Puritan sex, sunburned necks, and wicked bishops

So we are halfway out of the dark as that mean ole Mr Sardick said, and more than halfway through that weird Christmas-New-Year holiday vacuum. Time itself gets suspended for two weeks and restarts when the several day hogmanay hangover has finished. Is it really true that Americans take Christmas day off and thats about it ? I guess its the Puritan thing.

We all know, of course, that the Puritans founded America, and that they wore dark clothes, burned innocent women as witches, and disapproved of anything fun, including sex. Well, about half of that is right, but the formation of early America was much more complex, and it seems that actually the Puritans were rather keen on sex. I learned these things from a rather splendid book called “Albion’s Seed : Four British Folkways in America”  by David Hackett Fischer. (Thanks to Jack). The book traces four migrations from different parts of Britain – roughly, from East Anglia to Massachusetts (Puritans), from southern England to Virginia (aristocrats and their servants), from the Midlands and North to the Delaware region (Quakers), and from the Irish/Scottish/English borderlands to the back country (feuding clans). The case Hackett Fischer makes for continuity of culture in these regions is impressive. By “folkways” he means the detailed everyday culture – what time of year people get married, what names they use, their preferred cooking techniques, what games they play, and so on.

The book is full of fascinating insights. Puritanical is not the same as prudish. The Puritans had a very formal code of living, but they were keen on the importance of love between husband and wife, and how this was bonded by good healthy sex. Apparently many later Americans were shocked by Puritan writings, with their graphic description of sexual matters. Puritan families had a fascinating courtship ritual called “bundling”. When teenagers became keen on each other, they would be put to bed together to see if they got on – but wrapped up in separate blankets, and sometimes with a wooden board between them. All carefully calibrated – ready to talk all night, and secretly kiss, but not yet ready for full intercourse. How very practical.

Another  everything-you-know-is-wrong example. According to Hackett Fischer’s book, the term “redneck” does not come from the fact that simple country folk have sunburned necks from working outdoors. It refers to the Presbyterians who had colonised the back-country (Tenessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas), and was already a term of insult by around 1770. Presbyterianism developed in Scotland as an outgrowth of Calvinism. They rejected formal church government by bishops, and formed a new style of Church government by elders (presbyters). Adherents to to Presbyterianism signed a Covenant. Over a long period of Scottish history, who did and didn’t sign the Covenant became part of the bitter political, economic and religious struggles with English authority, with Covenanters swinging back and forth between leadership and oppression. Some Covenanters signed in their own blood, and wore red scarfs to show their position. Many of the early American back-country settlers were of this persuasion, were fiercely proselytising, and from the point of view of the Philadelphia Quakers or the Virginia gentlemen, were also uncouth almost to the point of savagery.

So there you go. All that Bible Belt stuff – Scotland’s fault.

12 Responses to Puritan sex, sunburned necks, and wicked bishops

  1. Keith Arnaud says:

    We do get New Year’s Day off as well and, in practice, many organizations shut down from Christmas to New Year.

    My wife, who grew up in Virginia, likes to point out that the settlement of Virginia predated the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. It was only after the American Civil War that Virginia history was downgraded in favor of Massachusetts. Incidentally, the original settlers in Virginia expected to become immensely wealthy by finding gold and silver like the Spaniards further south. They were totally unprepared to become farmers.

    Finally, I have actually heard the word “bundling” used in the context of teenagers sharing beds while clothed so it does still survive.

  2. kav says:

    When I worked at NCAR in Colorado we had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off (the former as a one-off due to a change in vacation rules). It was great. The week between Christmas and New Year felt really productive and the atmosphere was really fun.

  3. andyxl says:

    I just got an incoming link from an adult dating site. The word “sex” has appeared on my blog posts before, so maybe its “Puritan Sex” that is particularly appealing. I got two visitors from this link who were doubtless disappointed.

  4. Bill Keel says:

    Some of my forebears landed in North Carolina in the 1700s, and I’m certainly much more in sympathy with Puritanism than most of your other commenters. That means that I resemble – well, something in there. Our university press brought out a book a a few years later advancing the thesis that the (broadly termed) Celtic influence that was especially marked in the mountains continues to mark Southern US culture to this day. (I can’t drop the mental comparison of the mooning Scots fighters in Braveheart, questionably historical as it may be, to a horde of American-football fans on a Saturday in the South.)

  5. andyxl says:

    Bill – one of the things I learned from Hackett Fischer’s book was that the mountain immigration was not Celtic – i.e. not from the Highlands, but from the Scottish Borders and Northumbria – classic Sassenachs, i.e. Saxons. As a Man of Kent by birth, one of the things I came to learn when moving to Scotland is that although the political divide was between England and Scotland, the real genetic, cultural, and linguistic divide is really lowlands and highlands. Just like England, the Scottish lowlands had Saxon population and Norman aristocracy. The Celtic Highlanders also emigrated, but much later, and to somewhat different regions. The key thing, according to Hackett Fischer is that the border regions was a war zone for hundreds of years, and so bred a robust individualistic farmsteading culture where you didn’t trust anybody and were permanently ready to repel unwanted strangers. Very, very different from Massachusetts, or Virginia.

  6. Bill Keel says:

    Didn’t trust anybody and were permanently ready to repel unwanted strangers.” Different from Massachussetts or Virginia. But maybe not so much Alabama or Georgia? (I am pleased to note that our campus library has Albion’s Children, although I’ll have to wait to read it since someone has the effrontery to have it checked out at the moment.)

  7. Martin E. says:

    In “American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America”
    Edmund S. Morgan makes the same point about Puritans, with bells on:
    “The Puritans became inured to sexual offenses, because there were so many,” he writes. The records of seventeenth-century New England courts show that “illicit sexual intercourse was fairly common. Many of the early New Englanders possessed a high degree of virility and very few inhibitions.”
    So there you go.
    [NB I didn’t actually read the book, but am quoting a review by Russell Baker (well known in the US) in the New York Review of Books (also well known over here):
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jun/11/a-heroic-historian-on-heroes/ ]

    • andyxl says:

      Martin
      most of that article available to subscribers only ….

      • Martin E. says:

        ah, sorry. rather like Beeb video in the US.
        Here’s another snippet:
        “Sex outside marriage was another matter. Laws provided death for adultery and whipping for fornication, yet these crimes occurred so frequently that enforcing the most severe penalties seems to have been socially impractical. Morgan finds only three instances in which the death penalty was carried out for adultery. Usually, he writes, the punishment was a whipping or a fine, maybe both, and perhaps a branding or a symbolic execution that involved standing on the gallows for an hour with a rope around the neck.”

  8. […] I do like to keep up to date. So here is a link to a 2009 blog post about the US Republican Party. George Djgovsiki Dvosrgksji Djorgiojski me old mate George from Caltech just posted a link to this on Facebook. It’s based on a book called Albion’s Seed which I have been fond of since ex-SLAC chum Jack Singal bought me a copy as a present. I wrote a connected blog post about Puritan Sex back here. […]

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