286 Sex and the Reformation of Manners

What concerned society about sexual behaviour and why ? How did they intervene in the way people lived their lives; what did you have to do to be whipped at four corners of the churchyard?  And what impact did the Reformation have.

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The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jane Horowitz – in which a podcaster appears as a sheep

Thank you Sarah Jane, as you know, I have always wanted to be a sheep! If you are in the market for a children’s book, why not try Clementine? Your can also read this review in the NYT.



Hello everyone, and I hope you had a thoroughly good Christmas, and are gearing up for a hooley at New Year. As part of your preparations, you might like to slip away under the mistletoe and listen to attitudes about sex in the later medieval and Early Modern World.

I might very quickly share my excitement that I am also a character in a book – how exciting is that. I am not a dark lord saving the world, but I am the next best thing – a sheep! Thank you Children’s author Sarah Jane  Horowitz, your book ‘The Dark Lord Clementine’ has pride of place, and if anyone is I the market for a children; book, I have posted a review on the website for you.

Last time we talked a bit about the Reformation of Manners, and how they were affected by the attempt to reform the habits and moral fibre of the nation. And I gave you all fair warning that now at last is the time to talk about sex, baby, and examine the considerable effort spent in regulating the sex lives of the English.

If you are very interested in this topic, either seek medical help, or go to ask for the hep of Martin Ingram, who has written a very detailed and fascinating account of the topic in his recent book, Carnal Knowledge. And he starts said book with an anecdote. Robert Stephens comes home one day, and found the wicket gate of his home secured against him. Robert did not react well, and broke through and went in and

Founde John his Journeyman upon his wife in his kitchen, and in a sodeyn fume …furiously ramme at seyde John.

John legged it with his hose round his knees but not fast enough

Robert gave him such strokes that [John] defied the place and then getting out into the street and ranne away, holding his hosen up with his hands

The account goes onto explain that

His neighbours marvelling at that sudden adventure and so went into the greene

You can imagine it can you not? Ooo’eer, missus, look ooooh

In Early Modern England, 1556 as this is, this is not simply a matter of a bit of giggling, rib digging and a lifetime of snide jokes. This was a matter for the law. As a result Robert and Alice his wife spent a whole day in the stocks in the market place. And had to then stay away for more than 20 days. Say what? Robert in the stocks? What about John? Well, the anecdote tells us quite a lot.  John mysteriously managed to get clothes back that he had left in the house, and the court decided that Robert was far from innocent in this – something sneaky had been going on. In fact – they concluded that Robert had found out about the peccadilloes going on and so had set John up, so that he could then take his revenge. And then it is worth noting that women are constantly at the sharp end of sexual regulation, whether or not they have agency in any particular matter. But men are far from immune either – there are double standards, but they are of degree. And finally, justice generally has a lot of leeway – discretion is a feature of England’s justice system. John had been publicly humiliated, by being beaten and ‘defiled the place’ with probably involves some involuntary venting of John’s personal effluvia. The court seems to have decided he’d suffered enough.

There were a lot of courts in 16th century England. There were the secular courts of common law, centred on the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall in London. Out from there travelled the circuit judges to run regular Assize courts in the county Towns to deal with the most important matters of rape and homicide. From there, justice was delegated to local Justices of the Peace who held two types of court – the most important cases were tried at Quarter sessions with Grand and petty juries, and then smaller monthly courts, the Petty sessions around the county. Then there were the central equity courts, direct instruments of royal justice in the tradition or Roman law, the Courts of Star Chamber, Chancery, Requests again at Westminster. All these are secular courts so now that I have mentioned them – you can largely forget all about them for the moment, except to marvel at just how much justice there is around.

