The protestant idea of marriage in early modern England

The protestant idea of marriage in early modern England

Fletcher, Anthony

Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge, 1994)


Patrick Collinson concluded a recent tautly argued review of the historiography of the Protestant family by saying that ‘the doctrine and, so far as we can observe it in the field, the practice of early Protestantism in respect of marriage and domestic matters generally was not a total novelty, if novel at all’. In view of this it may appear consciously challenging to entitle a contribution to this book ‘The Protestant idea of marriage’. Yet his essay is full of sensitive comment on the questions that are left open after students of the conduct books have variously interpreted them on the one hand as embodying new
values, even as giving shape to the family in its modern form, and on the other as repeating time-honoured or at least earlier advice. The Reformation, Collinson declares in a memorable phrase, ‘riveted home patriarchy’, but Protestantism, he also believes, ‘deepened the emotional quality of family life’. Within the conduct books he sees a discrepancy between ‘a stress on patriarchy amounting to a kind of benevolent despotism’ and attitudes towards wives and children ‘which encouraged affection and respect for their personal autonomy’.  Others also have seen an historical problem here. Lawrence Stone saw one but closed it off with a schematic formulation of the development of the family which has not convinced many.  Susan Amussen talks of the ‘double messages’ of the conduct book writers in her analysis of the texts. The purpose of this essay is to explore whether the advice on marriage given by a group of Puritan clerics in the period from the 1590s to the 1640s really is rent by inconsistency.


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