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Did Patriarchal Principles Exist in Early Modern Life?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


During the period 1500-1700, the term ‘patriarchy’ referred to the classical notion that fathers should rule. And yet, historians must recognise the importance of differentiating between practice and precept to access a greater understanding of lived experience during the early modern period. Social class, for example, was an important hierarchy which interacted with corresponding hierarchies of gender to produce a multiplicity of alternative masculinities and femininities which existed alongside dominant ideals. New openings in the historiography have also revealed that men, too, could be barred from access to patriarchal privileges.

Firstly, one way patriarchy was upheld was by the principle that man’s sole ‘function and vocation’ was to maintain his family and that married men should be the sole providers for their family. However, the development of women’s and gender history and research into the realities of women’s work in the early modern period suggests that the lower down the social order, the less applicable the patriarchal order becomes. A large proportion of the population was poor, living most of their lives near or at the subsistence level and as many as two-thirds of women experienced poverty at some stage during their lives. Indeed, in times of particular hardship, women could even emerge as principal earners and sole heads of household, a direct subversion of patriarchal principles. Women’s work included child-care for other women, midwifery, teaching in charity schools and illegal activity, such as work as unlicensed ale-sellers.

It is in this context that men, too, struggled to uphold patriarchal principles, resulting in the creation of new notions of manhood. Indeed, in a period of rapid demographic expansion in the mid-sixteenth century, unmatched by sufficient economic growth, economic independence and householding status was increasingly difficult to attain. Instead, many men developed ‘class-specific’ ideologies of male status and many of the excesses traditionally associated with youth culture, including drinking as well as gambling and disorderly conduct, were incorporated into the adult male identity. Historians such as Shepard have continued to argue that we should separate our understandings of manhood from patriarchy as a result, so we can understand how men who delineated from normative patriarchal ideals resisted being simultaneously emasculated.

Women could also transgress patriarchal principles by virtue of their rank in society. Women of privilege, for example, could enter politics through birth, inheritance, and patronage, which gave them positions at court and allowed them to move in the circles in which politics was discussed. The period was also marked by the political involvement of ordinary women and during the Civil War, women adopted new forms of political activism in the religious sphere through their involvement in radical religious sects and reform groups.

Nevertheless, the principles of patriarchy were still evident in the way conceptions of female honour were inseparable from sexual reputation. Historians have been particularly preoccupied with the apparent divergence along gendered lines of the terms in which reputation was disputed in defamation litigation. Cases brought by women, for example, overwhelmingly concerned their sexual morality, whereas cases brought by men were more likely to involve issues relating to economic matters. Gowing’s work has also demonstrated that there was no male equivalent for the word ‘whore’ and that its ‘corollary’ for men - ‘cuckold’-did not represent the same offence as it did to women for whom it bore real consequences, including access to work.

Moreover, it is clear that patriarchal principles which sought to hold men to strict ideals of economic independence, and women’s corresponding dependence, as well as the rationale that sought to exclude women from the political sphere, did not always hold up in practice. However, the principles of patriarchy were still reflected in the way women’s sexual morality remained central to their status and the way in which society sought to police women’s sexuality.

Further reading:

  1. Crawford, P., and S., Mendelson, Women in early modern England (1998)

  2. Gowing, L., Domestic dangers: women, words, and sex in early modern London (1996)

  3. Laurence, A., Women in England, 1500-1760: a social history (1994)

  4. Shepard, A., Meanings of manhood in early modern England (2003)

  5. Shepard, A., ‘From anxious patriarchs to refined gentlemen? Manhood in Britain, c.1500-1700’, Journal of British Studies (2005)


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