On the Brides of Jamestown: Old World Puritanism Weaponized for the New World
The Relentless Campaign Against Unmarried Women
Aside from their Virgin Queen, women who remained obstinately single and celibate throughout their lives in 16th- and 17th-century England faced a peculiar fate not shared by their married sisters. After death it was their lot to lead apes in hell, a proverb that fed on Protestant condemnations of celibacy—especially priestly celibacy—as a very Catholic evil that would dispose to debauchery and damnable defilements. Shakespeare slipped the apes into Kate’s choleric mouth in The Taming of the Shrew, while lutenist William Corkine sang of the inevitable shame that befell those choosing to live and die as virgins, “that dance about with bobtaile Apes in hell.” Far better, whispered Corkine seductively, to prostrate yourself to every passing peasant than undergo such shame: “No tongue can tell, What injury is done to Maids in hell.”
The best way to escape such censure, as the Jamestown brides well understood, was to find themselves a husband and subjugate themselves to his will. Society expected all women to marry, whatever they wanted for themselves, and those who remained single and owned no property of their own were pushed to the margins, required to remain dependent as daughters, sisters, kin or servants in other men’s households. “All of them are understood either married or to bee married,” declared the author of The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights of 1632. “I know no remedy,” he added, “though some women can shift it well enough.”
Contemporary guides to marriage laid equal stress on a wife’s essential inferiority and her duty of obedience towards her husband. Take the eight treatises Of Domesticall Duties published by the Puritan clergyman William Gouge in 1622, the year after the Jamestown brides left for America. Gouge preached at the church of St Ann, Blackfriars, home to the maids Anne Gibbson and Elizabeth Browne, and to Audry Hoare’s sister Joane Childe. A wife should refrain from ambition and abandon any notion that she was her husband’s equal, insisted Gouge: “by vertue of the matrimoniall bond the husband is made head of his wife, though the husband were before mariage a very begger, and of meane parentage, and the wife very wealthy and of a noble stocke.” Even Gouge was forced to acknowledge that his sermons on female subservience frequently provoked a rustle of discontent among the women in his congregation.
As for those “masterless” women who remained unmarried by choice or circumstance, patriarchal society viewed them with alarm, fearing mayhem and social disorder. Successive acts of parliament regulating employment and vagrancy empowered local officials to hunt down never-married women between the ages of 12 and 40 and force them into service “for such wages and in such reasonable sort and manner as they shall think meet.” Court records for many English towns bulge with orders to masterless persons to put themselves in service, their “crime” of living without masters elided with other moral failings such as slack attendance at church. Those women who persisted in living on their own could be locked up in houses of correction, commonly known as bridewells after Bridewell Hospital on the Thames, an abandoned royal palace that was quickly branded a “rogues’ hospital,” where the idle or disorderly poor could be confined, whipped and put to work for offenses ranging from vagrancy, prostitution, adultery, swearing, dice-playing, drunkenness and slander, to running away from a master.
To be born a woman subjected you to a flood of popular literature that sought to control what you thought and how you behaved, and made you the butt of countless ballads, proverbs, jokes and tales. These ranged from the relatively light-hearted, like Sir Nicholas Le Strange’s origin myth collected in mid-century: “When man and woman were first made, they had each of them a lace given to lace their Bodyes together, the man had just enough to lace himselfe home, so he left his Tagge hanging downe; the womans proovd somewhat too short, and seeing she must leave some of her body open, in a rage she broake of her Tagge, and threw it away.”
Far more vicious were the anti-feminist pamphlets that vented their fury on women in general, and scolding, domineering and unfaithful wives in particular. One of the most popular was The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward [contrary], and unconstant women by Joseph Swetnam, a Jacobean fencing master and pamphleteer who claimed to have formed his views during 30 years of travel. Published in 1615, Swetnam’s diatribe against women was reprinted at least 13 times during the century. He took his cue from Moses’s claim that a woman was made to be “a helper unto man, & so they are indeed: for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painefully getteth.” Worse was to follow, as he described how women commonly spent “the most part of the forenoone painting themselves, and frizling their haires, and prying in their glasse, like Apes to prancke up themselves in their gawdies; like Poppets, or like the Spider which weaves a fine web to hang the flie.”
If men had to marry (and Swetnam did all he could to dissuade them), then his advice was to “Choose not a wife too faire, nor too foule, nor too rich: for if she be faire, every one will be catching at her, and if she be too foule, a man will have no mind to love her which no body likes, & if too rich… thou shalt find her a commaunding Mistresse.” Widows were not to be trusted either, “for if shee be rich, she will looke to governe, and if shee be poore, then are thou plagued both with beggery and bondage.”
The authors of broadsides and ballads were often as misogynistic as the preachers and pamphleteers. Carried around the country in pedlars’ packs, broadsides delivered news to literate and semi-literate members of society, displayed in public places, nailed to church doors and trees on commons. “Fill Gut, & Pinchbelly,” an illustrated broadside ballad of 1620, condensed society’s condemnation of women into an image of two monstrous animals, one grown fat from its exclusive diet of good men, the other pitifully thin from its meagre fare of good women. John Taylor, the water poet, supplied verses to accompany the broadside’s graphic portrayal of women as fractious, rebellious, power-hungry and discontented:
Now full bellyed Fill gut, so Fat heere in show,
Feedes on our good Men, as Women well know:
Who flocke in great numbers, all weary of lives,
Heere thus to be eaten, and rid from their Wives.
Heere Pinch belly starveth, for want of good meate,
for Women untoward, he no way can eate:
The good are his feeding, but hard to befound,
The worst of them living, the best underground.
Even King James threw himself into the anti-feminist fray, commanding the Bishop of London to order his clergy to “inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stillettaes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.” The clergy duly complied, and London’s pulpits thundered against “the insolence and impudence of women,” provoking a trio of pamphlets—all published in 1620—on the theme of masculine women and womenish men, among them Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman. Playwrights also took women to task, as did the ballad singers “so that they can come no where but theyre eares tingle.”
Society’s insistence that all women should marry nonetheless came at a price for those who conformed. As a woman, marriage created a place for you in society but it also gave your husband control over your rights at common law, notably the right to own property and sign contracts in your own name, since marriage converted your legal status from a feme sole (single woman) to a feme covert, a common-law term that lingered from Anglo-Norman and meant literally “covered woman.” All that you owned became your husband’s, and even his gifts to you remained his in law. “A wife how gallant soever she be, glittereth but in the riches of her husband, as the Moone hath no light, but it is the Sunnes.” A man could beat his wife (though not so much as to cause actual bodily damage), just as he could beat an outlaw, a traitor, a pagan or his villein, all “dispunishable, because by the Law Common these persons can have no action.” In politics as in life, women were voiceless. “They make no Lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none.”
From The Jamestown Brides by Jennifer Potter. Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Potter and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.