The past is an unlit country

At the height of the recent storms, early one evening, our electricity went off, leaving us in the dark and cold for three hours. This was enough time to panic about finding suitable torches, candles, and (thanks to my mother’s foresight and her memories of a post-war childhood and a 1970s winter of discontent) a hurricane lamp. Enough time to light them all (where do lighters, matches, and batteries hide in the dark?) and to realise that landlines don’t work in power-cuts and mobile phones choose that precisely that moment to run out of charge or credit. What then? Can’t work, play, or read. My son struck lucky with a charged iPad on which he played games. Well, what would any self-respecting historian do but attempt a micro-historical re-enactment of the dark and its insights into life in the past?[1]





First off, yes, there is no doubt that candlelight is beautiful and mesmerising. You only have to see Amanda Vickery’s reconstruction of a Regency ball, or the Tudor Farm at Christmas, or Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre to see its charm. Yet candles were costly and unlikely to be used in large quantities for ordinary people on ordinary days. So surely many people’s experience of darkness was much more intense than these gorgeous evocations; didn’t many of them travel the night-time with only small flickers of light to accompany them? People do seem to have pottered about in the night time. Most obviously, perhaps, children slept in rooms with their carers –no doubt to facilitate feeding them, comforting them, or talking to them in the dark hours without having to wander far.

What about that much longer ‘night’ itself? My encounter with the ‘early’ advent of darkness reminded me of Roger Ekirch’s ground-breaking findings in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a marvellous history of night-time activities and patterns of behaviour. His findings on changing patterns of sleep were so startling they even made the press. Essentially he proposes that in the pre-industrial world sleep was broken up into two blocks of about four hours. So when you don’t get your full eight hours sleep, don’t be surprised or worried – you are probably following your ‘natural’ sleeping pattern. Ekirch argues that industrialisation, efficiency and clock-watching eradicated this segmented form of sleep (leaving many of us as ‘insomniacs’). For more on sleep see the project Sleep Cultures.

Those of us lucky enough to read accounts of everyday lives in the past find much illumination in Ekirch’s findings about the dark. I begin to wonder how far the dark was shaped by class and gender. Men were perhaps least hampered by darkness when travelling abroad, although it remained a dangerous time for everyone in the night as fears of robbery and banditry reveal. Certainly servants and women seem to have patrolled darkened rooms and corridors more frequently at home. I recall the accounts in matrimonial litigation of times when household members saw and heard what they weren’t intended to see or hear. Indeed being kept in the dark was no distant metaphor where secrets were concerned in the pre-electric age. Servants on their duties or in precious ‘spare’ time often discovered the adulterous affairs of their employers.

It wasn’t only servants who took advantage of the dark evenings. In January 1788 the vicar of Alnham in Northumberland left home for a couple of days. The young husbandman and plasterer who were doing building work on his house were suspicious about his wife Eleanor. They went to the highest part of the Smiths’ garden and looked in through the kitchen chamber which held the press-bed in which the couple slept. They saw Eleanor reading by the firelight and chatting with the person in the bed. She undressed to her shift and go into bed. The dark and the distance stopped the men’s spying, so unable to find a ladder they got a hand barrow and stood it up at the window. Each climbed in turn onto the barrow (a health and safety nightmare there, surely) and peeped in to see Eleanor lying in bed with a fellow husbandman.

In fact, servants and lower classes have been snootily written-off by historians for their propensity to pop-up with incriminating evidence about their masters and mistresses. Yet when I look again at their testimony and accounts, in the context of their darkened environments, I notice with fresh eyes their use of all their senses as they made their rounds. Hearing sighs and shuffles, encountering by touch surprisingly closed doors, and discern odd goings on in the dimmest of dim lights. Rather than household members in the contempt in which some historians have held them, I admire their quiet use of a darkened house to assert their own control over its occupants.

Mary Collier certainly saw the dark and its labours as profoundly gendered, in her 1739 poem defending women’s employment against the slurs of Stephen Duck in his The Thresher’s Labours. Resentful descriptions of the dark litter her poem.  After women’s long labours in the field for example, she tells her reader:

We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;

She emphasises the never-ending nature of women’s labours by the repeated references to the dark. On days of washing and charring for others, Mary continues, women’s paid labours also necessitated them working through the night. After an interminable day washing for a mistress:

NOW Night comes on, from whence you have Relief,
But that, alas ! does but increase our Grief ;
With heavy Hearts we often view the Sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our Work is done ;
For either in the Morning, or at Night,
We piece the Summer’s Day with Candle-light.
Tho’ we all Day with Care our Work attend,
Such is our Fate, we know not when ‘twill end :

Look at all those allusions to time passing and night as burdening women still further. Again, after cleaning pewter, or making ale for the employer:

Once more our Mistress sends to let us know
She wants our Help, because the Beer runs low :
Then in much haste for Brewing we prepare,
The Vessels clean, and scald with greatest Care ;
Often at Midnight, from our Bed we rise
At other Times, ev’n that will not suffice ;
Our Work at Ev’ning oft we do begin,
And ‘ere we’ve done, the Night comes on again.
Water we pump, the Copper we must fill,
Or tend the Fire ; for if we e’er stand ſtill,
Like you, when threshing, we a Watch must keep,
Our Wort Boils over if we dare to sleep

It is SO striking that the natural rhythms of day and night, light and dark, shape Mary’s view of women’s work.

Finally, my unlit hours reminded me of people’s encounters in the dark which unsettled and frightened them, and made them think of ghosts, banshees and devils. Catherine Ettrick junior, for example, told the clerk of Durham Consistory Court in the 1760s that when her mother left the marital bedchamber (to escape her husband’s violence), the servants thought they’d seen a ghost. Her brother had his very own banshee when he grew up. Thomas Bewick, for instance, recounts in his memoir how he was scared of the dark when he was growing up in the 1760s.[2]

Among the worst [of his ‘prejudices], was that of a belief in ghosts, boggles, apparitions, &c. These wrought powerfully upon the fears of the great bulk of the people at that time, and, with many, these fears are not rooted out even at this day. The stories so circumstantially told respecting these phantoms and supernatural things, I listened to with the dread they inspired, and it took many an effort, and I suffered much, before it could be removed. What helped me greatly to conquer fears of that kind was my … father … would not allow me to plead fear as any excuse, when he had to send me an errand at night ; and, perhaps, my being frequently alone in the dark might have the effect of enabling me greatly to rise superior to such weakness.

Nevertheless Thomas went on to recall his horrors when as a teenager he set off home in the dark across the fell, after playing cards with his friends. Suddenly:

to my utter amazement, I saw the devil ! It was a clear moonlight night ; I could not be mistaken his horns his great white, goggle eyes, and teeth, and tail his whole person stood fairly before me ! As I gazed, I thought the hair lifted the hat on my head. He stood, and I stood, for some time ; and, I believe, if he had then come up to me, I must have dropped down. … I slipped off my clogs, made a start in a bending direction, and at full speed ran home. He pursued me nearly to the door, but I beat him in the race. I had always understood that any person who had seen a ghost, or evil spirit, would faint on coming into a house with a fire in it. I feared this, but I fainted none ! and when my father asked me what was the matter, I told him I had seen the devil. He, perhaps without thinking, gave me a slap on the head.

That slap on the head amuses me – a father lashing out instinctively at the fright his son got. Don’t worry, his father then went on to find out who it was that had impersonated the devil, tracked him down in Corbridge and gave him a sound beating for terrifying his son!