Alongside the secular courts was a system of Church courts which is what we are going to think about today. These courts concerned behaviour and morality, and usually we are talking about courts managed by the Archdeacon for each diocese. They looked at the behaviour and competence of the officials of the church as you would expect. But their competence also extended to the behaviour of the parishioners too. The church courts acquired the nicknames of the Bawdy courts, or the Bum courts, and in there is a suggestion that the people that ran them were themselves disreputable – a charge that by and large historians have cleared them of[1]. More, the names reflected that they tended to end up being a lot about sex.  There were two sorts of case that might end up in front of the church courts; there were suits of Instance, and these were brought by the ordinary people of the parish making accusations against each other; or suits of Office. Suits of Office were brought by court officials or churchwardens – so I guess church officials could be that top down enforcement by the church authorities; otherwise cases can often reflect either the views of the parish or individuals. Churchwardens are a little bit caught in the middle it must be said. There was something of a reluctance to wash your dirty linen in public and it were, but it got a little embarrassing to go to the court every year and say no problems here, guv’ everything’s hunky dory, there was pressure to find something and at least look as though you were trying.

The purpose of the courts was obviously the punish the guilty; but never forget that the real aim was to bring sinner to repentance and save their immortal soul, it was not a simple matter of coercion in line with a set of social mores. It appears that the courts were, um, shall we say, sensitive to social order and the ties of deference that held society together. Meaning that they were reluctant to bring the big names of the elite to court unless they could absolutely help it.  This gave them a bit of a problem in some cases before the reformation in particular, since men of substance tended to maintain mistresses, sometimes in lodging houses, but quite frequently in their main residences; it was a practice in London that was carried on further down the social scale too. Contemporaries didn’t mince their words as far as this was concerned, they simply described the practice as ‘keeping whores’, so it set a poor example. That aside, however, the courts were also keen to give the accused a chance to clear their name; in cases where there was no proof and the accused did not confess, the test was compurgation. Compurgation meant that  the accused had to bring along a bunch of neighbours who would swear to their innocence; and once that was done, the court ordered that this offence was spoken of no more – the air, as it were, was cleared of the scent of corruption, evil doing and malicious gossip. As if, I can hear you say, but such was the principle. In our cynical world we might view this as a laughably simple process to get round but the evidence appears to be that it was anything but, and a minority actually managed it, often preferring to spill the beans and carry out the penance instead.

There’s a bit of historiography attached to this. The now dominant story saw the Reformation as a watershed; it paints a picture of church courts that were by 1500 moribund as agents of sexual regulation. But then along came the Reformation which shook things up. Reformers viewed sex ad marriage differently, rejecting the existing idea that celibacy should be the model for all. And that marriage was therefore principally a vehicle for the avoidance of sin given that not all of us are up to the challenge of celibacy.

The Reformers took a much more exalted view of marriage and expected more. Ironically they rejected the idea that marriage was a sacrament, finding no evidence for that in the bible, but nonetheless they exalted marriage, household and family as a set of institutions fundamental to the health of the Commonwealth. This was not just an English thing – this is a European trend, leading to the Calvinist tradition of the reformation of Life and a drastic remodelling of church Courts. The Catholic church also looked at its own disciplinary institutions which included a variety of Inquisition courts, particularly in southern Europe. So the idea is that it’s the Reformation which causes the focus on a reformation of manners in the later 16th and 17th century.

One of the problems in challenging this assumption is that the earlier records are predictably much more scarce; so it’s a bit difficult to identify whether it’s lack of activity – or just a question of document survival. But more recently, in England at least, a different story has emerged. What becomes clear is that there is nothing new about sustained campaigns of moral regulation. In Leicester in 1467 for example there was an elaborate ordinance against unlawful games, scolds and quarrellers, and brothels and bawdry; there was a follow up ordinance in 1484. In Coventry there were ordinances in 1445, 1474, 1490 and 1492. It seems that in 1495 in areas where records survive, there was an extraordinary amount of cases, in some cases without parallel before or after the reformation[2] A study of London courts found a dramatic peak under the Yorkists and Henry VII – in 1490 1,515 prosecutions were processed, after another previous peak of 1,305 in 1472[3]. It appears that there was nothing intrinsically unusual about a focus on sexual behaviour.

