[Click on image to enlarge] In Early Modern England, both gender hierarchy, with the man at the top, and the husband's patriarchal role as governor of his family and household — wife, children, wards, and servants — were assumed to have been instituted by God and nature. So ordered, the family was seen as the secure foundation of society and the patriarch's role as analogous to that of God in the universe and the king in the state. Women were continually instructed that their spiritual and social worth resided above all else in their practice of and reputation for chastity. Unmarried virgins and wives were to maintain silence in the public sphere and give unstinting obedience to father and husband, though widows had some scope for making their own decisions and managing their affairs. Children and servants were bound to the strictest obedience. Inevitably, however, tension developed when such norms met with common experience, as registered in the records of actual households and especially in the complexities and ambiguities represented in literary treatments of love, courtship, marriage, and family relations, from Shakespeare's King Lear (NAEL 8, 1.1139), to Webster's Duchess of Malfi (NAEL 8, 1.1462), to Milton's Paradise Lost (NAEL 8, 1.1830), and more.

Religious and legal definitions of gender roles and norms are proclaimed in the marriage liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer (1559) and in The Law's Resolutions of Women's Rights (1632), both of which begin from the Genesis story of Adam and Eve's creation, marriage, and Fall. The marriage liturgy sets forth the purpose of marriage as the Church understood them, the contract of indissoluble marriage ("till death us do part"), and the biblical texts underpinning patriarchy, solemnly advising the couple to live by these norms. This, or a very similar ceremony, was understood to solemnize the marriage celebrated in Spenser's Epithalamion (NAEL 8, 1.907) and other marriage poems, as well as virtually all the marriages represented in English literature for the next three centuries. The Law's Resolution was designed to collect the several laws then in place regarding women's legal rights and duties in each of her three estates: unmarried virgin, wife, and widow. The unknown author or compiler discusses, sometimes in a remarkably ironic tone, the many disabilities under which a married woman must live and the new freedom enjoyed by the widow (who had supposedly lost her "head" in losing her husband), as well as the vulnerability of all women of all ages and estates to rape. These discussions illuminate the situation of the widowed Duchess of Malfi in Webster's play.

These norms were also urged, and also modified, in advice books dealing with specific family roles and duties. A treatise on household government by John Dod and Robert Cleaver (1598) elaborates on and contrasts the duties of husband and wife, setting up explicit parallels between the household and the commonwealth. Gervase Markham's book, The English Hus-Wife (1615), outlines the woman's responsibility to understand and administer medicines to her family and to have perfect skill in cookery. Richard Brathwaite's English Gentlewoman (1631) focuses on virtues and activities pertaining to women of the higher classes, drawing attention to expectations of widows' chastity. Thomas Fosset's tract on The Servant's Duty (1613) spells out the assumption that every relationship in society is founded on hierarchy. In his Exposition of the Ten Commandments (1604), John Dod asserts that the primary duty of parents is to correct their children with blows as necessary and that the woman's particular duty is to nurse her own child. Dorothy Leigh's often reprinted advice book The Mother's Blessing (1616) has quite different emphases: the need to bring up children with gentleness and to give them a good education. She also urges her sons only to marry women they will love to the end and to make their wives companions, not servants.

[Click on image to enlarge] Actual families and households departed in various ways from the roles defined in such normative texts. The household of the Sidneys of Penshurst can be partly known through pictures — of the prominent courtier Robert Sidney, Lord Lisle, of their country estate Penshurst, and of his wife Barbara and six of her children; the eldest daughter in that portrait is the poet and romance writer Lady Mary Wroth (NAEL 8, 1.1451). Also, a series of letters from Robert to Barbara over two decades reveals a good deal about their marital relationship, their disagreements about educating the children, and their economic difficulties. These materials invite comparison with Ben Jonson's idealized poem about this household, To Penshurst (NAEL 8, 1.1434). The household of the Sackvilles can be partly known through the picture of Knole, the country house of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and his wife Anne Clifford, and the great family picture of the Cliffords, showing Anne as a girl of fifteen and as a widow of fifty-six. Extracts from Anne's Diary of 1616–19 record some part of her long legal struggle to regain lands she thought due her from her father's estate, the harsh opposition she met from the entire male court establishment, her strained relations with her husband over this matter, her maternal feelings and activities, and the round of her domestic life.

Some texts reveal direct challenges to, or themselves challenge, the cultural norms defining gender and household roles. A pair of texts, Hic Mulier and Haec Vir (1620), call attention to a controversy from the years 1615–20 over women wearing male attire; their title-page engravings display the satirized fashions. This controversy is related to the pamphlet war during the same years over the hoary issue of women's virtue and worth; Rachel Speght's Mouzell for Melastomus with its revisionist interpretation of the Genesis fall story, was probably the only contribution by a woman. The truncated biography that Lucy Hutchinson (NAEL 8, 1.1758) wrote about her early life and the biography of Elizabeth Cary written by one of her daughters reveal how they resisted the usual restrictive educative norms for women. Milton, in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and three other treatises, directly challenged the doctrine of indissoluble marriage and the prohibitions on divorce, arguing the very radical proposition that incompatibility should be grounds for divorce, with right of remarriage. Also during the upheavals of the Civil War period, some women claimed voices in the public sphere: in a petition to Parliament (1649), Leveller women asserted some political rights in the commonwealth; and Margaret Fell published a rationale in 1664 for allowing women to testify and preach in church, as Quakers often did.

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