No wonder, as Sasha Handley, that excellent historian of ghosts, darkness and sleep, reminds us, people sought bedfellows to make the dark less isolating and frightening, to make it more amenable and companionable by sharing the ill-perceived shadows, the too quiet moments which no doubt they filled with chat, as well as snores.

This sociability began to appeal to me as I sat on the bed surrounded by candles and torches and a radio with batteries that I rediscovered, and listened to my son tell me about his day at school once he decided to chat rather than play Modern Combat. Then the lights came back on and my re-enactment was complete. By God I was pleased! Respect to our forbearers.



[1] Seriously, for an eye-opening account of historical reconstruction and its value, have a look at Pamela Smith’s ‘Making Things. Techniques and books in early modern Europe’ in Paula Findlen (ed), Early Modern Things. Objects and their Histories 1500-1800 (2013)

Embodying marital behaviour in the eighteenth century

This post is an experiment because it is a paper I wrote in 2003 just after my book on marriage was published. I came across it today while searching for useful things for a chapter I’m writing on marriage conflict that did not come before the courts. I’ve decided to put this paper on my blog. It is too long for a post and not written as a post – hence it is in a formal tone. Still, readers, you might find it interesting to scan as there are some nice bits of evidence in there and – unusually – some examples of wives’ violence towards husbands.

Historians of marriage, body, sexuality will note that it is a wee bit out of date as I’ve not updated the references. For me it is a bit disheartening. I thought my current interest on the body and embodiment was fresh. Seems like I’ve been body-conscious for some time already. Damn, I can even fool myself!

The body was a way to express hate as well as love in marriage in eighteenth-century England. Late in 1739, William Knowles, a weaver in CountyDurham, searched for his wife after she had run away during a violent quarrel. On failing to find her, ‘he damned her body and soul to eternity’ and swore he would kill her when he found her.[1] The body held such symbolic status because it was integral to marriage, as conveyed by the husband’s promise in the wedding ceremony: ‘with my body I thee worship’.[2] In cases of marital violence, spouses’ bodies took centre stage both as the objects and weapons of cruelty. Descriptions of savage and disrespectful acts upon a spouse’s body were thus graphic ways to express the negative experience of marriage and to criticise the other spouse’s behaviour. For the historian, these images are also fascinating because they reflect changing notions of gendered violence which were influenced by shifting ideas about gender difference.

Historians of the body show that over the course of the long eighteenth century men were increasingly viewed as the naturally aggressive sex and thus in need of reformation and control, whereas women, traditionally seen as irrational and potentially sexually uncontrollable, were recast as victims in need of protection from men.[3] Ideas about sexual difference helped shape dominant notions of masculinity and femininity. Historians of gender have traced the evolution of the ideal eighteenth-century man who followed more genteel pursuits than his early modern predecessor, was socially at ease with women, less inclined to drink himself senseless and more inclined towards self-restraint.[4] His ideal female counterpart was naturally physically weak, but spiritually and morally strong, an upholder of virtue, an agent of moral and social change and an example to her menfolk.[5] As ideas about gender difference evolved, those about men’s and women’s capacity for violence seem to have been modified.

Martin Wiener has traced this through popular publications, newspaper reports and accounts of the trials of notorious spouse and lover murderers to show that ‘cultural nightmares’ of ‘intimate violence’ changed entirely from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.[6] In other words, until the mid-seventeenth century, while men were always the sex most likely to murder, popular imagination perceived women to be the most dangerous sex.[7] Thereafter anxieties about the wife-killer increased, though the image of the frightening wife who killed her husband was not surpassed in the public mind until the second half of the eighteenth century. After this, as we have seen, women were more likely to be defined as victims and even those who were prosecuted for the murder of their husbands were portrayed with some sympathy, often as seduced and fallen women who turned on their oppressors. By the early nineteenth century, male murderers of their lovers and wives overshadowed female murderers in the popular imagination.[8]

This paper addresses two issues that are raised by these fascinating accounts of cultural transition in gender difference. First is to ask how far these images were used by the wider population. This paper provides evidence that the use of gendered images of violence was not restricted to the realm of fiction, but was employed by men and women themselves.

The second issue arises from studies of masculinity. Recent research shows that eighteenth-century men were advised and trained to use a range of techniques to avoid succumbing to their dangerous inclinations towards physical violence, primarily self-control, superior reason and forgiveness; however Elizabeth Foyster is still unusual in exploring how this affected eighteenth-century men’s role in marriage.[9] In most cases it is historians of the Victorian era who study the impact of masculinity on men’s behaviour as husbands. They have examined the ways in which the concept of domesticity ‘promoted the disciplining of men’ from the 1840s and introduced social and cultural condemnation of husbands’ treatment of their wives.[10] One vehicle for this, as Martin Wiener shows, was publicised cases of wife-murder which were held up to show the dangers of husbandly power in the second half of the nineteenth century. This paper suggests that this was already developing in the second half of the eighteenth century, when men’s role as husbands came under increasing scrutiny, primarily through descriptions of their treatment of their wives’ bodies.[11]

I am going to use cases of marital violence that came before the church courts in the north of England between 1660 and 1800 to show that representations of wives’ and husbands’ bodies shared the same basic ideas about the sexes’ propensity for violence as are evident in popular literature.[12] Spouses’ representations of gendered violence were not simply the result of institutional requirements and the legal profession. I have shown elsewhere that the records generated by church court cases were collaboratively produced by litigants and court officials. Indeed informal documents, such as correspondence, reveal that litigants shaped both the process of a case and the information used in the formal record.[13] Moreover the use of the body by individuals as a crucial way both to express marital distress and condemn a partner was not restricted to public records. The Reverend Percival Stockdale, vicar of Lesbury and Long Houghton, wrote to his attorney in 1786 after the return of his wife from whom he had separated some years previously, explaining:

‘the powers of my stomach have been almost destroyed; I have been long afflicted with indigestion and dreadful pains, in that region. This malady was occasioned by my wife’s infamous invasion of me; by my foolishly suffering her to continue ten weeks in this house, and by the want of sleep, loss of appetite, and agony of mind which during that time, I suffered’.[14]

Elizabeth Shackleton catalogued her husband’s disgusting bodily habits when drunk in her diary in order to emphasize his utterly unacceptable behaviour as a husband.[15]

The use of the body and physical experience as a way to express a state of marriage and emotion and to criticise or judge a spouse is also not surprising, given that word portraits of the body were common. For example, people’s appearance and bodies were routinely described in very detailed ways in newspaper advertisements that sought individuals who had absconded, such as criminals, militia men, apprentices, servants, deserting husbands and eloped wives. In order to improve the chances of finding the runaways, highly intimate verbal portrayals of the body were employed. Moreover, visual prints that represented character, morals, politics, social status and intelligence through images of bodies were increasingly available through the eighteenth century.[16]

Women’s separation cases on the grounds of cruelty placed much emphasis on women’s bodily sufferings. In many of the cruelty separations husbands used their own bodies as weapons. John Smith, an attorney, came to his wife in bed and ‘set his knees on her breast, and by pressing on her with his knees, and resting his body on her mouth, with both his hands fastened in her hair, endeavoured to stifle her’.[17] Even the weapons they used were readily to hand implements that simply increased the painful impact of their own fists and feet. Men’s verbal threats to their wives were also gorily steeped in the body. In 1721, Elizabeth Laughton’s husband told her that ‘he thirsted for Blood’. Another husband told his wife that sooner or later he would have ‘his fist in her Heart’s Blood’.[18] The body also took symbolic form in marital cruelty. One theme was that wives’ mouths were stopped up. In 1717 in the town street of Walkerfield, Staindrop, County Durham, Jonathan Bowes picked up ‘a turd and put itt into her Mouth saying Dam thee Bitch Ile use thee as I would doe the Devil’.[19]

