Pilgrims and Nipples

My friend and I are having an argument about public indecency. If a member of the Pilgrim community like, say, Miles Standish decided to lift up his shirt and look at his nipple in public, would he have gotten in trouble or just gotten a few nasty glares?

I don’t have anything to add, but I have to say that this is one of the weirdest questions I’ve ever heard.

For a male – it’d probably be no big deal. Remember, the Puritans were not puritanical. They knew about sex, talked about it (Cotton Mather had a sermon condeming a man who refused to have sex with his wife), considered children born after six months of marrige legitimate, worked on farms where you’d see animals mating, and lived in one-room cabins where they could hear their parents. Remember, these were the people who invented bundling.

It was the Victorians who were hung up on sex (the American Victorians more than the British Victorians), and they blamed it all on the Puritans.

And, the Puritans were a very male dominated culture. Women were expected to be submissive, and modest. Like if a guy showed his nipples there would be any concern that females would run to him offering their bodies?

My friends and I usually talk about politics or the baseball playoffs or some sort of home-improvement project.

Is your friend Meatloaf?

From my reading, I gather than public breastfeeding was no big deal in Puritan New England. Also, anyone (male or female) who was to be publicly whipped, which was a common form of punishment, was stripped to the waist first.

I wouldn’t say the Puritans weren’t puritanical. It’s just that the things they were puritanical about weren’t quite what you might expect. They drank copious amouts of alcohol starting at an early age, and smoked tobacco. Sex within marriage was not considered bad at all. Indeed men who refused to sleep with their wives were sometimes punished. Fornication could get you sent to the whipping post, but in practice it was rarely used unless pregnancy resulted. The threat of whipping seems to have been used mainly to encourage unmarried parents to get married. It was mostly women who refused to marry (or name) the father, or men who refused to marry the mother, who were whipped.

Things most of us today wouldn’t consider crimes were harshly punished then. Things like blasphemy or heresy could get you publicly whipped, or even hanged. (Belonging to the wrong religion counted as heresy, and four or five Quakers were hanged for their beliefs about 1660 after they refused to be deported). Adultery was usually punished by whipping, but sometimes carried the death penalty. Sodomy was often punished by death, but that was true in the non-Puritan colonies as well. Rape, on the other hand, was only rarely punishable by death in Puritan New England.

Wasn’t rape, theoretically, a capital crime? I just don’t think it was prosecuted much, because of the difficulties of proving that rape occurred.

Good question.

I don’t know about pilgrim times, but until relatively recently, didn’t men’s bathing suits include a top?

It was, after all, King James who was the big enemy of tobacco. He felt so strongly about it, he wrote and published a pamphlet titled Counterblaste to Tobacco by his own royal selfe. So the Pilgrims being dissenters from King James and his Anglican Church would have no problem going against him, maybe even just out of spite.

hehe. Sorry, just had to.

I should have said rape was rarely punished by death, not “rarely punishable.” I’m not sure what the state of the law was. There were only four executions for rape in the Puritan era (up to about 1740) in what is now Massachusetts, and none in the other New England states that were largely controlled by Puritans in that era (Connecticut from early settlement, New Hampshire after 1641 and Maine after 1652). In non-Puritan areas, executions for rape before 1740 totaled nine. Using population estimates from 1690 as a very rough guide, it seems like the Puritan colonies had rape execution rates some 30% lower than the non-Puritan colonies. That’s only a very rough estimate which could be off for any number of reasons (different population growth rates, for example).

The Pilgrims and Puritans were different though. Most people here are talking about the puritanical mores of the colonial era, but I think it’s almost irrelevant given that Miles wasn’t a Puritan, they didn’t show up until the 1630’s.

Some people make a religious distinction between the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony. But really the Pilgrims were what you could call a splinter group of Puritans. The biggest difference was that Puritans continued to cling to the hope of reforming the established Anglican Church along Calvinist lines long after the Pilgrims had given up hope. The religious practices in the two colonies may not have been identical, but the similarities were much greater than the differences.

And even they-the Victorians-weren’t quite as hung up about sex as we think they were!

No? So where do all these American prude sexual hangups come from, then? Not from the Puritans, and not from the Victorians, the usual suspects. So why do they exist here?

Yes, but bathing suits for men didn’t exist at all until the eighteenth century. If a man in the seventeenth century had wanted to bathe/swim out of doors (and some did), he would have done so naked.

As for male toplessness, it all depended on the context. OK when doing manual labour, particularly in hot weather, and therefore more associated with the poor; not so OK at a social gathering, but more odd than obscene. In other words, not so very different from today’s conventions.