Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sex, pies and videotape

The first episode of Channel 4's new drama, The Devil's Whore, was aired on Wednesday. Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, the series follows the fortunes of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe, wife (in the first episode, anyway) of her childhood sweetheart Harry, who was also her cousin. As a child, Angelica's Catholic mother abandoned her to join a convent in France. Unable to prevent her mother from leaving, Angelica cursed God and was shortly afterwards confronted by a vision of the Devil in a tree; a vision which seems set to recur as the series progresses. It is this vision, coupled with the fact she seems to enjoy sex rather too much for husband Harry's liking, that he gives her the not altogether flattering cognomen of The Devil's Whore. Husband Harry later faces a firing squad, having incurred the displeasure of King Charles after surrendering his family home to Parliamentary soldiers without a fight.

What is all this stuff about women not being allowed to enjoy sex back then? My researches suggest that this wasn't necessarily the case. It was understood in the 17th century that women, as well as men, had sexual desires, and some (un)conventional wisdom of the time suggested that a woman deprived of sex would become ill, and might even fall prey to madness. Of course, the only lawful sex was that which occurred within marriage; everything else was strictly off-limits. On the 10th May 1650, Parliament passed An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication, 'wherewith this land is much defiled, and Almighty God highly displeased'. Under this Act, incest was punishable by death 'without benefit of Clergy', as was adultery, unless the woman could prove that she was victim of a 'case of Ravishment'. Prostitutes and brothel keepers could expect a whipping, a spell in the pillory, a branding on the forehead with the letter 'B' using a red hot iron, and three years in prison. A subsequent offence meant death. Straightforward fornication (if there is such a thing!) attracted the comparatively light sentence of three months in prison for both the man and the woman, and this applied whether the woman was a virgin, unmarried or a widow.

If you couldn’t have sex (either because you weren’t married, or feared the consequences of being caught, or both), there was always Christmas to look forward to. You’re probably aware that the 25th December was not the actual date of the birth of Christ. The date had been chosen to attract pagans (who celebrated the day as their own midwinter festival) away from the ‘old’ religion and into the arms of Christianity. The Roman festival of Saturnalia had also been celebrated at around the same time and, like the pagan midwinter ‘do’, was characterised by feasting, drinking, jollity, and the turning of normal society on its head; master became servant, servant became master (in the armed services, it is still traditional for officers to serve their men/women at Christmas), and all manner of other foolishness and japery was indulged in. Christmas in the 17th century helped people to get through the long, cold, miserable winter by injecting it with a bit of jollity.

Characteristically, however, the Puritanical Parliament had something to say about this too. On the 19th December 1644, an ordinance, insisting that Christmas Day be characterised with fasting rather than feasting, was issued. As with all 17th century documents, the ordinance rambles on, but this bit explains their thinking:

That this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights, being contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth, and to the spirituall life of Christ in our soules for the sanctifying and saving whereof Christ was pleased both to take a humane life, and to lay it down againe.

Cheery lot, weren’t they? But the population at large had a way of dealing with such laws; they simply ignored them. So much so that, On 8 June 1647, it was decreed thus: ‘Be it ordained, by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed within this kingdom of England.’ Guess what? The common folk still ignored the ban, and there was a near riot in Canterbury when an attempt was made to force shopkeepers to open for business on Christmas Day. Ten years later, on 22nd December 1657, the Puritan Council ordered Justices of the Peace 'to see that the Ordinance for taking away festivals is observed, and to prevent the solemnities heretofore used in their celebration.’ Effectively, (although I cannot find chapter and verse) this meant troops and officials paying surprise visits to households to ensure that no-one was eating mince pies (termed ‘an abominable and idolatrous confection’) or other Christmas fayre. One rather liberal Puritan wrote of the mince pie in 1656:

Idolatry in crust! Babylon’s whore
Raked from the grave and baked by hanches, then
Sewed up in coffins to unholy men;
Defiled with superstition, like the Gentiles
Of old, that worshipped onions, roots and lentils!

I wish we knew what he really thought.

I feel sure that the majority of the population was heartily glad when the Merrie Monarch, King Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660, ushering in a less straight-laced era and, best of all, the return of Christmas. It would have been nice to think that his return would have brought to an end once and for all the mean-spiritedness and interference in everybody's business that characterised the interregnum. But you only have to look at our lives now - electronically tagged wheelie-bins, householders fined for putting rubbish in the wrong bag, wall-to-wall CCTV cameras - to get the sneaking suspicion that Oliver Cromwell is alive and well, and living in a town hall somewhere near you.


punk in writing said...

Speaking of female sexuality, marriage and other "sensitive issues", I'm reading a brilliant book by Virgina Nicholson at the moment. It's called Singed Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After The First World War.

If you liked the sounds of Debs at War this book should interest you too. It's one of those rare non-fiction books that is so well written it feels like a novel.

chris hale said...

Hi Punky.

It's interesting to note how many women, having lost sweethearts in the first and second world wars, remained single for the rest of their lives. I think the relationships formed in wartime were so intense that nothing else could match them.

Thanks for the book recommendation - another one to add to my reading list. I think it's hard to beat a well-written non-fiction book.

Rob (Inukshuk Adventure) said...

Dear Lionel of London, we've decided to forgo Christmas and the Pagan mid winter thing this year and instead we'll eat ourselves silly and get roaring drunk. Will this be allowed if we promise not have any evil mince pies?

Yours, Edward the Foreigner

chris hale said...

Crikey flip!

According to the medieval name generator, I'm Clement the Piouus or David of Baskerville. I'm already roaring drunk. Where are those evil mince pies?

Comedy Goddess said...

I live in a very repressed town in New England, where we still suffer from the karma left behind from the Puritans.

It doesn't mean we are not having sex. And not always with the neighbors.

chris hale said...

Hello CG, thanks for dropping in.

I heard tell a few years ago of a village in England where families were still at odds with each other nearly four hundred years after the Civil War!

Can I safely assume by your blog name and comments that you have risen above said karma in your own place of abode?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - informative, well-thought out and excellently written as usual.

Smug talented bastard.

chris hale said...

Thanks...I think.