Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ruling the Home

They say that when William Gouge, author of the 17th-century bestseller Domesticall Duties, preached on the submission of wives, his congregation got restless and unruly. And there's no doubt that he came down firmly on the side of the literal biblical teaching, which when combined with the secular English law of coverture meant that married women had no property rights and had to obey their husbands in all things unless they were asked to do something illegal or immoral. Wives are in subjection to their husbands -- a phrase that Gouge uses freely and repeatedly.

End of story? Not quite. I'm probably doing our buddy Pastor Gouge a disservice here, because I'm ignoring his big First Point and going right for the congregation-aggravating Second Point. That First Point Gouge is emphatic on: in the hierarchy of the home, a wife is in no way on the same level as children or servants. The husband is the king, but the wife is the Prime Minister. He's president; she's chief of staff. And apparently he knows he's going to get some push-back from that, for he addresses objections immediately.

Doesn't that "impair the dignity and authority of the husband?" In that sentence alone, we get a clear look at the ideal of husbands in this culture. They were like CEOs who wore a tie when everyone else was wearing jeans, and to whom you were not supposed to give advice, even if you were right.

But Gouge pooh-poohs such thinking. "We see that in all estates the King or highest governour hath other Magistrates under him, who have a command over the subjects, and yet thereby the King's supreme authority is no whit impaired, but rather better established . . . So is it in a family."

Husbands took care of the really important things in life -- "great and weighty matters of the family," such as providing for the family, leading family worship, disciplining children when they "wax stubborn," managing the male servants, and so on.

But wives are involved in management, too, with the lesser "but very needful" matters, like food preparation, interior decorating, teaching the children, and managing the female servants. The husband was to throw his weight behind her efforts, adding "much authority unto her" so that the family took her commands seriously. Though she is subject to him, she is no servant: "for of all the degrees wherein there is any difference betwixt person and person, there is the least disparity betwixt husband and wife." So even though she's under his authority -- they both wear ties.

The wife could even get involved in those "great and weighty matters" through her support and encouragement. Here's where I had to smile. I am involved in Scouting with my boys. One of the goals of Boy Scouts is to give boys an opportunity to work toward a goal. The ultimate goal is the Eagle badge, and that takes a lot of time and effort and organization -- and for many boys it would not be won if it were not for the help from a parent (often Mom) in the area of, ah, persistent encouragement. We call it, "the Golden Boot."

Four hundred years ago, Pastor Gouge strongly advocated wives to use the Golden Boot on their husbands in the area of family religious devotions. Now bear in mind that women were barred from speaking or teaching publicly.

Gouge says: "Yea further, as the man especially is to perform the very actions of prayer, reading the word, catechizing, and other like duties in the family, so the wife may be a great help in
- putting her husband in mind both of the duty itself,
-and of the time of performing it,
-and encouraging him to do it,
-in gathering the family together,
-and exhorting them to be forward,
-in making herself an example to the rest by her diligent and reverend attention,
- in oft urging and pressing to her children and servants such points of instruction as her husband hath taught[.]"

And then if all else fails, she should take it on herself "when her husband is absent, or negligent and careless, and will not himself do them; or it may be, is not able to do them[.]"
[I formatted the above to make the booting more clear.]

Can you see it? "We're having devotions tonight, right? -- Shall I tell the servants to come now to devotions? -- Tommy, listen to your father when he's reading Scripture! -- You know, what you're saying about that passage of Scripture reminds me of another passage of Scripture -- well, several passages, actually. May I share?" And so on. And if he clean won't do it, she can take over.

And if she is the more talented teacher? Gouge refers to the New Testament couple, Priscilla and Aquila. and how it was the wife, Priscilla, who was the primary spiritual teacher for an up-and-coming leader of the church, Apollos. Women "may, and ought to teach" in their homes, and apparently that did not mean only the kids; it meant male adults in the home as well. That's a step forward in this century.

That's all very well when it comes to family devotions. But it is the areas of money and property that the rubber really meets the road in most families. In England (and in America for the first couple of centuries), married women could not legally buy or sell property, could not possess their own money, and could not enter contracts without their husband's permission. Any loopholes there? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sex: The First Requirement

Puritans loved logic and argument. Their greatest gift to the church may be in the realm systematic theology; they excelled at laying out the tenets of the faith in an orderly fashion, with all implications explored.

Dr. Gouge (whose manual, Domesticall Duties I've been reading) also took the systematic approach to the duties of married people. He begins with, "Who may seek to be married?" and after proving to the last breath that humans must marry only other humans (no going to the altar with Rover), he goes on to more relevant matters.

One of the first of Gouge's qualifications for marriage is they must be able, physically, to have sex.

More specifically: "They are to be accounted impotent and in that respect perform the essential duties of marriage, who . . . were born eunuchs from their mother's womb (Matt. 19:12); or by any accidental occasion are so made: as they are defective, or closed in their secret parts, or taken with an incurable palsy [paralysis]; or possessed with frigidity [lack of all sexual desire] . . . These ought not seek after marriage: for by those signs of impotency God sheweth that he calleth them to live single." (The bracketed comments above are mine.)

It appears that Gouge's definition of "impotence" could apply to men or women, depending on the situation, though I would guess it got a different name when dealing with a female problem. Gouge seems to be most concerned over a man or woman going into marriage knowing that sex was impossible because of a physical problem. When Puritans formed their experimental communities in New England, they made impotence a potential grounds for divorce.

So why was sex so important? First of all, impotence would frustrate one of the goals of marriage: having children.

So does that mean that if a woman could not conceive, she had failed in God's purpose and her husband might divorce her? Absolutely not. Infertility, or "barrenness" as it was known in that era, was completely different from impotence. For one thing, infertility could be discovered only after the marriage had been in place for at the very least some period of months, as opposed to the impotent person who presumably would know that s/he could not consummate the marriage even before the wedding night. So an impotent person was deceiving his or her spouse from the beginning.

Further, having children was not the only goal of marriage: "so inviolable is the marriage bond, that though it be made for children's sake, yet for want of children it may not be broken." And sometimes a woman who was barren for many years even would become -- un-barren. The Bible was full of stories of women who could not have children for many years, and then "her womb was opened."

But there was another matter, too: a barren woman could still love her husband physically -- could "yield due benevolence" [Gouge's euphemism for sex] -- and an "impotent" one could not. Gouge makes it clear throughout Domesticall Duties that part of the purpose of sex is to bring the husband and wife together for love and pleasure. Married couples should "mutually delight each in other, and maintain a pure and fervent love betwixt themselves, yielding that due benevolence one to another which is . . . ordained of God for this particular end."

