"Furies of hell" in the "paradise of women": women in early modern England.
[m]ale authors gave women directions on how to dress (with decorum befitting their rank), how to talk (as little as possible), how to behave toward their husbands (with subservience and obedience), how to walk (with eyes down), what to read (works by and about good and godly persons, not romances), and how to pray (frequently). (135)
What Hull describes may sound like a state of the hell for many women today; however, the accounts of foreign visitors to early modern London often viewed England as a "paradise of women" (2). These visitors were amazed at the freedom that Englishwomen were enjoying, when compared to their German or Dutch counterparts. Leaving their household chores to their servants, these women were going about town unescorted. They were parading in their finery, dancing in the streets, chatting with their friends, and even drinking beer and ale with men (3). These festive descriptions hardly confirm the conservative stance of the extensive conduct literature that Hull emphasizes. Such descriptions are scarce. As a matter of fact, recorded information about the early modern Englishwomen is not sufficient to give us a clear idea of these women's actual lives. Still, what we have in hand is enough to suspect the accuracy of the image represented in literature of the period in respect to reflecting the individual and social realities of these women.
In this essay, I suggest the discrepancy between the image represented in early modern conduct literature and the evidence on the actual lives of Englishwomen as a means to understand these realities. I argue that the broad and powerful discourse that assumes a natural hierarchy based on gender, in fact, reveals the anxieties and contradictions of early modern patriarchy, rather than its oppressive effects on women. In order to support this argument, first I will present several theories on female gender that emerged in sixteenth and seventeenth century England in order to understand the patriarchal ideology's representation. Then, I will refer to real-life women examples to see in which particular ways contemporary Englishwomen subverted this image. Finally, I will offer the discrepancy between the theory and the practice as a context that emphasizes the significance of these women's achievements.
Retha Warnicke suggests that all studies on the women of the English Renaissance "must begin with the Christian humanism of Thomas More" (205). Indeed, the humanist theory generates a convenient context to discuss the new notion of woman, as the Utopian family relationships and the ideal matrimonial union propounded by the Renaissance humanists were later adopted by the Reformists as well. Drawing upon some of the theories of fifteenth century Italians like Leon Batista, More and his friends emphasized that matrimony depends on the compatibility of the spouses, and apart from propagation and avoidance of sin, marriage was also for mutual comfort (22). They encouraged loving relationships and believed that next to a woman's maternal and wifely service, she would be the perfect companion for her husband and the educator of her children. Young men who received humanist instruction would produce an enlightened ruling class whose primary aim was to implement social and religious reforms. Men would also act as the head of their households, yet the structure of the nuclear family needed to be strengthened by the extension of classical instruction to women (Jones and Seibel 67).
More wanted to implement his program of study for women through his own daughters. In his household school, he provided the same classical education for both his son and his three daughters, together with some other male and female students. This program included teachings of classical languages, rhetoric, philosophy, logic, as well as mathematics, and astronomy (69) (4). At a time when women of the wealthy classes were sometimes literate, More's household school must have aroused curiosity among London's citizens. Though this program of study remained at an experimental level, because apparently the aristocracy saw no practical use in educating their daughters, it proved successful (Warnicke 40). Despite the long established notion that women have lesser intellectual capacities, this school produced the first female humanists of England, including More's daughter Margaret Roper, who became an excellent scholar.
Throughout the Tudor and Jacobean periods, many English men and women showed interest and actually took part in a pamphlet war called querelles des femmes, which was a debate on the nature of womanhood. If Thomas More promoted the new humanist notion of woman to a certain extent, it was Thomas Elyot, who self-consciously participated in this debate and supplied it with humanist credentials. In his Defence of Good Women (1540) Elyot sustained radical Platonic theses that had never been proposed in England before. He argued that a single system of virtues exists for both sexes and reason is natural in both men and women. Referring to a long list of women's positive contributions in history to illustrate the truth of his argument, Elyot concluded that "women, beinge well and vertuously brought up, do not only with men participate in reason, but some also in fidelitie and constauncie be equal unto them" [Sic.](64-5).
When Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's A Treatise of the nobilitie and excellencye of woman kinde was translated into English in 1542, the humanist theory on women took a more interesting turn. Like Elyot, Agrippa argued for complete spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes. Yet, pushing the discussion one step further, he also questioned the existence of the "natural" order that viewed woman as inferior to man. He saw the contemporary women's condition as a product of cultural forces and custom rather than a natural necessity. He manifested,"[a]nd thus by these lawes, the women being subdewed as it were by force of armes, are constrained to giue place to men, and to obeye theyr subdewers, not by no naturall, no diuyne necessitie or reason, but by custome, education, fortune, and a certayne Tyrannicall occasion" [Sic.](G, Gv). The same thesis that women were exposed to patriarchal tyranny was later voiced by Lord Julian in The Courtier (1561), when Lord Gaspar claimed that all women wished they were men;"[t]he seelie poor creatures wish not to be a man to make them more perfect, but to have libertye, and to be ridd of the rule that men have of their own authoritie chalenged over them" [Sic.](227).
At a time when there were no demands by women for equal political rights, these arguments may sound amazing, even revolutionary. Yet, scholars warn us that we must be cautious in taking these pieces as sincere efforts of male thinkers to cure women's conditions. Since these texts belong to a specific literary genre, the quarelles des femmes tradition, they are highly preoccupied with stylistic finesse (Woodbridge 44). They are mainly rhetorical experiments rather than reflections of the author's personal attitude towards women. None of these works concludes that women must be freed from a hierarchical relationship to men. While they accommodate newly defined capacities for women, they have no suggestions on how to reconstruct law, education, society or custom. Still, it is interesting to note that some of the beliefs that these texts embrace can be considered fundamental to modern feminism. Obviously male thinkers were capable of producing the theory of equality since Plato, but there were some factors other than reason that obstructed the implementation of this theory in practice.
One may expect that the status of women would have improved during the reign of a woman monarch. However, it soon becomes apparent that the social and religious problems of the period would not have allowed Queen Elizabeth to go for a social reform for women, even if she had such a thing in her mind. In the first place, being a woman, the Queen's own regiment was in jeopardy. On the one hand, the claim about the weakness of woman could be asserted as a reason why Elizabeth herself should be barred from rule. On the other hand, if the possibility that a woman's capacity to govern arose naturally was accepted, this could be used to defend the right of Elizabeth's Catholic competitors to the throne. The Protestant solution for this conflict was the extraordinary woman theory, which was also favored by the Queen. According to this theory, not any other woman, like Mary Queen of Scots, but only Elizabeth had the right and capacity to rule England, because she was divinely chosen. Elizabeth was not a typical woman; she was a miraculous infusion of male spirit into a female body. Despite the limitations of womanhood, she had the divine ability to act with the spirit of a king. As a rhetorical tactic, this political androgyny served the Queen well and helped close off the discussion. (5) In this period, women's independency and authority to govern were not seriously debated, for the English feared that a civil or foreign war would break out if they made an attempt to do so.
Many historians describe the years between Elizabeth's ascension in 1559 and the beginning of the Puritan revolution in 1640 as a period of agitation and unrest in England. D.E. Underdown writes "fears of impending breakdown of the social order have been common in many periods of history but never were they more widespread, or more intense than in early modern England" (136). In the eighty years before the civil war, substantial changes took place in the economic, political and social life in England. The Protestant Reform had a significant effect on the economic development, bringing a new attitude to the accumulation of capital and work (Crawford 6). Family and domestic industries, in which the family members acted as the unit of production, were being replaced by capitalist and industrialist premises. The population was growing rapidly. Poverty and crime had increased because of the rising inflation and poor harvests. There was a generalized fear of social disorder, and in order to control any potential outbreak, rulers had to emphasize the need to obey the authority (Underdown 137).
