Women were challenged with expressing themselves in a patriarchal system that generally refused to grant merit to women’s views. Cultural and political events during these centuries increased attention to women’s issues such as education reform. Though modern feminism was non-existent.
The social structure women limited opportunities for involvement; they served largely as managers of their households. Women were expected to focus on practical domestic pursuits and activities that encouraged the betterment of their families, and more particularly, their husbands. Education for women was not supported—harmful to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality. Women who spoke out against the patriarchal system of gender roles, or any injustice, ran the risk of being exiled from their communities, or worse; vocal unmarried women in particular were the targets of witch-hunts.
The seventeenth century women continued to play a significant, though not acknowledged, role in economic and political structures through their primarily domestic activities.They often acted as counselors in the home, “tempering” their husbands’ words and actions. Women were discouraged from directly expressing political views counter to their husbands’ or to broadly condemn established systems; nevertheless, many women were able to make public their private views through the veil of personal, religious writings.
The seventeenth century represents a fascinating period of English history, drawing the attention of whole generations of historians. This turbulent age saw three major events that had a deep impact on England’ s political as well as social life—the English Revolution, the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Amidst the turmoil of the events, people’s everyday lives unfolded. While it was men’s preoccupation to keep the country’s political and economic affairs going, women had an indispensable, though far less public, part to play. This paper aims at providing an outline of the seventeenth-century English marriage, viewed from the woman’s perspective. It touches upon topics such as concluding marriages, basic marriage values, duties of a married woman and possibilities of divorce. Attention is paid to the areas in which the seventeenth-century reality was different from today’s.
In seventeenth-century England, marriage and sexual morals played a far more important social role than nowadays. A family centred around a married couple represented the basic social, economic and political unit. In the Stuart period, a husband’s “rule” over his wife, children and servants was seen as an analogy to the king’s reign over his people—a manifestation of a hierarchy constituted by God. A woman was regarded as the ‘weaker vessel’ (a phrase taken from the New Testament)—a creature physically, intellectually, morally and even spiritually inferior to a man; therefore, the man had a right to dominate her (Fraser 1981: 1).
In a society strongly influenced by Puritan values, sexual integrity and the status of a married person gave a woman respectability and social prestige. This, together with the fact that it was very difficult for women to find ways of making an independent living, meant that securing a husband was a matter of great importance. Theoretically, it was possible for two people to marry very young. The minimum legal age was 12 years for women and 14 years for men. In addition, it was possible for the couple to get engaged at the age of 7, with the right to break off the engagement on reaching the minimum age of consent (Stone 1965: 652). However, early marriages were rather rare—the average age of the newlyweds was about 25 years.
Interestingly, the basic requirement for a legally valid marriage was not a formal consecration in a church, but the completion of a marriage contract, commonly called ‘spousals’. Spousals were an act in which the bride and groom said their vows in the present tense—‘per verba de prasenti’ (Ingram 1987: 126). In a majority of cases, this procedure was accompanied by a church ceremony (banns). Yet if the marriage was concluded without witnesses and not consecrated in a church, it had the same legal validity. This practice had existed in England since the twelfth century and lasted till 1753. Not having to go through a church ceremony made it possible for lovers to marry secretly, without the knowledge of their parents. In this way, they could escape the dynastic scheming of their families.