The Punishment Of A Common Bawd

being a counterblast, as they say in all the best pamphlets, to my friend Cryssa’s thought-provoking blog post on the Puritans’ rendering sex illegal.

Given that my hero is a Puritan who has sex – quite a lot, actually, and occasionally in moving conveyances on a public thoroughfare – it’s a matter of some importance to me that there is this heaving misconception that the Puritans were down on sex.

Here’s the actual legislation – May 1650: An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication:

But even aside from the practical aspect of how Puritans meant to make more Puritans if they’d outlawed sex – it’s all right, they didn’t, don’t expect the knock on the door any day now – have a read of it for yourself.

Adultery, in 1650, is a felony, punishable by death. Harsh? Well, in 1707 – almost 60 years after the Interregnum – Lord Chief Justice John Holt was still stating that a man having sexual relations with another man’s wife was “the highest invasion of property” and claimed, in regard to the aggrieved husband, that “a man cannot receive a higher provocation” (in a case of murder or manslaughter). And 100 years later The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert, Vol. 1 (1751), also equated adultery to theft writing that “adultery is, after homicide, the most punishable of all crimes, because it is the most cruel of all thefts, and an outrage capable of inciting murders and the most deplorable excesses.”

What’s interesting is that I haven’t been able to find any instances of seventeenth-century executions of adulterers. It seems that prosecutions went through the roof as the courts were flooded with spouses and neighbours airing their sexual grievances.(1)

On 18 June 1658 a Middlesex justice bound over Priscilla Frotheringham:

for being a notorious strumpet, a common field walker and one that hath undone several men by giving them the foul disease, for keeping the husband of Susan Slaughter from her ever since December last and hath utterly undone that family, and also for threatening to stab the said Susan Slaughter when ever she can meet her, the woman being a very civil woman, and also for several other notorious wickednesses which is not fit to be named among the heathen.

He bound her over. His language expresses his disgust and contempt for Mistress Frotheringham – but he didn’t execute her, he did not brand her, he did not send her to a house of correction. The magistrate in question, Thomas Hibbert,  was an Independent lay preacher who had already penned a diatribe attacking those who paid merely lip-service to piety while failing to act against vice and profanity – and it seems that both the Frotheringhams, husband and wife, appeared regularly in the sessions records.

Which makes me wonder if the Act was intended as a deterrent to antisocial and destructive behaviour, rather than as a moral diktat?





1 –  Bernard Capp, ‘Republican Reformation: Family, Community and the State in Interregnum Essex, 1649-60’, in Helen Berry and Elizabeth Foyster (eds), The Family in Early Modern England, p. 50.




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