It is also another gentle reminder to us that Puritans were not anti-sex. These people were not Victorians. They were Elizabethans (or nearly); very close to the age of Shakespeare. A Puritan teacher like Gouge might need to use euphemisms to talk about sex, but the topic was very much on the table for discussion, not hidden away or dismissed as dirty. In the seventeenth century even people who got a label like "puritan" were very clear on what helped make a happy marriage tick.

Seven Steps to Marital Bliss

As a seventeenth-century marriage counselor, William Gouge wasn't bad. Here's his seven points for maintaining peace at home. Notice that the husband and the wife are equally responsible for maintaining domestic harmony and that they have the same duties. Now, this sort of egalitarianism was not true of Gouge's counsel overall; at times he laid out specific roles for the husband and the wife based solely on their gender (like the importance of obedience in wives). But it's clear that a successful marriage was not simply the assertion of power by the husband over the wife.

As you read this, don't miss the preacher's use of catchy phrases. "The second blow makes the fray," "Wrath must not lie in bed with two such bed-fellows." I'd bet any number of groats that he used those in his sermons on many a Sunday.

Here is Mr. Gouge:

1. All offences so much as possibly may be must be avoided. The husband must be watchful over himself that he give no offence to his wife: and so the wife on the other side. Offences cause contentions.

2. When an offence is given by the one party, it must not be taken by the other; but rather passed by: and then will not peace be broken. The second blow makes the fray.

3. If both be incensed together, the fire is like to be the greater: with the greater speed therefore must they both labour to put it out. Wrath must not lie in bed with two such bed-fellows: neither may they part beds for wrath sake. That this fire may be the sooner quenched, they must both strive first to offer reconciliation. Theirs is the glory who do first begin, for they are most properly the blessed peacemakers. Not to accept peace when it is offered is more than heathenish: but when wrath is incensed, to seek atonement is the duty of a Christian, and a grace that cometh from above.

4. Children, servants, nor any other in the family must be bolstered up by the one against the other. The man's partaking with any of the house against his wife, or the wife against her husband, is an usual cause of contention betwixt man and wife.

5. They must forbear to twit one another in the teeth with the husbands or wives of other persons or with their own former husbands or wives [in case they have had any before]. Comparisons in this kind are very odious. They stir up much passion, and cause great contentions.

6. Above all they must take heed of rash and unjust jealousy, which is the bane of marriage, and greatest cause of discontent that can be given betwixt man and wife. Jealous persons are ready to pick quarrels, and to seek occasions of discord: they will take every word, look, action, and motion, in the worse part, and so take offence where none is given. When jealousy is once kindled, it is as a flaming fire that can hardly be put out. It maketh the party whom it possesseth implacable.

7. In all things that may stand with a good conscience they must endeavour to please one another: and either of them suffer their own will to be crossed, rather than discontent to be given to the other. S. Paul noteth this as a common mutual duty belonging to them both, and expresseth their care thereof under a word that signifieth more than ordinary care, and implieth a dividing of the mind into divers thoughts, casting this way, and that way, and every way how to give best content.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Poor Subjects

What was the playbook by which Anne Bradstreet would have formed her marriage?

Likely Domesticall Duties by William Gouge. This book, which went through several editions, was a sort of "Dr. Spock" manual covering the do's and don'ts for the key family relationships. Of those, the husband/wife relationship was the most important.

"Wives, be subject to your husbands." But Pastor Gouge laments, "[M]any wives . . . think themselves every way as good as their husbands and no way inferior to them." Those girls! Why don't they recognize their inferiority, already? Pastor Gouge enlightens. "The reason thereof seemeth to be that small inequality which is betwixt the husband and the wife[.]" There's the problem: the "inferiority" of the wife is pretty slight. She's almost on a par with her husband: "for of all the degrees wherein there is any difference betwixt person and person, there is the least disparity betwixt man and wife."

That's saying something in a hierarchical society like that of 17th-century England. All relationships had a vertical element: gentlemen were better than commoners, nobility better than gentlemen, servants better than slaves, adults better than children, men better than women. But of all these degrees of difference, the least was between man and wife. Pastor Gouge goes on rather movingly: "Though the man be as the head, yet is the woman as the heart, which is the most excellent part of the body next the head, far more excellent than any other member under the head, and almost equal to the head in many respects, and as necessary as the head."

So here's the first crack in the wall of sexual discrimination that I mentioned last time: even though puritan wives were the social and (alleged) intellectual inferiors of their husbands, the inferiority was slight, and women had a vital and necessary role to play in the marriage. Gouge repeatedly emphasized that husbands were to support their wives' authority over the children and servants in the family: "The husband by his help aiding his wife, addeth much authority unto her, and so causeth that she is not despised, nor lightly esteemed." "Let therefore husbands and wives herein assist one another . . . by their mutual help in governing [bring] much good to the family."

I'll finish by pointing out how necessary proofreading is in any century, even for so learned a man as William Gouge: "The wife by her help cause many things to be espied . . . which otherwise might never have been found out: for two eyes see more than one[.]" This is no doubt true for normally sighted people as well as for puritan cyclopes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Married and Puritan, Part 1

It seems funny to me now to think that when I started the Anne Bradstreet project, I didn't really want to get into gender issues. I knew that seventeenth-century puritans would have differing opinions than we moderns on the role of women, but I didn't want to focus on that. I just wanted to tell the puritan story through the lens of Anne Bradstreet. But, silly me; I chose Anne Bradstreet of all people, who offered a challenge to the gender roles of her day. Now, it was a muted challenge, but there it is, so I have to get into those pesky gender roles. Oh, well; it will make a better read if this ever becomes a book.

I've made a New Best Friend lately: William Gouge, a seventeenth-century preacher who wrote a long book called, Of Domesticall Duties. It's all about proper roles within the family: husband/wife, children/parents, masters/servants. It addresses issues like, what qualities make a good husband? How should a wife behave toward her husband? And so on. It was a blockbuster of the time; a sort of 1600s "Dr. Spock" book, I believe running through several editions. Mr. Gouge is nothing if not thorough; he goes point by point in laying out these relationships, and then takes on the "but what if" questions: But what if the husband is bad at business and the wife is really good at it -- can she step up and run the family business? He addresses hundreds of these "what if" scenarios.

Gouge is especially helpful in his counter-examples. For every instruction he gives a counter-example of how something should not be done. So for instance, after talking about how husbands should speak gently to their wives, he might say, the contrary example is that of many husbands, who rant and rave at their wives -- etc. And then historians like me can say, aha, the norm ("many husbands", says Gouge) was for husbands to yell at their wives.

