"A gaoler knocking a Woman in the Head with his Keys." [11]

Chastising 'Bad Women'
   

 

 

 

FORWARD TO:

 

 

 

Punishing Adultery

 

 

 

 

Punishing Prostitution

 

 

 

 

Bridewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual deviance in early modern England was manifested in various offenses, which were punished in a number of ways. Among these offenses were adultery, bastardy, and prostitution. The underlying dilemma of female sexual misconduct was the inversion of power that it created; through acts of sex, women violated social order by failing to uphold their expected qualities of marital obedience and sexual morality. Sexuality gave women “transient power over men,” who, in turn, “resented being so affected by those they dominated” [7]. Women were thus considered the source of the negative aspects of sex, including immoral desire and venereal disease. Sexual conduct was appropriate only for the purpose of procreation, and it was a prevalent notion that women had a bigger sexual appetite than did men. Men and women who sought sexual satisfaction in and of itself, without the direct purpose of procreation, could be found guilty of fornication, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and an (unmarried) woman."

The pre-revolutionary Parliament regarded prostitution and similar acts as merely a “nuisance if committed in public” [20]. However, under the Commonwealth, courts were given greater power to penalize sexual offenders. After this shift, “incest and adultery were made capital offenses, fornication was punished by three months’ imprisonment and brothel-keepers faced a combination of whipping, branding on the forehead and imprisonment” [20]. Though church courts could try some cases involving sexual immorality, crimes such as brothel-keeping and prostitution fell largely under the jurisdiction of secular courts. Different offenses were punished in different ways, but public shaming often played a role, involving entire communities in a woman’s sexual transgressions, ultimately giving the commoners both legal and social authority.


Ultimately, sexuality proved a paradoxical element of early modern England. In addition to its necessity for procreation, sexual intercourse was considered a woman’s domestic duty. Finding the middle ground between womanly submission and fornication was tenuous, rendering sexuality a dangerous and punishable quality, for “the order of the English state was based on a complex system of Herrschaft in which each individual occupied an assigned position and owed deference to others based on gender and social status. The female offender’s deviation from her ascribed role, therefore, was not only an offence against an individual, but a serious threat to the entire system of order” [33].

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