In truth this was an over-determined matter, for many different pat­terns of thought underpinned sexual discipline and were invoked in its justification. The most basic was the patriarchal principle that every woman was the property of her father or husband, so that it was a kind of theft for any stranger to have sex with her, and a grave affront to her relatives. Indeed, fantasized the aristocrat Margaret Cavendish in 1662, in an honourable family any woman so defiled deserved to be put to death straightaway by her own kinsmen,

for the impurity, immodesty, dishonesty, and dishonour of unchastity, which was an offence to the Gods, a reproach to her life, a disgrace to her race, a dishonour to her kindred, and an infamy to her family.1

Illicit sex also invaded property rights more concretely: gifts between
lovers, payments to prostitutes, and the conception of bastard children

all threatened the possessions and inheritance of others. In addition, whoredom spread venereal disease, heartache, and discord within families. It provoked crime and disorder, and led inevitably to other sins: drunkenness, theft, lying, cheating, infanticide, murder. In all these ways it destroyed individuals and wrecked social order. Its pro­hibition and punishment was consequently a matter of great public importance.

This way of thinking made perfect sense because, in general, people took for granted that the external regulation of many areas of per­sonal life was essential to the public good. In economic and social terms, society was not made up of autonomous individuals, but of households and families. (Indeed, for a young man to be ‘masterless’, or a woman to live ‘at her own hand’, was inherently suspicious, even criminal.)2 Parents and employers were meant to oversee the morals of their children and servants, just as friends, neighbours, and rela­tions felt responsible, as a matter of course, for watching over each other’s way of life. These basic attitudes prevailed at every social level, but they weighed most heavily on the weaker members of society – on women more than on men of equivalent status; on the poor and unrespectable more than on their superiors. Indeed, because every community was ultimately responsible for the maintenance of its inhabitants, poor couples were sometimes barred altogether from marrying by their richer neighbours, or forced to live apart. The Eliza­bethan poor laws, which taxed the wealthy of each parish according to the needs of its indigents, led to the increasingly callous treatment of men and women who might be potential burdens, or breeders of pauper children. In 1570, for example, the leading parishioners of Adlington in Kent were so ‘sore against’ the proposed marriage of Alice Cheeseman that they prevented the reading of the banns and ‘threatened Alice to expel her out of the parish’ if she defied their ‘hin­drance’. When Anthony Adams of Stockton in Worcestershire sought to bring his new bride, ‘an honest young woman’, to live with him in his home parish in 1618, the locals were ‘not willing he should bring her into the parish saying they would breed up a charge among them’ – she was compelled to dwell elsewhere. In late-Elizabethan Terling (Essex), the labourer Robert Johnson lived and had a child with Elizabeth Whitland, and ‘would have married her if the inhabit­ants would have suffered him’: but they did not. Over a decade later, in the same parish, another labourer complained that he had tried to marry his lover more than a year before. The banns had been called in church, but ‘the parish would not suffer them to marry’ – and now were prosecuting the couple for fornication and unmarried cohabita­tion. By the later seventeenth century such practices were common enough across England to attract repeated discussion. ‘It is an ill cus­tom in many country parishes,’ observed the writer Carew Reynell in 1674, ‘where they, as much as they can, hinder poor people from mar­rying’. ‘“Oh,” say the churchwardens,’ noted the merchant Sir Dudley North, ‘“they will have more children than they can keep, and so increase the charge of the parish.” ’3

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this fear of rampant bastardy, as a source of social disorder, moral pollution, and communal impoverishment, underpinned the condemnation of sexual licence, at both a national and a local level. Hence in 1606, when the chief inhabitants of Castle Combe in Wiltshire noticed just one un­married pregnancy, they immediately drew up a petition to the local magistrates urging that the woman be severely punished, for her

filthy act of whoredom. . . by the which licentious life of hers not only God’s wrath may be poured down upon us inhabitants of the town, but also her evil example may so greatly corrupt others that great and extraordinary charge for the maintenance of baseborn children may be imposed upon us.

In reality, of course, the real hardship fell upon any pregnant single woman. She would lose her employment, and expect to be expelled from her lodgings: to harbour a bastard-bearer was a crime. If she went into labour, as Margaret Wheeler did in 1616, at the point of her most awful agonies, ‘in great pain and travail and almost beyond the hope of life’, she would normally be interrogated by her midwives and neighbours, refused all help by them, and threatened with death and damnation – sometimes for hours on end, sometimes as she actually lay dying – unless she truthfully confessed the name of the bastard’s father.4

Unwanted pregnancy was therefore also the most serious worry for couples engaged in illicit sex. Some evidently tried to prevent preg­nancy, or took herbs and potions to induce abortion, but the basic biology of conception was not properly understood until the nine­teenth century, and there were no widely available or reliable methods of contraception. The risks of fornication were immeasurably greater for any woman than for a man, because she alone bore the life – threatening dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, the automatic responsibility for any infant, and the almost impossible task of phys­ically concealing her shame and avoiding harsh punishment. As one poor early seventeenth-century maidservant told her would-be lover,

No, truly you shall not lie with me till we be married for you see how many do falsify their promises. . . I am but a servant and if your friends should not consent to our marriage we are undone.