So what is his advice in the marriage relationship? What advice would Anne have gotten as a young bride? By what standard was she expected to conduct herself? What messages would have been coming from the pulpit? Well, let's say off the bat that we are in the seventeenth century, and we must be in touch with that and not be shocked by that. Women are expected to obey their husbands, and husbands to rule over them. Oh, yes, I hear you moaning, and I am not listening, because if you want to read about female equality you are in the wrong century. You must leave at once.

For the questions we need to address is not ones like, "How unequal were women to men?" Answer: very unequal. "How much worse was it to be a woman in the seventeenth century than the 21st?" From the viewpoint of legal and political status: much worse. "What kinds of careers could a woman pursue?" None, mostly. But we know all that and we've known it for a long time. If we're going to hang out in the seventeenth century, we have to get to know the people and find out how it all really worked.

Wives must obey husbands: granted. But was there any nuance in that? Any exceptions? Was it all black and white -- "Obey me, ignorant corrupt woman!" or were there shades of grey? As it turns out, there were shades of grey, plenty of them. Oh, women were hindered by a myriad cultural and legal barriers, but they were not slaves or serfs. Domesticall Duties makes it clear that there were cracks in the wall of discrimination because real life demanded it, but also because the Bible would not have it any other way. I will talk about those cracks next time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

5 Groats a Day

I was planning to use this space to announce, triumphantly, that I was almost done with the England side of my research on my Anne Bradstreet project. Then I counted pages and rethought that.

My plan has been to research Anne's life on the other side of the Pond, sinking myself pretty thoroughly in the times and trials of Stuart England, and writing that story (at least in draft) before researching the New England side of things. In that way my process of writing will have some reflection of Anne's actual experience. She was an upper-class Englishwoman before she was ever a frontier housewife, and even though I know how her American story goes, I want to write as much as possible (and maybe it's not so possible) as if I don't.

I think I'm coming to an end of the scholarly books that I've decided to look into. I have four or five more on tap; some go very fast because they turn out to be too abstract for my purposes. Then there's a slew of magazine articles that I need to check out -- that will be a few afternoons at Northwestern University library. I also found a couple of books on everyday life in early modern England that are aimed at writers, including one entertainingly called, Shakespeare's London on 5 Groats a Day. And then there's the primary sources, such as Gouge's Domesticall Duties, all about the proper roles of household members. I also thought it would be good to read some Puritan sermons. So that turns out to be a lot.

I'm plowing through Gouge right now (he's on my iPod; thank you Kindle). The everyday-life books might be the most important at the moment; I think it might be best to stop and write about what I learn as I go along, to cement those details into my brain. Am I drowning myself in my own research? Am I falling into the Historians' Curse of over-researching everything and losing track of the story? Of course I don't think so, but what else whould I think?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Need a Bad Guy? Get a Puritan

I did a brief survey some time ago on historical fiction novels that feature puritans. The results were disappointing for someone who likes puritans: the majority of what's out there, it seems, is about witch trials. Well, it's a sexy topic, and a highly readable one. It hits a nerve in our society. There may have also been some novels featuring Anne Hutchinson, the woman who was put on trial for her non-orthodox beliefs and was thrown out of Massachusetts. But I was surprised that there did not seem to be any novels about early New England that did not trash the puritans.

I did pick up a romance called Wintercombe, set in the English Civil War -- and in England, not in America -- that I believe is on its way to featuring a love interest between a puritan woman and a royalist officer. They were on opposite sides of the fight, and are not getting along so well where I am in the story, so this should be pretty good. But in last night's read I was disappointed; the heroine, we learn, was abused by her horribly loveless puritan father, and has just decided that she is no puritan. This will clear the field for her attachment to the handsome officer . . . but I was hoping for a sympathetic portrayal of puritan life and spirituality, something in the way of how a nun's life was portrayed in the Dame Frevisse murder mysteries. No go.

I have often said to my students (jokingly, I thought) that I like the puritans because somebody has to. I guess I hit closer to the mark than I realized. Believe it or not, folks, they did not spend all of their time hassling heretics and burning witches. The faith they practiced, while often stern, was not barren of pleasure, comfort, or beauty.

The academic community "discovered" the puritans about eighty years ago, and a fair number of them wrote deeply and sensitively about them. That scholarly understanding apparently has made no impact at all on popular literature. It would be refreshing -- don't you think? -- to read a novel featuring puritans that showed them as something other than narrow and full of hate.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Writing Pains, Part I

This post moves away from the puritans and onto the process of writing. After all, the goal is to write about Anne Bradstreet as well as research her life, though (historian that I am) I could spend the rest of my sentient life researching. Research is fun.

Writing is work. I decided this week to give myself a simple task: describe the countryside of 17th-century southern Lincolnshire, where the story opens. I thought I'd start with a sunrise. Simple enough, eh? It's dark -- the sun comes up -- it reveals the countryside that I want to talk about. And since the countryside is marshy and flat, I decided on a nasty rainy day as a background.

So after another delightful hour of research (did you know that the average temperature in Lincolnshire at the height of summer is only 70? Or that polecats live in forests and not marshes?) I set about my task. And that's when I ran into trouble.

How many ways can you say, "It was dark out?"

It was dark out
Darkness covered the land
Black night ruled over all
The darkness was so thick that it . . . something something
Dark night still covered every stone and pool
It's night, d#*@it!
And on and on

OK, so there's a lot of ways to say, "It was dark out." But I want to say it in some way that is actually fun to read, does not sound like every other "It was dark out" that has been written since Gilgamesh was a pup, and doesn't sound like I'm working way too hard ("Velveteen darkness like a hand of death lay suffocatingly" blah blah).

And that's the problem with describing a sunrise. It is so common, and it is so commonly described in literature of all kinds. There are no surprises for the reader when you're on about a sunrise. Now, what the light reveals might be a surprise, but my lucky readers would be getting a swamp with a noisy moorhen, and that's about it. No body in the pool. No shifty-eyed stranger or preternaturally lovely girl.

I suppose that makes it a fairly decent writing exercise. And the purpose was to fix the setting in my own mind, not write the Great American Paragraph. But I found that it is much easier to write something like this blog than it is to write a believable, interesting sunrise.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Puritan Democrats?

When a group of pioneers writes down charters and laws for their new government, they inadvertently set down for all time their understanding of human nature, of how society works, and of their own values. The New England puritans did the same thing when they set up shop (governmentally speaking) in 1630. Though they were still technically under the authority of the King of England, they didn't have any royal authorities tagging along with them on the voyage -- no surprise there, given how often colonies failed -- so they could run things pretty much as they pleased.

