Self-control and the manly body 1760-1860

In 1851 Middlesex County Insane Asylum (known as Colney Hatch) opened its doors to patients and one of its early admissions was Lewis Aaron. Here are his admission notes:

Admitted August 22nd 1851. Aged 35, married and a Clothes Salesman. A Jew with very marked features of that persuasion. He has been married about two years previous to which time he had a very Debauched life which evidently has caused the maniacal attack that he at present labours under. He has had two or three Epileptic Fits. His health is good and he affirms there only to have been fits of passion over which he had no control. His wife says that his passion and tempers are so ungovernable that it is impossible to live with him. His conversation is rational, though excessive and he complains bitterly of the confinement. (1851 December 5 – discharged not improved.)

L0007413 The bottle, by George CruikshankAs a historian of masculinity I find this definition of Lewis’s mental state as the lack of control of his passion and temper very interesting (and of course the case has much to say about for historians of ethnicity and insanity). I’m currently working on a project exploring the idea of being manly in England between 1760 and 1860. Manly was an adjective that conveyed several values to society including virtue, piety, courage, endurance, honesty and directness; all qualities that necessitated self-control. In short, to conform to manly standards men were required to control bodily appetites and emotions; not to do so rendered them unmanly. I’m increasingly interested in thinking about how this was reinforced: was being manly rewarded and being unmanly penalised? Thus, this kind of diagnosis of men as having ungovernable passions catches my attention.

It seems to me that part of the assessment of Lewis Aaron as insane was based on his marked inability to control his emotions – or to use the contemporary term – his passions. He lacked the will to overcome them. Did the fact that Lewis was Jewish had any impact on the assessment of his mental status? After all, it was seen as integral to his identity: 35, clothes salesman, Jew, mad. Were his unrestrained passions seen as part of his Jewishness or shaped by anti-Semitic racial stereotypes? Perhaps; though I need to do more research to understand the relationship. What I do know at the moment is that the description of his lack of self-control was fairly typical of the other non-Jewish male patients. Hence why I think such cases have much to say about masculinity.

The passions were dangerous, an affliction of the body which ‘represented a loss of control, a surrender of the self to anarchic forces (Kevin Sharpe)’ often identified as unregulated emotions and bodily actions. Will was an inner strength of mind that men were to use to overcome and combat passion. Since antiquity, the capacity to use strength of will separated men from boys and from women. If men did not conquer their passions, and succumbed to temptation, they therefore risked being considered unmanly.

It is hardly surprising that most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century advice for male youths centred on training them to deal with bodily and sensual desires such as masturbation, alcohol, smoking (in the nineteenth century), and to resist temptation. Adult men were regularly reminded of the requirements for self-restraint. Thomas Penrose preached a sermon, published in 1759, which linked this with being manly. He pleaded:

‘Let me beseech you then, in the Spirit of Love, to acquire and exemplify a manly Sobriety, Chastity; and Temperance. Carry with you a constant regard for Virtue; a constant Love and Affection for good Morality and Christian Piety’ (The practice of religion and virtue recommended; especially in times of danger. A sermon preached in the parish-church of Newbury, on Sunday, … London, 1759).

Vice in adult men encompassed a range of behaviours from lack of self-restraint to sin: from displaying too much feeling in certain situations (dictated by contemporary context), to failing to curb appetite for food, sex, and alcohol, to actions deemed unnatural such as sodomy. Lewis Aaron had failed in this regard – he’d led a debauched life, presumably sexual incontinence, and was unable to curb his anger and violence.

Advocating self-control to be manly was not as simple as it might seem, however, for a major tension in constructing and maintaining masculine identity lies in its inherent ambivalence. For example, some of the attributes of being unmanly which lie in excess: drinking, smoking, eating, womanising were also less respectable means by which masculinity was constructed and sustained among peers; all activities rooted in conviviality and virility. It is perhaps relevant that Lewis’s debauchery had occurred before his marriage, part of a single-man’s lifestyle in which excess was more acceptable. To some extent, these behaviours were tolerated in youths – as a passing phase before maturity. It was not acceptable, however, to continue this after marriage. Alex Shepard shows, however, that from the seventeenth century these behaviours were increasingly adopted as part of an anti-patriarchal masculine sub-culture by those who could not attain the normative version. Given that these forms of unrestrained behaviour had disorderly repercussions – like deviant behaviour, inter-personal violence, and damage to property, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was considerable emphasis upon their management.

