The orthodox ideals of the church and state continually came up against attitudes that were more tolerant of illicit sex. These alterna­tive views are, however, not easy to recover in detail. Because they were neither respectable nor very fully developed, they were rarely written down at length. In poetry and fiction, love was endlessly cele­brated, but sexual passion more often implied than directly described. Yet the basic idea that sex was fun, and that men and women desired it, indeed required it, was relayed in countless jokes, chapbooks, and other forms of popular communication. The ballad ‘A Remedy for the Green Sickness’ (c. 1670), for example, took its cue from the popular seventeenth-century idea that it was unhealthy for women to remain virgins for too long:

A handsome buxom lass lay panting in her bed she looked as green as grass and mournfully she said ‘Except I have some lusty lad to ease me of my pain I cannot live I sigh and grieve my life now I disdain.’

Around the same time, an anonymous English writer, translating an erotic French text, set down an unusually lengthy description of how a seventeenth-century woman might, in more explicit language, have experienced and described the throes of passion with her lover:

At last we had both of us a mind to ease our selves; therefore he lay flat on the bed with his tarse [i. e. penis] upright, pulled me upon him, and I my self stuck it into my cunt, wagging my arse. And saying ‘I fuck thee, my dear’, he bid me mind my business, and follow my fucking, holding his tongue all this while in my mouth, and calling me ‘my life, my soul, my dear fucking rogue’, and hold­ing his hands on my buttocks, [until] at last the sweet pleasure approaching made us ply one another with might and main, till at last it came, to the incredible satisfaction of each party.1

The unmediated voices of real women are much harder to recover. Even within marriage, it is rare before the eighteenth century to find female correspondence that alludes even as vaguely to sexual passion as the reply that the Wiltshire gentlewoman Maria Thynne wrote around 1607 to a now lost letter from her husband Thomas, far away from her in London. Their union was an extraordinary one. They had encountered each other for the first time one evening in May 1594, at a party in a Buckinghamshire tavern. She had come there from Queen Elizabeth’s court, he from Oxford, where he was studying. They were both only sixteen. Yet that very day they were secretly married, and spent their first night together. Their families were bitter, powerful enemies, and Thomas’s parents did all they could to undo the marriage: but their love was strong. Their story may well have inspired William Shakespeare, shortly afterwards, to set down his play Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595-6). Here is Maria, by now aged about twenty-seven, a few years after she and Thomas were finally able to start living together:

My best beloved Thomken, and my best little Sirrah,

Know that I have not, nor will not forget how you made my modest blood flush up into my bashful cheek at your first letter. Thou threatened sound payment, and I sound repayment, so as when we meet, there will be pay, and repay, which will pass and repass, allgiges vltes fregnan tolles, thou knowest my mind, though thou dost not understand me.[2]

Being as mad as a pilchard and as proud as a piece of Aragon ling, I salute thy best beloved self with the return of thine own wish in thy last letter, and so once more fare ever well, my best and sweetest Thomken, and many thou­sand times more than these 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 00 for thy kind wanton letters.

Thine and only all thine


By contrast, the unhappily married Lady Sarah Cowper noted in 1701 that she had lived with her husband for over thirty-five years, and had conceived four children by him, ‘without knowing what it is to have an unchaste thought or sensual pleasure’. This was as much a boast about her virtuous attitude to sex as a complaint about her rela­tionship. Given how disreputable unchaste speech and behaviour were, it was usually only women who made their living from sex (or from the sexual exploitation of others) who spoke more positively about it, at least in ways that have left traces in the historical record. To get a young relative of hers to sleep with men, for example, a bawd called Margery in early seventeenth-century Glastonbury encouraged her ‘that she had a good cunt and bid her make use thereto for if she did not she would do her self wrong, for if ground were not tilled and manured it would be overgrown with thorns and briars’. ‘Don’t lay niggling on me so,’ the experienced adulteress Susannah Cooke chided one of her lovers, equally directly, as they lay in bed, ‘mount and let me have as it should be.’ (So he did.)3