Court cases for sexual discipline before 1530 and therefore before the Reformation cover a wide variety; of which the biggest single group was the broad description of incontinence, which is a nice phrase, inability to keep it in the relevant article of clothing I suppose is the super summary, but the focus is on two areas – adultery, so illicit sex within marriage, and clerical celibacy. Clerical celibacy appears to be something of a problem, and of course it’s a problem which has a historiography all of it’s own; previously it was assumed that the fulminations of the Catholic reformers like Collett reflected reality and priests were always at it; in the revisionism of the 1990s and the naughties it was decided that there was no evidence that parishioners were up in arms about their priests playing away; or rather that there was a happy sort of acceptance that you know, when a priest loves a woman he can do no wrong, and as long as he treated her well, that was fine, good luck to you both.  And so as ever the pendulum swings back. Further analysis makes it clear that parishioners in particular were a good deal more censorious than this. After all priests were committing a sin, and the priest was supposed to be acting as an intermediary for the parishioner with God; in wills there is a constant refrain asking for an ‘honest’ priest to offer up prayers for the dead. Wrong doing Priests could be forced to the periphery of local society like the vicar of Haverhill who

For the incontinence of his vicious living he was driven from Fulbourn

Thomas More grumpily complained that parishioners took unworthy delight in deriding priests that fell by the wayside, which shows a certain sort of arrogance. but often there was some reticence in bringing incidents to public light or a reluctance to make a direct accusation. In one circuit of visitations for example at Sproxton, there’s a flat statement which you can imagine being accompanied by embarrassed shared glances, that the vicar

Has a young woman in his house who is pregnant as the public voice and labour fame.

In another there’s an initial straight forward statement that the Rector at Thornham had a Joan Thakham in this house initially saying

That the parishioners…suspect no ill of her save that she is not a little proud and gives the proud words.

Ok, well that doesn’t sound too bad, let’s move on…until there’s a large snapping sound and a bit more appears that Joan was:

A common whore who lives within the rectory and keeps there a common tavern; she is also a common scold; the rector lives incontinently with her

Ok then, that’s a little clearer. The visitation ordered that Joan must leave the rector’s house, and in general late 15th century church courts put a lot of effort into dealing with the problem of clerical celibacy. The summary was that only 5% of cases each year appeared to be about clerical incontinence and so historians concluded that it really wasn’t the problem it had been previously claimed to be. Now it’s recognised that people were reluctant to bring the matter up in visitations, not least because the church was very wary about bringing its own clergy into disrepute; so the problem would have been much more common than thought; and that no indeed, villagers were by no means relaxed and forgiving about such transgressions.

Courts also dealt with issues of prostitution, and the common rubric was that pre reformation courts were lax and relatively unconcerned with the problem. The most infamous centre of prostitution was the Bishop of Winchester’s Southwark stews but it is worth noting that particularly in provincial towns, prostitution before the reformation was relatively common; I’m not sure what I expected to be honest, but a common model in the 15th century was that of the female Tapster offering sexual services at inns and alehouses. One study in York linked the sex trade in provincial towns to a process of increasing hostility to women being involved at all in trade; unable to make a living in trade, this forced some women into the sex trade. The study found that street walking was the norm rather than organised activities in brothels. From other towns, though a broader model appears where sex was available at a series of ill regulated households, sometimes run by a husband and wife team. The picture then is that before the reformation, while the Southwark stews were the biggest and most obvious centre of the sex trade, it was prevalent in most provincial towns; it’s just that unlike Southwark, towns and indeed the city of London itself did not go down the route of licensed brothels. One of the contributory factors was that the Clergy’s use of sex workers was also a significant part of the trade’s customers, which was once again a difficult issue then for the church courts to deal with.

Sadly, there is very little survival of the voice of sex workers involved. There are snippets that come through. Unsurprisingly, it’s clear that many women were forced against their will into the trade; in 1473, Ellen Boteler complained that she had been kidnapped by Thomas Bowde, forcing her into the trade by threatening to take her to court in a separate case. Sex workers were often excommunicated and therefore denied the mass; and there are cases where such women are caught and prosecuted for taking communion nonetheless; unsurprisingly, it seems that sex workers, though clearly vilified by society and the law, still saw themselves as part of the same community and wished to be part of it; we are usually probably not talking of defiant rebels.