Women’s clothes also seem to have been viewed as extensions of their body and husbands were described tearing the clothes off their wives’ backs. Samuel Finch denied trying to fling his wife on the fire, but admitted that on 29 December 1778, during a quarrel about her ‘intolerable Pride’, he pulled ‘off her Cap and false Curls which were improper for one of her age and of her Rank and Situation in Life and did threaten or declare that he would burn the same’.[20] Wives’ clothes stood in for them in their absence. Ann Watson ran away from her husband when he attacked her in 1800 and so he tore as many of her clothes as came his way.[21]

The explicit use of the body to express marital misery was due in part to the nature of requirements of proof in cruelty separation cases. The violence committed on women was described in ways that illustrated its debilitating effect on their bodies, such as lameness, and temporary blindness, since cruelty had to be shown to prevent them from going about their normal daily business.[22] The visible signs of bruises, swellings and blood had a two-fold function.[23] Firstly, to be ‘all over blood’, as Ursula Knowles was in 1740, was to show the excessive savagery that she endured from her husband.[24] Deponents also described the extent of bodily damage in their own statements in order to define the extremity of violence.[25] Secondly, bruises and blood also served as signs of the women’s sufferings to be displayed to neighbours, family and friends in the absence of witnesses. For example Thomas Wright in 1745 beat his wife at night to avoid witnesses, so she showed her bruises to neighbours as soon as she conveniently could.[26] [27]

Beaten wives’ vivid descriptions of bodily harm in their separation cases were not just in response to legal formulae, for some wives had an active role in the way that evidence was phrased and presented in court.[28] A surviving letter from Elizabeth Harding to her proctor, in 1742, shows that she used her bodily sufferings to powerfully emphasise the ferocity of the acts of cruelty that she experienced and thereby condemn her husband’s actions.  Her list describing how her husband pursued her through the house with a bell knife, abused her with his hands, threw fire shovels of hot coals into her bed at her and threatened to dash her brains out, culminated with: ‘maney a tim I have ben nothen but blod and brouess (bruises)’. Significantly, this letter provided the opening information for her separation case that followed in Durham consistory court.[29]

The images of bodily violence in cruelty separation cases changed over the course of the period 1660 to 1800. Up to the second half of the eighteenth century, husbands’ bodies were also the objects of physical hostility. This usually arose in matrimonial litigation when husbands defended themselves against allegations of cruelty by counter-accusing their wives of marital violence. There is no doubt that this was a problematic complaint for men to make throughout the period, for fear of undermining their manhood.[30] Indeed some of the men who did so claimed that they disguised the results of their wives’ violence by staying out of the public eye. Charles Allenson covered up his wife’s scratches with patches in the 1670s and took to his bed for ten days.[31] One of the latest cases was in 1765 when a husband claimed his wife had struck him with a poker and a brush, which caused swellings and bruises and meant that he ‘was ashamed to go to Church’.[32]

hen peckt husband

Though the numbers of wives who were accused of such violence were far smaller than the numbers of their male counterparts, it is clear that men were able to claim that their wives were belligerent up to the second half of the eighteenth century, when it was still accepted that the female sex were naturally combative.[33] Interestingly, husbands did not use these accusations in a straightforward fashion to explain that it provoked them into reasonable chastisement. Indeed most accused husbands denied the allegations of cruelty or side-stepped them.[34] Using images of their own bodily indignities, however, gave husbands scope to build a picture of an unhappy marriage that was their wives’ fault rather than their own and signified the disorder at the centre of their household.[35]

The descriptions of female marital violence in these cases was always far less systematic and brutal than equivalent male violence. In fact, they echo portrayals of the scold, a caricature that was prevalent when female violence was considered a natural trait. For example, Poor Robin’s True Character of a Scold Or the Shrews Looking-glass (1678) explained that the scold’s tongue was not her only weapon ‘for she has Hands to Clap with, and Nails to Scratch with, and Teeth to Bite with’.[36] Of course the difference in types of violence also reflected the strength differential between the sexes, so that women’s physical aggression was often directed at damaging their husband’s status and dignity rather than their body. Thus counter accusations described wives spitting at and biting their husbands to convey contempt. Again, since clothing was intimately bound up with the body it was therefore subject to hostility. In 1697, John Pighells, a Yorkshire rector, claimed that his wife dragged his wig and band off him. One of John’s witnesses claimed that Elizabeth Pighells also hid her husband’s gowns and cassocks so that he was forced to perform divine service in his night gown.[37]

Violent wives were accused of attacking their husbands when they were ill or asleep, partly to counteract men’s greater strength as well as to highlight that these women abused their wifely role as carers.[38] James Currie a curate in Carlisle counter accused his wife of cruelty in the late 1720s by describing how ‘when in Bed with him … when He … has earnestly desired peace and quiet that He might enjoy his natural rest, She wou’d then disturb him the more, and whensoever She found him inclined or disposed to Sleep, She wou’d suddenly grasp her Hands and arms round his neck and throat and setting her Knees to his back pull with such violence as if she had designed to strangle or choak [sic] or else to break the Back of [him]’. On another two occasions she tried to hit him with a large poker and hurled two brass candlesticks with burning candles at him when he was in bed. Jane Currie did not restrict her violence to when her husband was weakened by sleep or illness.[39] According to James, she also punched him in the eye so that it bled and a deponent remembered seeing Jane mounted on a horse call James a ‘Scotch Curry-comb’ and kick him in the face when he tried to mend her pillion.[40]

There are far fewer examples of men’s counter accusations that wives were violent to be found from the second half of the eighteenth century. This paralleled the cultural shift that viewed women as naturally passive and gentle, so that by this time women’s violence was no longer a viable claim for husbands to make in matrimonial litigation. The references to wives’ violence in the later part of the eighteenth century are also different in nature. Earlier husbands described their wives’ violence as a conscious attempt to physically damage their bodies and their status. Later cases described a wife’s violence as a response to a specific situation, such as being ordered to leave the house because of alleged adultery or occasionally in retaliation to being beaten.[41] Sir Cuthbert Shafto of Northumberland informed York Dean and Chapter Court that his wife, Dame Mary, had come to his home on 22 May 1797 during a period of separation and struck him on his face, kicked him on his ‘private parts’ and almost strangled him with his neck-cloth. This statement was, however, to introduce a long-winded explanation about why he then left Barrington Hall to live in Edinburgh. Mary claimed that he had done this in order to escape the jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter in which she had initiated a suit for separation on the grounds of adultery and cruelty in November 1797.[42]

It is debatable whether the broad range of behavioural traits seen as belonging to women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries may have allowed them a wider scope for self-representation. My impression is that wives were able to portray themselves as more active in earlier cases.[43] What is clear, however, is that when women were seen as ‘naturally’ the gentler sex, their self-representations and their deponents’ supporting statements emphasised their passivity in response to their husbands. Margaret Lees described herself as of ‘mild and peaceable temper’ in 1803. Her servant Mary Ball explained that when Mr Lees quarrelled with Margaret her only response was to say ‘pray God in Heaven turn your Heart’.[44]