It is therefore interesting to ask what social, economic and cultural penalties were associated with such male behaviour. Early modernists have explored how these kinds of activities undermined middling-sort men’s reputations in communities linked through credit, and work on the sexual double-standard in the long eighteenth century indicates that for married men sexual promiscuity led to loss of public honour. Work on the role that gender played in constructing class identity reveals that in the first half of the nineteenth century respectable, self-controlled, masculine behaviour was integral to middle-class identity. It was also part of working-class men’s attempt to attain political and civic voices and social mobility by demonstrating the capacity to manage their bodies and feelings. The lack of such manly characteristics therefore risked downward social mobility for both classes.

What also strikes me is how the most extreme forms of failure of self-control of bodily appetites and emotions were defined as insanity. Lewis’s lack of self-discipline and self-restraint are central to his diagnosis as mad – having caused his mania. Even though his epilepsy was of course significant the case notes do infer that the fits were seen as products of his mania not their cause. The connections between the lack of self-control and madness were fairly common. The image above is from George Cruikshank’s series The Bottle (1847) which showed a man’s descent from decency to madness through giving in to alcohol’s temptation. This amazing series has much to say about being unmanly, as the man’s behaviour leads to the loss of his job, the death of his infant, his murder of his wife, the criminality of his son and prostitution of his daughter, and in the final picture here his state as hopeless maniac.

Explanations for insanity vary over time: in the reformation it was possession by the Devil, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the result of bodily disease. From the 1790s to 1850s it was understood that madness lay in disordered nerves and minds, caused by factors like poverty, stress, emotional problems – and even more crucially in the case of Lewis – intemperance. This meant that the passions were central. Rather than trying to treat insanity through physical treatments, ‘moral therapy’ was introduced which viewed the restoration of self-control as enabling recovery from insanity. Now I realise that the same diagnostic criteria were applied to both sexes and not just men, but the gender connotations are critical since their diagnosis and treatment were influenced by what society considered suitable behaviour for the sexes. I hope to read more research on this, like Jennifer Wallis’s work on the late nineteenth-century aslyum.

For now, though, what is clear is that to be manly was more than acquiring through education and training the noble attributes that we still associate with the concept. Much was invested in male self-control and the regulation of bodily appetites and passions. To be unmanly was a very risky business that undermined one’s place in society, community, and family. It not only incurred loss of public reputation; in being unmanly, as definitions of insanity surely reminded them, men also lost bodily, emotional and mental integrity. One hopes that societal and cultural strictures about manly self-control meant that Lewis’s wife was able to seek some support to avoid his violence at home.

This blog post is based on a paper I’m giving at ‘Bodies in Question: Theorising the Body from an Interdisciplinary Perspective’ at Oxford Brookes University, Friday 23 May 2014.

For further relevant reading and the secondary sources which inform this post see:

Charland, Louis C., ‘Benevolent theory: moral treatment at the York Retreat’, History of Psychiatry March 2007 vol. 18 no. 1 61-80

Clark, Anna, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (1993)

Davidoff, Leonore , Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (1987)

Dixon, Thomas, “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis, Emotion Review (2012)

Dixon, Thomas, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (2006)

Porter, Roy, Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul (2003)

Sharpe, Kevin, ‘Virtues, passions and politics in early modern England’, History of Political Thought 32 (5):773-798 (2011)

Shepard, Alex, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (2003)

Shepherd, Anne, Institutionalizing the Insane in Nineteenth-Century England (2014)

Image:  Credit: Wellcome Library, London
George Cruikshank, The bottle, by George Cruikshank; ‘The bottle has done its work’  1847 From: The bottle

“every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife”

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 5: Marital cruelty in action

Catherine’s accusations against her husband are difficult to read, though they are by no means the most disturbing of the cruelty cases I have read. Society knew that men could be cruel, though it didn’t necessarily condone it, as this powerful image from the George Cruikshank’s series The Bottle (1847) shows, ‘Fearful quarrels, and brutal violence’:

L0007411 The bottle, by George Cruikshank

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In fact, William Ettrick was not especially vicious or violent. This was a period when it was easiest to get a separation if your husband’s violence threatened your life and thus many cases detailed extreme abuse. William did not make Catherine fear she would die; but he wore her down with his consistent contempt, minor acts of abuse: a blow to the face and some rough outbursts where he hurled things at her. The abuse was far more what our society would describe as mental abuse.