Contemporary opinions about sexual desire, and especially about its lawfulness outside marriage, were overwhelmingly articulated by men (or through them, in their capacity as scribes and authors). When such views were expressed publicly it was normally in facetious form – in 1631, for example, the king’s printer Robert Barker got into terrible trouble when his employees produced an edition of the Bible in which the word ‘not’ was omitted from the seventh commandment. (That this was no innocent typo can be seen from the rendering in another verse of ‘God’s greatnesse’ as ‘God’s great asse’.) More usu­ally, however, they were uttered privately – especially in response to the threat of punishment. When Miles Horne and Elizabeth Powell were arrested and brought to Bridewell in May 1576 for having sex in a Southwark tavern, for example, they responded simply ‘that they were so minded and being about it were taken afore they were done’. A peasant in early seventeenth-century Somerset was equally matter – of-fact upon being surprised in the act with his lover and being told ‘that they must look to be punished for what they had done’. ‘Did you never see a cow bulled before?’ he retorted. When a married Essex clergyman was accused in 1636 of kissing another woman, he defended himself with a similar analogy: ‘change of pasture made fat calves, and a bit abroad was worth two at home’. As one humble Londoner in 1632 summed up the general notion echoed in all these fragments, ‘fornication was not sin at all if both parties are agreed’. Even outside of marriage, a bit of sex between a consenting man and woman could be treated as an innocent, natural pleasure.4

The most common justification of all was that the couple intended to marry. ‘The restraints upon sexual activity’, observes a historian of the period, ‘crumbled once marriage was in sight.’ We mainly know what lovers said to each other about this from cases where, in fact, the courtship later foundered and they were prosecuted for fornication or bastardy – but often, evidently, couples had sex following a promise of marriage, whereas at other times they (or at least one of them) believed they would marry if the woman fell pregnant. Dorothy Cor­nish’s lover, for example,

took note at the second time he had carnal copulation with her in his table book at which time the birth of the child would be, and that she should take no care – if she should prove with child he would marry her.

When Miliard Davies, of Plaitford in Wiltshire, bore Christopher Vin­cent’s child in 1602, she likewise told a court that

in regard the said Christopher and she were both born in one parish and neighbours’ children, and she had at his persuasion and request yielded unto him to be carnally known, she was in good hope that he would have married her.5

Against this backdrop it is easy to see the limits of sexual policing. After all, this was not a society in which the sexes were rigidly segre­gated. Most people stayed single until, in their mid or late twenties, they had accumulated the skills and savings needed to get married and set up an independent household. In many areas of social and

i. Rembrandt, The Bed (1646): a rare contemporary illustration of a couple
making love, composed around the time that the artist began an illicit
relationship with his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

economic life, moreover, men and women mingled freely – working, socializing, and courting each other secretly or openly. That was the case even in rural parishes, but it was especially true in London, which was a world of its own, teeming with opportunities for illicit meetings and sexual encounters: brothels, street-walkers, taverns, hostelries,

churches, playhouses, fairs, markets, and streets, all swarming with strangers.6

Countless adulterers, fornicators, prostitutes and sodomites must therefore have gone undetected. Many others escaped public penalty. Historians also like to point out the obvious biases of the system. Women were more liable to be punished than men. Wealthy and powerful people were much less likely to suffer than their inferiors: even after the Reformation, plenty of aristocrats and gentlemen had bastards without having to worry about prosecution. (In 1593, in fact, Members of Parliament rejected whipping as a punishment for men who had conceived bastards, specifically for fear that it ‘might chance upon gentlemen or men of quality, whom it were not fit to put to such a shame’.)7 Sometimes the law was abused, and often its workings were inefficient. All these limitations are significant (and similar caveats would apply to the study of most other crimes and judicial systems, throughout history), for they reflect how power was distributed within society: between men and women, between the rich and the poor, and between different forms of intellectual and social authority.

Yet they should not distract us from the simplest fact of all: sexual policing was an integral part of pre-modern society. Its workings sym­bolized the central values of the culture. By almost any standard, its enforcement of external discipline was remarkably successful. From the early middle ages to the dawn of the seventeenth century it slowly imposed ever-stricter standards of behaviour. Both its theory and practice had a profound impact upon the minds and lives of the entire population.