The government of Massachusetts Bay is often described as a "theocracy" -- literally, "rule by God," but practically, rule by the ministers, or rule according to religious standards. This is because only male church members could vote and hold office, and ministers were among the most influential men in the colony. But if we take another look at this system and judge it by seventeenth-century standards, another picture begins to emerge. Far from some kind of religious dictatorship, the puritans set up what was likely the most representative government in the world at that time.

We have to deal with some of our biases first. First of all, the male-only voting thing: women could not vote or hold office anywhere. They could not vote in England or in any of the colonies. So we don't want to hold the puritans to standards that did not yet exist by criticizing them for not enfranchising their women. But the suffrage picture in this era was even bleaker than that. In England (or anywhere), not even all men could vote or hold office. These were privileges, not rights. You had to attain to a certain standing in society -- usually, you had to own a certain amount of land or have a certain income -- in order to participate politically in society. This made perfect sense in a society that believed that government should come from the Best Men -- the men of superior social standing, or at the very least the ones who had shown they had the smarts and talent to succeed financially. No one believed in democracy, except maybe a few crackpots.

The puritans chose a different standard by which to determine who could hold political power. Ever distrustful of human nature, ever aware that anyone with political power could be tempted to use it corruptly, they put their trust in the place where God dwelled -- the hearts and minds of His chosen people. Christians, in other words. Church members. Could they be corrupted? Sure. Would some be? Of course. Puritans had no illusions about the potential darkness of the human heart. But it was the best of the available choices.

So how many men in Massachusetts Bay were church members? In those early years, almost all of them. They came to escape an aggressive king and maybe coming judgment from God on England, and passion for God was high. We don't know for sure, but likely over 80% of men who were of age were church members and therefore eligible to vote and hold office. This was a far higher percentage than back home in England, or in Virginia, their colonial neighbor to the south.

And those early puritan leaders did not have to do this. The charter on which they based their government -- the charter they got from the king, that they had to have before they could leave -- gave the ruling committee authority to retain the power in their own hands. They chose not to do so. Instead, they opened it up to everyone.

It was a smart move, as well. They were a long way from royal authority, and settlers always are more cooperative with the local strongmen if they have a stake in the system. Even worldly Virginia, which was motivated by profits and not Protestantism, found that out.

The puritans also kept a political rein on their ministers. If you were an ordained minister, you could not hold political office. Back in England, these people had suffered at the hands of bishops with political power who used it against them. That was not going to happen in New England.

We don't want to go too far with this line of reasoning and say, "And from thence sprang American democracy!" It sprang not from thence. The story is a little more complicated than that. The puritans were not democrats. They were themselves: ardent 17th-century Christians, seeking to live out the Bible, and struggling to determine how to do that on the template of laws and charters.

For the above insights I am indebted to Edmund Morgan's fine book, The Puritan Dilemma. And thank you, Dr. Breen, for assigning it way back in that colonial history class. As a brief, well-written history of the puritan migration, there is no better.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How Pure Were the Puritans?

How pure did you have to be to be a puritan? Just how did they practice their faith?

I pointed out in my last post that "puritan" referred to their desire to "purify" the Anglican Church of all Catholic influence. It did not mean that they were ascetics or kill-joys. HL Mencken once defined puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." No, no, no, people. Puritans definitely took a more serious view on life, but they -- well, they had their jolly side, too.

Take partying. Puritans loved good food and good drink. They were not teetotalers; Prohibition came via crusades in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. These guys were not Victorians -- they were Elizabethans (plus a generation) and had no ethical problems with tipping a mug. They lived in a hard-drinking age, too; the bar bills for events like weddings and even ordinations is impressive. Now, they were firmly opposed to drunkenness; that would bring you to the attention of the authorities. But drinking itself? It would not have occurred to a puritan to not drink.

It would have also been almost impossible to abstain, as well. Beer was the standard drink for all meals, for all members of the family, since the water was often contaminated. Rum was more of a man's drink, but everyone drank beer, even at breakfast. Coffee and tea did not make their appearance until around the 1660s.

But it was the food that they really loved. Puritans were always cautious about enjoying the pleasures of the world -- they knew how easily they could go from enjoyment to an excess that pulled their heart's devotion from God. But it seems that they worried less about the dangers of really enjoying food. Some of the most voluminous diarists of the New England puritans devoted pages to describing feasts. They observed days of fasting and prayer, but they also involved days of giving thanks -- and like our Thanksgiving, those days involved lots of food.

Now, if we picture a group of puritans at a party, with a plate in one hand and a rum punch in the other, can you really imagine they would be solemn and stern? Of course not; such things don't go together. I would guess that a puritan party never got to "raucous." Standards of behavior still applied. But was it fun? Did they laugh and relax? Sure.

Puritans were also huge supporters of marriage. It was the medieval Catholics, not the Protestant puritans, who glorified celibacy. Like all Protestants of their century; puritans defined themselves away from Catholics sharply on this subject. Marriage was ordained by God, they said; that is clear in the very first chapters of the Bible. It was meant to provide children, but it was also for the comfort and support of both husband and wife. Married sex was not simply for procreation; it was one of God's good gifts to humanity. Now, I suspect that even in the bounds of marriage, there were certain boundaries that puritan couples observed. But in affectionate, loving marriages -- and there were many of them in New England -- likely the bed was not cold.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Those Puritanical Puritans

Yessirree, folks, it's time to talk about just what a "puritan" is. As you see above, Anne Bradstreet was a "puritan poet," but what does that mean? She was super-religious? She never drank and thought sex was icky?

Would she have been someone you'd want to go out to coffee with, or was she one of those people who would spend the whole time obliquely critiquing your every word?

Puritanism was a religious movement in seventeenth-century England, so a "puritan" was a variety of English Christian, like a Pentecostal would be today. Puritanism came about as a result of the rather unsatisfactory way in which the English Reformation unfolded.

King Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and the Catholic Church would not grant it, so he divorced his nation from the Catholic Church instead. And so England became a Protestant nation, following in the steps of other nations in northern Europe. Now: the Reformation in those other European nations -- in places like Germany and Switzerland -- was at its heart a deep evaluation what Christianity was really all about, and how it should be properly practiced. It resulted in churches that operated much differently than the Catholic church. But Henry VIII wan't that into church reform. He just wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, and have some sons -- and maybe get ahold of some of that prime church land, and make some reform-minded (but powerful) clergy happy. The church he founded -- the Anglican Church -- was very Catholic in its services and structure. And some folk in England thought that was a problem.

