What Makes a Good Husband: An Early Modern Take

What makes a good modern husband? Most people take the classical view; a husband is supposed to be the breadwinner, the one who works the 9-5 job and supports the family. Occasionally they might do the odd job around the house, but more conservative people will say the sole realm of the husband is the workplace. A more modern take is that while a husband is still expected to work they are also supposed to take an active role in the household – playing an equal role with the housewife in a less rigid men and wife family system.

The early modern husband was encouraged to be far more. Part geologist, meteorologist, chef and carpenter, the early ideal early modern husband should be at least familiar with all of those on top of their farming duties. The ‘English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts.’ by Gervase Markham, written in 1613, attempted to show the contemporary readers what the ideal husband should strive to be. With advice on ‘how he shall judge and foreknow all kinde of weathers and other Seasons of the yeare’[1] and ‘of several parts and members of the ordinary Plough, and of the joyning of them together’[2] Markham’s book is full of practical advice that while it may not make the average farmer an expert it would at least help to familiarise themselves  with the necessary basics of these areas.

[1] Gervase Markham, English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts. , (1613), p 4

[2] Ibid p.5

 ‘Farmers harvesting crops’ , Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress. 1486

It is important to note however that most of the population at the time were illiterate[1] – the average peasant farmer would not be able to read or perhaps even own such a book. Markham himself states that ‘this title of Husbandman is not tyed onely to the to the ordinarie Tillers of the earth’[2]. Only small landowners were expected be true Husbandmen and could become this idealised version of the term. Ordinary workers were not expected to reach such lofty heights. The term Husbandmen is applied to the master of the house rather than the modern meaning of a married man[3], but it is very unlikely that a literate man who independently owned his own land would be a bachelor. As such Markham’s book still serves as a guide for the ideal husband regardless of what term is used. The agricultural elements and the actual educational portions of the books might have been shared with the workers on the farm who could not access the book due to either poverty or illiteracy, but is very unlikely they would be interested or perhaps even shown the sections on etiquette or the ‘election of friends’[4], as it was not necessary for the common peasant.

[1]David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.144

[2] Markham, English husbandman, p. 10

[3] C. S. Partridge, ‘Tabular lists from Mr. Redstone’s Calendar of Bury Wills.’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History, Vol 13, (1907)

[4] Markham, English husbandman, p.4

David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.1448

What all this points to is that the 17th century English society was, naturally, deeply focused on agricultural matters. There is a short section in Markham’s book explaining ‘The Duties and Vertues appertayning to the Husbandman’[1], but only two pages are devoted to what kind of personality and relationships the ideal husbandman should have. The rest of the book is entirely devoted to agricultural matters, primarily related to farming crops and other food sources but in the second portion of the book there are instructions on ‘Of the Adornation and Beautifying of the Garden for Pleasure’[2] which shows that although there was this large focus on production of food there was a growing part of the English higher class that were interested in growing the show gardens that became popular across the 18th and 19th century. Markham’s book can thus be seen as almost an example of the public interests of the time alongside what the society thought of as the ideal husbandman.

[1] Markham, English husbandman,p.4

[2] Ibid p.8

Example of an English pleasure garden
‘ The Grand Walk’, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1751

A later chapter of the book would help the ideal husbandman to ‘make Grapes grow as big, full, and as naturally, and to ripen in as due season, and be as long lasting as either in France or Spain.’[1] The rather obvious attempts to invoke a sense of patriotism about growing grapes that can rival continental ones is an interesting chapter in the book. Although this is a nice example of the classic anti-foreign mindset that was well established in English society at the time[2], it is rather strange to see it in the context of growing grapes; and in the guide for how to be a good husbandman at that. What this can show is how deeply this element of wanting to be equal or better than the European powers was held by the high educated society. Markham was a member of the nobility rather than being a member of the lower social classes[3] and as such would have been aware of this mood. By extension, this guide to be the ideal husbandman again can act as a guide for not only how to be a good early modern husbandman but also as a way to see the opinions of society at the time.

[1] Markham, English husbandman, p.8

[2] Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, (2013)

[3] Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Markham, Gervase”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 73

‘Evil May-Day’ riots against foreign communities in London in 1517 London Apprentice, 1852

It’s hard to say what the expectation is approaching a book like this. Most people would not expect there to be such a diverse amount of knowledge, all of it being needed if someone wanted to be the ideal early modern husbandman. On reflection it shouldn’t be a surprise however. The modern idea of a good husband still applies somewhat; that they are the breadwinner and the man of the house who works their 9-5. Early modern England took it a bit more literally and expected the early modern husbandman to be the one making the bread himself, and Markham’s book would be there to help establish what the ideal husbandman to be.

Bibliography

Chisholm, Hugh, ‘Markham, Gervase’. Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.), (1911, Cambridge University Press.)

Cressy, David, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977)

Markham, Gervase, English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts, (1613)

Partridge, C. S., ‘Tabular lists from Mr. Redstone’s Calendar of Bury Wills.’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History, Vol 13, (1907)

Winder, Robert, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, (2013)


7 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Husband: An Early Modern Take

  1. As a future Husband myself, I am not too fussed about being a breadwinner in the modern day climate, my fiancee is very successful and she works so hard to achieve her success. I really found this blog interesting though and i do agree with the conclusions you made, There is a definite presense of the man being the breadwinner in the present day. Do you think this will change over the next 10 years, especially with womens rights being furthered?

  2. As Markham’s book did not write much on the subject of men’s personality and ideal behaviour, what characteristics do you think a good husband in early modern England must have had?

    1. I’d assume quite a reserved personality would make sense. You know, not too cheery or over the top or stuff like that. Probably quite sensible and calm, being in control of your emotions that sort of thing. That seemed to be a common one when I was reading up on all this.

  3. I like the way you mentioned how class made a difference in what being a husband meant. It is interesting all the skills that made a husband, what skill or trait do you think made the best husband in the early modern period?

    1. Skill wise it seemed that having a wide knowledge of farming was the safest thing for a husband to be good, especially at the class level the book was referring to. They’d have to know when to plant stuff and how etc and considering that farming was such a big deal in these peoples lives its safe to assume the best husband was the one who could provide.

  4. I like the comparison you’ve made between what it means to be a husband in early modern and modern times, it’s an interesting way to approach the topic; do you reckon it’s possible that some of the info in the book made its way to the lower classes through word of mouth?

    1. I’d say its pretty likely that word of mouth would spread the info around. One farmer tells his workers what to do from the book, then they go and tell all their friends and family and that just goes on. Information like this was very important at the time so it makes a lot of sense that they would tell one another.

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