The Devil Made Me Do It! is a fascinating book by historian and author, Juliet Haines Mofford, about the misdeeds of, and subsequent punishments by, the Puritans. It may seem at first glance to be an unusual choice for a Valentine’s Day posting but, for many of us, who we are—our habits and our psychology—was inherited from our stalwart, medieval-minded ancestors, The Puritans. They were courageous, but also intolerant of others who behaved outside of the saintly “norm.” They were, by our standards, very buttoned-down and obsessed with conformity. But, as it turns out they could also be romantic with their beloveds, and sometimes down right naughty.
I’ve asked Juliet a few questions about the Puritan mindset and got some surprising answers:
KK: You are a prominent historian, researcher and museum educator. Two of your eleven books received national awards from the American Association of State & Local History. You’ve also written many articles through the years on travel, education, biography and art history, as well as a number of plays about the Salem Witch Trials, American Presidents and such women as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Julia Ward Howe. But what first inspired your special fascination with 17th century New England history?
JHM: Early in my career I was at home with three children, writing feature articles for the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Scholastic Teacher, and other newspapers and magazines. I was contracted to write the history of the North Parish Church of North Andover, MA which was established in 1645. During my research I discovered that Anne Bradstreet, the first poet published in English in this entire country, had lived there. I also learned that during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials more people, including more children, were arrested on charges of witchcraft from Andover than from any other town in New England. I am still researching and writing about this little-known Andover Witch-Hunt!
KK: I think modern-day readers sometimes have an idea that the Puritans were more saintly or better behaved than their modern counterparts, an idea that was handed down to us from Victorian writers and historians. Do you think that the Puritans, who were Western European in their sensibilities and practices, were closer to the Elizabethans in their general “lustiness” than we would ordinarily view them?
JHM: The early settlers had their feet firmly planted in Old England. They brought with them to the New World many of their beliefs and social practices including folklore and magic which goes back to the Middle Ages. People who were born in England and who came to the Puritan colonies after the first settlers were generally less religiously-oriented, which proved a problem for the religious leaders of the Puritan communities concerned with keeping conformity with the community and harmony within families.
KK: It seems that pregnancy before marriage was not uncommon, and the citizenry were not uncomfortable with this state of affairs (i.e., sex before marriage) as long as the couple married in due time.
JHM: I believe that they were uncomfortable with sex before marriage since, in nearly every Puritan community, any couple whose baby arrived less than 9 months following marriage (performed by a magistrate, NOT by a clergyman) would be fined for fornication. Punishments were generally a fine of 20 shillings with several hours in the stocks or pillory or public chastisement before the entire congregation in the meetinghouse. However, after that, the couple was accepted within the community; their sin forgiven. Interestingly, the God worshipped by Puritans approved of any & all bodily pleasures among married couples. In fact, if a husband did not or could not perform and pleasure his wife, she could take him to court and even sue for divorce! (see Hannah Hutchinson case & others, in my book).
KK: Within the sanctity of marriage, couples were encouraged to “delight” in one another, and yet it’s hard for us to imagine the Puritans being so carnally-minded as to revel in physical love. Can you speak to this?
JHM: It wasn’t only the “common folk” of lesser stature in the hierarchy of the Puritan social order who were a lusty bunch. Early court records show evidence of “lusty swains and loving maids.” Puritan leaders were dedicated to creating a Utopian society and enforced a strict code of living, but most of us have inherited our ideas—familiar myths & misconceptions regarding Puritan life and 17th century New England—from the Victorian era, and from such authors as Hawthorne and Longfellow. I suggest reading John Winthrop’s love letters to his wife, for example, as well some examples from my book.
Following is a lovely poem by Anne Bradstreet to her husband—they had eight children together!
Letter to My Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment by Anne Bradstreet
My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay, more,
My joy, my magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Devil Made Me Do It:Crime and Punishment in Early New England, can be purchased on Amazon in paperback, and is also downloadable for e-readers such as Kindle. Juliet has just completed a new book, to be released soon, titled, Abigail Accused!-The True Story of A Survivor of the Salem Witch-Hunt