Nonetheless, women gained a broader range of ways to criticise their husbands’ tyrannical behaviour in the second half of the eighteenth century, because changing ideas about women’s capacity for violence were matched by those envisaging men as inclined towards violence.[45] The ensuing drive for the reform of male manners led to reassessments of what constituted violent acts. Elizabeth Foyster has shown that polite codes of behaviour empowered wives, providing them with the means to redefine aspects of male behaviour as violent, particularly confinement and verbal abuse.[46] The concern that men’s natural aggression needed to be controlled also encouraged more categories of male conduct to be labelled as violent.[47] Thus, in the second half of the eighteenth century, women increasingly brought cruelty separation cases in which the degree of violence was less severe and where other male acts of aggression were included, which though still centred on women’s bodies, were far less extreme and debilitating than in earlier cases of wife-beating.[48] In 1765 Jane Allison categorised as an act of cruelty her husband’s insistence that she get out of bed and stand in a cold passage for half an hour without any clothes at 11 o’clock at night.[49] In the same year Catherine Ettrick alleged that William Ettrick refused to treat her with due care when she was pregnant and denied her immediate access to a midwife when she went into labour.[50] [51]

In the second half of the eighteenth century, beaten wives also turned their husbands’ demands for utter submission into weapons against them. Catherine Ettrick pointed out that after returning from the East Indies her husband ‘cursed and Damned [her] … and insisted Wives should and ought to be nothing but Vassalls and Slaves to their Husbands’. She finally left him without announcing her intention, ‘knowing what his Sentiments were as to the power a Husband has over his Wife she having heard him Argue and declare that a Husband had a right to Lock up and confine a Wife to Live upon Bread and Water’. She also reported his view that ‘every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife’.[52] Catherine assumed that everyone would agree that her husband’s opinions about his rights over her body were outrageous and unacceptable. She was probably right. Although witnesses tended to condemn husbands’ ‘anger and passion’ when ill-treating their wives throughout the period, by the second half of the century, witnesses were far more explicit and unequivocal in denouncing husbands’ tyrannical demands.[53] Men were simply not able to claim that they could use their wives’ bodies as they wished by the later eighteenth century.

The cruelty separation suits reveal that men’s rights to moderately correct their wives had been replaced by an insistence on male self-control in the face of wifely provocation.[54] Most men seem to have aspired or paid lip-service to the idea that self-control and reason were the most appropriate behaviour for men and used this in their self-defence.[55] They did not wish to risk their manhood by admitting to wife-beating, now the antithesis of manliness. Nonetheless, competing masculinities existed, rooted in fraternal rather than patriarchal standards and centring on the pleasures of drinking and fighting. The church court records illustrate that these alternative sub-masculinities won over some married men.[56] Such men rejected polite or genteel behaviour.[57] For example, at the turn of the eighteenth century, James Lees clearly did not aspire to the solid respectability and domesticity that his position as a wealthy cotton manufacturer of Manchester might suggest.[58] He stayed out all night at bawdy houses; he retired to bed with a young single woman on one occasion and on several others met married women who were prepared to sell sex in order to supplement their income.[59] He made no attempt to disguise this from his wife. The Lees’ servant from July 1798 to September 1800 recalled that James once returned at 4am in the morning ‘in liquour’ and since he claimed that he was ill, his wife Margaret got out of bed to go to him. When she asked him: ‘where have you been till this time of Morning?’ he damned her and replied that he had been whoring and drinking.[60]

The battered wives’ of such men focused their case on the men’s drunkenness and adultery. In 1800 Margaret Lees’ libel stressed her husband’s ‘abandoned’ and ‘lewd and debauched life and character’. Her article alleging that James Lees took the married Ann Dimello to a house of ill fame for sex in 1797 no doubt stirred the judge’s patriotic sensibilities as well as emphasising her husband’s unmanliness, since it stressed that James selected the days to meet Ann according to when her husband William Dimello was out with the Manchester volunteers (a civil defence force, raised to defend Britain during the war with Napoleonic France).[61] James had not just betrayed his wife; he also failed the tests of middle-class manhood and his patriotic duty.[62]

This paper suggests that eighteenth-century men were coming to find that their actions as husbands were open to criticism and scrutiny by their wives, families, dependents, neighbours and friends in the eighteenth-century, before the ‘high noon’ of Victorian domesticity.[63] The body seems to have served as a way to express this criticism. By focusing on the corporeal evidence of damage to women’s bodies, servants, neighbours and families were able to voice criticism of its perpetrator. Alice Barber, a servant to James and Margaret Lees in the last years of the eighteenth century, recalled entering the parlour after hearing a loud noise and finding a quantity of hair on the floor. She asked ‘what’s to do what’s all this hair upon the floor’. Mr Lees replied that his wife had pulled it from his head, but Alice said ‘no Sir it is not your hair’ and, when he ordered her out of the parlour, called to her mistress ‘telling her that if he offer’d to use her ill again she was to ring the Bell and she would come to her assistance’.[64]

What is more, this was also reinforced in the public domain where, for example, accounts of marital violence were on offer to the public through publications of cruelty separations.[65] The adverts publicising them in provincial newspapers explicitly described the types of violence found in them. The ‘Trial of Isaac Prescott, captain in the royal navy’, available at 2s 6d, was advertised in the York Chronicle in 1785 under a heading ‘Matchless Barbarity’, which summarised the incidents of brutality and tempted buyers with details that it was ‘embellished with a curious frontispiece, representing Capt. Prescott cramming a handful of Mud and Cherries in his Wife’s Mouth’.[66] Readers of provincial newspapers were also confronted with fairly regular factual reports of wife-beating as well as wife-murder. While some accounts contained no ‘editorial’ judgement, husbands were condemned in many.[67] They were described as inhuman and barbarous and the deserving subject of popular and genteel retaliation.[68] The drive to reform men clearly included their role as husbands. The same press printed advice to husbands, like the Newcastle Journal, which informed men in 1760 that the ‘husband who resolves to be feared, cannot expect to be loved’.[69] When the York Chronicle defined ‘The Man of Feeling’ it did so by explaining who was not a man of feeling. Gamesters, rebels, seducers, swindling traders and those too interested in their own honour could not be such a man; nor could the husband ‘who beats and abuses’ his wife.[70]

To sum up: ideas about men’s and women’s capacity for violence were strongly gendered and undergoing change in the eighteenth century. When presenting their cases of marital conflict in public, middling sort husbands and wives situated their accounts within these broader cultural developments. Furthermore, in the changing context of ideas about gendered violence in the eighteenth century, men’s use of women’s bodies was a graphic way to open up the issue of men’s role within marriage.

[1] University of Durham, University Library, Palace Green section [hereafter UOD], DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1740/8, Knowles c. Knowles.

[2] The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony (1662). Also see the suggested sermon to follow the ceremony, which explains what the Scriptures say about the duty of husbands towards wives: ‘So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself: for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it.’

[3] For an overview of the models of change see T. Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London, 1997), pp. 42-57. Gender historians’ unquestioning incorporation of theories about eighteenth-century transforming understandings of the body and sexuality into models of change in gender difference has been recently critiqued by K. Harvey, ‘The Century of Sex? Gender, bodies and sexuality in the long eighteenth century’, The Historical Journal, 45, 4 (2002) pp 899-916. Harvey shows that understandings of the body did not shift in a linear fashion from one-body to two-body, but were more likely to have been a series of short-term shifts, with a great deal of continuity. K. Harvey, ‘The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in Eighteenth-Century England’, Gender and History 14, 2 (2002) 202-223.

[4] P. Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, A. Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (London, 1995), pp. 322-346; E. A. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England. Honour, Sex and Marriage, London, 1999; For Wales see M. Roberts, ‘”More Prone to be Idle and Rioutous than the English? Attitudes to Male Behaviour in Early Modern Wales’ in M. Roberts and S. Clarke (eds), Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Cardiff, 2000).

