Puritan sex, sunburned necks, and wicked bishops

January 2, 2011

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.