Sexuality in the Seventeenth Century

Sexuality in the Seventeenth Century- banner

(Text version, expanded, with citations, of a presentation at LibertyCon, Chattanooga, TN, June 26, 2015).

The subtitle in the program, to the effect that the 17th century was not Victorian England, was added by Paula Goodlett, then-editor of the Grantville Gazette, as a teaser, I believe.1 However, it has some relevance, in that we have observed during the more-than-a-decade during which the Gazette has been in existence that many beginning writers tend to make the assumption that if “X was the case” at any particular point in the past, then “X must have been even more so” two or three centuries earlier.

SitSC-amrspsntsLet’s start by putting it this way. Would the wives of Jena’s guildmasters have been shocked! shocked! when Jeff kissed Gretchen in a public street in 1632? Hmmn? Probably not. Nor would they have been a century earlier, given what Erasmus described as the amenities among the gentry as he observed them during his trip to England in 15152and Albrecht Dürer portrayed in his Amorous Peasants (Nor would they have been a century later.) Europeans in the 17th century do not appear to have been seriously inhibited by the presence of an audience. Consider, for example, the 17th century afternoon in a tavern in Henrico County, Virginia, as depicted during a county court procedure by the observers who placidly narrated that his hand went up here and her hand went down there, after which they went out for a while and then came back in and drank some more. This should not surprise anyone, given the overall lack of privacy provided by the living conditions of the era, when except among the wealthiest, numerous family members normally slept in the same room and even among the wealthiest, servants often slept on a cot at the foot of the marital bed.

The people of the 17th century found no difficulty in describing body parts and their uses with either vulgar or academic terminology. By modern standards, a surprisingly high portion of literary discourse, particularly when the discourse was either satirical or polemic, would be considered obscene or scatological. Obscenity,3 at the time, was was far less clearly defined than blasphemy.4

The practical handling of sexuality and the expectations concerning sexual behavior in the 17th century were far more realistic and pragmatic than the theories on sexuality, particularly female sexuality, expounded by many English-language writers on etiquette and morals from the later 18th century through World War I. Primarily, in the early modern period, there was a general consensus that women were highly sexualized beings who flirted, enticed, and tempted young men who were trying to live righteous lives away from the strait and narrow path—this particularly appears in many of the discussions of witchcraft during the era—and that one of the primary problems facing a man was to keep up with and satisfy their physical appetites. A fair number of the theological5 and secular writings on the theory of sexuality in the same era expressed a heartfelt wish that this situation was not so,6 but that did not prevent them from acknowledging it as an assumed fact. It was a major bastion of “patriarchal” theories which held that these subversive creatures were best controlled in the context of a male-headed household. It was also generally acknowledged that women were by no means as naturally inclined to be as subordinate,7 or as faithful,8 as the laws might prescribe and their pastors, fathers,9 and husbands10 might wish.11

SitSC-rgyModern academic study12 of the topic of pre-modern sexuality was opened by the publication of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (v. 1, in French, appeared in 1976, intended as the first of seven volumes; v. 2 and 3 appeared in 1984; v. 4 was unfinished at his death). Foucault’s work focused on the ancient world, Greece and Rome (v. 4 covered early Christianity), which meant that he was almost entirely limited to the use of literary sources. This approach to the study of any topic results in a necessarily skewed outcome, in that the historian is analyzing what someone, be he Ovid or St. Jerome, thought about the matter rather than what people actually did, or analyzing how law-givers tried to control the matter, which of course provides little information on the extent to which most people did or did not conform to the legislative precepts.13 Flandrin’s study, which appeared more or less simultaneously with Foucault, had more relevance to the early modern period.14

Another problem with the “prescriptive” approach to the study of sexuality is that too many writers fixate on one thing, without bothering to develop perspective. See, for example, the English 1650/51 parliamentary act for the suppression of incest, adultery, and fornication under the Cromwell regime,15 which has been cited multiple times on the internet, with those mentioning it paying little or no attention to how this particular piece of legislation may have related to either prior regulations or subsequent ones (adultery was still a crime in Alabama into the second half of the 20th century). Luckily for writers in the 1632verse, by the 1630s the historian may comparatively easily bore through the documents and get into the nitty-gritty of real life, thanks to the still-extant records of both secular16 and ecclesiastical17 courts.

Digression: A Discursus on Historical Research Methodology


It would be possible to spend a semester of class sessions on this topic. In fact, when I was teaching college candidates for the M.A. in history, we did spend a semester of class sessions on this topic. Here, however, the digression can amount only to a brief warning.