It was too Catholic. It was full of practices that had no basis in the Bible. The cry of the Reformation was "sola scriptura" -- Scripture alone. Many in England called for the "purification" of the English church of all Catholic influences, of all practices and doctrine that do not have their source in the Bible. In time, those who set themselves to that task were given the name "puritan." It was a derogatory name even then, given by their critics. Puritans called themselves "nonconformists."

So this was not a geezer's movement, not a movement of geriatric church-goers railing against modern life. This was a young man's movement, and a young woman's movement. It was full of zeal and passion. It was an educated person's movement. Certain universities were hotbeds of puritanism. You would send your son to college he might come home a white-hot puritan, and you'd be about as thrilled as more modern parents were when their college kids came home anarchists, or flower children, or Packers' fans.

None of this answers our question about Anne's drinking habits, but we'll get there. One last note, though: I intentionally do not capitalize the word, "puritan" for a reason: it was a movement, not a denomination or a statement of doctrine. Within its borders was a general agreement on certain important issues, but there was disagreement and variety in the ranks as well. Hopefully you're getting that from my clever use of the lower-case.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I take it all back

I take it all back.

Awhile ago, I posted something to the tune of, a historical novelist's job is so cool because, where a regular historian has to just shrug and say, "we don't know the details about this or that," a novelist can gleefully fill in the blanks about events or people in the past. And so -- here I am. Pen in hand, I prepare to fill in the blanks on Anne Bradstreet -- her marriage, perhaps, or her opinion about the other women around her. But then my inner historian starts screaming.


Historians record history -- sort of. We assemble whatever is left over from a life or a place or an era, and try to make a coherent whole out of it. We don't like to consider the possibility that much, too much, has been lost -- hidden, destroyed, or deemed not worth saving, Instead we build with what we have, hoping (but never sure) that it gives us a true picture. We make leaps to connect the dots, connect the spaces between firm evidence, but we try to leap cautiously. We back our extrapolations as well as we can -- with material evidence, logic, science, the cultural background -- so there is reason to suspect that This Is How It Was.

But we would never invent a girl's birthday. We'd never say her smallpox scars were on her cheeks and chin but not her forehead unless we knew. But if I'm going to write a novel about Anne, I have to do that, and it really bothers me -- or at least, it bothers my Inner Historian. And I have to go further. I have to (for instance) invent out of whole cloth her mother's personality, because we know almost nothing about her, except that she was a model wife and mother (yawn).

And I have to decide what her relationship with her father was. Likely he was one of her mentors in her craft as a poet, but Thomas Dudley was an irascible, difficult man as well. Was his relationship with his daughter a great exception in his life -- here he was nurturing? Or was their relationship more tumultuous? It's my call.

Folks, this is going to be hard for me. It's going to take grit to override my Inner Historian and fill in these blanks in ways that simply please, or that tell a better story. I feel like I'm not being true to History, or to Anne. But if I want to tell a story, instead of write a biography -- this is the task.


My work on Anne Bradstreet has slowed recently. I have been trying to get very familiar with Stuart England (or Early Modern England, as it is so poetically called), so I understand Anne's context. I've plowed through a couple of tomes, but wonder if I've learned anything useful to my purposes. My kids are home for the summer, and I'm teaching a couple of courses at a local university, which limits my time. My students don't realize that if they post a comment to this blog, I'll give them a few extra credit points.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

World's Longest Camping Trip

I was camping all last week at an especially rustic Boy Scout camp and inevitably I was thinking about Anne Bradstreet's experience in the New World.

We figure most American pioneers must have known a little something about farming and animals before they left home. But this group of Puritans were different. They were from the solid middle class, most of them -- professional people, not farmers. A few were even from the upper class, like the Lady Arbella, a daughter and sister of earls, who was on the boat there with Anne Bradstreet. Anne's father was the steward to one of those earls, which meant he was a high-level manager. He and his family lived in the earl's mansion and were taken care of by servants. Anne was educated with the earl's siblings and spent much of her time reading, and from there her poetry was born.

But could she boil water? I honestly don't know. Did she know how to cook when she got on board the one-way trip to the wilderness? The house cooks had done all of that back home. Did she know how to milk a cow? It seems unlikely, unless she and her mother and sisters took milking lessons from the earl's (no doubt) sniggering milk maids.

How did they build their houses, these middle-class businessmen and gentlemen? Historians say blithely, "So and so built a house on the river," but of course he didn't, if he was a lawyer from London. Sure, they must have brought along the appropriate sort of people to build the houses. Or did they go all "Pa Ingalls" and do it themselves? Maybe they did. Anne's father's house turned out rather drafty -- perhaps the sign of a beginner carpenter. He was accused of being overly fancy-shmancy when he added wainscoting to his rooms, but he claimed it was just to keep out the wind.

Well, my reading list for this project includes the diary of John Winthrop, longtime governor of Massachusetts colony, and I will probably tease out the answer from there. But I often imagine that moment on the beach, when these gently-raised men and women gazed up at the marches of trees (beautiful and pristine we'd call them, as we never had the need to farm where they stand) and dug down deep to that faith in God that had led them there in the first place.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blame it on the Record

I’ve been thinking recently about how annoying it is to write history. All of our understanding of the past is based on whatever happens to have survived on paper or fabric, or on the walls -- and it’s amazing what has not survived. We have to piece a lot together from little scraps and made a picture. “And that’s the fun of history!” we say bravely. But it’s also a really good way to get a situation completely wrong.

Let’s take Thomas Jefferson, who lived relatively recently (from the perspective of thousands of years of recorded history) and who was a literate man living in a literate culture. He wrote about his times, and people who knew him wrote about him. We should know everything there is to know about him, yes? Well, ole Tom was a little reticent on the subject of his love life. An oral tradition survived that Jefferson had taken a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, and had several children with her. Some of Jefferson’s political enemies made the same charges during elections.

For years his historians denied that he had kanoodled in Sally, and not simply because they wanted to protect their hero (though there was that). Jefferson had written on the subject of blacks and whites copulating, and his opinion was – don’t do it. It is against nature for the two races to mingle. It was disgusting. So historians have had to decide who to believe: Jefferson’s dispassionate written opinion, or a family story and some political mudslinging? Most chose the former.

You know the story: along comes DNA evidence, and we learn Sally’s children had a Jefferson father. We were led astray by the historical record. We got lucky this time; science was able to give a definitive answer (though theoretically Sally could have been kanoodling with someone else with a Jefferson Y chromosome, and not Tom, though that is less likely).

