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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