If a woman was already married she was safe from punishment for bastardy, for no child she conceived could be illegitimate. Yet even in such cases comparable worries preoccupied illicit lovers. As the testi­mony of one married Somerset woman in the mid-i65os reveals, even the most amoral, irreligious seducer could not deny the force of this perennial concern:

Roger did then solicit her. . . to be dishonest with him and then better to per­suade her so to do thereunto he told her that if she had any child by him he would give it means to maintain it. And then there was no punishment for any man. . . but only in this life which was none at all so long as he would allow means to maintain the child: after this life there was no punishment because there was neither heaven nor hell.5

On similar, economic grounds, when paupers had children out of wedlock they could be taken away from them. At the end of the sev­enteenth century, Daniel Taylor and Sarah Ellis lived with their three children in the East End parish of St Botolph Aldgate in London. In December 1700, some time after the death of Sarah Ellis, the church­wardens and overseers of the poor suddenly decided that the remaining members of the family constituted an unacceptable burden to the rate-payers of the parish. Daniel Taylor was interviewed by two justices of the peace and ‘confessed’, in their words, ‘that he was never married to the said Sarah Ellis but only cohabited with her as man and wife and that all the said children are bastards’. Two of his chil­dren, William and Sarah, were consequently taken from their father and sent to the neighbouring parish of St Mary Whitechapel, where they had been born; on the same grounds the third, Elizabeth, was separated from the rest of the family and sent west to St Botolph Bishopsgate. Ultimately, the right to have sex, and to form a family, was regulated by the community.[3]

In addition to all these worldly considerations, there were obvi­ous religious imperatives for sexual discipline. Unchastity had to be penalized because, as the Bible showed, it was highly offensive to God. Those who broke his commandments were risking their salva­tion, but their sins also reflected upon the wider community, even if hidden from sight. As the chronicler Thomas Walsingham noted of Londoners during a popular campaign against adulterers in the early 1380s,

they expressed their fears that the entire commonalty would be destroyed by such sins committed in secret when God punished them. For that reason, they wished to cleanse this stain from the city so that it might not fall to ruin or the sword, or be swallowed when the earth opened up.6

More than 200 years later those citizens of Castle Combe who took fright at a single bastard-bearer were acting on the same principle. If any community tolerated such insults to the Almighty, his wrath would punish them all. Ultimately, such divine retribution could bring down entire cities and lands, as it had wiped out Sodom and Gomor­rah (e. g. Genesis 18-19; Deuteronomy 29 and 32; Jeremiah 23; Jude 1). That is why, to ward off God’s vengeful providence, families, parishes, cities, and whole nations were anxious to hunt down and cast out the unclean from their midst. The purer their community, the more favourably the Almighty would treat them.

For the same reason there had always been a powerful parallel between the enforcement of sexual and of religious purity. In pre­modern society, religious diversity was an essentially alien, undesirable concept. Both before and after the Reformation, there had always been only one church. Everyone was obliged to belong to it, and to assent to the same religious beliefs – the penalty for propounding het­erodox views was, ultimately, death. It was axiomatic that belief and worship were not issues that could safely be left to individual judge­ment.7 As in sexual matters, the correct forms were prescribed by law; adherence to them was enforced; deviations were punishable. The means of enforcement were also strikingly similar. Until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, religious and sexual conformity were both policed by the church courts; and after the Restoration in 1660 the secular mechanisms employed to persecute religious dissenters were the same as those used to punish sexual offenders.

In both cases, religious and sexual, punishment was believed to be an effective means of reforming souls and preserving social cohesion. It worked in four main ways. In the first place, ritual punishment assuaged the community’s anger and expunged the pollution from its midst. Secondly, it deterred others. Thirdly, it forced the offender to stop the criminal behaviour. Finally, it could also help bring about a real change of heart. A major aim of sexual policing was always to induce penitence and reconciliation between sinners and those they had offended. If combined with education and persuasion, the impos­ition of suffering was held to be an effective means of opening people’s minds to the error of their ways. Those inflicting it liked to think of themselves as benevolent doctors, bringing spiritual lunatics back to sanity, using corporal methods to purge diseases from the soul. What matter that it did not always work? ‘Is medicine to be neglected, because some men’s plague is incurable?’8 Indeed, as moralists never tired of pointing out, the punishment of sinners and apostates was an act of profound charity – ‘the greatest mercy imaginable’, as the prison chaplain Edmund Cressy put it in 1675. For what was a little shame and pain on earth in comparison with the horrible, everlasting tor­ment that would otherwise await them in hell?9

In consequence there was a close intellectual association between sexual and spiritual discipline. As St Augustine had said, heresy and adultery were the same kind of crime: people claimed only to be fol­lowing their hearts, but they were still guilty.10 More generally, there was believed to be a direct connection between moral and spiritual deviance. Throughout history, noted the popular preacher William

