Women on top

Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 by Anthony Fletcher Yale, pounds 25; Male self-esteem used to depend on controlling women through sex and violence. Oh yeah? Lisa Jardine begs to differ
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The Independent Culture
In the autumn of 1560 the Vicar of Merington in Cumbria was summoned urgently by neighbours to the house of one Charles Tompson to deal with a domestic disturbance. Mrs Tompson was in labour, but Charles was "something disquiet with himself, insomuch as the midwives durst not deal with her until he had been got out of the way". The Vicar took the disorderly Charles off, and, "being in mistrust of him and his usage, bound him with a rope". The following morning, word was brought that the child had been safely delivered, and the vicar took Charles back. However, when the midwife brought the baby out and asked Charles to give his son his blessing, he flew into a rage, denied that the child was his, and accused the vicar of fathering the bastard himself.

We know about this incident because the Vicar of Merington felt obliged to go before the Church Court in Durham to clear his name. He was able to produce respectable witnesses to testify that Tompson had been deranged, that Mrs Tompson was a modest and virtuous woman, and that there had never been anything between her and the vicar.

Male honour and reputation were fragile things in the early modern period, acutely vulnerable to gossip and innuendo. The witnesses were quick to confirm that Charles Tompson's scurrilous words against the vicar were circulating widely in the community, and affecting attendance at his church services. Poor Mrs Tompson, meanwhile, barely recovered from her labour, was left "holding up her hands" in a state of distress, protesting her innocence.

According to Anthony Fletcher, the mental world of men from Shakespeare's day to Jane Austen's was one in which both their personal self-esteem and their public standing in society depended crucially on their ability to control the women for whom they were held responsible. Scandalous conduct on the part of a woman might fatally ruin her family's reputation. So all kinds of male anxiety and unease became focused upon the difficulty in subduing a supposedly unruly and insubordinate womankind, the near impossibility of keeping uppity and sexually smouldering women in their place. Conduct books stressed the need to discipline wives in much the same fashion as they did hawks and hunting dogs. As William Tyndale put it, "God, who created woman, knoweth what is in that weak vessel and hath therefore put her under the obedience of her husband to rule her lusts and wanton appetite".

The conviction that the blame for a man's failure to prosper in the world could be laid at the door of women produced a thriving line in fantasies, which Fletcher enthusiastically collates in his compendious book. Sex was the best means for keeping women in their place, and of proving a man a "real" man. Women were "itching" for sexual intercourse: they could hardly get enough of it, and they fell sick if deprived. As the 17th-century medical writer Levinius Lemnius explained: "if women do not use copulation to cast out their seed they oft times fall into great diseases and cruel symptoms". When a widow or an old maid finally finds a husband to have sex with, "you shall presently see them look fresh as a rose and to be very amiable and pleasant and not so crabbed and testy...".

Failing sexual satisfaction, there was physical chastisement. To keep them in order, women should be corrected, incarcerated, and if necessary, beaten (in moderation). William Staine found himself in court for wife- beating in 1587, but his offence was not the beating as such, it was his "misusing his wife with stripes contrary to all order and reason" - i.e. his life-threatening use of violence. Neighbours intervened when beatings got out of hand, just as they intervened when Charles Tompson obstructed the delivery of his wife's baby. They did not object to correction and control as such - it was assumed to be a necessary part of the social order.

The trouble with all of this is that we knew it already. Because Anthony Fletcher takes as his subject matter men's view of their social, domestic and sexual world in the early modern period, his meticulous compilation of material offers a recognisable picture of male misconceptions about women. "Greensickness" was the name given to a young women's illness whose symptoms were amenorrhea, pallor, listlessness and lack of appetite. Early modern doctors pronounced that "copulation was the best cure" - what she needed, bluntly, was a good screw. Fletcher observes that the disease may have been a form of anorexia nervosa, but makes no comment on the ludicrousness of the diagnosis.

Recent historical work, by Susan Amussen, Natalie Davis and others has used much of the material on which Fletcher draws to provide us with a richer, more balanced picture of social life in the 16th to 18th centuries. It has weighed the loud, insistent testimony of male voices against the equally present, but more easily overlooked, testimony of women. The task has been made easier by the fact the women went frequently to the Church Courts, and testified there without apparent inhibition. In the court records, women's voices speak loud and clear, protesting their innocence on charges of sexual insatiability, affirming their moderation, modesty, and self-control.

Thanks to this kind of evidence, women cease to be neurotically ventriloquised patriarchal caricatures, and we discover a world in which, for the most part, women and men together constructed a way of life based on compromise and negotiated relationship. When Fletcher tells us that "The Taming of the Shrew is probably the most profound statement about early modern courtship that we have", he has been lured bythe conduct books and educational tracts he has studied into believing that early modern partnership was a life-or-death struggle for control, in which men battled daily for their manhood with the spectre of humiliating domestic defeat at the hands of women. He is closer to the truth when he quotes the parliamentarian Roger Hill's letter to his pregnant wife Abigail: "There is nothing in the world that I can value equal with thee - My dear I thank thee for thy cakes - I never had better. I wish a happy increase of thy little great belly, and that thou mayest be a happy nursing mother shall be the prayer of him that is dearest to thee".

In the end, men in early modern English society were less willfully culpable in their relations with women in early Modern English society than Fletcher apologetically proposes. We should all, I think, find that reassuring.