The socio-economic changes that England was going through in this period were mostly reflected on new notions of family. In the implementation of the Protestant social program, family had a key role. The concept of family was highly politicized and it came to serve as an analogy for almost all other relations within the society, "between God and the man, the monarch and the people, husbands and wives, or masters and servants" (Breitenberg 17). As William Gouge defined in Of Domesticall Duties (1620),
A family is [...] a little Commonwealth [...]a school wherein the first principles of government and subjection are learned [...]So we may say of inferiors that cannot be a subject in a family; they will hardly be brought to yield to such subjection as they ought to in Church or Commonwealth. (11)
The family had a disciplinary role in shaping individuals within a set of hierarchical social relations and the obedience owed by family members to the father or the husband on the local level was analogous to that owned by the subject to the governor on the central level (Breitenberg 18).
The emergence of the new Protestant family had certain implications on the socially prescribed roles of men and women. There was a sharp organizational split between the public and private spheres, and men in both religious and secular affairs claimed the public domain. The woman was restricted within the household, however, her position and responsibilities in the family changed. She had a significant function as provider, educator and moral counselor within home. Her ordinary domestic occupations involved a wide range of daily production, including dairy products, fruits and vegetables and the care of poultry and pigs (Clark 5). She was also occupied with spinning flax and wool and acted as the nurse and the doctor of the family (5). In addition, the wife was responsible for training and managing the servants as well as the children, and acted as her husband's deputy in his absence. As Gauge argued, the husband had to "make [his wife] a joint governor of the family with himself, and refer the ordering of many things to her discretion" (25).
While the husband still maintained absolute authority within the family, the wife's position was elevated from a merely subordinate role, as a consequence of the Protestant matrimonial ideal which saw marriage as a companionate partnership and demanded mutual respect from spouses. According to Protestantism, there was spiritual equality between men and women. In the eyes of God, both sexes were treated the same in terms of their salvation. However, this common standing in religion did not affect the political order. Constance Jordan argues that "the structure of domestic relations in early modern Europe makes it useful to see power and authority as separate entities" (4). Though women to a certain extent attained power within the family and some social settings, "they lacked authority-the title, the office-to give that power a public and institutional character" (4). The patriarchal order was reluctant to grant any independence to women. On the contrary, in order to preserve the contemporary assumptions about gender hierarchies, women were continuously reminded of their inferior status and were commanded to submit to their male superiors. The message that An Homily on the State of Matrimony (1563) had for women was clear,"[y]ee wiues, be ye in subiection to obey your owne husbands. To obey is another thing than to controle or command; which yet they may doe to their children; and to their family: But as for their husbands, them they must obey, and cease from commanding, and performe subiection" [Sic.](II:18.1-144-8).
I believe the failure to grant independence and authority to women was partly due to the deeply ingrained patriarchal assumption that women did not have as much control over their baser emotions as did men. They were thought as essentially sexual beings, weak by nature, and thus liable to the temptation of the devil. According to the contemporary wisdom, there were two different kinds of woman and it was assumed that all women would belong to one or the other. The archetypal good woman was a tender-hearted, home-keeping mother, who obeys her husband, cares for her children and spends her free time in private devotion. According to Thomas Adams, she was also "patiently and quietly to bear the incommodities of her husband: to dissemble, cloak, hide and cover the faults and vices of her husband" (in Aughterson 29). Nevertheless, there were also those other kind of women, who were "more like the 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" (in Aughterson 29). These women wore make-up and dressed extravagantly, and before their husbands they were prudent, audacious, and bold. Men were warned to be careful about such wives and maintain constant control over them, because otherwise these women might use their feminine wiles like Eve or Jezebel and usurp mastery within the family. As Joseph Swetnam illustrated in Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women (1615),"[f]or women haue a thousand ways to intice thee, and ten thousand waies to deceiue thee. they lay out the foldes of their hare to entangle men into their love, betwixt their breasts is the vale of destruction, & in their beds there is hell, sorrow & repentance" [Sic.](15-6).
