'That women are but men's shadows': Examining gender, violence and criminality in early modern Britain

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The rhetoric surrounding women and notions of their expected behavior was at least consistent during the early modern period. Women were charged with being virtuous, chaste, modest, genteel, courteous, and, most important, obedient to their male forebears and to their husbands. Contemporary didactic literature from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries clearly advocated and supported this prescribed behavior of moral rectitude and gendered subservience. In 1558, for instance, Scotland’s John Knox (c. 1505-1572) produced The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women . 1 This treatise made clear that ‘The promotion of women’s superiority is repugnant to nature, contumely [insulting] to God’ and results in ‘the subversion of good order, or all equity and justice.’ 2 Not one to mince his words, Knox added that nature had painted women ‘ . . . to be weake, fraile, impacient, feble [feeble] and foolish: and experience hath declared them to be vconstant [inconstant], variable, cruell and lacking in spirit of counsel and regiment.’ 3 In sum, he said that women ‘ . . . ought to be repressed and brideled’ at all times and especially when they aspired to be independent from their menfolk. 4

Picking up from where Knox had left off, but over half a century later, the Englishman William Gouge (1575-1653) wrote his eight treatises entitled Of Domesticall Duties . 5 In the third treatise of this work from 1622, Gouge gave women, and wives in particular, some practical pointers on how to maintain the subservient position within the household that had been so strongly advocated by his predecessor Knox. The behavior of wives, according to Gouge, should consist of ‘ . . . sobriete, mildnesse, courtesie, and modestie . . . [which] giueth [giveth] euidence [evidence] to the husband that his wife respecteth his place and the authority which God hath giuen [given] him.’ 6 Wives ought to ‘ . . . purge out of their hearts pride . . . thinking humbly and lowly of themselues [themselves] . . . in regard of their sex and the weakness thereof. Thus by looking on their blacke feet, their proud-peacock-feathers may be cast downe.’ 7 Moreover, Gouge tells

his readership that a wife should be ‘meek and gentle’ and on a daily basis she should express and extend a cheerfulness to her husband which stems from ‘ . . . a contentednesse and willingnesse to be vnder [under] him and ruled by him.’ 8 Finally, Gouge proposes that rather than use his Christian name, a wife should refer to her husband as ‘Lord’ in order to signify his superiority and to give due reverence to him. 9

The perpetuation of opinion that called for the maintenance of women’s deferential positions in the social hierarchy continued into the 18th century when chapbooks containing popular stories, poems, and ballads were widely circulated among the British populace. One of the most common stories to be included involved a wealthy marquis who was out hunting when he visited a farmhouse owned by an impoverished countryman. 10 The man’s daughter, who was called Grissel, was exceedingly ‘beautiful, modest and virtuous,’ 11 and so the marquis chose her to be his wife. When asking Grissel to marry him he said ‘ . . . I must be satisfi ed that you will never deny my pleasure in anything, nor presume to contradict me when I command you; for as good soldiers must obey without disputing the business, so must virtuous wives dutifully consent without reproof.’ 12 Grissel replied her consent to this arrangement and thereafter they were married.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780203110607
Publication statusPublished - 21 Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes


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