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A Laughing Matter? Marital Discord and Gender Control in Seventeenth-Century England1

  • Elizabeth Foyster

Extract

For the vast majority of men and women in seventeenth-century England the act of marriage created an indissoluble union and represented a life long commitment. Legal divorce was a lengthy and costly procedure which discriminated against women, and informal separations or desertions were socially frowned upon and often economically disadvantageous. So marital discord had to be overcome before it deteriorated into a situation of marriage breakdown. Elaborate ways of restoring and maintaining marital harmony were established through use of the cucking stool and ‘charivari’. By these means, public attention was focused upon behaviour which caused discord: the scolding wife was punished and the husband who was a cuckold or had been beaten by his wife, humiliated. Meanwhile, conduct books proffered advice to couples on how to avoid such marital discontent and its consequences.

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Notes

2. See for example, Phillips, Roderick, Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce, (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 64–6, 8092.

3. See, Ingram, Martin, ‘Ridings, Rough Music and the ‘Reform of Popular Culture’ in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, vol. 105, (1984); and Underdown, David, ‘The Taming of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England’, in Fletcher, Anthony and Stevenson, John (eds), Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, (Cambridge, 1985).

4. See for example, Gouge, William, Of Domesticall Duties, Eight Treatises, (3rd. edn., London, 1634).

5. Ingram, , ‘Ridings, Rough Music’, Past and Present, 105, p. 111.

6. Underdown, , ‘The Taming of the Scold’, Order and Disorder, pp. 120, 123–6, 128–9.

7. Neuburg, Victor E., Popular Literature: A History and Guide (Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 62. The ballads used for this article have been taken from four printed collections: The Roxburghe Ballads, Vols. 1–3 ed. Chappell, W. (The Ballad Society 18711880) and Vols. 4–9, ed. J.W. Ebsworth (The Ballad Society 1883–99); The Euing Collection of English Broadside Ballads, introduction by Holloway, J., (Glasgow, 1971); Rollins, Hyder Edwards (ed.), A Pepysian Garland – Block Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595–1639, (Cambridge, 1971); and Clark, Andrew (ed.), The Shirburn Ballads 1585–1616 (Oxford, 1907). The ballads in this article have been dated as far as possible with reference to the notes contained in these collections and to Rollins, Hyder Edwards, An Analytical Index to the Ballad Entries (1557–1709) In the Registers of the Company of the Stationers of London, (North Carolina, 1924), in which Rollins has listed the date at which ballads were registered with the Company. It is important to note that a ballad could be illegally in circulation long before it was registered.

8. Spufford, Margaret, The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century (1984), pp. 85–9; Shakespeare, William, The Winter's Tale, Act IV, iii–iv.

9. Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640, (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1112.

10. Bownde, Nicholas, The Doctrine of the Sabbath (London, 1595), p. 242, as cited in Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (London, 1981), p. 10.

11. Watt, , Cheap Print, p. 37.

12. Cressy, David, Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 128–9.

13. Parry, Edward Abbott, (ed.), Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple 1652–54 (London, 1903), p. 86.

14. See, Ingram, Martin, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570–1640, (Cambridge, 1987) and Quaife, G.R., Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives – Peasants and Illicit Sex in early Seventeenth Century England (London, 1979).

15. Wurzbach, Natascha, The Rise of the English Street Ballad, (Cambridge, 1990), p. 52.

16. See, Ingram, , ‘Ridings, Rough Music’, p. 98, and Thomas, Keith, ‘The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England’, The Times Literary Supplement (01 21st, 1977), p. 77.

17. Euing, No. 289, p. 473.

18. Roxburghe, II, 43, p. 483, lines 55–6.

19. ‘Household Talke, Or; Good Councell for a Married Man’, Roxburghe I 148, 149, p. 446, lines 122–5, (printed in the reign of James I).

20. ‘The Merry Cuckold’, Roxburghe, I 256, 257, p. 7, line 37, (06 1630).

