As we have seen, then, food was immensely important in early modern culture. But as with Caroline Walker Bynum’s medieval case studies, it was frequently also ‘the resource women controlled’. 2 Gentlewomen often saw themselves as having responsibility for the health, well-being, and behaviour of all those in their households, or even on their estates, and household manuals emphasised their duty in this regard:

But one thynge specially aboue all other there is, that ye muste be carefull fore, and that shall gette you great fauour and loue, that is, if any of our seruantes, happe to falle sicke, that ye endeuour your selfe the best that ye can / not onely to cherysshe them, but also to helpe that they may haue their helthe agayne. By my feythe, sayde my wyfe, hit is a verye gratious and a kynde dede. For whan they be ones holpen, and eased / they wyll cunne vs very good thanke, and be the more louynge and feythfull vnto vs. 3

(Note the social divide here – and perceived intellectual dichotomy – between the householding couple and their servants, regardless of the latter’s gender.) The authority consequent upon this responsibility could be hugely problematic: Natasha Korda has productively explored shifts toward greater passivity in prescriptive literature over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the ideological devaluing of housework in comparison to growing capitalist production of consumer goods. 4 Nevertheless, that female domesticity involved considerable and ideologically complex practical authority is clear. Xenophon’s Socrates, as translated by Hervet in 1532, praised his ideal housewife as ‘of a iolye and a manlye stomacke of a woman’, with a ‘good lusty heart’, describing her considerable duties in militant terms:

For ye muste always byde within the house, and those men the whiche muste worke abrode, ye must sende them to it: and they that muste worke within, ye must commande them, and be ouer them, to se them do it. And that that is brought in ye must receiue it. And that, whiche muste be spente of it, ye muste parte and deuide it. And that that remaineth, ye muste ley it vp and kepe it safe tyl tyme of nede. And beware that that whiche was apoynted to be spente in a twelue monthe, be not spente in a monthe. And whan the wolle is broughte in to you, ye muste se that hit be carded and sponne that clothe maye be made of hit. 48Also ye muste se that the corne, whiche is broughte in to you, be not so moustye and dousty that hit maye not be eaten … [The housewife] shuld thinke her selfe to be, as if it were the ouerseer of the lawes within our house: and that she shulde, whan she thought best, ouerse the stuffe, vessell & implementes of our house none other wyse than the capitaine of a garison ouerseeth and proueth the sondiours[sic], how euery thing standeth: or like wise as the Senate & the counsell of Athenes ouerseeth & maketh a proffet both of the men of armes, and also of theyr horses. And that she shulde preise & reward hym, that were worthy, to her power as if she were a quene, And blame, ye and punisshe hym, that doth deserue it … 5

The housewife’s duties are extensive, and rely on sound independent judgement and the effective disciplining of those around her, regardless of gender. She is the subject of active verbs, both syntax and lexis connoting authority: ‘ye muste sende’, ‘ye muste commande … and be over them’. Her position of authority is both explicit and implicit: she orders the behaviour and labour of those within the household, marshals and distributes its resources, manages its industry, maintains and allots its finances. Compared to the Senate (of Rome), the Council of Athens, and the captain of a garrison, her agency within the household is clear. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, over the course of a century this active role was gradually ‘naturalised’ through maternal imagery and made passive through metaphor and language; by 1591, Henry Smith’s A Preparative to Marriage reduces the multi-productive manager and negotiator of Xenophon’s description to a ‘Dam’ who ‘sitteth upon the nest to keep al at home’. 6 Smith’s verbs imply passivity and confinement rather than productive agency, and no space is allowed for mention of dependants or the exercise of authority. Later still, this ‘keeping’ role was reinscribed into the new sphere of capitalist production, and redefined as the possession of new consumer goods. 7