Sexual Nonconformism

Peter Laslett

  • Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early 17th Century England by G.R. Quaife
    Croom Helm, 283 pp, £11.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0062 7
  • A History of Myddle by Richard Gough, edited by Peter Razzell
    Caliban, 184 pp, £9.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 904573 14 1

We are apt to think of authoritarianism in emotional and sexual life as pre-eminently Victorian. It was an outcome, we tend to believe – if indeed we think of it historically at all – of the unrelenting imposition of middle-class conformism on the easier, opener attitudes of the English peasantry. ‘Earthy’ is the word we most often use of the way the peasants carried on. But listen to this:

Upon Sunday the 18th and 25th days of this instant month of July, Thomas Odam with a white sheet upon his uppermost garment, and a white wand in his hand, shall come into the parish church at Charlton at the beginning of the forenoon service and stand forth in the middle space before the pulpit during the whole time of divine service, and a sermon then and there to be preached against the crime of fornication and incest, and immediately after the sermon shall with an audible voice make this humble acknowledgment, repeating the same after the minister namely

‘I, Thomas Odam, do here before God acknowledge and confess that I have grievously offended the divine majesty of almighty God in living incestuously with my wife’s daughter.’

Odam had to repeat this public act of shame on the third Sunday, the first of August, in the loveliest of all English cathedrals, ‘the church of St Andrew in Wells’, ‘wearing in his wand a piece of paper spread abroad containing in great text [very large letters] these words’:

        CHARLTON
THOMAS ODAM, FOR INCEST WITH
  AUCHARETT WHITE HIS WIVES
        DAUGHTER

Odam had been reported to the church court of the diocese of Wells by one of the churchwardens – that is, one of his neighbours – in the little village of Charlton, along with all other persons about whom a ‘fame’ of incontinence had arisen in the community since the last inquiry. Every last sign of a breach of the code had to be reported to the ‘bawdy court’, as it came to be known. Walking out late at night together was enough, if it was not accepted that courtship with a view to marriage was in progress.

It seems right to suppose that all this was willingly enough done: peasant dealt with peasant, right up to the end (which occurred in the early 18th century) of the active system of church courts. We have to recognise that in English society sexual life was traditionally and systematically observed by local people and publicly controlled. This had been so from time immemorial. Sexual infringements were publicly punished with marvellous symbolic, cathartic effectiveness. Which does not, of course, mean that everyone conformed so closely to the rules that infringements are to be regarded as rare exceptions. That error, an error of comprehension about how people behave and how such regulations work in practice, bedevils the study of historical sociology in many matters other than the sexual and marital.

I have quoted at length this case from Quaife’s Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives because his popularly-written study of Somersetshire ecclesiastical court cases is dedicated to the correction of this error and of two others as well. The first of the two further errors is that before the time of what the social scientists are pleased to call ‘modernisation’, sexual enjoyment was for the most part absent from the lives of women, and love and tenderness missing from courtship and from marriage. This is a position particularly associated with Edward Shorter, whose Making of the Modern Family defends the view that it was capitalism and the rise of industry 150 years after the time described by Quaife which introduced these things into the emotional lives of the mass of the population. No one can read Quaife’s book and still believe that. Lawrence Stone could surely not have written as he did in his Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 if he had had that knowledge of the really telling evidence which Quaife thinks he should have had.

The other error which he attacks is the idea that the triumph of Puritanism was the origin of repression in English life. Although recorded ratios of illegitimacy most certainly declined during the time when Puritanism was on the increase in the earlier 17th century, and were at their lowest for 400 years during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, Quaife maintains that Puritanism cannot have had very much to do with it; other authorities, ranging more widely in time and space, tend to support his conclusions. The explanation of variations in the incidence of bastardy in English history lies elsewhere.