Indeed, sexual policing was not merely some top-down, external imposition. It certainly had the power of the church and state behind it. But it was brought to life by popular participation, and broad con­currence with its principles. Everyone had a part in it – even watchmen, constables and churchwardens were but ordinary male householders taking their turn to hold a particular office in the community. Nobody got paid for this. There was no separate, professional police force. This was a system of grass-roots self-regulation, of communities policing themselves and upholding collective standards of behaviour. Because of this, and because solid evidence was often lacking in cases of suspected immorality, its judgements mainly reflected the consen­sus of respectable opinion.8

The basis for most church court proceedings was thus not hard fact but a ‘common fame’ or ‘repute’ of immorality. Such phrases implied public notoriety and agreement, rather than merely private suspicions. Even public opinions were not of equal weight: they were judged by the reputation of those who held them. A common fame amongst respectable citizens was a serious matter; but one spread ‘by the nude and sole accusation of some naughty woman who confesseth her own naughtiness’, as a contemporary handbook explained, was in fact not ‘a fame, but rather a false rumour’. Similarly, the usual method of establishing guilt and innocence in the church courts was not a trial of evidence but a process of public ‘compurgation’, which tested the views of the whole community. If the accused could produce a speci­fied number of honest neighbours to swear publicly that the suspicion was unfounded, and if no one else came forward to contradict them convincingly, the charge was dropped: otherwise the common fame was held to be true. Between the later middle ages and the early seventeenth century, compurgation appears to have become an increasingly onerous test to pass, perhaps reflecting tightening atti­tudes to sexual offenders. By the 1610s and 1620s, in one of the best-documented cases, the archdeaconry of Salisbury, almost half the defendants in a sample of over 200, failed to purge themselves and were convicted.9

Civic justice was based on similar assessments of credit, reputation, and fame, and in practice there was no great divide between the sex­ual jurisdiction of the church and that of secular magistrates. Under common law, men and women suspected of sexual misconduct could be arrested and summarily committed to the nearest house of correc­tion, to be whipped if necessary and set to hard labour for a few days or weeks. If they were householders they would be required to post bail (in other words, find respectable members of the community to vouch for them) and appear before a court. Such punishments were commonly inflicted not just for evident ‘evil behaviour’ or an obvious breach of the peace, but equally, as in the church courts, on the grounds of ‘evil fame’, ‘name’ or ‘report’ of immorality, or of ‘suspi­cious’ behaviour.10

Given this outlook, even the appearance or attempt of unchastity could be as fatal as its actual commission. In May 1555, when the London court of aldermen found that an apprentice had proposi­tioned his master’s wife, they ordered him to be immediately taken out, stripped naked to the waist ‘at the outer door of this hall, and so to be led from thence to the post of reformation in Cheapside and there be well beaten till his body bleed and then to be led from thence tied at a cart’s tail’, to be processed ignominiously through the city and then symbolically dumped outside it. For couples to consort pri­vately if not married could be equally dangerous. Countless men and women were prosecuted merely for inappropriately ‘keeping com­pany’ with another’s spouse, whilst the diary of Samuel Pepys provides a casual glimpse of the kind of routine moral policing that his society took for granted. Coming back home with his wife and friends after dinner late one evening in August 1666, his coach was stopped at the entrance to the City, and its occupants cross-examined ‘whether we were husbands and wives’. It almost goes without saying that any woman walking alone after dark was liable to be arrested (or har­assed) on suspicion of immorality.11

Underpinning this unceasing watchfulness was the continual indoc­trination of the ideals of monogamy and chastity. That lust was a dangerous and shameful passion, that fornication was evil, and adul­tery criminal – these were doctrines drummed into every man, woman, and child, throughout their life, in speech and print, from every con­ceivable direction. Most people internalized them profoundly, even when they sometimes acted in contrary ways. We can see this in the books people read, the letters they wrote, the education they received, the sermons they listened to, the slanders and libels they hurled at one another, the contempt they manifested towards sexual transgression of all kinds. The gentry and aristocracy were not immune from this; nor, even, were kings and queens. For, in the words that every adult and child regularly heard recited in church, whoredom was a ‘filthy, stinking, and abominable. . . sin. . . not lawful neither in king nor subject, neither in common officer nor private person. . . in no man nor woman, of whatsoever degree or age they be’.12

