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The Role of Family in Early Modern England

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The Role of Family in Early Modern England

During the early modern period of England's history, the role of family played an important part in society. This was the same for both governed and governing classes.

The nuclear family (father, mother and children) as opposed to extended family was central to the residential and emotional affairs of most people. Patriarchachal society was the style of the time, males dominated in all aspects of life. The male was always the head of the household. Women were seen as subservient and their main purpose was to please her male counterpart. This was view was heavily based upon the story of Adam & Eve and the Garden of Eden, Eve was the first to succumb to temptation and persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden apple. In 1632, The Law's Resolutions of Women's Rights was published anonymously in London. The author placed women in a context of blame originating with Eve.

"Eve because she had helped to seduce her husband hath inflicted on her an especial bane. In sorrow shalt thou bring forth thy children, thy desires shall be subject to thy husband and he shall rule over thee".

This had resulted in severe penalties for all women since Eve. "Women have no voice in parliament. They make no laws, they consent to none, they abrogate none".

Religion and the law combined to enforce an inferior status upon women.

The Bible was the foundation upon which the conduct of family was performed. Because religion was much more important than it is now both the governed and governing classes lived under the direction of the Christian belief system. Marriage was another important part of family life. Marriage was one of the most momentous steps in a person's life. All early modern commentators placed great stress upon making a careful choice of a marriage partner. Most couples were married in their mid to late twenties. However it was possible for a girl to be married as young as seven years old. At age fourteen a girl could marry without her father's consent. For the wealthier classes marriage was not always an expression of romantic love. It was a device for cementing or improving family fortunes and often reflected complex calculations to achieve these goals. Even for the poorer classes, marriage was not to be undertaken without some forethought. The expense of a wife and children could put pressure on a poorer breadwinner's resources.

Once married, the roles of husband and wife were clearly defined. A husband cared for his wife and children and provided them with all the necessities of life. In return a wife maintained the household and, with her husband, raised dutiful children.

A women was expected to marry and produce babies, this was enforced by biblical precept and the law. A marriage could be annulled or ended if there was a failure to produce children. One example of this was in 1560; Thomas Sabell sought to end his marriage because his wife had not had a child. The marriage was annulled and he and his former wife found new partners however in both new marriages children were born. The Church Court ordered them to return to their original partners. It believed that: "the Holy Church was deceived in its former judgement". It is more than likely that Thomas Sabell was a member of the Governing class, as divorce among the governed was highly unlikely. Divorce was frowned

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