Co-Partners in Grace: the Rise and Fall of the Puritan Marriage Manual

MJ Logue author photoRelevant History welcomes M J Logue, a trained archivist and literature graduate who lived in York overlooking the Ouse for five years, studying in the archives of York Minster by day and cleaning the school by night. Her interest in the seventeenth century began when she lived next door to a ruined manor on the edge of the Peak National Park, as a result of which she wrote her first novel aged fifteen. She now lives with her husband, son and five cats in West Cornwall. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Wattpad.


Oh, so and so is such a bore, they say. So dour, so chaste, so—well, joyless. So puritanical.

Gentle reader, I am here to tell you that they’re wrong.

Believe it or not, our Puritan ancestors were considerably more enlightened on the matter of love and marriage than we think. The “conduct manual”—a book, or a sermon, written for young people just starting out on their married life together—was incredibly popular, offering practical and spiritual advice to couples, and printed commercially with remarkable success throughout the seventeenth century.

A Little Commonwealth
Read Thomas Gataker, Bachelor of Divinity and Parson of Rotherhithe, writing in his pamphlet “Marriage Duties Briefely Couched Together”[1] on the matter of marital love:

And this point thus observed may first serve to shew what is one main cause of much neglect of duty in many families, in children towards parents, in Servants toward Master and Mistress; because the governors are not careful of mutual duties betwixt themselves, of concord and agreement the one with the other, of love and fidelity the one to the other, of respectful and regardful carriage the one towards the other.

Or, as he is at pains to point out:

For as in a clock or a watch, if the spring be faulty, the wheels cannot go, or if they move not either other, the hammer cannot strike: so here, where duty faileth between man and wife it causeth a neglect of all other good duties in the family that dependeth upon them.

Gataker was writing advice to young married couples in 1620. He’s advocating love and respect and fidelity—not as a wifely duty, but as a mutual duty.

It’s a really interesting read, actually. It’s absolutely not what you would imagine. It does emphasise, as you would imagine for a seventeenth-century text, the patriarchal nature of the family and the wife’s necessary subjection, but the (idealised, but incredibly progressive) view of family life as a little commonwealth in which husband and wife have rights and responsibilities one towards another, but in which love and fidelity are key.

The first cause of writing is a motherly affection
And it would be wrong to assume that all these cheaply-printed, widely-available little booklets were written by men to instruct and direct their womenfolk, think again. The early modern period saw an explosion of such work, written by women, for women, even before the birth of the novel and the female novelist; mostly domestic and devout advice manuals like Dorothy Leigh’s “A Mother’s Blessing”[2]. Read the early American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, writing on her husband’s absence on public employment[3]:

My head, my heart, mine Eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my Magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye?

Or Thomas Fairfax, Parliamentarian commander of the English Civil War and amateur (and not very good) poet, on the ideal relationship between a man and a woman[4]. He was happily married for something like thirty years to a very feisty lady and knew of what he spoke:

All Creaturs else on Earth that are
Whether they Peace affect or Warre
Males ther Females ne’re opress
By the Lyon safe lyes the Lyoness
The Beares ther Mates noe harme procure
Wtii Wolfe the shee Woolfe lines secure
And of the Bull the Earth wc^ teeres
The tender Heyfer has noe feares
But men then these more brutish are
Who w’l’ ther wiues Contend & jarre

Domestic peace, rather than passion, is the goal of the ideal marriage, to the seventeenth century Puritan—quoting the immortal Sir Thomas again:

…wanton Lust the Mother
Of toyinge Vanity a Bowre
Enimy of Peace the Fount wher Pride doe swime
Th’ Incendeary of Strife of Passions Magazen

A Mutual Duty
So does that mean that the Puritans didn’t hold with carnal pleasure?

On the contrary, within a loving relationship, it was seen as nothing short of essential to happiness. Gataker again, very tactfully—“…some such private dalliance & behaviour to married persons between themselves as to others might seem dotage”—the key being private dalliance, between themselves. It was a significant part of a relationship, not the basis of one. The marriage manuals are very definite on that matter. Careful thought should be given to the long-term compatibility of a couple considering marriage and that it be based on friendship and liking, a mutual support, rather than being led by strong physical attraction.

The commonsense marriage manual, sadly, seems to have flourished briefly throughout the first half of the seventeenth century and then been replaced at the Restoration by much more hands-on and considerably less moral practical manuals like “The School of Venus”—which, one might argue, more effectively reflected the mood of the times than the considerably less catchy:

A bride-bush, or A wedding sermon compendiously describing the duties of married persons: by performing whereof, marriage shall be to them a great helpe, which now finde it a little hell.

