurgium" in W. Seymar,
Conjugium Conjurgium 1673/by William Ramsey
and Marriage Asserted 1674/ Anonymous (New York, 1976) pp.17-19.
20. William Ramsey, "Conjugium
Conjurgium" in W. Seymar, Ibid. p.20.
21. Anonymous, "Marriage
asserted" (1674) in W. Seymar, Ibid. p.20.
22. A. Wall, Op. Cit. p.38.
23. John Evelyn (1704) cited
in L. Pollock, Op. Cit. p.242.
24. Lady Payton in L. Pollock,
25. Maria Touchet, cited
in A. Wall, Op. Cit. p.29.
26. B. Gottlieb, The Family
in the Western World from the Blackdeath to the Industrial Age (New
York, 1993) p.93.
27. K. Wrightson, Op. Cit.
28. K. Wrightson, Ibid. p.44.
29. William Gouge, "Of Domesticall
Duties" (1622) cited in S. D. Amussen, Op. Cit. p.45.
30. K. Wrightson, Op. Cit.
31. K. Wrightson, Ibid. p.92.
ESSAY BY HEATHER THOMAS