Seventeenth-century New Englanders were not as busy policing their neighbors’ behavior as Nathaniel Hawthorne or many historians of early America would have us believe. Keeping their own households in line occupied too much of their time. Under Household Government reveals the extent to which family members took on the role of watchdog in matters of sexual indiscretion.
In a society where one’s sister’s husband’s brother’s wife was referred to as “sister,” kinship networks could be immense. When out-of-wedlock pregnancies, paternity suits, and infidelity resulted in legal cases, courtrooms became battlegrounds for warring clans. Families flooded the courts with testimony, sometimes resorting to slander and jury-tampering to defend their kin. Even slaves merited defense as household members—and as valuable property. Servants, on the other hand, could expect to be cast out and left to fend for themselves.
As she elaborates the ways family policing undermined the administration of justice, M. Michelle Jarrett Morris shows how ordinary colonists understood sexual, marital, and familial relationships. Long-buried tales are resurrected here, such as that of Thomas Wilkinson’s (unsuccessful) attempt to exchange cheese for sex with Mary Toothaker, and the discovery of a headless baby along the shore of Boston’s Mill Pond. The Puritans that we meet in Morris’s account are not the cardboard caricatures of myth, but are rendered with both skill and sensitivity. Their stories of love, sex, and betrayal allow us to understand anew the depth and complexity of family life in early New England.
Morris succeeds brilliantly at bringing to life the personal and social panorama of Puritan Massachusetts. Through the stories uncovered by her extraordinary sleuthing, we learn about the strength of Puritan families and their inner workings, as well as Puritan sexual culture: the importance of sex to marriage, the differences attributed to male and female sexuality, and the nuances of courtship and seduction. Deft, lively, sometimes just plain fun, Under Household Government is a vivid and compelling portrait of family life in early New England.
Morris demonstrates that Puritans policed one another's sexual behavior, not as mere busybodies, but to defend their own families' assets and reputation. In the process, they sometimes resorted to less than honorable means: false alibis, perjury, defamation, and jury tampering. Morris is a gifted storyteller, and readers will be surprised to learn that colonial New Englanders were not always the strait and narrow "Puritans" we might have imagined.
- 326 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.