What is clear as the proverbial bell, though, is how prostitution was seen by society as a whole – the very language of Common whore and Bawd and the frequency with which it is used is evidence enough, and the vigour with which defamation suits were brought to church when accusations were made. But it’s also clear that the church courts were equally determined to limit or eradicate the trade – it’s just that it appeared to be beyond them; it was institutionalised in the Stews and endemic around Westminster. But in 1512 for example 200 cases were brought in the Southwark church courts alone; and this was only one court involved; secular courts were also involved – the King’s Bench, local manorial courts as well as the church courts. They were clearly supported by Jurors, churchwardens, constables and local informants, including women,[4] and the very clear image is of ordinary people affronted by the sex trade and keen to see offenders brought to the court and punished.

If you were caught, the normal principle of punishment was shame, to be shamed and humiliated in front of your neighbours. I suppose it’s reasonably obvious to say that such punishments would have been less effective unless the activity was considered shameful, but of course there was also the humiliation of before forced to stand out, and the feeling of expulsion from the community. The general trend was for a gradual lessening of severity of punishments over time. Centuries before our time, periods of fasting were considered suitable penances for adultery, along with the application of the rod, and in the 14th century, those found guilty of adultery appear often to have been whipped, and the practice continued into the 15th century. Here’s advice from the diocese of Lincoln about how to impose a sentence; it ordered that the culprit should

At each corner of the churchyard humbly kneeling, receive from the curate of the same church a whipping with a rod according to the custom.

During the first half of the 16th century up to the reformation, the practice of whipping was getting gradually rarer, and had mainly disappeared by the time of the reformation. You have to wonder why. It does not seem to have been because lay people objected to whipping as wrong per se – or at least there’s little evidence for that. It could be that more and more people did object, because by the early 16th century with the Yorkists vagrancy laws, the whip was beginning to be established as the standard form of punishments for vagrants. So punishment in such as way began to seen as a more and more extreme form of humiliation, given the way that society felt about vagrants, as immoral and idle creatures, rather than unfortunates. But also as secular courts became more important, the distinction between the secular punishments and the church courts began to harden; this was that the church courts could not touch life, limb or property – such sentences were the preserve of secular courts alone. And so the church courts were forced to moderate their sentences.

I started the discussion of punishments with the general statement that shaming was the normal method of punishment, and then started going on about whipping which was of course humiliating, but you know, a little more than that. My point was that by the time the reformation rolls around, corporal punishment had probably finally had its day – and would not be revived by the reformation.

So shaming became more and more important. The basic format had strong elements of drama and performance; the most common was for the culprit to walk through the parish in front of a cross on a Sunday or major feast day holding a candle.  We are back to the Game of Thrones thingy. Then they’d stand or kneel in the front of the church during mass, which is sounding awfully like going to school in the 70s and standing in the corner, though, obviously, without the fornicating bit. Well, not obviously, but take my word for it, without the fornicating bit. Often the penitents would have to go barefoot, or bare legged; women were made to leave their hair unbound; men to perform penance in a shirt or women in a smock. All of these are humiliating breaches of the social rules which removed the dignity of the culprit.

The severity of the punishment would vary according to the severity of the crime. So, let us start with a bit of fornication shall we, as you do? By fornication in this instance I mean fornication in a technical sense of sex outside marriage, rather than a simple, bible thumping fulmination of disapproval. Where this involved a couple who then promised to get married, the penance might take place entirely in the relatively safe environment of the church. Adultery, i.e. sex within marriage of course, tended to be treated more harshly than fornication, and incest more seriously than both. In towns punishments might be ratcheted up by the use of carting, which you have probably guessed means being pulled through the town on a cart. It carried with it high visibility; the people of the town would inevitably gather for the fun, and sympathetically throw stuff at the culprits. It was an age when you needed to take your fun where you could find it, in any form it came.