Public punishment was therefore only the sharpest manifestation of the more general culture of sexual discipline. When legal proceedings were brought, their aim was often as much to put pressure on an indi­vidual to reform as it was to secure a conviction. There were also countless instances where discipline was successfully exercised out­side the courts – adultery nipped in the bud, fornicators admonished, brothels suppressed – by parents, pastors, friends, families, neigh­bours, and employers. We glimpse this hinterland whenever the language of litigation reveals that legal proceedings had been a last resort, or that a punishment was being imposed not for a single infrac­tion but for recalcitrance in the face of previous efforts. Thus, a woman might be prosecuted for unmarried cohabitation and fornica­tion because ‘notwithstanding you have been often gravely and seriously advised either by words of mouth or letters to desist from such your filthy and lascivious life and conversation, yet you have rejected the said advice’.13

More vivid still is the abundant evidence, from cities, towns, and villages everywhere in sixteenth – and seventeenth-century England, of the ways in which whores and adulterers were publicly ridiculed and humiliated by their neighbours and by the community at large. When Ann George was caught one summer’s afternoon having sex with a soldier in a barn, ‘the neighbouring people took and ducked her in a mill stream, saying that if she was hot they would cool her’. In the winter of 1605, when it was rumoured around Evesham in Worcester­shire that George Hawkins, a local landowner, had fathered a bastard child, more elaborate measures were taken. As a well-off gentleman and a leading officer in the law courts, he was well placed to head off any serious legal trouble for such a fault; but he could not avoid the open criticism of his subordinates. One day in December, a group of them met at Edward Freme’s inn, the Swan, and decided to take action. None of them could write, so they shared their story with three travelling salesmen from Coventry, who set it down on paper for them. Together they composed a song in ridicule of Hawkins, his whore, and their bastard, complete with scurrilous pictures of the shameful trio, and set about publicizing it to maximum effect. One of the salesmen, Lancelot Ratsey, dashed off a stack of duplicates, and also reproduced the whole thing on a public wall. They pinned the sheets all over the Swan, and performed the ballad for the other cus­tomers there. Over the next few weeks they did the same thing all over

town and into the surrounding countryside: distributing copies to all the local pubs, posting them up on doors, walls, and posts everywhere, and going about singing the ballad of Squire Hawkins and his whore. This is how it went, evidently referring to the pictures (now lost) that were drawn above:

‘I can no more’:

This is the whore,

Of cowardly George Hawkins.

He got [her] with child,

In a place most wild,

Which for to name it is a shame.

Yet for your satisfaction,

I will make relation,

It was in a privy,

A place most filthy,

As gent[lemen] you may judge.

Yet nothing too bad,

For a knave and a drab,

And so they pray go trudge.

This is the bastard,

With his father the dastard,

George Hawkins highte he so [i. e. he is called].

In all this shire,

There is not a squire,

More like a knave I trowe [i. e. believe].

O cursed seed,

My heart doth bleed,

To think how thou was born.

To the whore thy mother,

And the knave thy father,

An everlasting scorn.14

In short, this was a culture in which self-discipline in all spheres of life was prized as the ultimate mark of civilization, and unchastity mocked, not just for fun but as a pre-eminent sign of weakness. The fundamental principle of conventional ethics was that men and women were personally responsible for their actions, no matter how powerful the temptation. Only beasts and savages gave ‘unrestrained liberty’ to ‘the cravings of nature’ – civilized Christians were rather ‘to bring under the flesh; bring nature under the government of reason, and, in short bring the body under the command of the soul’.15 The mental and physical government of fleshly appetites was the very foundation of the whole culture of discipline. For all the practical ways in which sexual discipline was limited, there was no coherent or respectable alternative ideology of sexual liberty, no way of conceiv­ing of a society without moral policing. Even Pepys’s private diary, the boldest pre-eighteenth-century account of sexual adventure, is thus shot through with a much deeper consciousness of guilt and shame than most of its later counterparts would ever be.

Why did people think this way? Why was sexual discipline pre­sumed to be so fundamental to the social order? If, reader, you happen to be a member of the Iranian or Saudi Arabian moral police, which even today enforce a similar ethos, you can probably guess the answers. Otherwise, read on.