Most of the time, we’re not so lucky. We have to extrapolate. Maybe we know that John Smith from New Hampshire fought in the Civil War. Did he fight for the North or the South? Maybe we don’t have a record that tells us for sure. But since we know that the vast majority of New Hampshire men fought for the North, we make an educated guess (a syllogism, actually) and say that John Smith did, too. C’mon, what are the odds of a New Hampshire boy fighting for the South?

C’mon, what are the odds of Jefferson overcoming his disgust of black women and having a long-term affair with one? Welllll – when the black woman in question was the half-sister of Jefferson’s much loved, dead wife . . . “it’s complicated,” as we say over on Facebook. Maybe Sally (who was only one-quarter black and very light skinned) looked like Jefferson’s late wife. Maybe she talked like her. And the children of that union passed for white to such a degree that Jefferson apparently helped them leave slavery and to blend into white society. They married white and never told a soul the truth about themselves – not to their spouses, not to their children. It’s complicated. Isn’t that the human experience – complication? Maybe it’s complicated for our hypothetical New Hampshire soldier, too. We just don’t know.

The historical writer stands on that shore where solid evidence ends and inference begins. The things that drive professional historians crazy are truly the fun parts for the writer. I am writing about a seventeenth-century woman. We have a better understanding of her life than we do for almost all other seventeenth-century women yet I do not know her birthday for sure. I have committed myself to be true to the historical record and even (mostly) to the historical syllogisms of “the best guess.” But you see how much wiggle room that gives me, for surely it was complicated at times for Anne Bradstreet, too.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marrying Dad's Friend

If what I have been saying recently is true – that Anne Dudley and Simon Bradstreet married more for compatibility than love – than on one level, it really stinks. It’s hard for us to bear the idea of a woman – a girl, really – going into marriage with Dad’s Friend, so much her senior, without love.

So in our discomfort we leap at this phrase in Anne’s autobiography and conclude that maybe they really were in love:

But as I grew up to be about 14 or 15, I found my heart more carnal, and sitting loose from God, vanity and the follies of youth take hold of me. About 16, the Lord laid his hand upon me and smote me with the smallpox. . . After a short time I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country . . .

Aha, we say, a carnal heart at 15! And married young (and so soon after a life-threatening disease) at 16 or 17 – that has to mean she had the hots for Simon, and it was mutual, and the family rushed them to the altar to prevent the marriage from being consummated prematurely, if it had not been already.

Sure. Maybe. But, brothers and sisters, we just don’t know. “Carnal” did not necessarily mean sex back in Ye Olde Days. It meant any sin “of the flesh” – greed, living expensively, drunkenness, what have you. Even if the chief of her “follies of youth” was of a romantic nature, Simon may not have been in that picture. Maybe she was flirting with the stable boys, and the family married her off quick before her lustiness got her in trouble.

But that strikes me as such a boring way to tell the story. Another lust story. Does the world really need another lust story? It seems to me that the story can be told in a deeper and more textured way than that, and since the option is open – since we just don’t know the truth of the matter – I propose to tell it in a different way, and as I see fit.

But back to the subject of marrying before falling in love: even though economics and social rank played a large role, everyone knew that the marriage would likely not be successful if the couple was not attracted to each other. As they said back in the 17th century: "Those that marry where they do not affect [have affection], will affect where they do not marry." Given that their marriage became a close and loving one, Anne must have found Simon attractive and likely was quite willing to marry him. I think we can safely dispense with the unpleasant picture of Anne being dragged to the altar, forced to marry her father's friend.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friends But Not Lovers (At First)

Here’s part of a poem Anne wrote while missing her travelling husband:

. . . I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,

My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,

Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,

His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.

My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn,-

Return, return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;

In this dead time, alas, what can I more

Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?

ANNE! I’m blushing! Don’t you know that people who lived A Long Time Ago are supposed to be prudes?

Here’s what’s really interesting: it’s possible that Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon didn’t love each other at the time they married. I say this not because they were not well matched for each other, but for the opposite reason. Simon may have been too perfect a marriage candidate for Anne to have spontaneously fallen for.

In the seventeenth century, the going wisdom was that you did not marry for love, but rather for compatibility. Love would come later (one hoped).

Simon Bradstreet worked for Anne’s father Thomas Dudley, who was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Thomas Dudley trained Simon in the work, and then Simon took over as steward when the Dudleys moved. Like the Dudleys, Simon was a thorough-going puritan. He was also an orphan; likely the Dudleys became a sort of surrogate family. Perhaps he and Thomas Dudley had something of a father-son relationship.

Now I ask you, moms and dads – can you think of any better husband for your darling daughter? The guy has the same life philosophy as you do. He’s a proven bread-winner. You know him very well, since you trained him in his career (a career that he’s doing very well at) and you all lived in the same household for years.

And you’re telling me that Anne conveniently fell in love with Daddy’s perfect candidate? Love is blind. Its true course never has run straight. If she fell in love at seventeen, odds are it would be with the wrong guy – the traditionalist vicar’s son, or a Baptist, maybe – but not Simon. Or so says my gut. You know it happens all the time now, and let me tell you, it happened just as often Way Back When.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Love of Her Life

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
. . .

So says Anne Bradstreet to Simon after many years of marriage, a marriage that involved uprooting and resettlement in the wilderness, troubles and hardship in those first years, and eventually, a snug house sheltering their family of eight children.

What do we know about their relationship? Anne's several love poems to Simon tells us, resoundingly, that theirs was a very happy marriage. We know that Anne married quite young for her time and social status; she was only seventeen, as opposed to the usual marrying age for women of about 24. Simon was a decade older than she. She must have known him first as her father's friend, since he came into their household newly graduated from college (and she a child then) to serve as her father's assistant. After several years, Anne's family moved away, and it appears (from the historical record) that Anne and Simon had little contact with each other until they suddenly got married. In reality, they could have had regular contact with each other. They were both part of a highly interconnected religious subculture that (it appears to me) involved a lot of what we might call "networking" today. Her prominent family likely had regular visits from other puritans, and one can imagine an old family friend like Simon dropping by whenever his business took him through their town.

It is quite possible they were not in love with each other when they married. The going idea of that time was that one sought a spouse to whom one was well suited -- in temperament, in social standing, in economic benefit. You looked for someone whom you could learn to love in time. It rather reminds me of how we go about choosing a career these days. You need a job to pay the bills, yes? And it should be suited to your talents. And you don't want to do something you absolutely hate. So keep that in mind as you choose a career, we counsel our children. If you just have to be an actor -- sigh -- then have a day job that will pay the bills.

