Marriage: Practically Ideal

by Jessica C. Murphy (2007)

Every time Simon tries to help his wife, it goes terribly wrong and she punishes him violently, as when “she kickt him on the belly, / while the tears run down his hose.” Meanwhile, because she loves sack so much, the wife “would tipple soundly, / behind her Husbands back.” Simon, despairing of his inability to please his wife, decides to end it all by drinking the “poison” that his wife keeps in her room. The poison is—you guessed it—actually sack. The wife “revives” the drunken Simon with smelling salts, and he runs through the streets praising her cure while she beats him “with a basting Cudgel.” The mediation of a neighbor “ma[kes] them both good friends,” which enables Simon to “well please his Wife” that evening.

The marriage of Simon and his abusive wife in “Dead and Alive” (4.118, EBBA 21782) certainly does not sound ideal. In fact, we might expect a tale like this one to signal some form of rebellion against social norms, as it may seem that a reversal of traditional power roles cannot possibly be part of the dominant ideology of the early modern historical moment.1 The resolution of this comical ballad, however, is an ideal companionate marriage. The 99 ballads in Pepys’s “Marriage” category reveal that such stories were part of a network of texts that sought to uphold seventeenth-century marital ideals. The majority of these ballads are comic in tone, and, though they show plenty of marital strife, most, like “Dead and Alive,” move toward the reform and reconciliation of the characters.

While the neighbor in “Dead and Alive” is the catalyst for the story’s resolution, sometimes the ballads rely on punishment to bring about the comic ending. These punishments serve to reunite the couple by showing the way to a good marriage. Men who desert their wives deserve particular punishment, according to a number of these stories. Desertion of one’s wife was a significant problem in the period, and one that marriage manuals often discussed. For example, clergyman William Perkins, in his 1609 household treatise, Christian Economy, claims that there are two main duties that married people owe each other: “cohabitation and communion.”2 A violation of these duties empowers the partner to “severely punish” the offender.3 In “The Dyer Deceiv’d” (4.126, EBBA 21790), the “Husband he chanced to drink with a friend, / Mean while his kind Wife for her gallant did send.” When the wife hears her husband coming home unexpectedly, she hides her lover in the cupboard. “But yet” the husband, “mistrusting something was amiss . . . locked the Cupboard securing the Key” and leaves the house again to go see his friends. It is during this second absence that his wife replaces the lover in the cupboard with a “great Mastiff-Dog.” When the husband brings the other men back to his house to see how he has locked up his wife’s lover, they laugh that he “knew not a Dog from a Man.” This story of the dyer and his wife is typical of the Marriage ballads in that the wife punishes the husband (both through her infidelity and his public humiliation) for his desertion of her to “drink with a friend.” In the ballad’s terms, his punishment makes him a better husband because he will no longer “rais[e] a Scandal upon [his] sweet Wife.” The ballad ends with their reconciliation: she says, “But if you'l be wiser, I'll pardon you this,” and “With that he embrac'd her, and gave her a Kiss.” Husbands are not the only reformed deserters in these ballads, however. For example, in “The contented Couckould,” a husband searches for his wayward wife in London and finds her with a sailor (1.408-409, EBBA 20192). The recovered wife “blusht for very shame,” and this shame is her punishment. The wife’s apology and promise never to run away again shows that she has been reformed by the happy ending of the ballad.

As Perkins makes clear, “communion” is also expected of the married couple. “The Hasty Bride-groom” (4.95, EBBA 21759) tells of a very eager newly-wed husband, who reminds his new wife of her duty by repeating, “I mean to make bold with my own.” When she agrees, the narrator tells us that “The bride-groom, and bride, with much joy on each side, / then together to bed they did go.” The young and inexperienced man in ”The Discontented Bride” (4.119, EBBA 21783), on the other hand, is so worried about the possibility of having children to feed that he neglects his duty to his wife: “he did nothing to please her, or ease her, / as being sow'd up in a Blanket tight.” The wife suffers at first, but then seeks out her own pleasure. The ballad concludes with a justification of the wife’s infidelity:

In his Blanket he lies at his ease,
While she may Revel it where she please,
It is but reason without all dispute,
If he will not, somebody else must do’t.

This ballad shows that there is no “disputing” a wife’s right to “Revel it where she please” if her husband is unwilling to pay his marriage debt.