[5] F. A. Childs, ‘Prescription for Manners in English Courtesy Literature, 1690-1760 and their Social Implications’ (unpublished DPhil, University of Oxford, 1984), pp. 248-287; M. Legates, ‘The Cult of Womanhood in Eighteenth-Century Thought’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 10 (1976), 21-39; Fletcher, Gender, Sex, pp. 376-499; L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes. Men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987), pp. 155-192; B. Caine, English Feminism 1780-1980 (Oxford, 1997), 13-23, 82-7.

[6] Building on important work by F. E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (New York, 1994).

[7] For a critique of historians’ use of pamphlet accounts of murder as representations of societal attitudes towards criminal women see G. Walker, ‘”Demons in female form”: representations of women and gender in murder pamphlets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries’ in W. Zunder and S. Trill (eds), Writing and the English Renaissance (London, 1996), pp. 123-39.

[8] Wiener also traces shifts in prosecution and conviction to show that the criminal justice system followed the same evolution. M. J. Wiener, ‘Alice Arden to Bill Sikes: Changing Nightmares of Intimate Violence in England, 1558-1869’ Journal of British Studies 40 (2001) 184 -212.

[9] For a transitional phase, with the use of public insult as an alternative to violence see R. Shoemaker, ‘Reforming Male Manners: Public Insult and the Decline of Violence in London, 1660-1740’ in T. Hitchcock and M. Cohen, English Masculinities 1660-1800 (London, 1999), pp. 133-150. For forgiveness, see ibid, pp. 147-9 and J. Gregory, ‘Homo Religiosus: Masculinity and Religion in the Long Eighteenth Century’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, p. 92. For self-control see E. Foyster, ‘Boys will be Boys? Manhood and Aggression, 1660-1800’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, pp. 151-166; E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating in Late Stuart England, TRHS, 6 (1996), 215-224

[10] For a definition of domesticity see J. Tosh,, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (London, 1999), p. 4. Hammerton sees this in the later 19th century, while Wiener moves it back to the 1840s. A. J. Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in nineteenth-century married life (London, 1992), pp. 164-9; M. J. Wiener, ‘Domesticity: a legal discipline for men? In M. Hewitt (ed), An Age of equipoise? Reassessing mid-Victorian Britain (Aldershot, 2000, pp. 155-6

[11] For changing ideas about violence as a context to marital violence see J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 110-2. Incidents of marital violence which did not result in murder have been used to show how new ideas about manhood influenced ideas about wife-beating in the late Stuart period and how politeness offered wives new ways to respond to their husbands’ violence. E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating’, 215-224; idem, ‘Creating a veil of silence? Politeness and marital violence in the English Household, TRHS 12 (2002) 395-415.

[12] For a detailed assessment of domestic violence, see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, chapter 6.

[13] J. Bailey, ‘Voices in Court: Lawyers’ or Litigants’?’, Historical Research, 74, 186 (2001), 392-408.

[14] Cited in ‘The Diary of Nicholas Brown’ in J. C. Hodgson, (ed.), Six North Country Diaries. The Surtees Society (Durham, 1910), vol. 118, p. 267.

[15] A. J. Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (London, 1998), p. 216.

[16] For the corporeality of English satirical prints in the 18th century and its symbolism see M. Craske, Art in Europe 1700-1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth (Oxford, 1997), pp. 235-8.

[17] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1743/12, Smith c. Smith.

[18] Borthwick Institute of Historical Research [hereafter BIHR], CP.I/631, Laughton c. Laughton; UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson. The use of the heart in such threats might be significant since it was still seen as the source of life and emotion. Though medical science came understand the brain as the site of mental and emotional activity in the 17th century, liturgical practice saw the heart of Jesus as the centre of Christ’s humanity. See D. Hillman and C. Mazzio (eds) The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (London, 1997), p. xxiii.

[19] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1717/2, Bowes c. Bowes.

[20] Personal answers to allegation 23 April 1779, BIHR, Trans.CP 1779/1, Finch c. Finch. Early modern society saw headgear as an embodiment of honour and social status, so any attack on it was envisaged as a dishonouring gesture. F. Egmond, ‘Execution, Dissection, Pain and Infamy – A Morphological Investigation’ in F. Egmond and R. Zwijnenberg (eds) Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (2003), p. 107.

[21] UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson.

[22] J. P. Bishop, Commentaries on the Law of Marriage and Divorce and Evidence in Matrimonial Suits (London 1852), pp. 452-92; H. C. Coote, The Practice of the Ecclesiastical Courts (London, 1847), pp. 349-50. For the development of the concept of cruelty see J. M. Biggs, The Concept of Matrimonial Cruelty, University of London Legal  Series (London, 1962), vol. VI. The accounts of marital violence in the church court records do not describe the pain that women suffered during or after the violence. For the study of the expression of pain see E. Cohen, ‘The Animated Pain of the Body’, American Historical Review 105 (2003), 36-68 and F. Edmond and R. Zwijnenberg (eds), Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (Aldershot, 2003).

[23] Blood was mentioned slightly more often in cases of wife beating than in other types of assaults in cases that came before the quarter sessions of Portsmouth. Bruising was described in 47 of 356 wife-beating cases, which was higher than other assaults. See J. Warner and A. Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a Martial Town: Husbands and Wives in Early Modern Portsmouth, 1753-1781’, Family History 28, 2 (2003), 266.

[24] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1740/8, Knowles c. Knowles.

[25] Isabella Jones deposition, BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[26] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1745/9, Wright c. Wright.

[27] Husbands sometimes claimed these marks were not the results of wife beating. James Currie alleged that his wife would run ‘from House to House in the Neighbourhood with the most vile, false and grossest Lyes … that … [he] had been beating of her’ and she ‘has shewn black Spotts in her Arms and other parts of her Body to gain credit for her false accusations, but … [he] knows not who occasion’d those Spots or marks … but stedfastly believes that she cared not what torment or pain she inflicted on herself so long as She could but make it to be believed and reported that … [he] had caused … them to her by beating’. Personal response to libel, 14 November 1729, BIHR, Trans.CP 1730/6, Currie c. Currie.

[28] Women also stressed the way that husbands refused to contribute to their wives and children’s bodily needs through refusal to contribute to their provision. J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives, chapter 4.

[29] Indeed she sent another letter to her proctor, which was clearly in answer to his more detailed questions, in order to provide the dates of the violence and potential witnesses. Both her letters formed the libel that was presented to the court. UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1742/5, Harding c. Harding. For another case study of one wife’s influence on her own matrimonial litigation see Bailey, ‘Voices in Court’, 400-6.

[30] For a proposed impact of this on female marital violence in the quarter sessions, see Warner and Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a Martial Town’, 268.

[31] BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson. For patches see P. Wagner,

[32] UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1765/2, Allison c. Allison.

[33] For a breakdown of 600 incidents of marital cruelty by sex see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 110, 128-9, 131.

[34] Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 120-2.

[35] For women’s use of legitimate and illegitimate violence within the household see F. E. Dolan, ‘Household Chastisements: Gender, Authority and “Domestic Violence”’ in P. Fumerton and S. Hunt, Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1999), 204-225.

[36] Poor Robin’s True Character of a Scold Or the Shrews Looking-glass (London, 1678). Physical violence and scolding were often linked in people’s minds in the first part of the period. John Thomlinson, a curate in Rothbury in 1718 recorded in his diary: ‘Cousin Jackson’s wife beats him, or at least scolds him abominably’. ‘The Diary of the Rev. John Thomlinson’ in Hodgson, Six North Country Diaries.