21. For example, ‘The Lancashire Cuckold’, Euing, No. 200, p. 320, lines 23–4.

22. Wurzbach, , Rise of the English Street Ballad, p. 21.

23. Roxburghe, I, 148, 149, p. 442, line 18.

24. Roxburghe, I, 30, 31, p. 100, line 34.

25. Crawford, Patricia, Exploring Women's Past, (London, 1984), p. 66.

26. Euing No. 321, p. 350, line 8.

27. Ibid., line 42; McLaren, Angus, Reproductive Rituals (Oxford, 1984), p. 35 describes this practice.

28. For example see, Gouge, , Of Domesticall Duties, pp. 223–4.

29. Hill, Christopher, The World Turned Upside Down, (London, 1972), p. 257.

30. Roxburghe, I, 30, 31, p. 100, line 15, see also ‘The Lancashire Cuckold’, Euing, No. 200, p. 320 for another example of this type of behaviour.

31. Roxburghe II, 43, p. 482, line 47.

32. Quaife, , Wanton Wenches, p. 142.

33. Euing, No. 200, p. 320, line 70, Roxburghe, I, 30, 31, p. 103, lines 116–18.

34. Euing, No. 200, p. 320, line 73.

35. Roxburghe, I, 148, 149, p. 441, line 7.

36. Roxburghe, I, 256, 257, p. 6, line 30.

37. See, Sharpe, J.A., ‘Plebeian Marriage in Stuart England: Some Evidence from Popular Literature’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, 36, (1986), pp. 80–2; and Sharpe, J.A.Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England’, Borthicick Papers, 58, (1981), p. 19.

38. Sharpe, , ‘Plebeian Marriage’, pp. 8081, and for examples in ballad literature of where women are labelled as gossips see, ‘The Lamentation of a New-Married Man’, Roxburghe, I, 216, 217, p. 36, lines 71–4 ‘The Cruell Shrow’, Roxburghe, I, 28, 29, p. 95, lines 33–4, and ‘The Married Man's Miserie’, Roxburghe, I, 46, 47, p. 152, line 73.

39. This ballad evidence contrasts with that of the defamation cases being presented in the church courts in this period. The evidence of defamation cases suggests that it was largely women who were concerned about their sexual reputations, see Sharpe, J.A., ‘Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England’, Borthwick Papers, 58, (1981), pp. 1517.

40. Shirburn, No. LXIV, pp. 263–7.

41. Roxburghe, I, 510, 511, p. 233, line 36.

42. Powell, Christopher, ‘Humour as a Form of Social Control: A Deviance Approach’ in Chapman, Anthony J. and Foot, Hugh C. (eds.), It's A Funny Thing, Humour (Oxford, 1977), p. 53.

43. Ingram, , ‘Ridings, Rough Music’, p. 98.

44. As cited in Thomas, , ‘The Place of Laughter’, TLS, 01 21st, 1977, p. 80; there are no footnotes in this publication.

45. Williams, H. (ed.), The Poems of Jonathan Swift, (Oxford, 1937), i, p. 221, as cited in Ingram, Martin, ‘Ridings, Rough Music and Mocking Rhymes in Early Modern England’, in Reay, Barry (ed.) Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England, (Kent, 1985), p. 176.

46. Richman, David, Laughter, Pain, and Wonder – Shakespeare's Comedies and the Audience in the Theater, (Newark USA, 1990), p. 16.

47. Cited in Gupta, S.C. Sen, Shakespearian Comedy, (Oxford, 1950), p. 1.

48. Wurzbach, , Rise of the English Street Ballad, p. 63.

49. Roxburghe, I, 256, 257, p. 5, lines 1–4.

50. Nietzsche, Friedrich, Daybreak – Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, (Cambridge, 1986), trans. Hollingdale, R., p. 16, n. 18.

51. Taylor, John, Divers Crabtree Lectures, Expressing the Severall Languages that Shrews read to their Husbands (1639), pp. 73–4, as cited in Underdown, David, Revel, Riot and Rebellion – Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603–1660, (Oxford, 1987), p. 39.