No one set of documents is infallible. Yes, it’s better to have records from the secular and ecclesiastical courts than not to have them. However, by definition, court records deal with cases in which something has gone askew or awry with the normal and assumed course of events. At a minimum, the researcher needs to ask such questions as: of how many households that existed in a district between year X and year Y, what proportion ever ended up in the courts at all, be it matters of spendthrift husbands, drunken wives, or deviations from the sexual norms? This involves using many additional records, such as tax assessments, household rolls, and such limited efforts toward census as might exist.

Similarly, in the case of law codes, it is helpful to determine what the law prescribed at a given time and place. However, this is not of much use unless one can determine the extent of efforts that were made to enforce specific laws. It is even more meaningful if one can find out how many prosecutions resulted in convictions and if those convicted were punished with maximum sentences, minimum sentences, or even pardoned.

Perception of the past is also often skewed by our own assumptions. Later in this essay, I will include some discussion of the patterns and legalities of betrothal and marriage in the early modern era. For the time being, I would advise would-be writers in the 1632verse to eschew the kind of article that shows up occasionally in the style or pop culture sections of newspapers where some journalist writes, “30% of brides in colonial New England were pregnant,” with the accompanying panoply of “wink, wink; nudge, nudge; oh, look; they were no better than we are no matter how pious they claimed to be.” Under the laws of the time, a betrothed couple was legally married the instant they had intercourse, whether they ever got around to going to church for a ceremony and recording the marriage or not.

So, what proportion of marriages got recorded? In the early modern period in Europe, because of the existence of the church registers that began to be kept, although not uniformly, in the second half of the 1500s, we have much more demographic information about ordinary people than we do for any prior historical period – allowing for lazy recorders, destruction by way of war and weather, and other hazards normal to archival materials. Nonetheless, it’s necessary to understand what a church register was. It was kept by a clergyman, in his office as an employee of the state church. In England, this often means that marriages outside of the Church of England, whether of Roman Catholics or Dissenters, were rarely recorded – only in cases where the marrying couple overcame their conscientious scruples enough to go through the procedures of the Anglican banns and ceremony.18 Parish registers on the continent mainly recorded only marriages where at least one of the parties was a resident of that parish. Occasionally, the pastor will have created a separate section at the back of the ledger dedicated to “vagrants, transients, and beggars” who did not have permanent residence rights in the locality, but coverage of these was spotty even when the man who maintained the registers made an effort.19


Middle Ages20


The situation in the middle ages up through the first quarter of the 16th century varied, of course, from place to place and time to time. Information is mainly from literary sources or anecdotal. However, the phenomena of municipally owned (mainly on the continent) and ecclesiastically protected (Southwark in London, for example) brothels indicates that all practice did not follow the strictures laid down in theological treatises.

SitSC-bwdThe most obvious changes between the medieval and early modern practices were brought about by the first major syphilis epidemic in Europe, which was 140 years in the past by the 1630s. As public health measures, many public brothels, bathhouses, etc. had been closed. For some perspective on the closing of brothels, see Mary Elizabeth Perry’s essay on conditions in Spain21 and also both bordello scenes in 17th century Netherlandish art22 and Lotte van de Pol’s analysis of them.23 Note that this variety of art was not something hidden or sub rosa, considered near pornography, but rather was sold on the open market for wealthy families to buy and hang in their homes. Van de Pol concludes that generally, in the real world, Dutch prostitutes were nowhere nearly as young, plump, and pretty as the artists depicted them, whereas the procurers were ordinarily considerably more prosperous and much more frequently male than the archetypical “bawds” shown by the painters. Art aside, writers should keep in mind that it takes a certain population density to support a bordello, or even an individual prostitute. The phenomenon was centered in larger cities, particularly ports and areas where armies were quartered (or moved along with the armies when they moved).

The general 17th-century public policy, governmental, ecclesiastical, and customary, was to channel sexual activity, as much as might be possible, in the direction of marriage. Most of the theoretical foundations of 17th century practice in regard to this process had been established in the previous century, both in Catholic and Protestant Europe.24

Georgette Heyer, the foundress of the field of “regency romances,” titled one of her most controversial – because it involved very little romance – books A Civil Contract. This title was a spectacularly successful pun, since under the law, a civil, legal, contract was the definition of marriage, whereas in this specific case, the earl in need of money and heiress whose father was in search of a title for his grandchildren managed to make the arrangement work in a civil, or polite, manner, with mutual consideration and respect (although Jenny occasionally, wistfully, wished there could have been just a little romance involved as she matter-of-factly reported to her husband that his heir had cut a tooth during the earl’s absence from the estate on business).