[1] Text of “Marriage Duties Briefly Couched Together,”
[2] Northon Anthology Of English Literature,
[3] Anne Bradstreet, Collected Poems,
[4] Poems of Thomas Fairfax,


The Smoke of Her Burning book coverA big thanks to M J Logue. She’ll give away a paperback copy of The Smoke of Her Burning, prequel to her historical fiction series set in the seventeenth century, to five people who contribute a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Co-Partners in Grace: the Rise and Fall of the Puritan Marriage Manual — 20 Comments

  1. I always love it when our ancestors surprise us! I don’t know if it’s in Leland Ryken’s book *Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were,* but I understand that in Puritan (church?) courts husbands could be fined/chastised/punished-somehow if they failed to give their wives sexual satisfaction. Here’s a review of the above title, in which Ryken does more of what this fascinating post does – taking a peek at what was going on back then:

  2. The book sounds really interesting. I enjoyed reading the blog. Our ancestors (and some of mine were Puritans) would be so surprised at today’s world, and maybe more so, of the 1950s.

  3. Enjoyed reading the article.
    I am a first-time visitor and glad I discovered your books. They sound interesting. Not too many are written in this time period that seem interesting.

  4. Having studied Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, I am not surprised why Puritanism has got a bad reputation. It becomes apparent especially in the eleventh grade English curriculum. This idea is also backed up by Mencken who saw “Puritanism as a haunting fear that someone somewhere could be happy.” He further wrote that “First Puritans fell upon their knees and then upon the aborigines.” I am therefore glad that there is evidence that Puritans supported the idea that marital love was not seen only as duty and that it should have the component of romantic love in addition to companionship and procreation. As always, every coin has two sides. Thank you for the interesting thoughts and data you presented.

    • Mirka, thank you for your thoughts! It’s interesting that the concept of the Puritan “killjoy” really starts to bite in 19th century literature. (Obviously people mocked it at the time too, mind!) Poor souls, they weren’t so different to us in that respect – some better and some worse than others.

  5. I think the Puritans got a bad press, largely in England & Wales because of propaganda. As you say, they wrote pamphlets and letters rejoicing in marital love (including how to give a woman pleasure) and also talked about divorce when things went wrong. During the Commonwealth, “The Commonwealth Marriage Act of 1653 brought in the notion of marriage as a purely civil ceremony…[and] stated that the innocent party [in cases of adultery of desertion] should be allowed to marry again”. This was repealed with the Restoration. (source “The Weaker Vessel” by Antonia Fraser.)

    • One day,Paula…had I time and an academic thesis….you can almost trace the point at which a group who were a figure of amusement to their contemporaries, became the Bad Guys. And it wonder what that propaganda was intended to achieve!

  6. I read that when men thought a wife needed to experience orgasm to become pregnant that they fared much better in the marital bed then the did later when it was decided that the wife barely needed to participate for conception to occur. Almost all references to marriage in the Bible have the husband cherishing his wife so I don’t think it surprising that their manuals would recommend that. I also read that Puritan men thought the commandment against adultery referred to them as well as to their wives, unlike many men under Catholics or Anglicans who thought they could choose which commandments to follow. Love the quotes.

    • The Dorothy Leigh text is wonderful. I ran out of room to quote the joy of Dorothy, but-
      Do not a woman that wrong as to take her from her friends that love her, and after a while to begin to hate her. If she have no friends, yet thou knowest not but that she may have a husband that may love her. If thou canst not love her to the end, leave her to him that can.
      Wise words even now.

  7. I remember reading Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller many years ago and I believe that they talked about the more equitable relationship between husband and wife….At the time, it surprised me.I thought their beliefs were interesting as compared to other religious groups of the time. I will definitely check out your series !

  8. and then we can look at Oliver Cromwell, a man whose whole life was dominated by the many women of his family and who had a happy marriage.
    He didn’t dance, but used to gatecrash parties to watch others. He loved music and it was whilst he was Lord Protector that the English Oratorio can to be (it allowed the opera whilst avoiding the acting which Parliament – not Nol Cromwell, banned) and which Nol attended. He loved horses and even overturned a carriage he was racing around Hyde Park. He was a great practical joker and had a very boisterous and ‘robust’ sense of humour.
    Yes, just your normal Puritan.

    • Ah yes, Old Noll’s sense of humour. Hmm. I wish the incident involving him, two troopers, and a bucket of cream had survived as more than a mention. He sounds like he could have been a howling menace at parties. “Don’t sit down till you check the chairs for sweets!”
      “Dad you’re NOT FUNNY!”

        • Wot larks. I always loved that story in Antonia Fraser that after he’d become Lord Protector he used to prowl the gardens of Whitehall in the summer listening for music, and then inviting himself in to join in. It’s sort of a bit sad – it sounds like the sort of thing you’d do if you were very lonely – and at the same time imagine there you are, having a bit of a singalong with some mates, and all of a sudden there’s the Lord Protector. Gulp. No pressure, lads!