Let me outline it here. But remember a few things about historical evidence like this. It is derived from Catherine’s Libel, which detailed acts of violence, but in addition described all the features that made William a bad husband. The courts were not just interested in extreme violence; they wanted to know what made a man impossible to live with. Like other litigation, this was an adversarial case. William denied the claims, or re-interpreted them for the court. We can’t know the truth. But the evidence tells us what was considered to be intolerable in married life.

Like other cases, the abuse fell into four broad categories.

So, first we learn that William was verbally abusive. He swore and cursed Catherine throughout their marriage. He told her she was lazy, ugly and old. The latter seems odd, since she was the same age as him and not yet 40 when she left him. Perhaps worse, he compelled their two children to call her these names and pull her by the nose. He declared that he would never be happy till she was dead. William admitted he sometimes got bad tempered but denied he verbally abused his wife.

Secondly, Catherine brought evidence that William did not provide for her. He wouldn’t give her money for clothes, necessaries or provisions) when she asked. He told her

he had a Right to Lock her up and Feed her on Bread and Water thro’ a Grate and that every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife

(Although, just to reiterate for now, husbands only had the right to correct their wives, not beat them!). He wouldn’t let her have a fire in her bed chamber during winter because he said coal was too expensive. In contrast, William said that he had indulged her in her desires and kept at least one maid and one man-servant to wait upon her.


Thirdly, like many other men in such cases, William denigrated Catherine’s status. Usually husbands took away their wives’ much prized autonomy over the household government by metaphorically and literally removing the home’s keys from them and handing them and the management over to servants. This really undermined married women’s sense of self.

William being William, attacked Catherine’s social status in a more unusual way. She accused him of stating:

Wives should and ought to be nothing but Vassalls and Slaves to their Husbands

Catherine also complained that he treated her like his servant. ‘Genteel,’ as her lawyer described her, yet William demanded that she run after his cows and horses in the fields when they were getting into the wrong place while being driven from area to another. This was NOT what a mayor’s daughter was bred to do! In defence, William said he sometimes asked her to provide this service, but never compelled her to do so.

High Barnes manor

Finally, there was physical violence. Remember here that William did not commit extreme violence in comparison with some other accused husbands, which offers us interesting insights into what contemporaries saw as men’s cruelty. Catherine said that if William fell into a passion (uncontrolled rage, something like madness) he struck her on the head. He admitted that he gave her a ‘box’ round the ears once.

One of his bouts of bad temper even entered neighbourhood lore. I’ve mentioned before that William had rather firm views about sociability, which were not one would expect of a polite gentleman. He grudgingly entertained, but expressly forbid the household to prepare any puddings because he said they were too expensive and the bane of social discourse. In August 1763 Catherine made custard for a dinner that they gave to entertain neighbours. On discovering this rebellion he flew into a rage and threw a very large wooden dish at her [she said it hit her head, he said it missed], then kicked her through the kitchen and the hall, and put the custard down the ‘necessary’ – the eighteenth-century toilet. All this was in front of the servants.

1764 was the turning point for Catherine. On 15 December he ‘forcibly got into her Bed’ though she strove to prevent him, knowing ‘his Cruelty and Brutish Behaviour would not cease’ but was obliged to yield herself to him’. This is clearly a claim of marital cruelty; though remember that was only criminalised in the 1990s in England. She says this made her realise he would never alter his barbarous behaviour and she was tired out with his

Barbarous Treatment of her she having done and submitted to more than could be expected from a slave.

On the 14th January she packed, told her husband she was going to visit her aunt, begged him to take care of the children, left and never returned again. She immediately had William bound over by the quarter sessions to keep the peace towards her. William, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for County Durham, brought before the General quarter session of the peace in Durham city! Having obtained some legal peace of mind, she then initiated the separation case at Durham church court.

Several women who sued their abusive husbands, abandoned their cases fairly quickly, perhaps because the couple reached an agreement, or the husband felt threatened enough to promise to end his cruelty. For Catherine, though, thanks to William’s stubbornness and sense of self-righteousness, this was to be the start of more years of trouble.