Parents of the seventeenth century would be counseling their children in a similar way. Choose someone suited to you whom you think you can learn to love. How did those marriages work out? Maybe about as well as our system. Many declarations of affectionate love between long-married spouses exist from that century. We don't have a wide enough window into that century to determine what percentage were happy, or not. Some were miserable. Some, like Anne and Simon, were happy. I suspect most were in between.

I can feel how unhappy you are about this idea of marrying someone you aren't in love with. Sure, it's possible that Anne and Simon were madly, madly! in love when they married. A popular way to interpret certain parts of Anne's autobiography is that they were so attracted to each other that the marriage was rushed, and that's why Anne married so young. I don't agree, and perhaps I'll talk about why I don't agree in another post later on.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anne's "Feminism," Part IV

Last time I talked about how Anne expressed some counter-cultural ideas in her poetry, ideas about gender equality that might have been perceived as dangerous, and was not rebuked for them by her authoritarian community. Further, it appears that the men in her life, all prominent community leaders, conspired without her knowledge to get these published. And we have to ask: how did she escape censure?

I haven't really settled on a firm answer for this for myself, but here are some possibilities.

Her high rank and social status protected her. As Thomas Dudley's daughter and Simon Bradstreet's wife, she was the sort that the authorities -- the rest of the authorities, that is -- would think twice about lowering the boom upon.

She wasn't actually doing anything so radical. Maybe she "got away with it" because there was nothing she was really getting away with. Maybe the people of her time did not give a collective, loud gasp when she said hey, folks, women have talent, too. Likely women chiding men was acceptable sport in that day, just as it is in our day; or as those under authority these days chide those who have authority. You've all read "Dilbert" so you know what I'm talking about; we do what the boss-man says, but talk privately about just how pointy-haired s/he can be at times, and that is perfectly acceptable. In the seventeenth century, the lines of authority were much tighter, and something as disrespectful as "Dilbert" would never fly. But whenever we paint an era only in black and white, we get into trouble. English women had an inferior legal and social status at this time, but they were not slaves; they made their will known, and they pushed back.

I think this is the best explanation. It jives nicely with one of my "first principles" of historical interpretation: always assume first that what people in the past are doing is NOT radical or ground-breaking, even if it looks like it at first glance. Often we just don't understand the time or the motivations, and (more important) we have a cultural bias of our own that makes us identify everybody we can as a trailblazer or a radical because we just love superheroes so much. Personally, I don't think Anne had a radical bone in her body. She wasn't made to be a rebel. She may have been spunky or feisty, but rebellious? Not the way I read her.

I think too we need to remember she was not writing to make a public statement. Her poems were for herself and for those in her circle. She didn't plan on The World reading her stuff. And further, let's keep in mind that Englishmen were familiar with the idea that some women were exceptionally talented, the supreme example there being Queen Elizabeth.

The really good question in all of this is, why did her menfolk take such pains to get her work published? This is the part of the story that I will go ahead and say is -- okay -- radical. Sort of. (Thomas Dudley in a Superman suit -- if you knew the man, you'd realize how funny that is.) They would not have done it to bring fame to Anne, never to "get her out there" and "let her talent be seen." Puritans would have regarded such motivations as worldly arrogance and vanity. Instead, they must have seen her poetry as having some role in their life's work, which was to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, and as much as possible, to build a truly godly society in New England.

Hey, I really like that. A woman writing classical-esque poetry based on the science and philosophy of the day, the sort of poetry that usually only men wrote -- and these puritans saw that as, in its own way, having a role in their grand experiment of building a truly godly society. More food for thought in that, eh? But I'm going to leave this particular line of discussion and move on to something else next time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anne's "Feminism," Part III

Last time, I talked about statements of gender equality that are sprinkled in Anne Bradstreet's poetry and ended with the (I hope) riveting question of: how was she disciplined for her unorthodox comments by the patriarchal community in which she lived?

Answer: She was not disciplined at all. Instead, she was roundly praised for her poetry by puritan ministers and community leaders.

Because it was so unusual for a woman to publish a book of poetry, her work was prefaced by about a dozen recommendations and poems by others, affirming that first of all, she did write them (all by herself), and second, that they're really good. The purpose was the same as today's back-cover praises: to get potential readers to reach into their wallets and buy her book. They were also there to overcome potential buyers' hesitations over buying a woman's work; remember, women were considered to be weaker in the head than men, so one would expect their poetry to be subpar. All of the glittering recommendations that prefaced Anne's work were written by men, and several of them were Massachusetts ministers -- a conservative bunch, one would think, if there ever was one.

And it gets better. Anne never sought publication of her work; the men in her life snuck her manuscripts to London and had them published. Or let me say: she and everyone around her swear she did not seek publication for her work. It is possible that she (and everyone else) was being careful about her reputation, wanting to make it clear that she was first and foremost a diligent wife and mother, and that she would never put herself forward in such a way . . . when in fact (goes the theory) she knew perfectly well that her poems were going to be published. All but one of the historians and literary critics that I've read disagree with that interpretation; they feel that the received story, that Anne's poems were published without her knowledge or consent, is probably the true one. Certainly, her mortified comments in "The Author to Her Book" (included in the second edition) have a ring of truth to them:

"Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Til snatched from thence by friends less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view . . . "

In any case, it appears we have to discard the image of rebel Anne, bravely flaunting the mores of her day in the very teeth of the puritan high guard in order to have her voice heard. Oh, she flaunted -- but it was a group effort; it was she and a surprising supporting cast. That cast included Thomas Dudley, her father, longtime community leader, and by many reports an acerbic and inflexible individual, whose one piece of surviving poetry (he too was a poet) railed against heretics. It included her husband, Simon Bradstreet, governor during the Salem witch trials years after Anne's death. (And I have to add, he strenuously opposed those trials.) But it did not include any of the radicals or rebels that occasionally hung around Massachusetts Bay.

This suggests some interesting points. But I'm trying to keep these posts short, so you can finish them over a cup of coffee, so I'll take up the tale from here next time.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Feminist" Anne, Part II

A couple of weeks ago I started talking about Anne Bradstreet's "feminism" -- the assertions in her poetry of female capability and female equality. I started off with the question, "Was she a feminist?" Let's keep looking at that question.