This excessive, or perhaps caricaturizing misogyny that we observe in Swetnam and in many others, together with the period's exhaustive preoccupation with proper woman conduct may seem to indicate quite a totalitarian perspective. However, the accuracy of these texts as descriptions of reality should be suspected. Tina Krontiris suggests that "often conservative formulations reflect the patriarchy's fears and anxieties about losing control over women, and they are therefore reactions to, rather than indications of developing tendencies" (8). Indeed, while the majority of these texts maintain that the natural inferiority of women dictates certain social roles, they at the same time provide considerable evidence about women's transgression of these roles. In addition, the variety and abundance of such texts point out a decisive effort to secure a discourse of gendered hierarchy, and thus raise the question whether these works merely serve as a functional
model rather than being descriptive of inherent truth.
Mark Breitenberg argues that "any social system whose premise is the unequal distribution of power and authority always and only sustains itself in constant defense of privileges of some of its members and by the constraint of others" (3). In this respect, anxiety is an inevitable product of patriarchy, because the masculine identity, constructed by a patriarchal culture and infused with male privileges, inadvertently incorporates varying degrees of anxiety in men about the maintenance of those privileges (3). In early modern England, the demand for women to contribute to household economies and labor force increased, yet this degree of independence was also perceived threatening by men. Men had claimed the dominant place in almost every aspect of the social and economic life and any intrusion by females was a potential source of resentment and resistance.
Yet, anxieties do not necessarily give rise to fear and paralysis. Once properly contained and appropriated, they can motivate the reconstruction and defense of those privileges that seem most in jeopardy. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Englishman remained as the governor of social institutions and the authoritative voice of representation. In this context, the magnitude of the repertory of conduct literature does not simply signify the power of patriarchy in controlling the lives of women. On the contrary, these texts lead us to patriarchy's own internal contradictions and evince an impatient attempt to preserve and reproduce the prerogatives of the assumed status of difference and hierarchy. The construction of woman as either confirming or disturbing the masculine identity, the male perception that women were essentially incapable of self government, depictions of female sexuality as monstrous and destructive, are all products of this defensive perspective operating behind these representations and projections.
Yet, how far this self-defense was successful in restricting women's lives is disputable, because in practice women stepped out of these clearly defined boundaries, and challenged the fundamental dynamics of social life in ways which men found deeply threatening and subversive. On the one hand, conduct books of the early modern period present to us portrayals of women who needed counseling, instruction, and guidance and were submitted to their father's or husband's will. On the other hand, historical accounts indicate that despite oppressive patriarchy, many Englishwomen were active and successful in a challenging economic, political and social environment.
Politics and the public administration of law were defined as male businesses, yet the Tudor period witnessed the accession of two queens to the English throne. Both Mary's and Elizabeth's religious opponents attacked their position as female rulers, because women were not expected to exercise authority over men, yet all subjects owed allegiance to their monarch. (6) The establishment of the Anglican Church under Elizabeth I further complicated the issue, because it was a complete contradiction from the Protestant perspective. Addressing the Queen in the Parliament, Archbishop Heath said in 1559,"her highness, beyinge a woman by birthe and nature, is not qualyfied by God's worde to feed the flock of Chryst, it appearth most playnley [...] Therefor she cannot be supreme head of Chryst's militant churche" (in Levin 14). Elizabeth's position as the lay head of the church was found ridiculous even absurd by many, yet it was perfectly possible. Elizabeth placed the clergy and her councilors generally in an awkward position, but she ruled England for forty-five years as one of the nation's greatest monarchs.
Had Protestants successfully implemented the spiritualized nuclear family, the status of women indeed would have undergone a demotion, because obviously the goal here was to grant women less freedom by withdrawing them into the family. Yet, there were factors that hindered the widespread acceptance of this household model. The standards set by churchmen were too demanding for men. As men were closer to perfection than women, they had to be more knowledgeable and had to have a better religious understanding than their wives. Next to the Protestant father's financial duty, he was expected to assume charge of all religious matters, making his home a spiritualized household. Yet, in reality many of these men were merely indifferent conformists. Even those who were genuine Reformers found these family responsibilities extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to fulfill (Warnicke 205).
The splinter religious groups within Protestantism allowed women to claim spiritual independence. Even married women did not owe religious obedience to their husbands. As the number of churches and sects increased in the seventeenth century, public preaching and lecturing grew popular, enabling a kind of democratic atmosphere of listening and debating. Here, women proved particularly capable of adopting new roles for themselves. In defiance of patriarchal authority, many women filled pastoral and teaching positions and even organized congregations.
