Adrian Wilson. Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England

By Weaver, Karol Kovalovich | Seventeenth-Century News, Fall-Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Adrian Wilson. Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England


Weaver, Karol Kovalovich, Seventeenth-Century News


Adrian Wilson. Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. vii + 261 pp. $124.95.

Adrian Wilson's Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England considers the social networks that shaped childbirth in seventeenth-century England. Wilson looks at the "relationships, institutions, and customs" that dealt with childbirth. The author investigates illegitimacy, marriage, and the ceremony of childbirth, applying a method derived from Michel Foucault that looks at occasions when women worked with or against the prevailing gender order. Wilson's work is noteworthy because of its strong and clear analysis and its use of fascinating and intriguing case studies.

Wilson starts out his text by focusing on illegitimacy. He does so for three main reasons: to contrast it with marriage (the topic he addresses in the second section of the book); to show its connections to the church and state, institutions or social networks that had profound influences on childbearing; and to highlight how bastard-bearing was a circumstance that many women of the seventeenth century might find themselves dealing with. The author demonstrates that rituals affected illegitimacy. Due to social customs that sanctioned premarital sex, many couples found that they were expecting babies before their vows were exchanged. Regional practices like spousals, "contracts of marriage ... lacking force in law (14)," for example, allowed for premarital sex and resulted in expectant mothers. Wilson also shows that conflict also influenced bastard bearing. Differences in power between servant women and their male employers led to sexual harassment, forced sexual relations, and illegitimate births. Local, state, and ecclesiastical authorities opposed bastard-bearers, in large part because of the financial costs that would accrue to communities forced to support single mothers and their fatherless children. In some cases, women were forcibly removed from the town in which they lived. Mothers dealt with the prevailing gender order surrounding illegitimacy in a variety of ways: they accepted the punishments given them by the church and state, they relied on the kindness and generosity of their parents, they aborted their fetuses, and they abandoned their infants. Wilson thus demonstrates that illegitimacy forced women to work with or against the prevailing gender order.

Marriage is the second topic that Wilson addresses. Wilson assesses the ways by which marriage functioned as a reciprocal, symmetrical, and asymmetrical arrangement between the husband and the wife. He looks at these three characteristics in order to gauge the distribution of power in the marital relationship. He shows how the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer affirmed these three qualities and then analyzes how they played out in theory and in practice. …

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