Household Politics: Conflict in Early Modern England
by Don Herzog
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, 209 pp., $38.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary S. Hartman
Don Herzog’s new book, Household Politics, presents a lively and iconoclastic romp through mounds of literary sources. Herzog explains that when he set out in search of domestic squabbles in this period, he unearthed a huge cache of funny, snide, and hostile exchanges from plays, trials, songs, jokes, poems, diaries, and more. While most were unknown, many of these sources were familiar in their day, and some—the stage comedies, for instance—were wildly popular.
Herzog, who holds a joint appointment in the University of Michigan’s law school and political science department, notes that most of his sources were published from 1650 to 1750. “But I roam,” he warns, “from the fifteenth century to the later eighteenth century, as the argument demands.” That he does. Still, it is well worth climbing aboard for this quirky but captivating guided tour of his findings.
While plainly fascinated by the prickly clashes he has discovered, Herzog is not pursuing domestic conflicts for themselves alone. Beyond their voyeuristic (bawdy and scatological) appeal, they offer “a social world full of ornery, funny, sickening, and lethal controversies about gender, patriarchy, misogyny . . . and more,” he writes. These household disputes, in fact, supply the bulk of evidence for his book’s wider thesis: that most people in the early modern era, contrary to still-prevalent views, were not knee-jerk champions of patriarchal government, either in households or in states.
In a period before households themselves lost their public functions and came to be seen as private entities set apart from other social institutions—a development not complete until the modern era—domestic conflicts, among (mostly) husbands, wives, and servants, were, says Herzog, “shot through with controversies about legitimate authority,” as well as being “richly political, full stop.” What is more, he argues, these conflicts demolish the stubborn idea that English people at this time “imagined that male power was natural or necessary, part of the woodwork of the world, not a contingent social practice that could be reformed, or even abolished.”
Herzog blames his academic colleagues, political theorists who focus on “canonical” authors such as Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, and even John Locke, for perpetuating what he calls the “big sleep thesis”—the idea that the early modern English “slumbered, blissfully unaware that patriarchy might be thought controversial.” Not so, says Herzog, who counters that people in early modern England routinely treated patriarchal views with eye-rolling skepticism, rude laughter, and even open hostility. He concedes that social historians, who study how ordinary people navigate their daily lives, are likelier than political theorists to accept his thesis, but he chides them, too. For instance, he derides the eminent Keith Thomas for stating that there was then “a universal belief in [the] inferior capacity” of women”—a view Herzog brands “a mirage.”
I will return to Herzog’s thesis, but first a word about his style. He presents his evidence with dramatic flair. Those who have problems with his book—and I count myself among them—will still appreciate his formidable erudition. They may be amused, too, by his success, through chatty, confidential asides, in enticing his audience to imagine themselves in cahoots with him as he unfurls each telling new remnant of literary evidence. He even invites readers to reject his own analysis of a poem here, or a joke there—reckoning, I suppose, that the profusion of intriguing examples on offer frees him to allow readers to snub one or two of his verdicts without imperiling his overall thesis.
Turning from style to substance, I will quote more than I otherwise might from the vivid voices we hear in the conflicts Herzog turns up. This is not because I agree with his view that household conflicts over what he labels patriarchal “blather” show that most people found patriarchal ideals disputable at best. I don’t. It is because anyone interested in early modern England should not miss the feast of literary examples Herzog has dug up—nor should they miss the many insightful comments he provides, regardless of whether they agree with him or accept his wider thesis.
Herzog’s focus is on conflicts between the sexes, and in his preface he launches his case splendidly with a comedy by John Fletcher called The Noble Gentleman, from 1626. Staged often thereafter, it depicts the struggles between a “not-quite-noble” French gentleman tired of hanging around the royal court, and his wife, who adores life there. Learning that her husband plans to move them back home, she protests that their patient currying of favor at court is about to pay off. He fumes:
Wife talke no more, your Retoricke comes too late,
I am inflixible; and how dare you
Adventure to direct my course of life?
Was not the husband made to rule the wife?
His wife is ready for this jibe, and catches her pompous mate off guard:
’Tis true, but where the man doth misse his way,
It is the womans part to set him right . . . .
Swiftly the gentleman is outmaneuvered, as his wife’s friends crowd around, lavishing him with praise and fake aristocratic titles. Flattered, the new “duke,” changing into fancy new clothes, literally lets his old trousers fall down as he kneels before his wife:
And here in token that all strife shall end
‘Twixt thee and me, I let my drawers fall
And to thy hands I do deliver them:
From this time forth my wife shall wear the breeches.
Herzog says that what interests him is not whether the author wished to convey that women should “wear the breeches.” Nor is it the opposite message, that nothing good can come of women’s efforts to usurp men’s rightful authority. What matters, he says, is that the drama elicited from audiences a range of reactions revealing their own conflicts and quandaries over legitimate authority and the proper roles of the sexes.