Clagett, ‘doctrines that give liberty to lust’ had been used ‘to draw men off from the truth’ and lead them into religious error. After apos­tasy itself, remarked a preacher, the second greatest sin of all was ‘uncleanness, the natural consequent of the love of error’.11

This connection between sexual and spiritual impurity had an immense pedigree. Just as the Bible described spiritual enlightenment as marriage with Christ, so in the Old Testament God himself had described idolatry as going ‘a whoring’, and committing ‘whoredom’ against him.12 It was also clear from scripture (e. g. I Corinthians 7.5) and from countless later teachings that the immense pleasure that could be derived from sex was but a snare of Satan’s, the thing that made it the most dangerous sin of all. It was a Christian common­place that anyone who succumbed to this impure appetite, even just once, risked developing a fatal addiction to it. As one clergyman warned his readers: ‘You must know yourself very little, if you can suppose, that in such a situation, you shall retain your scruples. No, Sir, lust indulged will not be reasoned with. A fiercer affection the mind of man knows not’. Indeed, whereas other crimes were liable to provoke subsequent remorse, in this case the opposite was true: ‘the reflection on sins of uncleanness revives the pleasure, and makes repentance of them exceeding difficult’ – ‘it is like a deep ditch, and a narrow pit, which it is almost impossible to get out of’.13 That sexual and spiritual deviance went hand in hand was further established by the endless practical examples of false prophets and sects, throughout history and into the present, who had encouraged vice. Catholics, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, atheists, Muslims, pagans, heathens and heretics: all were said to tend to lechery. (And most of these groups were themselves just as keen on using the charge of doctrinal and moral impurity against others.)14

At the root of this way of thinking lay the presumption that it was folly to leave religion and morality to personal interpretation. People might hold views sincerely, even passionately, and still be dangerously mistaken. As one learned writer enumerated, ‘1. The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked; and what will it not do, if it may do what it will? 2. When men know that they are liable to no restraint, it will let loose their lusts, and make them worse.’15 By comparison with the inherent corruption of human nature, the powers of reason and conscience were weak, and the forces of error and evil lay everywhere in wait to ensnare and corrupt them. Reason was ‘a false weapon’ against sin, explained the physician Richard Capel, for it was the devil’s tool. ‘We lose all if once we begin to enter into disputation with such an old Sophister and crafty fox as Satan is. . . our reason is cor­rupt, and on his side, and it will betray us into his hands’. As for conscience, in unregenerate men it was but blind and helpless as a guide. Even in the most virtuous persons, ‘it is in part defiled and cor­rupt and imperfect, and therefore it is mistaken and cannot be our rule, and it is our sin, to set our conscience in [place] of the Word of God’.16

These ideas were ubiquitous in popular religious teaching. They are brought vividly to life in John Bunyan’s wonderful allegory The Holy War (1682), which depicted the continual struggle between the forces of God and the devil for the ‘town’ of ‘Mansoul’. The devil first takes possession by denouncing God’s moral laws as ‘unreasonable, intri­cate, and intolerable’, and promising greater freedom and knowledge. After debauching and deranging Mansoul’s conscience, he destroys all ‘doctrines of morals’, and replaces them with a general ‘liberty’ (espe­cially to ‘the lusts of the flesh’) for everybody to do as they please, without ‘law, statute, or judgment of mine to fright you’. As lord mayor he installs the bestial Lord Lustings; amongst his aldermen are Mr Swearing, Mr Whoreing, and Mr Atheism. Even after the town is retaken by the Lord Emanuel, evil forces remain within, waiting for a new opportunity, led by ‘The Lord Fornication’ and ‘The Lord Adul­tery’. The moral was that only the guidance of sound doctrine and superior teachers could lead people safely to salvation.17[4]

It also followed that safeguarding the spiritual welfare of the people had to be a paramount aim of government. Plato and Aristotle seem to have regarded extra-marital sex as a dangerously corrupting pleas­ure, and most pre-modern commentators eagerly agreed with them.18 ‘Even as the soul is the worthier part of man,’ explained Richard Hooker, one of the most influential theologians of the sixteenth cen­tury, ‘so human societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soul’s estate than for such temporal things as this life doth stand in need of’. In a godly commonwealth, said the seven­teenth-century religious leader and writer Richard Baxter, ‘the honour and pleasing of God, and the salvation of the people are the principal ends, and their corporal welfare but subordinate to these’. Punishing unchaste persons, for their own good and that of the community, was a Christian and a public duty, incumbent upon all members of soci­ety.19

The culture of sexual discipline was therefore not only sustained by strongly held beliefs about the dangers of immorality. It also rested on central political, philosophical, and psychological presumptions about the purpose of government, the nature of human beings, the ethics of belief, and the imperfection of innate understanding. So long had the practice of discipline persisted, so closely was it intertwined with the fabric of social life, so deep were its intellectual foundations, that no one in 1600 could possibly have envisaged its abolition.

Yet its decline and fall were just around the corner. Initially, the Ref­ormation led to a tightening of sexual regulation; but it also shattered the unity of European Christendom. In the course of the seventeenth century the growth of religious division was to destroy everything.

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