Somehow the other day I happened across an academic paper from Canada discussing a play from the Jacobean era, Thomas Heywood‘s A Woman Killed with Kindness. The themes and the plot are still relevant to our time, particularly in the ongoing Christian debates and diktats on the marital roles of husband and wife.

Heywood began acting and writing at the end of the Elizabethan era and continued into the Jacobean era. A Woman Killed with Kindness is one of his few plays to survive, still be staged today (2011, London’s National Theatre) and written about in academe.

What interested me about the play — thanks to this paper — was the theme of Christian aesceticism post-Reformation and the relationship between man and wife.

Although the play has subplots, the main story revolves around a new member of the mercantile class, Frankford, his wife Anne and Frankford’s friend Wendoll. Frankford welcomes Wendoll into his main residence and invites him to help himself to anything in the house. Wendoll wastes little time seducing Anne during one of Frankford’s absences. Frankford returns home to find the two in flagrante delicto (p. 16).

At the time, it was not unusual for a cuckolded husband to maim or batter his wife for betrayal of their marriage vows and for bringing disgrace upon his house. Instead, Heywood has Frankford banish Anne indefinitely to another of his houses. Once there, Anne takes matters into her own hands and starves herself to death.

Before I arrive at the background to Christian fasting and marriage at that time, there are a few themes and subplots worth exploring on a general level.

One of the scenes leading to a subplot in which Frankford almost loses his fortune in a wager on a hawking (falconry) match, which he engages in during a wedding reception. A wager is an exclusively male pastime, because it has a tangible financial result with the excitement of a clear win or loss (p. 6).

Furthermore, there is the recognition of a changing society. The play, being set in Heywood’s own time, reflects the transition from a feudal to a capitalist society (p. 4) — note that Frankford is from the emerging merchant class (p. 4). Up to this time, protagonists were most often kings, princes or nobility.  Theatre during the Jacobean era approached its audience ever closer. Heywood, an Anglican, wrote for his audience in his affirmation of a Protestant middle class.

Heywood also explores the notion of property and the wife’s role in society. A man’s choice of wife reflects on his personal discernment, taste and social standing. (In some ways, this still exists today, and a prudent courting couple will be careful not to be unequally yoked. I would posit that, by discarding this principle in choosing a spouse in favour of sexual attraction, we find ourselves with a higher number of divorces and broken homes. But I digress.)

Therefore, what role did a Jacobean wife have? Was she a form of property acquisition? Did marriage then transform her from a material commodity to a symbolic one (p. 3)? How does she conduct her own life, if at all, in this context? As Lyn Bennett wrote in ‘The Homosocial Economies of A Woman Killed with Kindness‘ (p. 3):

Since her actual value has already been consumed and is kept by the husband, a married woman is valuable only insofar as she enables the circulation of the husband’s symbolic capital within the homosocial economy. In this way, the subplot of A Woman Killed illustrates woman’s commodity function, while the main plot deals with the complications that ensue once woman passes from a commodifiable asset to a symbolic one. Such complications are, it seems, a result of the ambiguous status of woman, whose lasting value depends upon her being able to serve variously, depending on the context, as the mode of currency for the exchange of either actual or symbolic capital. Because this alternative mode of exchange centres on the circulation of symbolic capital, its terms of trade are unstable. The confusion that results from this ambiguity leads to Anne’s adultery and, ultimately, to her death.

It would seem that this confusion has translated into 21st century Christian marriage and the role of husbands and wives in the tension between complementarians and egalitarians.

Heywood shows Anne taking matters into her own hands and imposing her own moral punishment for her adultery: depriving herself of nourishment.

This brings us to the crux of this post. The self-deprivation of food and drink was hardly a new concept at the time in a Christian context. In Heywood’s time, although Britain was largely Protestant, some Catholic practices and perspectives on aesceticism still existed. Also, the notion of patriarchy in marriage parallels the complementarian outlook in today’s fundamentalist Protestantism and, to a lesser extent, Catholicism.

From Christopher Frey and Leanore Lieblein’s paper, ‘Historicising the Self-Starved Female Body in A Woman Killed with Kindness (p. 16):

When Anne’s adultery is discovered, it is violence against her body that she anticipates as punishment and that she fears … Anne substitutes the active choice to mutilate her own body. Her decision to starve is a refusal of the appropriation and control of her body by the social order represented by Frankford’s hospitality with its overwhelming focus on the consumption of food.

Anne’s decision to take into her own hands the punishment for her adultery is illuminated by the history of female self-starvation and self-mutilation. On the one hand, her decision to fast reintroduces the spirituality of the holy anorexic for whom, from the twelfth to fifteenth century, fasting was associated with penance, humility, and spirituality.44

The following quotes, which Heywood might have had in mind when writing Anne’s character, also come from the paper, emphases mine.

