Marriage: Contexts in Early Modern England as Compared to Modern Christian Teaching - A Shakespeare Project-

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Early Modern Background Title

The Reformation | Marriage: Views of the Church
Roles of Husbands and Wives
| Various Marriage Practices
Sex and Sacrament
| The Wife's Legal Position

Roles of Husbands and Wives

Perhaps the most notable issue found in Early Modern marriage manuals, sermons, and other texts about marriage is the preoccupation with the roles of husbands and wives. These Early Modern writers saw no distinction between the functions of men and women in the family, and men and women in society, thus, establishing these roles within the family ensured that society would function as intended. “The family defined the ideals of the gender system, as relations between husband and wife provided a model for all relations between women and men” (Amussen 196).

About Wives
In their marital conduct book A godly form of household government, Puritan clergymen Robert Dod and John Cleaver described the three main duties of a wife:

First that she reverence her husband. Secondly that she submit herself and be obedient unto him. And lastly that she do not wear gorgeous apparel, beyond her degree and place, but that her attire be comely and sober, according to her calling […]. (rpt. in Aughterson 80)

Among all the behaviors and duties of a wife, subjection was viewed as the most important, and served as the foundation for all her other duties and behaviors. It was often the most-addressed topic in marriage texts.
[I]t is God’s will that she should subject herself to her husband, so that she shall have no other discretion or will, but what may depend upon her head [her husband]. The Lord also by Moses saith the same: thy desire shall be subject to thy husband and he shall rule over thee [Genesis 3:16]” (rpt. in Aughterson 81).

“[S]he is not her husband’s equal, yea that her husband is her better by far” (Whatley, rpt. in Aughterson 31). William Whatley, like many other ministers in this era, believed that the Biblical role of a wife indicated that women were created by God as inferior creatures. “As a Puritan manual emphasized, ‘we would that the man when he loveth should remember his superiority’” (Monter 205). Court records between 1560 and 1640 reveal an “intense preoccupation with women who [were] a visible threat to the patriarchal system” (Underdown 119) and demonstrate why the issue of subjection was so heavily emphasized – if women were not kept properly in their own homes, then society as a whole was threatened. In this light, even the instructions issued to husbands about their roles addressed the problem of “unruly” or “unquiet” wives who were not applying themselves to their duties.

About the Weakness of Women
“The duties of wives may be learned out of the duties of husbands” (Griffith, rpt. in Aughterson 175). While marriage manuals and sermons also addressed a husband’s role in the marriage relationship, his duties often corresponded with some deficiency in or issue about the woman. One of the most common themes was the intellectual, physical, and spiritual weakness inherent in women, a concept gleaned from the scripture 1 Peter 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” Early modern writers felt that “weakness” referred primarily to the nature of women’s intellectual faculties, making them more gullible to evil than men (Tuama 59). In the account of the Fall, Satan naturally came after the weaker one (13). Husbands were instructed to “spare” and “bear with” their wives, “for that she is the weaker vessel, of a frail heart, inconstant, and with a word soon stirred to wrath” (“Homily” rpt. in Klein 16). The weakness of the woman was also considered a necessary aspect for the proper functioning of a marriage and household:

For if the woman were robust and strong both of the mind and body, how could she suffer to be obedient and subject to him that were no stronger then herself? Would she not wax insolent and proud, having in will to rule both house and household, and to strive peradventure with her husband for the mastery? (Vives “Husband” rpt. in Klein 126)

In this view, God intentionally created the woman with inherent weakness so that she would be sure to obey her husband, and not create strife in the home.

Theological Arguments
Many ministers argued extensively the theological reasons why wives should be subject to their husbands:

Now this duty of subjugation, the apostle urgeth (as I told you) from a twofold order […]
1. Of creation, because Adam was first formed […]
2. Of corruption; because Eve was first deformed; and so brought that into the world, which brought the whole world into bondage The creature, etc.
[Romans 8: 20: For the creature was made subject to vanity]. (Griffith, rpt. in Aughterson 158)

Griffith’s reference here is to Genesis 3, in which Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, and ate the forbidden fruit first before giving it to Adam, who then ate it, as well. Griffith, like many other Early Modern ministers, viewed Eve as subordinate to Adam in Eden before the Fall occurred, and then doubly subordinate to him after the Fall, because she was the first to sin.