There is no doubt that Bradstreet disagreed with some popular perceptions of women. In her time, women were seen as spiritually equal to men, but not physically or intellectually equal. So just as most women were not as physically strong as most men, seventeenth-century people argued that most women were not as intellectually strong as most men. Their grey matter just couldn't hack politics, or mathematics, or strenuous study. Women would go mad if they worked their noggins too much. That belief hung on until the nineteenth century. This perception of women's inferiority upstairs was reinforced by cultural norms (what was considered proper women's work, for instance, was invariably light on thinking powers), and lack of education.

Let's hear Anne sing it out one more time: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits; A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong/ For such despite they cast on female wits. /If what I prove do well, it won't advance; /They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance."

Then there was this in her poem to Queen Elizabeth:
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?  
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone? 
 Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long,  
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.  
Let such as say our sex is void of reason  
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason. 
Anne is saying, dissing women is a slander, but remember boys, when that powerful woman was on the throne, dissing her was treason. And indeed, during Elizabeth's reign educated women made some minor steps forward, but under her successors (when Anne was living), they were sliding backwards again.

Then there's this dramatic step: Anne Bradstreet was the first woman poet that we know of (in the English language) who took on the subjects of science, history and religion, and who pursued these themes systematically and wrote long odes about them in the tradition of the time -- and then had her work put in print. No English woman had done this before. Women had written books and published poetry, but Anne's "Tenth Muse" was the first (as far as we can tell) that tackled such traditionally "male" sorts of topics.

So here's Anne, shaking her fist at male superiority. Her book of poems was being circulated and sold. She's living in Puritan Massachusetts, under a government and a people that believed that the men should lead and women should be good wives and mothers. So what happened to Anne? Did she get kicked out? Did they call her a witch? Did they put her in stocks with a sign over her head that said, "carping tongue?"

Next time we will pick up the story there.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Historian vs. Story-Teller

I listen to a podcast while I work out called "The Writing Show," which is immensely helpful. The moderator reads aloud first chapters that listeners send in -- first chapters of their own unpublished work -- and then she comments (glowingly) on what works and (gently) on what does not. The first of these today was the first chapter to a very creepy, disturbing story, with exceptional world-building. It was a fantasy thing, so we were truly entering a new world This writer knew what s/he was doing -- just enough detail to set you where you needed to be, to paint a picture and to engage your senses -- but not too much to overwhelm. This was in contrast to the next offering, which deluged us in too much detail all at once.

Now, I'm a historian by training. Devotion to picky detail is in the blood. And since I am setting my story in a lost place -- 17th-century England -- I am "world-building." I am currently immersing myself in books about Stuart England, and in fact will be paying cold cash soon to get borrowing privileges at Northwestern University so I can get at their tomes.

And I can see myself just never coming up for air and doing research til I die. Or, if I do at last set pen to paper, I can easily see myself deluging my readers with everything I know about Stuart England. But instead, I have to tell a story. My subject is a true event, and I am determined to make it as historically accurate as I can. But the story has to take precedence to the masses of information that I'm storing up. When I write, I will have to have the whole scene accurately displayed in my imagination, and give to the reader just enough to get his bearings, paint the picture, engage the senses -- and that's it, let's get on with the story.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I have the capability of striking that balance.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Miss Colonial America, or Inner Beauty Only?

I have the fun job of deciding what Anne Bradstreet looked like. We have no likenesses of her. What do you think -- should I make her a beauty, or not -- and if not, what should characterize her appearance?

The only immediate family member of whom a portrait has survived is her father, Thomas Dudley, pictured here. He was a rigid and doctrinaire man, but that doesn't come out in this picture -- what do you think?

Nice hair on this fellow, hmm? It's hard to tell, but I think he's wearing it long and past his shoulders. Wigs for men had not come into fashion yet, so this was the real thing. I think Anne will definitely get his thick hair.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Feminist" Anne Bradstreet

This blog is called “Carping Tongues”, in recognition of one of Anne Bradstreet’s most memorable lines, quoted at the top of this blog:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits . . .

Anne got flak from her community for pursuing poetry, both because of the it might be taking that should be spent in her household duties, and in her presumption of pursuing a “male” calling.

If what I do prove well, it won't advance,

They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance.

Occasionally in her poetry, she “called out” her detractors in heart-warming defiance to the male dominance of her time. She also chose topics that frequently had a pro-female spin to them. So was Anne a seventeenth-century feminist? Let’s explore that idea.

First off, you must understand that historians get very cranky over expressions like “seventeenth-century feminist.” Feminism was a 20th-century movement, and it is unfair (and unprofessional) to project backwards our own advances and demand to know why, for instance, George Washington didn’t come out against driving while drunk. And it tempts us to divide the history of the world into two categories: Good and Bad. So women’s history might run something like this: “Women were always repressed and not allowed to vote or own property. Then the Civil Rights movement happened and everything got to be the way it was supposed to be from the start. Now women are free. The end.” There is truth in this statement, but it is such a vast oversimplification and hugely unhistorical proposition, that – well, my head is exploding, can you tell?

Let’s start over. In Europe and America, women have gotten the shorter end of the stick in many areas: education, civil rights, professional opportunities, health care, and others, many others. But if you imagine the women of 400 years ago as ignorant drudges or caged canaries – be careful. Women’s history has much more texture to it than that. Remember that the male-dominated society of 16th century England came to accept a powerful female leader in Queen Elizabeth.

Or here’s another example, a more humble one from our own history in which Puritan women used their influence to get their way after legal means failed. As New England towns grew, they would divide – or rather, those who lived furthest from the church (one church per town in that time and place) would want to divide. These would petition the selectmen to form their own church and town. The selectmen would inevitably say, “No, no, you can’t afford to support a church and we can’t afford to let you go.” On at least one occasion, the womenfolk of those families who wanted to split off took matters in their own hands, requisitioned the building supplies for the meeting house, and began the work themselves. Guess what? The selectmen reconsidered, and they got their town.

Why did the women especially want to split off? Probably because they were tired of missing church. Church might be miles off, and to walk that far carrying an infant while Dad carried the toddler, or the two of them on horseback somehow balancing the kids between them, or even everybody in a cart or wagon in January – we had enough trouble remembering to restock the wipes in the diaper bag when we went out with the little ones. It’s not like Puritan families were less busy and distracted. So usually Mom stayed home and missed church. And then one day when she was sewing with her friends: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a church right here . . . " And then they started working on the husbands.

Women’s history is often a grim, sad story, but it is not monochromatic. A couple of excellent books on the subject of women in early America are Good Wives by Laura Thatcher Ulrich and Founding Mothers & Fathers by Mary Beth Norton. We’ll get back to “feminist” Anne next time.