Throughout the history of civilization, most adult humans have found
that pairing off is the best way to start and raise a family.Every
culture has its own way of treating these pairings – from lifelong
partnerships to a promise of just a few years.Some have been made for
love and some for money. In some relationships, both partners are expected
to remain faithful, in others only one is allowed to stray, and sometimes
both members are given a free rein. A lot of this is decided by economic
factors and the amount of stress that each culture puts on the subject of
adultery. During the seventeenth century, the British had a very unique
way of looking at adultery that had little to do with love and much to do
with money. By looking at Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
and several documents from the seventeenth century, one can see who
cheated, why they cheated, and some of the possible consequences of
There are some instincts that people have developed over millennia of
hunting and gathering that are little inconvenient in modern society.One
of those instincts is the desire to procreate – a lot. That is the major
reason why men find it so desirable to cheat on their wives. For a man, it
is possible to create a child every time he has sex with a woman as long as
it’s a different woman each time. In early civilizations, men had more
status if they could provide for more women and their children.Rather
like a pride of lions, in many early societies, there were a few men who
were in charge of the village or community, and they had access to all the
women and fathered all the children. In return for being the fathers of
the next generation, they had to hunt and kill to provide for their
children and women (Fisher 87-88).
This desire for children hadn’t diminished by thetimethe
seventeenth century rolled around. In early modern England, men were very
concerned about fathering children and providing them with an inheritance.
In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Sir Walter Whorehound and Sir Oliver Kix are
both noblemen who want to have children. Sir Walter keeps the Allwits so
that he may sleep with Mrs. Allwit. Mr. Allwit helps raise the children
that his wife has with Sir Walter in exchange for money and goods.Sir
Walter is actually very protective and jealous of Mrs. Allwit’s affections.
He even asks Mr. Allwit if he “…were once offering to go to / bed to her
(Middleton I.ii.105-6)” in a backwards representation of a man’s jealousy
concerning his wife. To Sir Walter, it is very important that he knows the
children are his. He even has a servant that watches the Allwit’s house to
make sure Mr. Allwit never sleeps with his wife.
Sir Oliver and his wife, Lady Kix, are in a different situation.
They have money and want to have children.Unfortunately for them, Sir
Oliver is sterile, though he blames the lack of children on Lady Kix.They
hear of Touchwood Senior’s abundance of children and Sir Oliver actually
pays Touchwood four hundred pounds to get Lady Kix pregnant.However, he
doesn’t know that this means Lady Kix will be sleeping with Touchwood.Sir
Oliver thinks that Touchwood will be giving her a potion to drink.This
emphasis on the importance of children in a marriage is one of the reasons
why women committed adultery in the seventeenth century.They knew that
they had to have children to make their husbands happy, so if they couldn’t
have children with their husbands, they could try with other men.
But women can’t get pregnant every time they have sex with a man.
They are only fertile at certain times of the month and it takes nine
months to carry the child, plus at least a few months between children.So
why else would women commit adultery? One answer is simply for variety.
Women in the seventeenth century, especially among the wealthier classes,
were married off at a young age, often to men old enough to be their
fathers or to complete strangers. More often than not, there was little in
the way of affection or pleasure in the marriage, it was purely for
convenience and money. Because of this, many women sought affection from
other men and became their lovers.
In the Allwit’s case, Mrs. Allwit sleeps with Sir Walter for
security. Her husband doesn’t provide for her and the family, so she has
children with Sir Walter to provide for them.Women of the lower class
often found prostitution to be the best career for themselves, even if they
were married. As Helen Fisher says in Anatomy of Love, “…when you have
many lovers, one brings you something, and another brings you something
else (Fisher 96). Sleeping with many men can provide a very steady and
substantial income for a woman who has no support from her husband.
The reasons for adultery not only vary between the sexes, but also
between the classes. Noblemen especially were inclined to cheat on their
wives. Why? Because they could get away with it. As Bill Maher once said
in a comedy special, “Men are as loyal as their options.”While this may
not be the most optimistic view of men, it does seem to be especially true
among the nobility in seventeenth century England.King Charles II kept
several mistresses though out his life, even though he was married. One of
them, Nell Gwynne, was said to have “…had a generous and tender heart,
frequently exerting her influence with the King (to whom she was not only
sincerely attached but also consistently faithful) for good and worthy
objects (Dasent 17).” Perhaps Charles was also searching for affection
outside of his arranged marriage when he took Nell as his mistress.
