Sunday, November 16, 2014

The sexual revolution in 18C England & her colonies


An article appeared in The Guardian about a little known sexual revolution in 18C England. It was written by Faramerz Dabhoiwala about his book, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution.

Here are a few snippets. "Since the dawn of history, every civilisation had punished sexual immorality. The law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England treated women as chattels, but they also forbade married men to fornicate with their slaves, and ordered that adulteresses be publicly disgraced, lose their goods and have their ears and noses cut off. Such severity reflected the Christian church's view of sex as a dangerously polluting force, as well as the patriarchal commonplace that women were more lustful than men and liable to lead them astray...

" When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a "fearful horror of conscience" that this was God's punishment on him for his past sins. So he publicly confessed that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he had tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, "proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin … and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice". On 21 March, a fortnight after her sentence, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, "died very penitently". In the shadow of the gallows, Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged. She was 18 years old.

"That is the world we have left behind. Over the following century and a half it was transformed by a great revolution that laid the ground for the sexual culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, and of our own day. The most obvious change was a surge in pre- and extramarital sex. We can measure this, crudely but unmistakably, in the numbers of children conceived out of wedlock. During the 17th century this figure had been extremely low: in 1650 only about 1% of all births in England were illegitimate. But by 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant, and about a quarter of all first-born children were illegitimate. It was to be a permanent change in behaviour."

The article, actually a review of  Dabhoiwala's book, then goes on to explore the reasons for this sexual revolution. You can find the article here.

Detail from The Bed, etching, engraving and drypoint by Rembrandt (1646) at the British Museum


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