Patterns of Married Life

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Patterns of Married Life

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Male Dominance. The increasing legal emphasis on the male lineage paralleled a rising concern among male religious, literary, and political writers with the authority and role of the male head of household. With few exceptions, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews; English, French, Italians, and Germans; highly educated humanists and illiterate street singers; all agreed that women should be subservient and that husbands should rule over their wives. Indeed, there is no other issue that men of this period—and apparently most women—agreed upon so completely. This notion was not only an intellectual construct, but shaped legal codes throughout Europe, with married women always under the legal control of their husbands, and adult single women and widows often required to have a male guardian oversee their legal and financial affairs. Husbands were generally given the right to coerce or punish their wives physically, and courts rarely supported a wife's leaving her husband even for serious physical abuse.

Women's Role. At the same time, some writers also stressed the wife's authority over children and servants, viewing her as a coruler in the household with her husband. First Protestants and then Catholics stressed that being a wife was the proper vocation for a woman, one worthy of respect from her husband and other household members. The authors of marriage manuals took great care to emphasize the importance of mutual affection between spouses, regarding it as one of the great benefits of marriage.

Actual Relations. What about actual marital relations? Did husbands and wives show more or less affection for one another than modern couples? Which idea was followed more in practice, that of husbandly authority or that of mutual respect? Studies that address these questions have been under-taken in various parts of Europe for the last twenty years, but historians have not reached a consensus. Some of them see the Renaissance and Reformation family as patriarchal and authoritative, and relations between spouses, as well as between parents and children, as cold and unfeeling. Others have found that many people suffered serious depression at the loss of a spouse or child; they expected a marriage to include affection and companionship and were distressed when it did not. Examples of abusive spouses and of mutually caring relationships both abound, so it is difficult to make any blanket generalizations.

Status Earned. Marriage was the clearest mark of social adulthood for both women and men; for men, marriage often meant that they could now be part of the governing body of their village or town, a role from which unmarried men were excluded. Craft guilds generally required that master-craftsmen be married, because the assistance of a wife was needed to feed and clothe the journeymen and apprentices, purchase supplies, and sell the finished product. Married men were also seen as more stable and less likely to engage in wild behavior.

A Matriarch's Place. For women, marriage meant that they would gain authority over dependent members of the household. Middle-class urban women also began, during the early modern period, to redefine what it meant to be a “housewife.” After the Protestant Reformation, the wives of Protestant pastors were often the leaders in the creation of this expanded domestic role. Medieval urban “housewives” had had little time for purely domestic labor; cooking was simple, cleaning tasks were few, and many domestic tasks such as baking and laundry were hired out. This workload began to change in the sixteenth century, when foodstuffs were more likely to come into households in a less-finished state and middle-class households contained more consumer goods that needed cleaning and care. Of necessity, the time spent by middle-class women on domestic tasks expanded, particularly as things that had been unavailable or unimportant in the Middle Ages—glass windows, a stone floor instead of a dirt one, and several courses at dinner—became important signs of middle-class status. Now the ideal wife was not simply one who showed religious virtues such as piety and modesty, but also economic ones such as order, industriousness, and thrift; the ideal husband was one who could provide appropriate consumer goods for his household. This division of labor shows up clearly in the poem of advice, titled The Bride and published by Samuel Rowlands in London in 1617. The sixteenth century was seen as a time of growing prosperity among the middle classes; the fruits of that prosperity, the “middle-class lifestyle,” were determined, and to a large degree created, by middle-class married women, using the disposable income produced by their own labor and that of their husbands and children.

Sources

Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300-1840 (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1986).

Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, The European Family: Patriarchy and Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present, translated by Karla Oosterveen and Manfred Horzinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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Patterns of Married Life

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