The English Huswife

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There is little doubt that early modern England was a patriarchal society where men were regarded and, mostly, treated as superior to women. As demonstrated through anatomical study or through the legal system.[1] And yet, there was room in such a male dominated society for women to be well regarded, sometimes seen in examples of widows or more obviously, female monarchs. However, well regarded and appreciated/valued are two very different things. And indeed, the wives of yeomen and husbandmen were both appreciated and depended upon in many aspects of life: wives would often help their husbands run a business or craft: fetching raw materials in the market, selling the product and accounting were often dealt with by women.[2] Women were relied upon at home too, not just to cook and raise children but also to heal and apply medicine (although men played a role in this as well) as seen in the various recipe books of the period such as, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1615 which offers recipes for dried fruit and cures for coughing.

The English Housewife was first published in the same year as A Daily Exercise. Both offer advice, from men, as to how to better themselves as women. With the former focussing on how women should not just be subservient to men but also to be “of an upright and sincere religion”. Men expected women to honour God primarily; their husbands came a close second, whom they were to consider kings of the households. The reinforcement of patriarchy is clear to see in these books. As is the fear of women, The English Housewife promotes this by saying that for a woman to interpret the “holy word” is a form of “usurping” power.

In terms of content then, this book is a promotion of patriarchy and an attempt to regulate female behaviour. However, the actual recipes were likely not of male creation at all; it is “of no creation of whose name is prefixed” in fact they were probably unpublished works by aristocratic women[3] (giving an insight into the difficulty for female writers to publish). These women would need to have access to expensive ingredients. Wives of yeomen and husbandmen had no such access. They were also unlikely able to read, only 10% of all women could.[4] So the main audience of this book would have been church authorities or gentry[5]. Therefore, the most useful information from this source is evidence of how the upper class thought women should behave and how that tied in with religion, rather than how women actually behaved or were viewed by the majority of men.

[1] W. Churchill, Female Patients in Early Modern Britain: Gender, Diagnosis and Treatment, Ashley Publishing Limited, 2012. Women’s anatomy was viewed in terms of men’s: they were the incomplete, imperfect and ‘leaky’ opposite to a man who held the position at the top of the ‘spectrum’ of gender. In the courts the murder of one’s wife was considered murder; a husband’s murder was considered petty treason.

[2] J. Eales, Women in Early Modern England, 1500-1700, Routledge, 1998

[3] (accessed 02/12/2016)

[4] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1, 1977

[5] (accessed 02/12/2016)

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