I thought I would finish up with an anecdote or illustration rather which comes from Loughborough. This is something of a proud moment for me; I have subjected you to a barrage of irrelevant references to Loughborough purely since it was my home town. Now at last, I can obey the proper rules of podcasting, and actually make it relevant. A tear of joy drips on my keyboard as I type. So, let me take you to the teaming cosmopolis that is Loughborough, around 1526-7. I like the example because it shows you the full gamut of these things but also, look out for the fact that people didn’t necessarily take these things lying down.

So, to Elizabeth Everingham and William Bankes then. Bankes was a widower of Loughborough. Churchwardens Richard Greensmith, William Cotes and John Sayrson explained that William had kept Elizabeth; and they’d had a child. Elizabeth it turns out was

His wifes’s brother’s daughter, and also she was her godmother and also he kepped her in his wifis days and yet doith continue, to ill example of others

Bankes came to court and confessed, and was ordered to stay away from Elizabeth and do penance. This was a severe one – the whipping at the 4 corners of the churchyard at the hands of the curate. Bankes at this point tried to escape his punishment claiming to have already been punished elsewhere. This ploy won him but a short breather – because it turned out that yes he had one penance elsewhere, but that was for another, first child. Now, he’d had another. So Elizabeth and William were not showing themselves notably penitent. William then tried a tricky legal way out which is very Tudor; he managed to get a letter from another court. Tudors did this; they loved litigation, and given the overlapping complexity of all the courts they could play one off against another. But waa waa ooops – no way out pal. No jurisdiction here. Curses.

The court had had enough and went nuclear – and excommunicated Bankes, and very unusually got help from the secular courts to throw him in gaol, so finally he submitted. Barefoot, bare legged, bare headed, rosary in one hand candle in the other he was paraded three times round Loughborough market. Now Loughborough market can be a busy place, so, maybe he might have avoided notice? Not a bit of it. A Summoner walked in front with a white rod shouting at the top of his voice, what was going on, explain this penance

For his misliving and his great disobedience unto Christ’s church.

Back to prison he went, and then performed a series of penitential acts in his home parish, including being beaten on the hands and head by a curate with a black rod. Then back to prison again, and a similar ordeal the following Sunday. Then a special court was held in the parish church, and Bankes was forced on his knees to beg for re-admittance.

Everyone had turned out to watch, and when he was released, the record, with a bit of exaggeration for effect no doubt, noted that

A thousand Christian people, crying out publically ‘Our Lord God save the Bishop of Lincoln and all his, for this man is well reformed to grace to goode insample of all husee’.

Right, hopefully you have something of a flavour of the bawdy courts of the late 15th and early 16th century. We have now seen that the idea of a Reformation of Manners is far from being a 16th century or Reformation phenomenon; by 1500, the church’s campaign was less an attempt to control misbehaviour, and more an attempt to impose on the laity the discipline and authority it hoped to impose on the clergy. Far from being relaxed and laid back church courts worked hard to instil discipline in their parishioners; that there are periods of furious activity, particularly under the Yorkists and at the end of the 15th century.

By 1500, the pre reformation church faced a few core problems with its programmes of moral correction. As we have mentioned men of status tended to keep mistresses quite publicly. Secondly, more casual and opportunistic forms of adultery were frequent; a common story, for example, was sex with maidservants. Since a very high proportion of young women, went into domestic service before they were married and were potentially very vulnerable, this was a major problem. Thirdly, the trade in sex was relatively widespread – both in provincial towns, and more famously in the Southwark Stews and Westminster. And fourthly was the extent of clerical immorality. By 1500, there had been a significant decline in the severity of penances, and secular courts had begun to restrict the severity too, beginning to emphasise their monopoly of physical punishment; money fines began to appear often as well, rather than public spectacle.  The number of prosecutions seem to fall off in the early 16th century too – there’s a distinct breather.

