Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.