52. ‘The Cuckold's Lamentation of a Bad Wife’, Roxburghe, II, 89, p. 637, line 58.

53. Roxburghe, II, 56, p. 189, lines 45–6.

54. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 509, line 10.

55. Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World, Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800, (Harmondsworth, 1983), p. 43.

56. Topsell, E., The Historie of Foure-footed Beasts, (1607), pp. 536–40, as cited in Morris, B. (ed.), The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, (Arden edition, London, 1981), p. 120.

57. Corbet, G., The Terrestial Mammals of Western Europe, (1966), as cited in Morris, (ed.), The Taming, p. 121.

58. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 509, lines 17–40, and Roxburghe, II, 407, p. 192, lines 25–32.

59. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 509, lines 27–8.

60. Roxburghe, II, 407, p. 192, lines 31–2.

61. See, for example, Houlbrooke, Ralph, The English Family 1450–1700, (London, 1984), p. 100.

62. Roxburghe, II, 576, p. 188, line 13.

63. Roxburghe, II, 89, p. 636, line 13.

64. Roxburghe, II, 576, p. 189, lines 97–8.

65. ‘The Discontented Married Man’, Roxburghe, I, 96, 97, p. 298, lines 62–3, and for example, ‘The Cuckold's Lamentation of a Bad Wife’, Roxburghe, II, 89, p. 636, line 10.

66. Roxburghe, I, 96, 97, pp. 295–9.

67. Ibid., p. 298, lines 93–7.

68. Euing, no. 394, p. 658, lines 23–4.

69. See, Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, (Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 629.

70. ‘A Caution for Scolds’, Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 509, from line 39; ‘The Scolding Wife’, Roxburghe, II, 407, p. 193, lines 41–2.

71. McDonald, Michael, Mystical Bedlam – Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, (Cambridge, 1985), p. 126.

72. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 509, line 47; p. 510, line 54.

73. Porter, Roy, Disease, Medicine and Society in England 1550–1860, (London, 1987), p. 15.

74. Porter, Roy, Mind-Forg'd Manacles – A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. (Harmondsworth, 1987), p. 43.

75. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 510, lines 59–60.

76. Thomas, , Religion and the Decline of Magic, pp. 633–4.

77. Roxburghe, II, 51, p. 510, lines 63–4.

78. McDonald, , Mystical Bedlam, p. 141.

79. Roburghe, II, 407, p. 193, line 56.

80. Ibid., lines 69–72.

81. Roxburghe, I, 354, 355, p. 415, line 17.

82. Ibid., p. 417, line 75; see also ‘A Caveat for Young-men’, Euing, No. 27, p. 37, 1st line of 5th stanza.

83. Roxburghe, I, 354, 355, pp. 417–8, lines 82–6.

84. ‘Hold your Hands, Honest Men!’ Roxburghe, I, 514, 515, title stanza, lines 5–6. For a general overview of contemporary attitudes towards wife beating see, Phillips, , Untying the Knot, pp. 97100.

85. ‘The Married Man's Lesson’, Roxburghe, I, 510, 511, p. 235, lines 73–4.

86. Pepys, 58, p. 334, stanzas 6–7.

87. Roxburghe, I, 514, 515, p. 248, lines 125–30.

88. Roxburghe, I, 96, 97, p. 295, lines 3–7.

89. ibid., pp. 295–6, lines 10, 1, 11.

90. Ibid., p. 296, lines 19–20.

91. Ibid., lines 23–6.

92. Ibid., lines 31–3.

93. Ibid., pp. 296–7, lines 44–52.

94. Ibid., p. 297, line 54.

95. Ibid., p. 298, lines 62–3.

96. Ibid., lines 71–3.

97. Ibid., pp. 298–9, lines 89–106.

98. Hills, David Farley, The Comic in Renaissance Comedy, (London, 1981), p. 17.

99. Plato, , Laws, vii. 816, as cited in Bradbrook, M.C., The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy, (London, 1979), p. 28.

1 I am indebted to Anthony Fletcher for his teaching and for his helpful comments on this article.

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