Centuries ago, our ancestors were all staunch, conservative people, the pillars of society. Right? Everyone attended church and rigidly followed the dictates of religious and community leaders. Puritans exhibited "tolerance, mutual regard, affection, and prudent common sense." It is only in recent years that morals have decayed, crime has increased, and promiscuous sex has become commonplace. Correct?
A book by Roger Thompson published about twenty years ago refutes those stereotypes. In the book Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699, Thompson reveals that our ancestors carried on in a more freewheeling style than do most folks today. Thompson closely studied the court cases of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, for the years 1649 through 1699. He summarizes his findings in this book and also names many of the people prosecuted. This is a resource you might not want to overlook when researching Middlesex County ancestors!
In those years the Puritan Church was the leading religion in Middlesex County. However, Thompson points out that a much higher percentage of the general population was prosecuted for crimes at that time than today. That is, the "crime rate" was higher in the 1600s than today.
Note: Of course, that statement assumes that the legal authorities prosecuted crimes with the same vigor then as today. It also assumes the definition of a crime has not changed since the 1600s. Neither assumption is correct. Nonetheless, the crime rate obviously was very high in the 1600s, even by today's standards.
Many of the "crimes" of the 1600s would be ignored today, such as fines for failure to attend church, uttering oaths in public, working on the Sabbath, or drawing away the affections of a maid. However, other crimes of today were quite popular years ago as well: murder, robbery, rape, swindling, non-performance of contract, disorderly conduct, and more.
Perhaps the most common "crime" in the 1600s was that of sexual intercourse. There were different variations of it from a legal viewpoint, depending on whether or not the lady became pregnant and also whether or not the couple was willing to get married. The punishment for the young ladies was often worse than for the the men. Public whippings on the bare backs of 8-month-pregnant women were not uncommon. The strictest punishments of all were handed out when the "couple" were both of the same sex. That seems ironic for a county named "Middlesex."
Another ironic twist can only be determined after studying modern biology. Today's fertility experts report that the chances of conceiving a child are about one in fifty. That is, to conceive a child, a couple has to commit sex an average of fifty times. Obviously, as an average, you can expect there are wide variations in that number, both above and below.
The courts of the 1600s did not possess that bit of information about fertility. When reading the old court documents, it becomes apparent that the courts assumed that the ratio was closer to one-to-one. It is probable that many more couples engaged in sexual activity than the few who happened to get caught.
When an unmarried woman was convicted of fornication, the court had the task of determining the father, after which they levied fines and ordered the man to pay child maintenance as well. We will never know how accurate the court judgments were in determining fatherhood, but it is a safe bet that the error rate was high.
Surprisingly, one of the more common crimes of our ancestors was the act of bestiality. There are many, many cases of this prosecuted in Middlesex County in the 1600s. The number of convictions for bestiality seems to be very high for a county that had a rather low population by today's standards. If you had ancestors in Middlesex County in those years, you may be surprised when you open this book and discover what your ancestors were really doing. I bet THOSE stories were not handed down in the family from generation to generation!
Sex in Middlesex is a fascinating read. It will appeal to most family historians who wish to learn more about the times in which our ancestors lived. We can assume that most North American counties had somewhat similar stories as those who came from Puritan and conservative Middlesex County in Massachusetts.
Sex in Middlesex was published in 1989 but is still available through most bookstores if you specify ISBN 0870236563. I found it listed on RootsBooks.com, Amazon.com, and BarnesAndNoble.com, and I suspect it is available elsewhere as well. It is available in both hardcover and paperback.
A "limited preview" (excerpts) of the book, but not all pages, can be found on Google Books at http://tinyurl.com/34vdz9.