Noble women were less likely to cheat mostly because of the lack of
opportunity.They were guarded and watchedthroughchildhoodand
adolescence by their parents, then held captive by their husbands until
they were too old to have children or the husband died.Only widows had
something resembling sexual freedom. Without a husband or father acting as
male guardian, a wealthy widow had the ability and the means to keep a
lover and face none of the consequences that a married woman would have to
Among the lower classes, adultery wasn’t quite such a big deal.They
didn’t have the vast estates or the money to pass along to their children,
so being faithful wasn’t so vital to them. Although, this does not mean
that all working class citizens wanted their spouses to cheat.It was
simply something that happened and was dealt with quietly by the family.
Many times, if a married woman worked in the household of a wealthier
family, she could earn extra money or gifts by sleeping with her employer.
Common people took a very common sense view towards cheating and did not
often react too negatively when it happened.
A lot of the regulations on sexual behavior in seventeenth century
England very closely resemble the early Jewish laws.These laws stated
that a woman must be a virgin on her wedding night and she must remain
faithful to her husband for the rest of her life. A married man, however,
could have sex with concubines, prostitutes, servants and widows if he
wanted. The only women that a married man was not allowed to sleep with
were married women (Fisher 81). This is also similar to the ancient Greek
traditions regarding marriage and sexuality.Well-bred Greek girls were
married in their early teens to men roughly twice their age and they had to
remain faithful. The men, like the Jews, could sleep with anyone they
wanted except another man’s wife (Fisher 82).
In a religious sense, the people of the seventeenth century did
believe that adultery was a major sin. Some of them even believed that
adultery could lead to more violent crimes and confusion among the people
(Bloody 5). This idea that adultery is a terrible crime goes back to the
Biblical story of David. In Francis Mason’s sermon on adultery, he says
David committed “…that heinous sin of adultery, and secondly those other
sins which he committed while he went about to hide and cloake his adultery
(Mason 3).” To Mason and many other preachers, it was incredibly important
that their parishioners recognize that adultery isn’t just a sin against
other people, it’s a sin against God (Mason 2).
But if adultery is a sin against God, then shouldn’t the church deal
with these sinners as they do with others (D.T. 10)?It would certainly
make sense on some levels to leave the punishment of adulterers to the
church since they hold it as such a terrible crime. However, many realized
that it would be difficult to discover or prove adultery without a
confession or an eyewitness (D.T. 10). In some cases however, adultery can
affect the legal status of a person. If a woman bears a child that is not
her husband’s, then that child can be denied any inheritance.Also, the
noblemen of England felt that they should not have to raise and support the
illegitimate children of their wives and they definitely shouldn’t have to
pass on their wealth to sons who weren’t truly theirs.
Because of these beliefs, the penalties for people caught committing
adultery were extremely harsh. In 1650 Parliament actually passed a law
“…And be it further enacted…that in case any married woman
shall…be carnally known by any man (other than her husband, except
in cases of ravishment) and of such offense or offenses shall be
convicted as aforesaid by confession otherwise…and ishereby
adjudged felony, and…shall suffer death as in case of felony without
benefit of clergy (England 828).”
For men, the punishment was just as harsh, but only if they were caught
sleeping with a married woman (England 828).Any other extra-marital
affairs were simply ignored as unimportant.What’s unusual and unfair
about all of this is that a woman can be put to death for sleeping with
anyone other than her husband, but other than saying men are not allowed to
sleep with other men’s wives, this Act makes no mention of a married man
and his lovers.
One example of this law against adulteress women occurred late in the
seventeenth century. The Duke of Norfolk’s wife, Mary, was accused of
adultery and brought before certain members of Parliament to plead her
case. The Duke and Duchess both brought forth a series of witnesses
including servants and friends. Several of the Duke’s witnesses said they
saw the Duchess in her chambers and undressed while another man was there.
They did eventually find her guilty of adultery, but rather than have her
executed, the members of Parliament let the Duke have a divorce (Norfolk 1-
22). So why would anyone confess to adultery when it’s possible that it
will lead to death? The vast majority of people who would cheat on their
spouses are not the sort of people who feel bad enough about it afterward
to ask Parliament to cut off their heads, so it is highly doubtful that
many people ever confessed after that particular law was passed.
Male or female, rich or poor, it seems that everyone in the
seventeenth century had a reason to cheat on his or her spouse.The
characters in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside represent all sides of
this bizarre web of adulterers and their partners in crime.Men like Sir
Walter did it to have more children or just for fun. Women like the Welsh
Gentlewoman wanted affection and security. Rich people did it because it
was entertaining and poor people did it for money. Even facing the sort of
consequences of these actions, many men and quite a few women were
unfaithful to their spouses. There were religious beliefs and laws that
they ignored for the sake of physical pleasure and desire.Perhaps the
reason humans have such a high opinion of fidelity is because it is so
difficult for them to achieve it.