[37] BIHR, CP.H/4505, Pighells c. Pighells. The wig was identified with masculinity and therefore in literature the removal of the wig was symbolic of exposure and the breakdown of social order. See M. Pointon, ‘The case of the dirty beau: symmetry, disorder and the politics of masculinity’ in K. Adler and M. Pointon (eds), The Body Imaged. The Human Form and Visual Culture since the Renaissance (1993), pp. 175-188.

[38] BIHR, CP.I/154, CP.I/241, CP.I/2735, Idelle c. Idelle.

[39] For other occasions of severe female marital violence see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 129-30.

[40] BIHR, Trans.CP 1730/6, Currie c. Currie.

[41] add example

[42] BIHR, D/C.CP.1798/3, Trans.CP.1798/1, Shafto c. Shafto.

[43] For a discussion of women’s self-representations in church court matrimonial litigation see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 135-7.

[44] BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[45] For the variety of ways in which wives characterized violent husbands, see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, p. 115.

[46] See also the way that the culture of sensibility gave genteel wives a new way to highlight their husband’s inappropriate behaviour through hysterical fits. Foyster, ‘Veil of Silence?’, 401-6, 409-12.

[47] Biggs, Matrimonial Cruelty, pp. 21-6; Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 124-8.

[48] Definitions were not expanded to include mental cruelty until the very end of the 18th century.

[49] BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson

[50] Also he would not let the baby be baptised nor allow it to be brought to their home until it was nine months old, sending it out to nurse. See Catherine’s Libel, BIHR, Trans.CP 1765/4, Ettrick c. Ettrick. There are several instances where men’s violence towards their children was stressed in order to show the extreme nature of the men’s character.

[51] In 1799 Catherine Warburton of Pontefract sued her husband for separation after he tried to force her to transfer some of her separate estate to him, through means such as dismissing her servants, insisting that she live in a farm house for six months, refusing to sleep with her for five weeks, treating her with ‘Indifference, Inattention and Disrespect’ and finally, when all else failed, locking her up in their attic in a house in Pontefract for a week in winter. BIHR, Cons.CP 1800/3, CP.I/2503, Warburton c. Warburton.

[52] Answers to William’s Allegations, 10 April 1767, BIHR, CP.I/1503, Ettrick c. Ettrick

[53] John Goldsbrough deposition, BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson,; deponents in BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees., p. 9 and in UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson.

[54] To get a sense of the evolution of this notion, see attitudes to correction demonstrated in B. Hanawalt, ‘Violence in the domestic milieu of late medieval England’ in R. W. Kaeuper (ed), Violence in medieval Society (Woodbridge, 2000) 197-214, L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996) and E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control’.

[55] Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 121-2.

[56] For the increased tensions between ‘competing models of behavior’ in seventeenth-century Wales see Roberts, ‘”More Prone to be Idle”’, pp. 271-4. For one man’s adoption of multiple manly personae, see P. Carter, ‘James Boswell’s Manliness’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, pp. 11111-130. More research needs to be done on some men’s rejection of polite behaviour.

[57] For 16th and 17th century sub-masculinities see A. Shepard, ‘Manhood, Credit and Patriarchy in Early Modern England c. 1580-1640’, Past & Present 167, (2000); for late 18th century versions see A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (London, 1995), pp. 30-4.

[58] For the fragility of early 19th century middle-class identity and for the relationship between manhood and enterprise see, L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes. Men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987), pp. 229-71.

[59] He seems to have been prepared to pay half a guinea for their company, which was a sizeable sum when one of the women’s lodging’s rent for a year was a guinea. BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[60] His drunkenness was in the company of social inferiors. Also see Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter, p. 215, for John Shackleton, whose rejection of civility in the 1770s and ‘80s was recorded in detail by his long-suffering wife Elizabeth.

[61] For example, on the day when the corps received their uniforms and arms and days when they were mustered. BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[62] See L. Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, 1992), pp. 283-319.

[63] It is possible that the increasing rejection of wife beating is evident in quarter sessions records. See J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives for one approach and Warner and Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a MartialTown’, 272 for another.

[64] See also Hannah Pritchard’s deposition, BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[65] Politeness did not silence public discussion about marital violence. Foyster, ‘Veil of Silence?’ 399-401

[66] York Chronicle, 1785

[67] add examples

[68] The attendants of an Assembly punished one husband (details), Jackson’s Oxford Journal, May 1761; riding the stang in another paper.

[69] 6 Sept – 13 Sept 1760

[70]14 January 1785

There be dragons: research outside my expertise

I’m doing some reading on St George, a (probably mythical) Roman martyred for his Christianity in the third or early fourth century, eventually patron saint of England, as well as lots of other countries. This is not my usual field of research. But new projects take you in surprising directions. I’m working on what it meant to be a man in England from 1750 to 1918 and without actively looking I have been noticing images of St George appearing in my sources. This might be because I am a great fan of a man in armour.

St George c 1500 German engraving

Wikimedia Commons German Engraving c 1500

Yet, more pertinently, I’ve arrived at that stage of analysing lots of data where I’ve begun to see some wood for the trees. I’m detecting what values made up the concept of ‘manliness’. And guess what? St George seems to embody lots of the features I’m identifying. This might not surprise anyone who is familiar with the late Victorian and Edwardian period who thinks of a chivalric style of muscular Christianity as shaping masculinity. Although my impression was that no-one had really unpicked the association. Furthermore, it is important for my overarching research in the long run, because I’m coming to think that manliness was the way people thought about being a man much earlier than the later nineteenth century.

In the short term, however, I’m preparing a symposium paper. You see, when I was asked to speak I happened to be thinking about St George and the Dragon and so I suggested this theme for the paper. Thus, now I have to pin down some nebulous thoughts, provide the historiography, gather some evidence, construct an argument and write the paper! I’m writing about the process of doing this for a couple of reasons. It is partly to force myself to write about a topic which is scaring me off because it leads in several directions away from my comfort zones. It is also in order to share what I do as an academic with others. I have already written a post on the theoretical framework which I need to address – that is always the most difficult bit for me, so I did it first here.

Now I am turning to the patron saint himself. Like most of us I imagine, my initial stage of research is to Google – so I googled St George. Then I did some searching on Historical Abstracts, and Bibliography of British and Irish History to see what historians have published on him. This showed a fairly limited set of works devoted (ha, ‘cult’ joke there) to St George. On reading this secondary literature, I felt reasonably confident that my first instinct was correct and that not much has been published on St George and masculine identities, although there is fascinating analysis of the medieval cult and St George’s role in national identity formation.

Jonathan Good’s book The Cult of St George in Medieval England (2009) for example traces St George’s meaning and popularity from his origins and arrival in England to the late medieval period, with a particularly useful last chapter (for me) on his history after the Reformation. I’ve learned that the saint’s military qualities appealed to English medieval monarchs (Edward I to Henry VII) who used him to cement their authority, justify war with parts of the British Isles, and support crusades. In fact, with striking (and unexpected) resonance for me given my focus on the ‘intimate public sphere,’ Jonathan Bengston’s article ‘St George and the Formation of English nationalism’ argues that by making George ‘a divine national hero’ the monarchy deployed his cult to establish ‘an intimacy with the people which it could not otherwise have easily achieved’ (p. 317). Indeed, as Good demonstrates, guilds dedicated to the saint suggest that his cult was popular with a much wider section of society until the eighteenth century.