The breather is quite short lived. In the 1520 and 1530’s there was a clear tendency for some form of physical pain to come back into the equation. Whipping seems to revive in some places temporarily, but more it’s a question of other more violent forms of public shaming. One of the most widely used was the cukking stool, or ducking. So onto the end of the traditional procession might be added a further humiliation, with the culprit immersed fully in water. The practice was revived of cutting women’s hair, which had been first prescribed in 1382 but fallen out of practice, and the idea of sewing letters or symbols into the condemned’s clothing as a sign of their crime. Largely maybe these appeared because the old methods did not seem to be working. The obvious question is why? This was pre reformation so we have to look elsewhere, and the obvious conclusion to which we might jump is the start of the rise of homelessness and vagrancy. It was generally thought that vagrants were sexually promiscuous, and would sell their body for cash, food or a place to stay; and this link between sexual transgression and poverty would be a powerful and abiding theme through the century and beyond.

In the 1530s and 1540s during the break with Rome and the growing disruption of the ideas of the reformation probably had the initial impact of actually reducing the number of indictments; the church courts in particular were unsurprisingly rather demoralised and less active, although secular courts may have taken up some of the slack.

If an arbitrary date is needed, and arbitrary dates are a fun feature of history so that we can argue about them, 1546 might be a good one to pick for a new determination to reform morality and behaviour. In this year at last the Southwark stews were suppressed, and formed part of a growingly ferocious campaign in the late 1540s and 1550s, especially in its peak in 1550, with numbers of cases not seen in some places since the 1470s. One of the outcomes of the campaign in Edwardian London was the creation of Brideswell hospital, founded in Henry VIII’s old palace. It was part of a strategy to provide different support for different needs in London; by 1552, St Bartholomews had been refounded for the sick poor, St Thomas’s in Southwark for the aged, and Christ’s Hospital for orphans. Bridewell was a response to the rising tide of homelessness, for what was called the idle poor, or the sturdy beggars. At one level it was to be a training establishment, with materials it’s inmates would use and develop new skills. But that sounds far too fluffy; it was clearly also a house of correction. It was part of a process:

To inquire and examine…all manner of suspicious houses such as inns, taverns, gambling houses and dancing houses

The reason for said inquiry, was to remove and take to Brideswell all the

Idle lazy ruffians, haunters of stews, vagabonds and sturdy beggars or other suspected persons…and…men and women of ill name and fame

It was inherently expected that these people would have loose sexual morals and that, in the contemporary parlance, harlots, bawds and whoremongers would be among the inmates. In the 1570s the governors of Brideswell would target brothel keepers; one study has reconstructed evidence for about 100 brothels of various sizes, some of them simply letting out 2 or 3 rooms for sex workers to use. Brideswell struggled to gain complete acceptance from other authorities, but did provide a systematised reinforcement of policing, particularly with vagrants. Brideswell does not seem an attractive place to us now; I doubt it did then either, but the records of the 1560s and 1570s show an enthusiastic support from local people; it tapped into grass root concerns and emotions.

Brideswell kept going through Mary’s years, and so did the focus on sexual regulation, despite the religious disruption and dispute of her reign. As the years of Elizabeth’s reign progressed, the church focussed hard on the visitation system to increase its effectiveness. As part of that, the role of the churchwarden became ever more central, and indictments increasingly clearly reflect a parish view rather than just an official, diocesan view. The church court system increasingly sought to embed the view that the reform of morality was at the heart of the reformation – a claim at which they were quite successful, helped by the closing of the Bishop of Winchester’s Stews; but fiercely contested by Catholics who claimed that a reformation based on the king’s lust for Anne Boleyn had unleashed instead a torrent of vice.

