Talk Report: 2018-05-09

Report on Janet Few talk: Ducking Stools, Debtors and Drunks

Dr Janet Few was expected as the speaker to talk to members of Wells U3A on Wednesday 9th May. Instead Mistress Agnes appeared in full seventeenth costume with full skirt, petticoats, apron and coif head dress. Since the talk was to be about crime and punishment in the seventeenth century, we knew that we were in good hands.

Dr Janet (for it was she!) explained that in the 17th century there was much religious and political turmoil. The so-called middle classes had not yet emerged and the rich - poor divide was very much in evidence. As printing became more available pamphlets and broadsheets were circulated which often, as today, focused on the latest dramatic crime. More people could read and became conscious of, and frightened by, a criminal underclass.

Various courts dealt with the criminals and felons, which were mostly men: 85% up before the courts were male. Crimes before the local manorial courts were assault (known as “bloodwick”), poaching, vagabondage or social disorder and smuggling. This latter was regarded as of less importance; the avoidance of unpopular taxes gained more sympathy.

In the middle of the century, non-conformists were perceived as disruptive and their worship was regarded as a criminal offence. No more than five were allowed to forgather in prayer at a time and dissenting ministers could not preach twice within an area of five miles. Crimes against the Church were dealt with by Ecclesiastical Courts: these included heresy, blasphemy, non-attendance at church and failure to take Communion once a year. To be tried by these “Benefit of the Clergy” could be proved by the fact you could read and recite ‘the Neck Verse.’ This was Psalm 51, verses 1-4, which is full of contrition. Ecclesiastical Courts were usually more lenient, using fines as punishment – thus saving your neck! - although repeated offences could be dealt with more savagely

Not more than an hour could be spent in Alehouses and taverns unless it was proved that you were travelling. During the Commonwealth, under Oliver Cromwell, music and betting were banned entirely. Vagrancy, begging and theft threatened the stability of a neighbourhood. We were shown woodcuts of ragged men being whipped around the streets. All these draconian laws.…and yet a man could still beat his wife, although not with a stick thicker than his thumb. (“The rule of thumb.”) Were his wife to nag, her hair could be cropped so that her coif head-dress was useful to hide the shame.

A lot of punishment was in the form of humiliation: Cheating, as a trader or at cards, sedition and being drunk in the streets meant six hours standing in the pillory with your neighbours laughing and throwing rotten food at you - and you were lucky if no one nailed your ears to the wood of the pillory. The stocks were used less savagely: the magistrate would offer a fine of either two shillings or three hours in the stocks. Since few poor people could afford the fine, most ended up suffering public humiliation sitting in the stocks.

Murder, high treason, arson and counterfeiting were tried in the Assize Courts before a judge and if found guilty were punished by death. Aristocrats were lucky in that they were merely beheaded. For mere criminals there was little sympathy and when capital punishment was to occur it became something of a public holiday. The process was prolonged for as long as possible -people had travelled far to see it! “A good hanging” went on for a long time. Often the poor victim was hung drawn and quartered. This meant that he was firstly hung, then drawn, meaning that the innards and bowels were removed whilst he was still alive. The body was then cut into quarters and the various pieces put up around the neighbourhood to warn people against similar evil doings.

Transportation seemed to solve a lot of the problems of dealing with the criminal classes. Men (nearly always men) were bought by ship-owners and then sold on as indentured servants to perform as unpaid labour in the Caribbean and North America. Prisons were not used as punishment in the seventeenth century, but more as a secure place to keep people awaiting their trial. This could take months or even years in foul, ill-lit and cramped cells. There were special prisons for debtors from which it was difficult to emerge. You could not earn money to pay your debts when in prison, so unless friends or family rallied you could in practice stay there for the rest of your life.

It was mostly for the crime of witchcraft that women met the unforgiving hand of the law. It was an age of superstition and people genuinely feared witchcraft, so there was no sympathy for anyone suspected of supernatural activities. Peer pressure and group accusation usually led to confession from the terrified victims. Although not burned, which was their fate on the continent, during the 16th and 17th centuries hundreds and hundreds of women were hung in our islands for witchcraft. We saw a pathetic list of twenty-four names of women who all lived in Devon and were tortured to confess and then, all except one, were killed for their supposed witchcraft. It was a terrifying thought on which to end.

Mistress Agnes had delivered a great deal of information on this grim but fascinating subject. She was thanked enthusiastically for what had been an unusual and very stimulating talk.