Women of the Roman Catholic faith had a similar effect on Counter Reformation. Mary Ward, the most prominent of these assertive women, was the first Englishwoman to give expression to and practice feminist doctrine. She challenged the male hierarchy of her Church and insisted on establishing an Order that permitted her to function as a female Jesuit in all capacities, except the priestly one. Determined to direct her congregation with minimum male interference, she made direct vow of obedience to the Pope and bypassed the authority of bishops. Her Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1609) worked to help and educate poor female children and expand the Catholic religion. At a time when the work of the religious women of the Catholic Church was confined to what could be carried on within the walls of a monastery, Mary Ward, together with her companions, traveled throughout Europe, founding free schools in various European countries including Italy, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands (Lux-Sterritt 93). Despite the difficulties she encountered due to the religious standards imposed on women of her time, Ward refused to walk the tightrope of gendered acceptability. In a speech delivered to her fellow sisters at St. Omer in 1617, Ward spoke clearly and forcefully about the female potential,
[f]or what think you of this word, 'but women'? as if we were in all things inferior to some other creature which I suppose to be a man! Which I dare to be bold to say is a lie then, with respect to the good Father, I may say: it is an error. [...] I would to God that all men would understand this verity: that women, if they will, may be perfect, and if they would not make us believe we can do nothing, and that we are but women, we might do great matters. (Reprinted in Chambers 109)
Ward was a leader. Her vindication of female worth in the Catholic mission came as a blow to the Church hierarchy and presented a challenge to the traditional order. Her efforts to combat the secondary status of her sex made her an attractive figure for modern feminist studies.
Despite the threat on their public reputation, women were active also in the literary realm. Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, not only personally joined the male-dominated world of serious literary composition and publication, but also gave it decisive creative leadership and direction. Lady Pembroke was a great patroness of wit and learning. In her estate in Wilton, together with her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, she sustained a literary group, known as the Wilton Circle, which included names like Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel and Sir John Davies (Roberts 426). Under her direction Wilton became a literary center, comparable to continental literary salons (Krontiris 64). Literary acquaintances visited and sometimes stayed at Wilton to present their work, circulate manuscripts, partake in discussions, and watch theatrical performances. After the death of her brother, Lady Pembroke became preoccupied with editing and publishing Sidney's work and tried to popularize his ideas. Alongside several poems, Pembroke's own literary accomplishments include some renown translations, such as Mornay's treatise Discourse of Life and Death, Garnier's play Antonie, Petrarch's Triumph of Death, and a versification of the Book of Psalms, a work which had a significant influence on the development of the Protestant lyric tradition in England (Roberts 430).
Lady Falkland was another interesting literary figure. She was the mother of eleven children and wife to a very authoritarian husband, yet she was willing enough to teach herself several languages and composed Mariam (1613), the first original English play written by a woman. Probably the most prolific woman writer of the Jacobean period was Lady Mary Wroth. With her secular love poetry and romances, she openly and boldly transgressed the traditional boundaries. Her long prose fiction Urania (1621), the first original work of fiction by an Englishwoman, was found scandalous for its controversial themes in the Jacobean court and removed from circulation six months after it was produced. A couple of years ago, Lady Falkland's Mariam had met a similar fate. Nevertheless, considering the outright hostility to learned women, such failures by no means obscure the significance of these undertakings.
Most importantly, it was time for the Jacobean women to stop smiling at the misogynistic insult. Swetnam's Arraignment of women was answered by four rebuttals and three of the responding authors were female. One of these women was Constantia Munda. In her essay (1617), Munda burst against Swetnam with the same bitter tone in which he attacked women. For her, Swetnam's mind was "troubled and festered with imposture of inbred malice, and corrupt hatred" [Sic.](5). Calling him a "mad Dogge", a "hayter of Women", Munda warned Swetnam that women would no more remain silent against men's misogynistic bile, "[t]hough feminine modesty hath confin'd our rarest and ripest wits to silence [...] Know therefore, that wee will cancell your accusations, travers your bils, and come vpon you for a false inditement" [Sic.] (5).