[The husband’s asides] are not bombshells of bold radicalism exploding on the playgoers’ dazed imaginations. They’re reminders of everyday platitudes, likely to provoke wry snickering and rueful wincing. … If chortling, not chagrin, is in order, we have a husband puerile in his high-handed assertion of dominance, which helps make him the butt of an extended joke.
After this rousing preface, in which Herzog celebrates how focusing on less well-known writers and works (such as The Noble Gentleman) challenges the notion conveyed in the canonical sources that early modern England was a bastion of patriarchal fealty, I was taken aback by the theme of his first chapter. Without skipping a beat, Herzog turns, in “A Tale of Two Poems,” to linked pieces by Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, is located squarely among the era’s canonical writers. Montagu, an aristocrat and poet later known for her epistolary account of life in Turkey as wife of the British ambassador, was friendly with intellectuals and court figures including John Gay; Mary Astell (often cited as England’s first feminist writer); Sarah Churchill; and Alexander Pope. True, the poems Herzog examines are among each writer’s lesser works. Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” appeared in 1632, and Lady Mary’s stinging riposte appeared anonymously two years later.
Herzog tells us that Swift’s poem, which lightly camouflaged its author as “the Rev. Dr. S----t,” recounts the disillusioning visit of young “Strephon” to the dressing room (in her absence) of his lady love, Celia. Aware that she often spends five hours on her toilette, he is still unprepared for the sickening filth and stench that await him.
No Object Strephon’s eye escapes,
Her Pettycoats in frowzy Heaps;
Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish’d o’er with Sniff and Snot.
The Stockings, why shou’d I expose,
Stain’d with the Marks of stinking Toes;
Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a Week in?
Worse follows when Strephon finds that his “careless Wench” has stuffed her unwashed undergarments into a “reeking chest,” from which they “Send up an excremental Smell”
. . . Thus finishing his grand Survey
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Herzog remarks that critics wasted no time in labeling Swift a frightful misogynist, although the woman he describes as the “fiendishly talented” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu later offered an even more personal attack on Swift in her own poem: The Dean’s Provocation for Writing The Lady’s Dressing Room. She fancies that Swift’s motive was a mortifying prior encounter with a prostitute, whose body odors and functions had rendered him impotent.
The “disappointed Dean,” in Montagu’s telling, vows to get revenge by writing a poem describing his tormenter’s dressing room in all its malodorous detail, to which she coolly replies, “I’m glad you’ll write, You’ll furnish paper when I Sh[it]e.” Decades later, Herzog adds, Lady Mary had a commode built that was backed with the works of Swift, Pope, and Bolingbroke, giving her the satisfaction, she joked, of shitting on them daily.
One can appreciate why Herzog chose to stretch his category of household conflicts to feature this dazzling exchange. (He exempts Swift from the misogyny charge along the way, admitting, though, that it was a close call.) By his last chapter, Herzog has enlisted not just the promised “noncanonical” writers, but Samuel Butler, Jonathan Swift (again), Daniel Defoe, William Congreve, and more—in the end laying claim to William Shakespeare himself, a mighty proponent for his thesis. In remarks on The Taming of the Shrew (1592), Herzog rejects all the critics who keep finding misogyny in the play, and proceeds to present Katherina’s final speech of submission to Petruchio not as one of a chastened vixen spouting blather, but of a calculating heroine who now “grasps her subordination” as part of an “explicitly political” compact. As she declares to Petruchio:
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
By this time, however, Herzog’s project has begun to raise awkward questions. If his aim is to debunk what he sees as the fixed but wrong-headed notion that most English people from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries clung to the “rule of the fathers,” why, on the one hand, are readers who take his case in good faith likely to be asking themselves how Herzog’s veritable avalanche of sources challenging “official” patriarchal dogma managed to elude scholarly attention for so long? On the other hand, for readers who suspect (as I do) that patriarchal sentiment in early modern England was strong, but hardly the item of near-universal blind faith that has begun to look like Herzog’s straw man, a further problem remains. Admitting that in this era patriarchal dogma and antipatriarchal pushback were real developments, we still require better explanations for both these items than Herzog presents.
Why were so many men in high places back then so anxious to champion male sovereignty over women, households, and society? Why were so many women declared to be (and often were!) headstrong, insolent, and insubordinate? Herzog doesn’t say. To the extent that he addresses these key questions at all, his answers amount to an appeal not to specific historical developments but to something closer to a universal human nature. For example, while he cites, without explaining, fervent patriarchal posturing on behalf of husbands and monarchs, he contends that this posturing by itself prompted the widespread, reflexive, antipatriarchal reaction on the household front that is his book’s subject. Here is how he summarizes this case on his concluding pages:
Husbands are sovereign: so some insisted, triggering others’ defiance. The king is father of his people: insistence triggered defiance. In both cases, defiance triggered insistence, too. Again, people insist on principles when they think others reject them.