Wikimedia Commons, The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon, artist unknown.

In many respects it is St George’s famous association with chivalry that interests me with regards to manliness. This was in place from early in his history as national patron, encompassed in his image as warrior and knight, but cemented – of course – by his association with the dragon (date of this is debated) enabling him to become the rescuer. It was perhaps George’s chivalric associations that help explain his decline in popularity in the long eighteenth century and rise in the nineteenth, alongside a more general enthusiasm for an imagined chivalric past, as described in Mark Girouard’s book The Return to Camelot (1985)

Okay, so far so good. Last week I was still congratulating myself on the novelty of linking St George more explicitly with masculinity; a connection that seems only to have been identified in passing in the scholarship I’d come across, including Joseph Kestner’s Masculinities in Victorian Painting (1995). My Googling had even paid off by alerting me that Sam Riches, a historian of art has written about St George, via her electronic review of Good’s book.

Next day: bump. Down to earth; for my final stage in considering St George as a marker of masculine identity came along. This one which always strikes me at some point when entering the uncharted lands of another era/topic/approach. I found a publication whose title suggests someone else has been there and got the t-shirt. Scanning Good’s bibliography I saw: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites, St George and the construction of masculinity’ by Joseph Kestner in Collecting the Pre-Raphaelites: the Anglo-American Enchantment edited by Margaretta Watson (1997).

Why hadn’t I seen this on the bibliographic databases? Don’t know. I don’t think I missed it, and I wonder if it is because Kestner is categorised as art history. Anyway – crappity crap-crap.


Wikimedia Commons, Edward Burne Jones, The fight: St George kills the dragon VI 1866 (gorgeous isn’t it?)

Okay, so I have confirmed again that I have no new ideas. But I steeled myself and while waiting for my son while he had his hair cut on Saturday, I read the chapter. Thankfully, it is short and it is focused. Kestner states that St George was ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship)’ (p. 150), thereby summing up much of what I was delighted at noticing – except nearly twenty years earlier. And yet, yet; I realise I can still go somewhere with this.

I want to explore these manly values far more explicitly. They are too often taken for granted by historians, perceived to be ‘obvious’ later Victorian and Edwardian symbols of masculine identity. The longevity of St George helps me think more about this chronology, which is something I’m already doing more generally with manliness. Kestner is interested in what painting the subject of St George did to reinforce the masculinity and status of the Pre-Raphaelite artists themselves. Rightly or wrongly I want to look at the way the imagining of the appearance of the Saint evoked changing styles of manliness. Also, Kestner frames his consideration of St George in the theoretical framework of a curious (for me) focus on the phallus as representing hegemonic patriarchy. This has little appeal for me as a historian. Instead, I want to think about the imagery as a way to gain insights into a wider cultural understanding of masculine identities in the context of a more nuanced approach to hegemonic masculinity. Thanks to the theme of the symposium at which I’m first airing this, I am using a theoretical framework of intimacy, power and authority.

The next tasks in writing this paper (and ones I’d better get on with ASAP) are (1) figure out a bit about how St George fits with ideas about manliness and (2) put that together with the theme of intimacy, power, and authority. That’s all.

Beds: the beating heart of the household

Bed were the most valuable object in the early modern household, often making up one-third of the total value of domestic assets. This is a huge amount! And, as the sixteenth century went on, more and more people were owning them, as the increasing presence of beds and their bedding in wills and inventories show. Despite the ubiquity of beds in the household, social and economic historians have only just begun to look in detail at the role they played in the household. And there is a key question to ask, after all, given the costs of beds: why did early modern people concentrate such a large proportion of household expenditure in one piece of furniture comprising the bedstead and its dressings?  Why not sleep on something cheaper, and wear the expensive textiles that were lavished on the bed? Well, from our research, Angela McShane and I have concluded that it is because the marital bed would become the public site for family ceremonies and festivities following weddings, births and deaths; displaying the families’ wealth and legitimacy.

reduced _MAB0475_6_7_8_9_tonemapped

We have found that households invested heavily in beds, and especially the marital bed, because they embodied and conveyed powerful meaning about the household with marriage at its centre. In effect, the marital bed literally made the household. Thus the highly irregular and disreputable nature of the marriage of Isabel and William in our last post was symbolised by the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. The bed was not just a metaphor for a marital household; it was a key object around which that household was formed. As historical demographers have shown, English men and women postponed marriage until their mid to late twenties, when they had the economic wherewithal to set up a household and the purchase or acquisition of a bed, and its dressings, marked this moment of maturity. The ideal bed was a tester bedstead, with mattresses (ranging in comfort and expense from straw and flock to feather), sheets, bed covers, such as quilts and counterpanes, and curtains.

In the same period, of course, we know that for many in England the bed they slept in was by no means as grand as this ideal. Lesser members of the household such as servants, apprentices, and children slept in truckle or trundle beds and other less formal beds such as press beds. This was because they were unmarried and so not economically able to create their own households. Poorer people, including those who had married, also might sleep in a much meaner affair – a mattress positioned precariously on a movable board, or perhaps on the floor. The bed was so representative of the marital household that to be without somewhere to lay one’s head, was in England a marker of the most abject poverty, often cited in pauper letters. The prison reformer John Howard also noted that this was an indicator of utmost misery for prisoners. Husbands who had abandoned their wives were ordered by magistrates to provide their wives with bed and bedding as part of their support.


In fact, the bed carried numerous meanings about the household through a range of media over the period. There are lots of depictions of beds in popular literature, all of which placed the tester bed at the centre of the ritual life cycle of the household. Trial pamphlets and titillating accounts of household breakdown depicted the ideal form of bed, often to show how disorderly the family and household had become. Frequently, the bed served a didactic function in moralising or satirical images, where the form of the orderly bed corresponded to the moral worth of the female at the centre of the household. You can see this in the Hogarth’s Modern Moral Series. A Harlot’s Progress. In Plate 3 above, Moll is now reduced to the status of common prostitute and her decline is clear in the bed, with its hangings in a knot and its tumbled bedding.


The disorderly bed, and in turn the household it inhabited, lacked all form and structure. This is clear in plate 5 of Moll’s descent, where she is back in the garret, dying of syphilis. The bed hangings are closed, the space inside secret.

It is the power of the bed that the next posts will explore: a heart keeping the household functioning successfully as an orderly unit of authority, reproduction, production, and consumption.

Image 1: Mark Bailey; Images 2 and 3 Wikimedia Commons.

What went on in beds?

Historical beds are very much in view at the moment. There is an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace called ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ with an accompanying BBC4 TV programme with Lucy Worsley called ‘Tales from the Royal Bedchamber’.

What is probably the Paradise State Bed, Henry VII’s bed, jas just gone on display at Bishop Auckland Castle until the end of September 2014. Jonathan Foyle revealed the wonders of this 572 year old bed on BBC4 in the documentary, Secret Knowledge: The King’s Lost Bed.


This interest in the fantastic and fantastical beds of our monarchs is wonderful. But my good friend and colleague, Dr Angela McShane, and I have been looking at the meaning of more mundane beds from the past. We have been fascinated by the meaning of something that was fundamental to so many homes and families in early modern England.

As an item of furniture, the bed was at the centre of the domestic sphere. It was the most expensive single item of the household and many of the family’s key events happened in the marital bed. Marriages were made there, children were born, and people were nursed, and eventually died in its warmth and protection. Thus, the bed literally made the household.