The aescetic Alpaïs of Cudot lived during the Middle Ages and was said to have lived on the Holy Eucharist (p. 2):

And blessed Mary said to [Alpaïs]: ‘Because, dear sister, you bore long starvation in humility and patience, in hunger and thirst, without any murmuring, I grant you now to be fattened with an angelic and spiritual food. And as long as you are in this little body, corporeal food and drink will not be necessary for the sustaining of your body, nor will you hunger for bread or any other food … because after you have once tasted the celestial bread and drunk of the living fountain you will remain fattened for eternity.’

The English moralist and writer John Reynolds (1588?–c.1655) thought that fasting and abstinence were virtuous (p. 3):

John Reynolds in A Discourse upon Prodigious ABSTINENCE writes that ‘Divines, Medicks, Historians, yea, Poets and Legenders have presented the Learned World with a great variety of wonderful Abstinents’. Among those he cites are Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Saint Augustine. Female fasting, however, became an important phenomenon in the later Middle Ages.

As such, food became (p. 3):

‘an obsessive and overpowering concern in the lives and writings of religious women between the twelfth and the fifteenth century’.3 As the example of Alpaïs cited above suggests, for the medieval woman saint, asceticism was associated with holiness. Appetite and sexual desire were considered urges needing to be tamed, and abstinence from food, or at least food other than the Eucharist, was a preferred means of demonstrating one’s spirituality. The medieval belief in starvation as a means to higher spiritual and moral calling remained current in Heywood’s time.

Bartholomew Batty, author of The Christian Man’s Closet, also recommended fasting (p. 3):

‘the Soule and minde is heavenly: but the Bodie wee haue common with Beastes’.4 Batty advises that because the body is fed corporeally, and the soul is nourished by the word of truth, rejection of substantial food assists one’s consumption and digestion of truth. Women, in particular, he argues, should fast as part of their general education in preparation for being good wives and mothers.

Therefore, Heywood’s Anne (p. 4):

chooses to harm her own body and withdraw her power to nourish as an act of resistance. Her decision to starve herself, a response to a patriarchal society in which food and eating are forms of control, succeeds in compelling her husband’s assent to a redefined marital relationship.

Certainly, that would have been a novel concept for a play during that time. It is unclear how much of that Heywood’s audience, surely comprised of a majority of men, would have absorbed or agreed with.

Anne and Frankford reconcile when he visits her prior to her death. So, in one sense, we could say that Heywood was showing his male contemporaries a via media — a nonviolent banishment of an adulterous wife — as well as a husband’s forgiveness.

Of course, this raises the issue of Anne’s slow suicide. To forfeit one’s soul (the ‘second death’ of Revelation 20 and 21) in a self-imposed passive-aggressive fatal opposition to male hierarchy (a worldly establishment) is not a Christian act.

It should also be said that although aesceticism had Christian elements to it, a number of men between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did not view women who practised it favourably (p. 6), quite possibly because they might have sensed on some level that women were actively challenging them or exercising autonomy:

Medieval women who starved voluntarily were often considered subject to pride at best, or diabolical possession at worst. As Rudolph Bell has written, whether or not their fasting was of God or the devil would depend on ‘Christendom’s patriarchy, not the girl herself’.14 The imposition of a maledetermined verdict on a woman’s decision to self-starve suggests that starvation could be a contentious issue between the female subject and ruling authorities … Nobody, short of being violent, could actually force a woman to eat.

Only a few decades after Heywood’s death, women’s fasting was seen not as a religious act but as one of pathological female autonomy and also one of medical interest (pp 3, 4), unless, however, it was inspired by Protestant moralists of the day who wrote of women’s delicate natures (p. 7):

the fasting promoted by Struther, Vives, Stubbes and Batty perpetuates the belief that women are weaker creatures of infirm nature, and seems designed to produce a good wife and mother by purging the female flesh to eliminate personal or subjective desire.

The other social element in what we would call Anne’s ‘hunger strike’ was the power this act held. As such, Heywood portrays her in an Amazon-like way in taking charge over her own body. Heywood’s audiences read frequent references to Amazons and feared that women were taking over the world (p. 8). They would have grown up during Elizabeth I’s reign, essentially a masculine one and the root of their anxiety.

Today, we see this with complementarians railing against feminism, nearly as long-lived as Elizabeth I’s reign. If modern-day complementarians had met up with Jacobeans who had lived during the Elizabethan era, they no doubt would have had many common points of discussion.

Just as Jacobean men did, complementarians see women’s assertions of autonomy as direct threats to their authority. One cannot help but think of the enduring myth of the vagina dentata (link for mature audiences only), common to many faiths and cultures since ancient times, whereby a man is left maimed, castrated or even returned to his mother’s womb. It’s an atavistic fear that even passes through the minds of egalitarians, although perhaps on more of a personal than general level.  However, whereas an egalitarian is likely to readily admit he is thinking of it, a complementarian is probably much less likely to do so.

Our ongoing battle of the sexes, therefore, shows no signs of abating. As such, it seems to be an outcome of our fallen nature and one which complementarians would point out God decreed (Genesis 3:15-16):

15And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

 16Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

We continue to wrestle today with how much control lies in ‘rule’. There is no easy solution.