Especially for an author wary of glib explanations, this won’t do. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to, since an existing, historically based account has more to offer here than this robotic one. That account draws on the still too-little-known discovery in the 1960s that a pattern of late marriage and single-family households (as opposed to the multifamily household structure that had dominated in agricultural societies for thousands of years) was already fully in place in England and northwestern Europe by 1600—with some of its features present as early as the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. This “streamlined” pattern was believed until then to have turned up only in the modern era, in response to demands for a more mobile workforce. Discovered by economist John Hajnal, and dubbed “the western family pattern” by the historian Peter Laslett and his Cambridge Group for the Study of Population and Social Structure, the pattern caused great excitement among then-new social historians in the 1970s and early 1980s, although they were interested mainly in its possible causal influence on the two major extra-domestic developments in the Western world—industrialization and democratic systems of government—rather than in the internal domestic conflicts among the denizens of these households, which captivate Herzog. (See Hajnal’s “Western European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in Population in History, Essays in Historical Demography, edited by D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley(1965); and Hajnal’s “sequel” in “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System,” in Population and Development Review, Vol. 8 . Full disclosure: In my book The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past , I pursue a case that the late marriage system was “the single vehicle most responsible for generating novel political structures, transformed means of livelihood, and fresh social, cultural, and intellectual systems in the period known as the early modern era.)
The features of this unique “western family pattern” are two: a high age at marriage, especially for women; and many people, ten to twenty percent, who never marry at all. In more typical, early marriage-multifamily settings, by contrast, marriage is nearly universal. Teen-aged brides marry men up to a decade older and move directly from their natal households into those of their new in-laws. In the England Herzog describes, however, save for the socioeconomic elite, who continued to marry younger, brides were in their midtwenties and grooms in their late twenties. Adolescents of both sexes usually left parental households to seek waged work, often as live-in servants negotiating annual contracts. Instead of having marriages arranged by parents, then, they ordinarily met their future mates in workplaces. Engaged couples postponed marriages until their pooled savings allowed them to launch new households of their own.
Scholars in the nearly half century since the discovery of this pattern have found household dynamics that appear, among other things, to have fueled the domestic conflicts Herzog features. Take sex and courtship. Women in late-marriage settings had a role in choosing their future husbands. However, as females on their own, they were exposed to new risks, including seduction and rape by fellow workers and employers—which were less likely to befall the inexperienced, more sheltered women in the more common, gender-segregated early marriage settings. Yet over time, these older, more independent women developed a readiness to confront such risks, often seeking support through outsiders as well as extrafamilial institutions.
Here’s one example. More typical if less amusing than the wife who outwitted her mate in Fletcher’s play is a case from a recent study featuring one of her less privileged, real-life contemporaries, Alice Wheeler. Importuned by her spouse-to-be to have sexual relations with him, on the grounds that their engagement meant they were “already husband and wife,” Wheeler testified tartly in a consistory court: “I know . . . that I am your wife and you my husband, yet until such time as we are married [in church] you shall not have the use of my body.” (See my review of Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720, by Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford , in the Journal of Social History [Spring 2000].)
Strikingly, when the wife was one of only two resident adults in these late marriage households, the husband became increasingly dependent on her to keep the household afloat. Yet husbands were uncomfortable with wives’ new authority as “deputy husbands,” and Herzog’s finding of strong antipatriarchal sentiment in these households owes something to husbands’ dependence on their wives in the late-marriage system. (Indeed, thanks to late marriage, the sexes were embarked on a slow boat to equality.) The upshot was a long, often painful struggle, continuing in many guises and disguises to this day, as men sought to retain the upper hand in day-to-day governance through compliments, cajoling, insults, and violence. A husband could still count on the common-law right of coverture, which gave him control of any property his wife brought into a marriage. Husbands also had a legal right to beat their wives (which Herzog mentions), as well as to name their own or others’ wives, or widows, as witches (which he doesn’t).
The men may have enjoyed hearing the Protestant minister hail them on Sundays as household monarchs, but none appears as a full-time, full-throated champion of female inferiority. Indeed, in tacit recognition of women’s enhanced authority as surrogates for their husbands, Protestant clerics began to tout women’s spiritual equality with men and praise their status as mistresses of households—while still insisting vigorously on their divinely ordained subservience to their husbands.