Quaife’s book is not a very profound study. It is unfortunate that the year of Thomas Odam’s public punishment is not recoverable from his text, though it can be assumed to have taken place in the 1620s. But his book presents us with a readable and useful compendium of sexual practices, together with a number of commonsensical if crude analyses. One of these provides evidence in favour of that most interesting and in many ways most difficult hypothesis in the history of sexual nonconformism: that there was over a period of time a distinguishable, descent-related group in English communities which has been called the bastardy-prone sub-society.

But it is the earthiness of the descriptive prose coming from that great age of English expressiveness which gives the work its readability. A typical conversational passage of the kind in which the text abounds runs as follows (and one devoutly hopes that the transcription is accurate): ‘The clergyman’s wife,’ Quaife tells us, quoting one of his court cases, ‘saw the young man try to put his hand up her daughter’s dress as they sat at table,’ and there was recrimination. The young man boasted: ‘I’ll fuck thee and thy daughter before I go home… I have fucked ten old women of this parish.’ To which the vicar’s wife replied: ‘Tell me one of them for I will not believe you.’ ‘I have fucked Kent’s wife, the miller, to fritters.’ Ungrateful to a Victorian ear, perhaps, and not entirely acceptable even today, but typical of its time and of the publicity which might surround such goings-on.

The same quality inevitably attaches to the prose of the incomparably more important source for this aspect of the history of English life which has been re-edited and regrettably shortened by Peter Razzell. In Gough’s History of Myddle we have a unique contemporary account of all that went forward in a Cheshire parish and its surrounding district in the fifty or so years before about 1700. Here is an example of how the man writes: ‘This Richard Wycherley adopted another Richard Wycherley to be his heir and put him to school to Mr Suger of Broughton at which time I was a scholar there. He was very dull at learning, which caused Mr Suger to say very often he had no guts in his brains but it seems he had gear in his britches for he got one of his uncle’s servantmaids with child.’ The pace of the prose and the directness of it take the reader’s breath away. These Wycherleys, incidentally, came from the family of the Restoration dramatist.

Razzell is quite right to claim that Myddle is a classic work of social description, emanating from that long-vanished society of our predecessors sometimes described as the world we have lost. His is not the first reprint, and David Hey has written a whole monograph about the work. It consists almost entirely of a kind of biographical free association on the part of a man with a marvellous memory standing in Myddle church and contemplating the pews. Each pew was then, of course, reserved to a particular house or tenement in the parish, and those who lived in or upon them, their origins, kin relations, life experiences and final ends, are the author’s whole subject-matter. Pretty well everything that the historian of social structure needs is here.

If he wants to know what ‘family’ meant at the turn of the 18th century, family as kinship or family as the domestic group inhabiting a house, Gough will tell him. If he wants to know what ‘community’ meant, Gough will tell him that too, making it clear that a community was not simply the population of a parish, but that there were many overlapping communities to which people belonged, a community for almost every social purpose. If he wants to know about servants and service; about the place of women and the work of women; about the inheritance of property; about social mobility, during a lifetime or from generation to generation; about the relationship of town life to country life and how in many ways they were interchangeable; about insecurity and violence; about the love of children for parents, parents for children; about the familiarity of class with class; about the ubiquity of alcoholism – booze, booze, booze – all of it is here.

Gough’s canvas is much, much broader than that of Mr Quaife’s church courts, and the issues he raises go far beyond emotional and sexual authoritarianism. It is a pity that his fugues in prose have had to be compressed in this edition, and I rather doubt if such a policy will attract the readership which this extraordinary work has so far failed to attract. What is surely needed is expansive, not contractive treatment: full notes and a long introduction. Razzell’s few pages are interesting and pertinent, but the text is still full of puzzles and the indications of where things have been left out are inadequate.

Taken together, these two documents do little of themselves to tell us why it was that public regulation of sexual activity fell out of English life in the early 18th century, and why the authoritarian practices of the Victorian age were very different. The explanation, when we have it, will have to be theoretical, as explanations always are. But these two books do leave us with a vivid illustration of how things were before the change took place, a change which, though so far practically unnoticed by historians, could be called the most important in the history of sexuality in our country.