To paint an accurate portrait of the early modern European woman is not easy. Much of existing literature focuses on the words of elite women whose lives differed greatly from those of the masses. It is the experiences these all important masses which are most difficult to gain access to. Most records we have of ordinary women survive only because they were made by others: justices of the peace, clerks, doctors and other exclusively male occupations. Even if we were the obtain some undiluted evidence from the hand of a genuinely average 16th-17th century female we could not forget that they did not exist outside the context of the time and that their perception of the world and themselves would be shaped thus. An acute example is that of the 1586 Catholic martyr Margaret Clitheroe who was sentenced to be pressed to death for secret catholic worship; she expressed the most concern however with the shame of the public nudity ordered by the sheriff. This display of a preference for death over indecency illustrates a person shaped by her society’s prescriptions for female behaviour. Even this comes with a disclaimer however as Clitheroe’s words are recorded only by her confessor.
We can safely state that early modern Europe contained a series of patriarchal societies and that this was believed to be justified by natural law. This patriarchal power was seen as central to political, spiritual and social order and so its preservation was essential to society. This key to patriarchal power is possession and most importantly subjection of a wife.1 In these societies becoming master of a household increased one’s authority and therein lay the catch. A man’s power over women was dependant on the woman herself. Is it so unbelievable that an entire witch craze was born initially from nothing but paranoia and mistrust? Women were frequently accused of wiling their days away gossiping, cursing and engaging in immodest talk. One proverb of the time stated ‘many women, many words: many geese, many turds’.
There are some potentially disturbing statistics on conditions of life for the 17th century married woman. On average women lived longer than men but during the first ten years of marriage, women were four times more likely to die. This can be only party explained by maternal mortality. Any possible paranoia over the control on society held by women would not have been helped by the surprising fact that of those born in 1600 almost a quarter of the female population never married at all, almost the same proportion as in Britain today. This combined with a high frequency of widowhood mean that 50% of women were husbandless at any one time and 10% of all households were headed by a woman. The widow would have been of chief concern to all would-be paranoid conservative misogynists as widowhood transformed a woman’s position in society. Those lucky enough to be left with a decent inheritance took on a newfound key role in the local economy and by the late 17th century the number remarrying was falling. Women’s roles in society were accepted as vital but still undervalued and under paid proving that subjection on women was still seen as a necessary means to maintaining the natural order.
So the woman’s lot was not an enviable...