Adultery in the Seventeenth Century


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 adultery.


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 the time the 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