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The world fill'd with a generation of bastards: Pregnant brides and unwed mothers in seventeenth -century Massachusetts

Else Knudsen Hambleton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Since the 1940s historians have rewritten theories that positioned Puritans as sexually repressed and repressive. The current assumption, heralded in the foundational works of Morgan (1942), Demos (1970), Flaherty (1971), and Bremer (1976), is that married persons entered enthusiastically into their sexual relationships and that sexual intercourse between single women and single or married men was common. These historians hold that Puritan enthusiasm for marital sexual activity is reflected in sermons and didactic literature and in extramarital sexual activity, as evidenced by the large numbers of persons prosecuted for sexual offenses by the Quarterly Courts of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1640–1692. Historians have also asserted that Puritans rejected the traditional sexual double standard, even to the extent of punishing men for sexual lapses with greater frequency and severity than women. Neither thesis can withstand close empirical analysis. ^ I conducted a group study of women prosecuted for fornication or bastardy, and men prosecuted for fornication or named in paternity cases in the Essex County, Massachusetts, Quarterly courts between 1640 and 1692. I analyzed prosecution and conviction rates, sentencing patterns, and socio-economic and attitudinal data. ^ Puritans brought the impressive machinery of the Quarterly Courts to bear, in the form of fornication prosecutions, against the small number of women who bore illegitimate children and couples whose first child arrived within 32 weeks of marriage. The official language of the courts represented sexual intercourse as “uncleanness,” “filthiness,” and “incontinence,” hardly suggestive of a sexually approbative society. Ministers and magistrates successfully curbed the sexuality of young persons who conformed to the dominant ideology that marriage was the only appropriate venue for sexual intercourse. ^ The ideological conflation of femininity and chastity placed a heavy burden on the few women who bore illegitimate children. They were punished more severely than their male partners and regarded with contempt by the majority of women who made successful transitions from adolescence to marriage. Couples who married following out-of-wedlock sex faced less opprobrium. Usually husband and wife received the same punishment and were reintegrated into the Puritan community following a series of humiliating shame rituals. ^

Subject Area

American history|Women's studies

Recommended Citation

Hambleton, Else Knudsen, "The world fill'd with a generation of bastards: Pregnant brides and unwed mothers in seventeenth -century Massachusetts" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988795.