The focus of Elizabethan church courts therefore shifted. Partly this was about the issue of reforming a church and their parishioners in a new doctrine; so the focus was about attendance, to drive out recusancy and make sure that all were participating as far as possible in the new church, participation of course being the core principle of the new church. They needed to make sure all parishes were properly equipped, and clergy properly prepared to perform the liturgy laid down in the BCP and to preach as the reformed faith demanded. With all that going on it is remarkable that Churchwardens had time to focus on a reformation of manners, but there’s no doubt it did indeed remain a focus.  Churchwardens were encouraged to make sure issues didn’t come to court if they could be dealt with outside, but let us not be fooled into thinking that this suggests a softening of attitudes; it does not. With the range of change to be achieved and the pressure of poverty and vagrancy, a return to corporal punishment was mooted. But it fell foul of the common law doctrine of punishment again; and also it was recognised that punishment that was too severe could be counter productive – the idea after all was to generate repentance, not resentment. None the less, as Elizabeth’s reign progressed, punishments did become more severe – but it was more likely to be the use of punishments like carting and ducking.

The focus changed in other ways. The rejection of the idealisation of virginity and compulsory clerical celibacy lead to the ideal of Christian chastity for all and extolled marriage. It took me a while to get my head round why this then led to a focus on fornication and pre marital sex rather than adultery; but I think the idea was that sex should be within marriage, that anything undermining that was to be fought. Clerical immorality became a much lesser problem – clearly there were transgressors, but what had been one of the biggest problems before the reformation, now became one of the least. This also had an impact on the provincial sex trade which was greatly reduced, and the established situation of tapsters offering sex through alehouses largely disappeared; partly because of a wave of legislation was produced regulating ale houses, and there was a concerted focus on the issue by secular borough courts. The sex trade categorically did not go away in London however; the end of the regulated sex trade in the Southwark Stews simply drove it underground into multiple small-scale concerns.

What of the puritan revolution then? The ultimate expression of the Calvinist ideas that many English Protestants had been exposed to from Europe was of a Godly society, of civil magistrates and church authorities working hand in hand to reform religious observance and personal morality. Ideas such as these came from clerical writings, from Marian exiles – but also from a nascent public space of cheap pamphlets and debate. This public space is a squalling infant at this time, but with the growth of literacy and the media of print, a birth can probably said to have happened. It is a subject for another day, later in the reign of Elizabeth. All I am saying for the moment is that the hotter type of protestant, the Godly, the puritan did have a model from the continent in particular they were keen to follow and promote. But in the 16h century these ideals was rarely achieved; rarely did puritans fully capture English parish life, and were usually very much on the margins. There were exceptions; at Bury St Edmunds in 1579 a group of Godly justices produced a code of exceptionally disagreeable penalties for sin – to be tied to a whipping post for 24 hours, with ‘30 stripes well laid on until the blood came’. By the end of the 16th century, the challenge from the Puritans was strong, and their very fervour legislated against a dominance over behaviour by secular courts – because Puritans disputed the authority of secular courts over what they saw as spiritual matters.

So, you get this curious mix in England which is really rather handy. The growing strength of statute law meant that if you were a puritans who wanted to ratchet up increasingly punitive and far ranging laws regulating moral behaviour, to try and bring around the perfect state as found I Geneva, there was sadly no option but to go to parliament. A while there is indeed plenty of legislation, the HoC is an arena where it was by and large impossible for zealots to gain control – its composition was simply too varied. Now you could try to just high jack the extensive existing mechanisms at a local level; but here, as we have seen it was well established that secular courts held the authority on physical punishments. And often overlapping jurisdictions meant that church courts judgements were simply over ridden. It usually proved impossible for a group of zealous Puritans to hold a community in thrall. There was a brief moment in 1650 when the zealots would gain control of parliament, and the result was the Adultery Act and the death penalty for Adultery. Through Civil War finally it seemed the Puritans had gained their victory. Even then the discretion in the system defeated them – almost no courts or Juries would allow it to be applied on produce convictions.

I think we have done enough. I should summarise. I’ve tried to give a flavour of the sort of things the English were worried about and tried to control, and how they went about it. I hope you have the flavour. That concern was by no means a result of the protestant reformation, still less of a specifically puritan reformation, it stretched back into the 15th and even 14th century. The record shows periodic crackdowns fuelled by some kind of periodic moral panic; in the 1470s under the Yorkists it might well have been driven by a desire to present themselves as the party of law and order and moral probity, but there were sustained crackdowns in the 1490s and early 1530s too.