[C]oncerning wives, that they owe subjection to their husbands: we have to mark that this subjection is double. For man was already the head of woman even before the sin and fall of Eve and Adam [1 Tim. 2:13]. And St Paul alleging the same reason, to show that it is not meet that the wife should reign in equal degree with her husband, saith that the man came not of the woman, but the woman of the man, and that she is but a piece of his body […]. But there is another bond which doubleth still the subjection of the wife: for we know that she was beguiled [Genesis 3:6]. Women therefore must remember that in being subject to their husbands, they receive the hire of Eve’s sin. (Calvin “Ephesians,” rpt. in Aughterson 15-16)

Calvin’s message from Ephesians also admonished, “[W]omen must needs stoop and understand that the ruin and confusion of all mankind came in on their side, and that through them we be all forlorn and accursed and banished the kingdom of Heaven” (Calvin “Ephesians” rpt. in Aughterson 17).

The Wife’s Behavior
A wife’s behavior was wrapped up in her role of subjection. She was to be “silent, obedient, peaceable, patient, studious” in her marriage relationship “in order to obtain, and maintain the love and good liking of her husband” (Dod and Cleaver, rpt. in Aughterson 82). Juan Luis Vives, an early sixteenth-century Catholic priest, stated that silence was a wife’s virtue, “the which is a great ornament of the whole feminine sex” (Vives “Husband,” rpt. in Klein 130). Peace was the goal of every household, and it would be disturbed if the wife did not maintain quiet behavior. Thomas Becon wrote that unruly women are like furies of hell,

For their whole delight and pleasure is to scold, to brawl, to chide, and to be out of quiet with their husbands […] And when they are reproved for their misdemeanour towards their husbands, they shame not to answer: a woman hath none other weapon than her tongue, which she must needs put in practice.” (rpt. in Aughterson 29)

About Husbands
The husband was to be “the author of love” in his own home, “[using] measureableness and not tyranny […] For the woman is a weak creature, not endured with like strength and constancy of mind” (“Homily” rpt. in Klein 15-16). William Gouge quoted from Ephesians 5:25 to describe the husband’s main role: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Gouge pointed out that Christ died for his church, therefore, to follow the example of Christ, a husband must be willing to lay his life down, and compare his own life to that of Christ (53).

No dutie on the husbands part can be rightly performed except it be seasoned with love [ …] of all persons on earth a wife is the most proper object of love […] his place of eminency, and power of authority may soon puffe him up, and make him insult over his wife, and trample her under his feet, if an intire love of her be not planted in his heart. To keepe him from abusing his authority is love so much pressed upon him […] wives through the weakness of their sex (for they are the weaker vessels) are much prone to provoke their husbands. So as if there be not love predominant in the husband, there is like to be but little peace betwixt man and wife. Love covereth a multitude of imperfections [1 Peter 4:7-9]. (350)

From Ephesians 5:23, Early Modern writers discussed the issue of headship as a duty of husbands: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” Vives took this a step further, declaring that “the husband is his own ruler and his wife’s lord, and not her subject” (“Christian Woman” rpt. in Klein 116). Whatley’s interpretation of headship was superiority, stating that a husband was “better by far” (rpt. in Aughterson 31).

Respect and Obedience
In response to the husband’s headship, a wife was also supposed to show her husband “great worship, reverence, great obedience, and service also” (Vives “Christian Woman” rpt. in Klein 114). In his household manual Of Domesticall Duties, William Gouge instructed women to be very careful in their behavior towards their husbands, which included calling a husband by an appropriate title:

For the titles which a wife in speaking to her husband, or naming him, giveth to him, they must be as such signify superioritie, and so favour of reverence. Such are the titles wherewith husbands are named in the scripture; they are titles of honour […]. Contrarie are those compellations which argue equalitie or inferioritie rather than superioritie […] such as these, Sweet, Sweeting, Heart, Sweet-heart, Love, Joy, Deare, [etc.] and such as these, Ducke, Chicke, Pigsnie, [etc.] and husbands Christian names, as John, Thomas, William, Henry, [etc.] which if they be contracted (as many use to  contract them thus, Jack, Tom, Will, Hal) they are much more unseemly: servants are usually so called. (283)

Obedience was the key to the wife’s respect for her husband, as he was the authority. Her obedience was supposed to create harmony in the household; as she obeyed, he would properly lead (Houlbrooke 52).

