Historical research and its impact!

This week I’m writing about social media and its uses for history. As part of this, I’ve been trying to establish how far my own work has been cited through social media. I’ve been trying to use impactstory as one tool for doing so.

Screenshot 2013-11-26 10.17.50

I am surprised, then, to find that a reference to one of my articles has turned up on a blog called ‘Secular Patriarchy’ whose stance is: Anti-Feminist, Anti-MRA, Pro-Traditional Women’s Rights Traditional Family Activist (TFA).  My article is on married women’s status under the legal doctrine of coverture. This post on the site links to it in order to explain coverture. The post’s overall argument is that marriage has lost its way since coverture has been undermined. It concludes that :

Marriage is masculinity, marriage is coverture, marriage is the man providing for the woman thereby enabling the woman’s feminine purpose and expression.  Marriage is a male institution; the means by which men provide to women the environment a woman needs to function best as a woman.

Ironically the link to my article no longer works, which is probably just as well, as I don’t agree with the blog’s views about marriage today or in the past.

Here is a quick explanation of coverture and the law of agency in the long eighteenth century (you can access my article here). At marriage women became feme coverts, which meant that they lost ownership of the movable goods that they brought to marriage and transferred the profits and management of any land they owned to their husbands during marriage. Coverture also removed married women’s legal identity by subsuming it under their husbands’ and therefore removed their right to enter any commercial contracts. The reality, however, was that women needed to purchase goods for the household and for family businesses in a world which relied heavily upon credit rather than cash.

The Common law recognised this need, through a technical device called the ‘law of agency’. The law of agency allowed women to purchase necessaries – that is food, medicine, clothing and lodgings – in their husbands’ name. (This is probably why wives took their husbands’ surname). Husbands could, however, deny them this right for a number of reasons including claiming that they had already supplied the household with necessaries, or paid the wife enough money to purchase goods without using credit, or by claiming that the goods purchased were far beyond the couple’s social status.

Husbands therefore made public announcements that they refused to pay the debts their wives had accumulated. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century we only have indirect references to this practice. So there are reports that husbands had their wives cried down by the town crier in the market place or on a Sunday after church. From the 1730s, however, these announcements were regularly placed in local provincial newspapers.

A number of the husbands complained about their wives’ extravagance and financial mismanagement. This complaint was mentioned in the adverts placed by husbands, as an explanation for their denial of their credit to their wives. William Sampson who was a tallow chandler and soap boiler in Pontefract, for example, advertised in 1756 in the York Courant that he would not pay his wife’s debts, because she ‘seems entirely bent to ruin her said Husband’.

Having analysed a large number of such advertisements I concluded that rather than displaying wives subordination under the law, they revealed that men’s economic autonomy was vulnerable. I used them to show that spouses did not necessarily see property that women brought to the union as shifting in ownership to the husband, but often continued to identify it as belonging to the wife, and more frequently simply pooled as family property. Moreover they demonstrated that women also felt that they provided for their families alongside their husbands and that while manhood was certainly about the ability to provide, this did not exclude wives/mothers from also feeling the same sense of obligation in terms of their womanly status. (See here and here for some excellent new research on coverture and here for women and the law)

For me, coverture at once implied a degree of female legal and economic ‘invisibility’ but enabled wives to carry out their necessary economic functions within marriage; activities that brought with them a sense of authority and identity, not subordination. There is no sense in which this evidence of economic activities under coverture supports the blog post’s claim that the function of marriage is:

The man takes control and the man then executes his plan and mission for the family.

All in all, I’m fascinated by the unpredictable uses to which historical research is being put. Is this evidence of impact? Hmm. Not the impact I’d expect, or want – but certainly proof that there is dissemination of my research!

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

Beds, marital sex, and adultery

In our last post Angela and I talked about the different functions of the early modern bed and how it literally shifted its uses from the marital bed to the child-bed, to the sick-bed, to the death-bed as family needs dictated. In my post on the different nature of the understandings and experience of privacy in the past, I pointed out that people often shared rooms at night. As the ubiquity of the truckle bed indicates, children and servants frequently shared the chambers in which spouses slept and it was not uncommon for visitors to be put up for the night too (read Sasha Handley’s great work on sleeping for insights into this).[1] So in this post we talk about the marital bed and its uses and meanings in relation to marital affection and marital sex.