But as a household space, it was not only a zone of domestic comfort  – we realised it was also a battle-ground for family tensions and breakdowns. Angela and I have brought our combined knowledge of the history of design and social historical approaches to a wide range of sources on beds, including popular literature, inventories and wills, beds and textiles, and court records covering theft, property dispute and family breakdown, in order to uncover some of those stories.

We’d like to share these stories with new readers, so please follow Joanne on this blog and on twitter to see our stories unfold.

First we’re opening with the story of a problematic marriage. In 1742 13 yr old Isabel Lowee, a fatherless heiress, and 12 yr old William Cashin were wed by marriage licence in a church with closed and locked doors on the Isle of Man. After the ceremony, there was a wedding dinner and dance at Isabel’s guardian’s house and then Isabel and William were taken to the guardian’s barn to be ‘put to bed’, the traditional ritual for fixing the marriage.

There were lots of signs already that this union was a wrong-un. The husband and wife were too young – the usual age of marriage was around the mid twenties. Instead of being a public ceremony, the church’s doors were closed to prevent publicity and the licence was questioned by Isabel’s family who accused the Cashins of coercing Isabel so that they could lay their hands on her inheritance. They claimed that William’s family took Isabel away from her friends and persuaded her to marry with fine clothes and a ‘babby’ or a child’s doll.

wedding bed

But a further concern, pointed out by witnesses, was the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. Where was their bed? The bedding had taken place in a barn on a straw ‘bed’ that was hastily made and set upon the ground. The crucial question for Angela and I: is why was this aspect noticed by the people of the time? The next post will explain more.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons:

  1. St James’s Palace, Old Bed Chamber,
  2. Bed photographed at Freilichtmuseum
  3. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th century: How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock

Marriage, surnames and identity

I’ve written this post because BBC Radio Leeds asked me to contribute to the Mark Forrest show (22 July 2013) featuring a discussion of a recent survey’s findings on the numbers of women keeping their maiden name at marriage. To listen, click here.


Arbutus Free Wedding Stock Photography, Creative Commons 3.0

The survey was carried out by Facebook this year in the US and the UK by examining the names of married women using the social media site and comparing their surnames with their husbands’ profiles. The findings are strikingly similar.  In America Facebook examined the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79. It reported that 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed to their husbands’ name. Older women changed their names at marriage in greater numbers. (Huffington Post)

In the UK 62 percent of women in their 20s have adopted their husbands’ surname. Again, the numbers increase as women’s ages increase. 74 per cent of women in their 30s and 88 per cent of women in their 60s did not keep their maiden name. (Daily Mail)

It is striking that the headlines have used these findings to declare that fewer women are now keeping their own names; and I infer a sense of relief in these articles. Other writers have suggested it is part of retro fashions more generally (The Daily Beast)

BBC Radio Leeds were very interested that it is younger women who are becoming more likely to keep their own names. One could ask whether this is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate equality with men; even perhaps a shift from the practice of women in their thirties who faced more of a backlash if they admitted to a feminist perspective.

Yet, I’m not sure that the figures suggest that there is a resurgence of feminism amongst young women. There are still more women who do not use their maiden name. I’m sure a small minority have an active political view, and a few more keep their own family names to signal that they are separate from their husband: an individual with a distinct identity. I suspect that most women who keep their birth name do so for practical reasons. Professional, high earning women will retain the name that they are known by in the world of work. Once you have published in one surname, for example, it is almost essential to keep that name or you will be missed by search engines and risk virtual disappearance.


And practical reasons underlie English women’s custom of taking their husbands’ names in the past. Women who married fell under the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture which removed their legal identity and placed them under the ‘cover’ of their husband. As feme-coverts, women could not enter economic contracts. Yet for much of the early modern period and into the eighteenth century it was wives who shopped for the home. Since cash was often in short supply, credit was the usual means of economic exchange. The Law of Agency tackled this paradox, by allowing wives to use their husbands’ credit. But of course since most credit was local and relied on trust, wives, shopkeepers and traders found it much easier for the women to refer to themselves by their husbands’ surname. And thus an economic necessity shaped naming practices. (See my free article ‘ Favoured or oppressed ? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800’ Continuity and Change 17 (3), 2002, 351–372;  and Katie Barclay’s blog post What’s in a name? Or leaving your patrilineage behind).


I do think that feminism is somewhere in this situation, nonetheless, in that women now have the choice whether to take their husbands’ name or not. Many realise the complications of keeping their own name or using both their husbands’ and their own birth names, particularly when they have children. For many, therefore using a single surname is easier. Probably, most of these women would be shocked that anyone would consider that they were subordinating themselves by taking their husbands’ name. I think they see it as an act of commitment to the relationship, even a declaration of unity.

Of course, the question remains: why does unity entail taking the man’s surname; why not the woman’s?

Embedding and embodying gender in history

This post is based on a paper I gave in 2010 when I was asked to think about gender history. I’d been thinking hard about gender while writing my book and at the centre of this musing is the question: why did I change my book’s title over the three years I was working on it from: Parents in England c. 1760-1830: gender, identities, and generations to Parents in England c. 1760-1830: emotions, identities, and generations?

I began by collecting all my accounts of parenting from 1760 to 1830. I soon found that where parental identities are concerned the historian faces two assumptions; that parenting is a natural instinct and that motherhood and fatherhood are profoundly gendered, distinct, identities. The first assumption presupposes stasis, the second allows for change in parental identities. If becoming a mother or a father is engendering – that is, a process that is understood to produce a woman or a man, then it provides a specific female or male identity. Outside influences that shape the way femininity and masculinity are seen will therefore influence the way maternal and paternal identities are constructed. Scholarship offers varied accounts of both continuity and change. Social histories identify considerable continuities in the elements of parenthood for both sexes. More culturally attuned studies [histories of art and literature], on the other hand, posit transformations in motherhood – with a cult of maternity, for example, notable in the eighteenth century. A cursory look at recent work in the social sciences suggests that maternal and paternal identities are seen to have undergone rapid shifts and concomitant tensions in the second half of the twentieth century.


The Husbandman’s Return from Labour: Saturday Evening (1795) (colour engraving) after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

I decided that one way forward was to take an embodied approach to investigating gender identities. How was parenting imagined and experienced in terms of bodies and materiality? How did emotions shape gender identities? I found that thinking about bodies and emotions complicated my assumptions about gender difference and opened up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Parental embodiment in the eighteenth century, for example, need not be restricted to the well-researched concerns about maternal breastfeeding. An embodied approach opens up distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, for the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government becomes far more multi-layered and complex.

Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal. The culture of sensibility and Christian ideals of manhood celebrated sensitivity, physical care, and tenderness in men – all encompassed within the role of father and these were expressed through the body as tears, hugs, and kisses. Of course, the relationship between bodies and social conventions about gender remain open to investigation. For example, historians find it fruitful to scrutinise how paternity, grounded in biology, could be different to fatherhood, a social, male gendered identity – though both defined a man as a father.

Emotions history also lets me consider the ways in which the emotions associated with gendered identities were reconfigured in different ways at different times. Emotions are, after all, human and let us explore gender identities within a different framework. My research on parents in England therefore also encompasses anger, anxiety and sympathy and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence – and in some cases uncovers how these were not always mapped onto sexed bodies.

So why did I omit the word ‘gender’ from my book title? I think that my replacing ‘gender’ with ‘emotion’ signifies how much more embedded my understanding of gender has become. If it is any indication of wider developments, then it is that gender is being integrated more fully into a variety of topics, that we are more willing to think about the construction of feminine and masculine identities through different perspectives and lenses, and that new research agendas are being applied to the study of gender identities.