There is no doubt that one of these periodic crackdowns coincided with the reformation. Partly new religious ideas changed the focus of the reformation of manners, but the changes also need to be seen in the context the other moral panic of the time – the upswing in population, poverty and vagrancy. This led to a panic about social order and crime, a fear of increased disorder; it was this that was also probably largely responsible for an increase in the severity of penances in the later 16th century. That is not to say that the reformation had no impact; it did. Some changes were incidental, such as the reduction of clerical immorality with the removal of compulsory clerical celibacy. Other changes were about the focus of the reformation of manners; on sex outside marriage rather than adultery, on the separation of the scared and profane spaces and activities; and crucially on sabbatarianism, on keeping the lord’s pay free from unlawful games and making sure people went to church. Of all concerns, this was probably the Puritan’s greatest. The Puritan reformation of manners did exist – but it was merely one of many forms of reformations or many types, over many years and centuries, and the strength of secular jurisdiction tended to limit it’s severity.

I thought I might indulge myself by ending with another anecdote. This is about Joan Squire, who committed adultery with Harold Byddel. He was discovered in flagrante, and but tried to hide in the Chimney in the kitchen

‘and there he was taken by Richard Pepper churchwarden, Thomas Ducket Thomas Kylbane Constable, John Raynoldes Thomas Jenkynson, Wlliam the Weaver, Christopher Alsoppe and William Parker’

The picture here is of representatives of a parish dealing together with a transgression against the social rules of the day. Throughout the discussions about social disorder and sexual regulation it’s quite clear that individuals whatever their level in society usually accepted and lived according to these rules. The entire system relied on peer indictment; people were outraged when others wore caps that were not appropriate to their station; normal parishioners were outraged by sex workers; and as in the example above, all levels of society worked together to reinforce the rules. However it is also impossible to avoid the conclusion that economic change that produced winners and losers, the impact of population growth, of poverty and vagrancy, all took their toll on community cohesion. Moral reform increasingly focussed on the poor; officers and parishioners assumed that with vagrancy would come crime and sexual promiscuity. Although most levels of society bought into the standards of the day, much of the pressure for reform came from church authorities and the elite of the parish, and there was a shrinking of the opportunities available for the poorer classes whose lives came under so much economic pressure, and social control. The picture we are left with is of a society under pressure and facing its demons, but still very much centred around a sense of community, shared values and around the parish.

Now, we have had rash of social stuff, and I feel that is enough, we should return to the word of high politics, just because really, and anyway it’s Elizabeth and we all love Elizabeth. I must confess I look back on my social episodes and think, huh it’s a bit random; there is so much I have not covered. But hopefully we can return – or I can add them to the members’ library. Either was next time we are back to an extraordinary life – of Queen Elizabeth I. I cannot quite promise when – but early in the New Year in all probability. Until then gentle listeners, thank you for your kind attention, good luck, and have a great week.

[1] Ingram, M ‘Carnal Knowledge’ p78

[2] Ingram, M ‘Carnal Knowledge’ p197

[3] Ingram, M: Reformation of Manners in Early Modern England in Griffiths The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England p59

[4] Ingram, M ‘Carnal Knowledge’ p172

3 thoughts on “286 Sex and the Reformation of Manners

  1. Fascinating as usual, David. But someone must figure out this obsession of religions the world over with who sleeps with whom.

  2. I liked the bit of social history David. Gives us a perspective from the layman’s viewpoint when most of the time all we hear about historically is what went on in the royal court.

    I’m also looking forward to your future podcast on laws and law courts. I’ve always been confused about who it was that enforced the laws after the Elizabethan era. And what part Parliament played as compared to the Crown. Who appointed the people who served in the court system? And what about that whole “petitioning the Crown” thing. Did that actually happen or is it just a myth? Ah so many rabbit holes to go down. I wish you luck!

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