Jan Steen bed with curtains

Jan Steen, The Morning Toilet, 1663 (Wikimedia Commons)

Married couples shared a bed, which was seen as the prime site for the sustenance and negotiation of marital relations. After all, conjugal affection and sex were seen as building a harmonious relationship. So how was this achieved in a small or busy household with shared rooms? We think that the bed hangings and curtains were crucial because they acted as a boundary or a ‘threshold.’ In other words, opening or closing the curtains on a tester bed, or indeed the doors on a bed that was built into the house, marked a transition between different types of spaces. It made the space of the bed part of the room or closed off from the room. You can see this above in the Jan Steen painting where one of the curtains is partially closed. The drawn curtain therefore indicated that the bed-space was closed to view – ‘locked’; whereas the open curtain (or absent curtain) allowed an open view – and therefore a different use. This was meaningful enough for early modern people to be used in the theatre for dramatic ends with the curtains of the stage bed signifying ‘secrecy, surprise, revelation, and dramatic irony’.[2]

This notion of the marital bed as the site for legitimate sexual relations was so strong that it shaped people’s language and actions. As the paramount site for beneficial ‘good’ sex, ‘bad’ sex – in other words adultery – was a betrayal of the marital bed. Indeed ‘forsaking the marital bed’ was used as a metaphor for a failed marriage in separation cases. The main bed of the household was so fundamentally associated with marital relations that any other kind of sex in it seems to have been taboo.

Interestingly, cases of adultery that came before the courts reveal that adultery was rarely described as occurring in the marital bed. I recorded where witnesses or defendants claimed that it occurred and the most common places were on chairs, on floors, against doors, and out of doors. The engraving below of a couple using a chair for their dalliance is an example from the Trials for Adultery published in the late eighteenth century. Thus the most common sites of infidelity were the boundaries of legitimate spaces – or ‘liminal’ spaces as scholars call them. Essentially, this means that adultery was rarely committed in the marital bed. You might point out that the marital bed was too overlooked for any suspicious activities. But adultery often occurred in the family home, when husbands were away, so this can’t be the only cause of the reluctance to use this site! Indeed, when beds were cited in adultery trials, they were multi-use, household-neutral beds e.g. lodgings, inns, and not those that were emotionally or physically bound to the household.

Mrs Draper 1771

The bed was also a primary space in which emotional as well as physical bonds between spouses were cultivated, strengthened and maintained. Diaries show that spouses used the bed as a space for sociability, because its enclosure allowed couples to talk away from view. Given that the marital bed facilitated spouses’ discussions, it is not surprising that popular culture saw the bed as the place for wives’ nagging. This was encapsulated in the notion of the ‘curtain lecture’. Pamphlets such as Curtain Lectures: Or, Matrimonial Misery displayed (2s 6d, or 3s in calf) were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, portraying wives nagging husbands. This common motif lasted well into the nineteenth century as the Victorian image below indicates. Husbands adopted the same conventions in court. In 1766 Charles Allison claimed that ‘after he had got into Bed … [his wife] still continuing to Provoke him with her opprobrious language he did cause and oblige her to get up and go down Stairs’ or to the maid’s bed. He also locked other rooms and pocketed the key to keep his wife out of them. These actions signified a reduction of his wife’s status – moving her out of the marital bed to a servant’s in lesser accommodation.


As these examples indicate, since beds were where married couples talked, it is no wonder bed were also where tensions led to quarrels and in some cases, sadly, violence, which will be discussed in the next bed-post.

[1] More more on sleeping and dreams see:

http://www.sleepcultures.com/ and http://dreamsanddreaming.wordpress.com/

[2] Sasha Roberts, ‘”Let me the curtains draw”: the dramatic and symbolic properties of the bed in Shakespearean tragedy’ in J G Harris and N Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, 2002.


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.

The Sailor’s Farewell

Naval and military men were frequently imagined returning home in the later Georgian period. The Sailor’s Farewell and Happy Return was a ubiquitous version.Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s The Married Sailor’s Return Home, 1795, restores the father safely to the bosom of his family and tenderly evokes his reunion with his young, clinging children.  Ceramics were popular too, like this gorgeous lustre plaque.



Thomas Bewick (b. 1753) even recalled that in his childhood: ‘in cottages everywhere were to be seen the sailor’s farewell and his happy return’.

Military men were persuaded to fight from the desire to defend wife and children as well as from love of country. Along with sentimental reunion it was a motif common to pro-militia writings from the mid-century. In 1756, for example, Samuel Davies claimed that soldiers’ ‘tender Children’ and wives would want the men to return ‘victorious to their longing Arms!’ Such accounts sought to inspire patriotism and restore British men’s manliness as well as hierarchical gender relations.

The cultural motif certainly had some personal value for men. On 5 July 1811 John Shaw ended a letter to his future wife by copying out a poem celebrating the constancy of wife, children and friends in an uncertain world.


In one stanza a merchant on his travels remembered his family; a second featured an injured patriotic seaman:

the water still breaths in his life’s dying embers

the death wounded tar whose his colours defends

drops a tear of regret as he dying remembers

how blest was his home with wife children and friends.

The poem concluded by observing that a man’s twilight years were drear if they drew ‘no warmth from the smiles of wife children and friends’. It is interesting that John visualised his married life through the figure of the patriotic man uprooted from his family (he was himself a travelling hardware salesman) and hoped thereby to stir more palpable enthusiasm for their forthcoming union in his future wife’s letters.

For more on this, read my book: Parenting in England, 1760-1830: emotions, identity and generations (OUP, 2012) (published as Joanne Bailey)