King James' misogyny was legendary. Few years after he ascended the throne, women dressed in masculine attires became an interesting feature of the London landscape. Wearing the breeches literally, these women were stalking the streets, challenging people to duel, even attending church services. From satires to sermons and the King's public pronouncements, recorded male responses to these women were excessive. Apparently masculine anxieties were operative, and women, who understood the rules of the game, were subtly playing with them. If to be a man meant to be free, then, these women could dress as men and be free. In 1620 this new type woman found her voice in an anonymous pamphlet titled Haec-Vir. There, she called the custom "Idiot" for expecting women to dress and behave according to fabricated rules. She proclaimed,"[w]e are free-borne as Men, haue as free election, and as free spirits, we are compounded like parts, and may with the like liberty make benefit of our Creations" [Sic.](B3).
It would be hard to claim that early modern Englishwomen lived in a "golden age" or in "paradise". The women of this age were oppressed and discriminated by a patriarchal ideology that was anxious to legitimate and sustain its prerogatives and greeted any female achievement with scorn and humiliation. Yet, something remains pretty clear: The Englishmen of the Renaissance were aware that women were as able and intellectually capable as men and many Englishwomen realized that they were not as weak and incompetent as the patriarchy represented them. They behaved independently, subverted the gender roles and found the door for equality and freedom not only for themselves, but also for many others who came after them.
Oz Oktem currently works as a faculty member in the English Language and Literature Department of Istanbul Aydin University. She received her PhD degree from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki with her dissertation entitled The Representation of the Muslim Woman in Early Modern English Drama. Her research interests include theorizing gender and alterity in early modern English literature, Anglo-Ottoman relations and representations of Islam and Turkish women in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and Shakespeare studies. Email: email@example.com
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(1) The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are marked by great changes in the political, socioeconomic, and religious structures in England. The umbrella term "Renaissance" commonly used roughly between 1500 and 1640 in England, belies these changes; for this reason historians today tend to employ the more accurate term "early modern period". In this essay I use both terms interchangeably. See http://www.oxfordreference.com.
(2) This quote is generally attributed to the English lexicographer John Florio (1591) and the original is as follows: England is the paradise of women, the purgatory of men, and the hell of horses" (Reprinted in Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs 92). However, foreign visitors to early modern London also articulated similar ideas about the Englishwomen. See, for example, the accounts of Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg: "England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell or purgatory for horses,-for the females have great liberty and almost like masters, whilst the poor horses are worked very hard" (Reprinted in Rye 14).
(3) See Emanual Van Meteren's account in William Brenchley Rye. Ed. England As Seen by Foreigners (New York, 2015). 69-73 and Sir Walter Besant, Tudor London (London, 1904) 271-5.
(4) Thomas More explained his reasons for extending classical education to women in a letter he wrote to his children's tutor William Gonell in 1518. In this letter he argued that a learned woman could be a guide and educator for her children and a delight to her husband who gladly would leave other men's company to enjoy intellectual conversations with his wife. This study would also teach women "piety towards God, charity to all, and Christian humility." See Thomas More, Selected Letters. Ed. Elizabeth F. Rogers (New Haven, 1961). 105.
(5) See, for example when Queen Elizabeth visited the English troops at Tilbury, assembled on the eve of the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588 and famously quoted as saying, "Let Tyrants fear, I have always so behaved my self, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength, and safeguard in the royal hearts and good will of my subjects. ... I know I have the bodie, but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and Stomach of a King, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my Realm, to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I my self will take up arms, I my self will be your General, Judge, and Rewarder of everie one of your virtues in the field" (Reprinted in Wright 446).
(6) See for example The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558). In this ill-timed pamphlet which initially targeted Mary but was published in the year Elizabeth was crowned, John Knox characterized a commonwealth ruled by a woman "sitting in judgment or riding from parliament in the midst of men" as a "monstrous regiment" which violated the divine and the natural law.
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