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.