Wives were, however, released from their obedience to their husbands under certain conditions: “Of obedience to an husband in things as he sinfully forbiddeth […] this restraint is not in the Lord, but rather against him and his word, therefore a wife is not bound thereunto” (Gouge 305). Gouge also made allowances for the wife, if her husband was “stupid”:

So on the other side, it oft falleth out that a wife, virtuous, and gracious woman, is married to an husband destitute of understanding, to a very naturall (as we say) or a frenzy man, or to one made very blockish, and stupid, unfit to manage his affaires through some distemper, wound, or sickness. In such a case the whole government lieth upon the wife, so as her husbands consent is not to be expected. (287-88)

But, Gouge also asserts that if the husband suffers from spiritual blindness or spiritual “blockishness” and stupidity, the wife would still be in subjection to him, “For S. Peter exhorteth faithfull wives that were married to Infidell husbands to be subject to them, and that in feare” (288).

Disciplining and Educating Wives
As the spiritual head of the home, “The master of the household was legally and morally responsible for all his dependents” (Amussen 200). The husband was responsible for the spiritual education of his wife. He was told to “instruct and order the mind of [his] spouse” as though he were a farmer, weeding his crops (“Homily” rpt. in Klein 23). He was to judge what the wife should be reading and learning, and monitor her as he would one of his children (Vives “Husband” rpt. in Klein 129):

This holy and sincere institution shall increase through the good example of the husband, the which to inform and fashion the woman’s life and his family withal is of no less value and force than the example of a prince […] every man is a king in his own house […]. (130)

Husbands were further instructed to discipline their wives by dissembling “things in his wife’s manners. This is the part of a Christian man which both pleaseth God and serveth also in good use to the comfort of their marriage state” (“Homily,” rpt. in Klein 17).

The terms “wife” and “housewife” were almost interchangeable, as the role of housewife was considered ordained by God for women. Dod and Cleaver described a godly woman as “handsome and housewifelike” and declared that “St Paul would have a woman a good homekeeper” (79-80). The wife’s inherent weakness was viewed as necessary for the proper functioning of the home, because if the woman was stronger, she might be tempted to go outside the home more often. Then,

Who woulde take upon him the office and charges of a house? Or the office of a cook? Who would nourish and bring up children? What a torment were it for a man to do those things? A man woulde rather leave all and dwell in a desert than to dwell in such misery and bondage. (Vives “Husband” rpt. in Klein 126)

Dissention from Accepted Views
Not all Early Modern ministers held such harsh views. Thomas Adams, a early-seventeenth century Calvinist, suffered some criticism for his sermons and writings on various social issues, including his views on women. Adams argued that the greatest sin, the crucifixion of Christ, was committed by men, thus the theologians of his day were coming down too hard on women:

Some will not allow her a soul, but they be soulless men. God in his image created them: not only, but him and her, them, male and female [Gen. 1:27]; therefore, she hath a soul. Some will not allow her to be saved; yet the scripture is plain: she shall be saved by childbearing [1 Tim. 2:15]. Two shall be grinding at the mill [Matt. 24:41]: duae, two women, so it is originally; one of them shall be saved. Though Christ honoured our sex in that he was a man, not a woman: yet he was born of a woman and was not begot of a man […]. Women was principal in killing the first Adam, himself being accessory. But in killing the second Adam [1 Corinthians 15:45-49], man was the principal and woman had not a finger in it. (rpt. in Aughterson 29-30)

Even while defining woman’s weakness, Dod and Cleaver yet conceded, “Yet it is not meant that the wife should not employ her knowledge and discretion which God hath given her in the help and for the good of her husband” (rpt. in Aughterson 81). Adams felt that the creation of woman was for “man’s necessity, God’s bounty, and the woman’s conveniency,” thus women ought to be more respected. Adams asserted that women “[owe] nothing but to her creator: Adam can no more challenge ought from her for his rib than the earth can challenge from him [Genesis 2:7; Genesis 2:21-22]” (rpt. in Aughterson 30).

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