Share this page

What's Love Got to Do With it?

Conduct books from past centuries always reveal fascinating mindsets of different societies. For Valentine's day, we're taking a look into William Whateley's "A Bride-Bush".

Jennifer Reid

Today is Valentine’s Day, the day on which we all are grateful for those we love and those who love us. These days we are quite used to knowing details about each other’s lives and relationships, and it is a constant frustration that we cannot turn this lens on relationships of the past. One source of information, however, is what we call “conduct books”, books which were published with the sole intention of informing the reader how to live various parts of their married lives. These conduct books reached peak popularity in the late 16th century and stayed so until the Civil War. In early modern society, men controlled the public and women the private, but it was men that represented both in print with over 99% of printed materials being male authored. But how much these depict of an accurate picture of behaviour of women of the time is anyone’s guess.

bride bush

These books touted the accepted view of the time that men were superior to women, that once married a woman became her husband’s property, and that her place was in the home, loving her husband – in spite of his faults! The home was the place in which a woman’s best qualities would shine, and that was where she should stay – the old adage “keep her pregnant and barefoot” comes to mind! Society was built on Christianity, and Christian beliefs elevated man above women in the natural hierarchy. It might sound unbelievable to us today, but one must bear in mind the huge gulf between our society and theirs and that there were a lot of pressures exerting women to behave according to these societal restrictions. This was a time when there were few alternatives for a woman who wanted food and a roof over her head, other than marriage. Strong religious beliefs, economic circumstances, fear of being ostracised; these all would have affected a woman’s decision to conform, and that is not taking into consideration the love she had for her husband.

There was growing literacy amongst the middle classes at this point in time; previously it was mainly the upper classes that would bother educating women. It was exactly these middle class, aspirational women that conduct books were aimed at.  Women of poorer classes had much more to worry about than their social conduct and no one could tell the upper class women what to do! But middle class women would read these books and seek to emulate the ideas set forth in them – much as we read beauty, home, and cooking articles in magazines today.

A particularly good example of a conduct book in our collection was published by William Whately in 1619, and its full title is A bride-bush: or, A direction for married persons. Plainely describing the duties common to both, and peculiar to each of them. By performing of which, marriage shall prooue a great helpe to such, as now for want of performing them, doe find it a little hell. Compiled an published by William Whately, minister and preacher of Gods Word in Banburie in Oxfordshiere.

William Whately was a puritan vicar in Banbury from 1610 to 1619. You may be familiar with Ben Jonson’s satirisation of Banbury puritans in Bartholomew Fair (with the character Zeal-of-the-land Busy), and judging by A Bride-Bush this is probably a fair comparison!

Contents pages from A Bride-Bush 1619
Contents pages from A Bride-Bush 1619

First published in 1617, this first edition was unauthorised and denounced by Whately who claimed to have lent his manuscript to a friend who published it without his consent. The second edition, of which our copy is an example, was published in 1619 and is four times the length of the unauthorised copy. Interestingly, the second and third editions of A Bride-Bush are dedicated to George Hunt, father of Whately’s wife Martha. In this dedication the author thanks his father-in-law for having “educated me and bestowed upon me a most excellent and virtuous wife”.

A Bride-Bush contains a particularly strong depiction of the subservient wife being in service to the husband/father of the household. It begins fairly pleasantly with Whately expounding upon the importance of love in marriage, but quickly moves on to the absolute dominance and authority of the husband in the relationship. A Bride-Bush is full of quotes such as this:

The man must be taken for God’s immediate officer in the house, and as it were the king in the family; the woman must account herself his deputy, an officer substituted to him, not as equal, but as subordinate; and in this order they must govern: he by the authority derived unto him from God immediately, she, by authority derived to her from her husband

Whately himself was a married man, and one can’t help but wonder of his wife’s thoughts on this publication. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Whately condemns the use of force of violence against wives unless absolutely necessary. As he puts it:

The husband must know, that for punishing his wife he must come exceedingly slowly to it, and be very seldom in it, never proceeding to it till compelled because all other means have been frustrated. For a man to estrange his countenance and behaviour towards his wife to withdraw the testimonies of his love, to cease to trust her, or to speak familiarly and cheerfully to her; there are such things that deserve the name of chastisements. The wife that hath not forgotten all good affection to her husband cannot but smart and bleed under these stripes. They are therefore to be of rare use, and not applied at all till the grossness of much misdemeanour shall compel.

A Bride-Bush caused a bit of a scandal when it was published and was eventually subjected to the strict censorship laws that were in place in the 17th Century. Whately’s views of divorce did not quite align with the churches; he states that a marriage is a contract that can be annulled by adultery and desertion this permitting divorce. Whately was hauled up in front of the Court of High Commission in 1621 and asked to explain these views. He subsequently republished A Bride-Bush in 1621 with his “amended” opinion on divorce.

To the modern eye these books can seem infuriating examples of outdated views and veiled approval for domestic violence. But it is impossible to tell how effective these books were in controlling the wives of the day, both personal and public writing by women does not survive for us to explore. But I like to think that the large volume of conduct books suggest that the women did not bow to the pressures to conform quite as well as the men had hoped.

Today we will be tweeting advice for married couples from A Bride-Bush over on our twitter account @ShakespeareBT.