Jun 29, 2018

Puritan marriages were surprisingly liberal

From p. 160-1 of my copy of Albion's Seed:

Divorce customs also differed from other English-speaking cultures. The Puritans recognized many grounds for divorce that were consistent with their conception of marriage. The statutes of Connecticut allowed divorce for adultery, fraudulent contract, willful desertion and total neglect for three years, and “providential absence” for seven years. Massachusetts granted divorces in the seventeenth century for adultery, desertion, cruelty, and “failure to provide.” Physical violence was also recognized as a ground for divorce. Husbands and wives were forbidden to strike one another in Massachusetts; there was no such thing as “moderate correction” in the laws of this colony. The courts often intervened in cases of wife-beating, and sometimes of husband-beating too.

These various grounds for divorce also defined the idea of marriage in Massachusetts. It was to be a close and companionate relationship, a union of love and harmony, an act of sexual fulfillment, and an institution with a firm economic base. All of these requirements were part of the Puritan idea of the marriage covenant, which could be dissolved if any of its major terms were not kept. These Puritan marriage ways were unique to New England in the seventeenth century.

Puritan punishments for abnormal sexual behavior, not so much. From p. 174 of my copy:

Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentence was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. Under great pressure, he confessed, recanted, confessed again, and recanted once more.

The laws of New England made conviction difficult: bestiality was a capital crime and required two witnesses for conviction. But so relentless were the magistrates that the deformed piglet was admitted as one witness, and the recanted confession was accepted as another. George Spencer was hanged for bestiality.