A familiar voice here was that of the Protestant minister William Gouge, the author of the popular household manual Of Domesticall Duties (1622), which aimed at once to elevate the husband as “king in his owne household” and to chastise the “many wives, whom ambition hath tainted and corrupted within and without: they cannot endure to heare of subjection: they imagine that they are made slaves thereby.” Revealingly, Gouge remarks that whenever he instructs his parishioners in “the doctrine of female submission and inferiority,” he senses a degree of “squirming” and “murmuring” among the women (see http://www.hull.ac.uk/reforum/v4n1/marshall.htm).
The historian Susan Amussen, in An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988), reports that after the revolution in the midseventeenth century, when King Charles I was executed, the endlessly repeated analogies between fathers as kings in their families and kings as fathers of their people became ever more strained. Ordinary households began to lose their prior functions, such as collective village policing of the poor and disorderly, to local notables who were recognized as exercising what were now acknowledged as more “official” or public roles. She notes that it was not until the late seventeenth century that discussion of the family as distinct from other social institutions even became possible—but adds that by the eighteenth century, households came to be seen as ever more private realms, increasingly perceived as entities separate from the state.
By then, most households were operating less like the benevolent “miniature monarchies” of patriarchal fantasy and more like messy, still unequal, but functioning partnerships between women and men. Family units steadily came to resemble not “natural” associations but voluntary (if increasingly unstable) units—small-scale models for future, more participatory, and less authoritarian national governments. In settings where the day-to-day experiences of the sexes continued to converge rather than diverge, the two adult partners created ways to use their households as a base to support and advance their individual and mutual fortunes. These “voluntary compacts,” as John Locke described them in the seventeenth century, in turn, helped enable men, and then women, to transform themselves into citizens of new democratic states.
There is yet no consensus among scholars on the precise influence of the single-family system on either domestic or extradomestic developments. Herzog himself never mentions this system—which I have just argued often explains his own subjects’ cantankerous behavior more satisfactorily than the “tit for tat” he suggests. Yet awareness of a unique household formation system that promoted some behaviors, such as women’s enhanced authority, while suppressing others, such as men’s patriarchal allegiances, would have offered insights into how macro changes in household structure affect what happens both within and beyond those households.
More attention to the grassroots origins of the late marriage system might also have prompted Herzog to showcase a more representative set of domestic conflicts—fewer drawing rooms and more court rooms. (His footnotes make clear that his examples are taken almost exclusively from urban—London—households, and disproportionately among those, from households that could afford at least one servant.)
Herzog devotes much attention to patriarchy among the political and religious elite in early modern England, and even more to antipatriarchal sentiments among diverse householders. In the end, though, it turns out that his real passion in this odd but riveting book is conflict itself, more than its changing subjects. He says that he values conflict not because it leads to consensus—which he grants is “a venerable staple of liberal and democratic theory”—but because “conflict itself qualifies as social order.” He celebrates conflict in domestic contexts, in particular, because he views households as more enduring sites than governments, and claims domestic conflict as the universal behavioral model for any government or state that would be recognized as legitimate.
The present moment is of course a parlous one to be publishing a book celebrating the virtues of political conflict. Even Herzog himself, who is eager to swim against most tides, concedes that there needs to be minimal shared ground between adversaries in disputes, so as to distinguish admissible conflict from hard-core enmity. (He even speaks admiringly of what he calls “the liberal democratic category loyal opposition”).
Other scholars, however, are now rejecting altogether the primacy of conflict that Herzog embraces in human affairs. Scientists and humanists alike are expressing concern about mounting tensions between proclaimed loyalties to democratic ethics and institutions on the one hand, and the silent perpetuation of patriarchal privilege and power on the other. Ever more critics, in fact, are describing what makes societies run in terms Herzog would ban from the political lexicon—terms such as consensus, and even love.
For example, in her new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters For Justice (2013), the esteemed Aristotelian philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls for building societies that promote “public emotions” to expand the individual citizen’s “circle of concerns.” The learned primatologist Frans de Waal, in his 2009 book The Age of Empathy, cites the urgent need for “a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature,” which have been distorted by an emphasis upon competition and aggression dating back to the discredited ideas of social Darwinism. Praising de Waal’s book, esteemed psychologist Carol Gilligan says in her own latest book, Joining the Resistance (2013),
[deWaal’s] research provides extensive evidence of the empathic nature of primates including humans, and scientists more generally now speak of “emotional intelligence,” the “relational self,” and the “feeling brain.” The old gender binaries are coming undone.
Mary S. Hartman taught European and women’s history at Rutgers University from 1968, was dean of Douglass, the college for women(1981-1994), and founded and directed the Institute for Women’s Leadership (iwl.rutgers.edu), from 1995 to 2009, where she is now a senior scholar. Her publications include Clio’s Consciousness Raised, co-editor and introduction (1974); Victorian Murderesses (1977); Talking Leadership: Conversations With Powerful Women, editor and introduction, (1999), and The Household and the Making of History (2004).