Of course, the duties of married persons extend beyond the bedroom. Household management is a job for the wives in these ballads, as it is in seventeenth-century marriage manuals. For example, in “A Looking-glass for all Good-fellows” (4.79, EBBA 21743), the wife, by appealing to her husband’s duty to his family, convinces him to stop spending all of their money recklessly. She claims that he is not providing for them as he should: “I and our Children we hardly might fare / For what you get your self is too little for one.” By the end of the ballad, the husband sees his mistakes and promises to change: “I now am resolved to keep the right way / Dear Wife I am sorry I have gone so astray . . . Then prethee dear Wife let us lovingly joyn. . . Let strief and debate have a end now with this.” The wife’s power to transform her husband into a more responsible spouse is common in this category.

A clearly defined sense of each spouse’s obligations permeates these ballads as well. “The Woman to the Plow AND The Man to the Hen-Roost” (4.100, EBBA 21764) recounts the story of two spouses who are made to appreciate each other’s labor by trading roles. The ballad portrays the duties of both spouses as equally difficult and equally important to their livelihood. The equality of spousal duties is common in marriage manuals. For example, Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundreth Points does not assert women’s inferiority, but an equality of marital duties: “of husband & husbandry, (thus I conclude) / with huswife & huswifery, if it be good, / must pleasure together, as cosins in blood.”4

The ideal of the companionate marriage is even clearer in the ballads in which one spouse is expected to take care of the other spouse’s illegitimate child. “Rocke the Babie Joane” (1.396-397r, EBBA 20184) tells of a husband, John, who asks his wife, Joane, to raise his deceased mistress’s newborn child. Joane resists at first, claiming that her husband’s request is outrageous. John reminds her of the story of patient Griselda and convinces Joane to raise the baby as her own. In a variation on this story, “Children after the rate of 24 in a yeare” (1.404-405, EBBA 20190), a man unknowingly marries a woman who is pregnant by another man and she gives birth to twins in the first month of their marriage. The husband takes this as a sign that his wife is very fertile and looks forward to a marriage filled with children.

There are a number of ballads in this category that reveal aspects of the ideal marriage by warning just how vulnerable marriage can be. One major threat to good marriages is any opportunity to gather in groups: alehouses, church, childbirth, and gambling. The ballads accuse both men and women of spending too much time at the alehouse.5 For example, in “Man’s Felicity and Misery” (1.392-393, EBBA 20182), David claims that his

wife will at the Alehouse sit,
And wast away both money and wit;
Nay rather than shee’l liquor lacke,
Shee’l sell the smocke from off her backe.

In “A Hee-Divell” (1.398-399, EBBA 20186), the wife tells us that her husband is always running around and wasting her money at the alehouse. Church, according to many of the husbands in the ballads, is a place where women learn the latest fashions and talk with their gossips, not a place of holiness. Childbirth, furthermore, is a dangerous time during which a wife is surrounded by other women. For example, in “A merry dialogue” (1.388-389, EBBA 20180), the husband expresses his anxiety about the child’s parentage by criticizing the wife's friends: “Your Gossips come unto your joy . . . They say the child is like the Dad, / when he but little share in’t had.” The husband is excluded from the experience of childbirth; thus, it is a threat to the marriage.

The ballads in Pepys’s Marriage category offer advice and warnings, praise married life, praise single life, detail the conditions of marriage, report tales of cuckoldry, and all the while remain positive about the state of marriage. Marriage ought to be a partnership of two people who are both there by consent, according to the ideal of marriage. The ballads in this category demonstrate how to be a part of a marriage that strives for the ideal while also facing the everyday threats against it.

1 For a more detailed discussion about jest literature and women’s rebellion, see Pamela Allen Brown, Better a Shrew Than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003).

2 William Perkins, Christian oeconomie: or, A short survey of the right manner of erecting and ordering a familie according to the scriptures (London, 1609), sig. H1v. The companionate marriage was an ideal of Humanist scholars; for instance, Erasmus details and praises companionate marriage in his Encomium Matrimonii, trans. Richard Taverner (London, 1536?).

3 Perkins, Christian oeconomie, sig. H5v.

4 Thomas Tusser, Fiue hundreth points of good husbandry vnited to as many of good huswiferie first deuised, & nowe lately augmented with diuerse approued lessons concerning hopps & gardening, and other needefull matters : together with an abstract before euery moneth, conteining the whole effect of the saide moneth: with a table & a preface in the beginning both necessary to be reade, for the better understandinge of the booke (London: Richard Totttill, 1573), sig. B4r.

5 Though both men and women visited alehouses, women who frequented them alone rather than in groups would often be marked as sexually loose; Patricia Fumerton, “Not Home: Alehouses, Ballads and Vagrant Husbands in Early Modern England,” in “Renaissance Materialities,” ed. Maureen Quilligan, special issue of Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32 (2002): 495.