Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 2: At Home)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 1 – At Court
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

Act 2 (At Home) shifts the focus to housewives.  There were three female categories – maidens, wives, and widows – but since every girl was brought up in the expectation of marriage, perhaps that could be recast as pre-wives, wives, and post-wives. Lucy Worsley opens with a Punch & Judy Show, first recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662 in Covent Garden, with the aim of looking at Judy’s life in the 17th century.

In the process of uncovering historical attitudes to housewives, Worsley also illuminates some of the debates raging today. Take marriage. Instead of being the immutable tradition touted by those who fear “redefinition,” the institution has historically been rather fluid. James I established a church ritual in 1604, complete with the reading of banns, and an exchange of vows and rings. The Puritans, under Cromwell, took weddings out of the church – too celebratory, perhaps, people having too much fun? – and replaced them with a sort of civil marriage. All you needed was a Justice of the Peace, vows but no rings, and a joining of hands. As a nod to injuries sustained during the Civil War, the last requirement was waived for those who didn’t have hands. Charles II restored the status quo, but weddings could only be performed by ordained Anglican clergy.

There was another, barely legal, way to get married – a Fleet Wedding. Fleet Street specialized in “marriage houses,” which were actually pubs, and the ceremonies were performed by disgraced priests from the Fleet Prison. But you got a certificate, and it could always be backdated to disguise pre-existing pregnancies.

As you might suppose, women had hardly any rights within marriage, and their families were expected to provide sometimes substantial dowries to the prospective husband. Daniel Defoe called marriage a “Smithfield bargain,” illustrated by Worsley walking round the present day livestock market. Divorce was almost impossible, so some men sold their wives, despite the practice being illegal. And for independently-minded women whose husbands disapproved, there was the Scold’s bridle, modeled briefly and with much distaste by Worsley.

But for all the importance placed on marriage, the Civil War killed so many men that by the 1690s in some towns, half the women were unmarried. Spinsters, as in unmarried women rather than spinners of wool, became a distinct demographic, while the comic figure of the old maid started to appear in popular entertainment.

Worsley points out that with the development of more elaborate houses – i.e. more rooms for specific purposes – middle and upper class women became household managers, including the responsibility for keeping accounts. Hannah Woolley wrote a series of books for them on cookery and household management. She was so influential that a man stole her name to write The Gentlewoman’s Companion or, A Guide for the Female Sex. Needless to say, it promoted the idea of obedience to men. Changing times brought an improvement in status. This was especially so in the case of upper class women who managed large country houses.

She highlights some of these exceptional women – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, for example. A feminist and playwright, she so charmed her husband, William, that they became “the John and Yoko of the Restoration age.” Pepys, who we last encountered at court creaming his breeches at the sight of King’s mistress in her night clothes, was disgusted by the pair of them. Margaret was “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,” and William “an ass” for being led by her.

Women were also involved in the preparation of medicinal herbs, but had to be careful to avoid the taint of witchcraft. While the official attitude towards it was becoming more skeptical, some were  hanged, and many ordinary people were still deeply superstitious. Worsley had her hands tied to her feet, but was spared the indignity of being chucked into a pond to demonstrate trial by swimming. Given that she was wearing a period dress, I was rather looking forward to the sweet and literal “liquefaction of her clothes” (Robert Herrick), but you can’t have everything. If they sank, they were innocent and actually pulled out in time. I’d always assumed these poor women were left to drown, just to make sure the test was carried out properly. If they floated, they weren’t necessarily guilty, but were tried for witchcraft. Another myth exploded.

Midwives were originally an important, relatively high-status group, with instruction manuals written for their profession. They were pillars of the community, responsible not only for the birth of babies, but also required to attend christenings. Doctors were male, and only attended a birth if there were complications. As new medical technology was developed, like forceps, they slowly began to replace midwives at even normal births – a medicalization of childbirth that has continued to the present.

So it was a mixed bag for women in the 17th century. But in one area they were better off than their successors, due to the mistaken idea that conception was only possible if the woman had an orgasm. Hence the attentiveness of husbands who wanted an heir, guided by a remarkable book – Aristotle’s Masterpiece – a comprehensive sex manual that included a detailed description of the clitoris so the chaps could find it. Worsley read the excerpt, then blushingly looked round at the film crew and burst out laughing. I’m glad they kept that bit in.

Next week it’s the heroines of the stage.

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