Since the area of primary interest for people writing in the 1632 series is western and northern Europe (excluding Gorg Huff, Paula Goodlett, and the books set in Russia or those outside of Europe altogether such as those by Iver Cooper and the upcoming on the Mughal Empire by Griffin Barber), this essay will focus on the world west of the “Hajnal line.”25 This term comes out of the field of demographic history (history of population) rather than out of the study of sexuality. Consequently, the published material has been available to researchers for considerably longer.26 In short form, Hajnal’s studies indicated that in early modern western and northern Europe, there was a comparatively high age at marriage (mid 20s to early 30s for both men and women) and a comparatively high percentage of the population (10% to 20%) that never married because they simply could not afford to do so. The reasons and consequences for non-marriage varied from place to place, largely dependent upon local farming customs (for example, were unmarried brothers expected to leave the household, as was the case in most of the Germanies, or expected to remain as a lifelong unpaid labor force, as was the case in parts of southern France). Many of the permanently unmarried spent their entire lives “in service” as hired men and hired girls, which in the church court records not uncommonly led to recitals of what the stableboy and dairymaid had gotten up to in the scullery while the housewife was supervising pickling in the kitchen. To quote Thomas Hobbes out of context, it tended to be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In Catholic countries, the portion of the “permanently unmarried” who entered the religious life was statistically insignificant, whereas those who entered the religious life, in spite of the Roman Catholic magisterium’s increasing demands for clerical celibacy, did not necessarily remain unmarried.27 In Protestant areas, the acceptance of clerical marriage would have accounted for no more than a modest uptick in the marriage rate.28

In first marriages in early modern western Europe, with the exception of the Italian patriciate, there was rarely more than three years’ difference in age between the bride and groom and the disparity could go in either direction.29 This did not apply to second and subsequent marriages (keep in mind that, on the average, death did them part in about seven years, though individual marriages might endure anywhere from a couple of weeks to 50 years). If a widower was childless and needed an heir, he often remarried to a considerably younger woman and it was probably her first marriage. If a guildsman’s widow married one of her husband’s journeymen to keep the business afloat, her second groom might well be ten or fifteen years younger than she was and it was likely his first marriage. However, if a widower already had a half-dozen young adult and adolescent children, he might well remarry to a widow of his own age, which provided his household with a competent mistress without incurring risk of further subdividing the family property at his death.

Generally, in early modern western Europe, the more prosperous the family, the younger the age at which those of its children who were destined for marriage actually married (“younger” here being ordinarily 18-22 for the groom and 16-20 for the bride). I am not going to get into the controversy over the issue of ages at puberty and menarche in the early modern period and the extent to which this did or did not connect to how well the boy and girl had been nourished during their childhoods (see Wunder 1998, 25-26).30 This differential age at marriage pertains to actual marriage, usually with the setting up of a household, rather than a betrothal contract only (which could be, and in cases of the ruling families and high nobility often was, made by the families while the children involved were still under the age of consent). This was both because affluent families tended to be anxious for the appearance of legitimate heirs as soon as possible and also because the relatives of the young couple could afford to subsidize the new household.

Early matrimony was also the case with Ashkenazi Jewish marriages in the era. For these, it was often prescribed that the teen-aged spouses would reside with one or the other sets of parents for a fixed period of time before establishing their own independent residence.31

So, let us look at the stages that led up to the formation of the marriage contract.32 From the perspective of the subdiscipline of “women’s history” rather than of sexuality per se, the collection of essays edited by Schutte, et al., is useful.33 “Family history” is yet another subdiscipline that has developed in the past 50 years.34




Insofar as we have information onearly modern courtship, it is mainly based on depiction in poetry36 and theater,37 with some additional data stemming from surviving correspondence between actual couples.38 Such published collections of correspondence are rarely limited to the courtship phase alone, but rather follow the couple throughout their lives.

Actual practices varied from place to place.39 In the Germanies, they ranged from unchaperoned barn dances in rural villages, which Lutheran pastors never tired of sermonizing against. Even more liberal practices developed in England’s North American colonies.40 Among urban families in the Germanies, there were parent-sponsored social activities at which said parents sincerely hoped their offspring would meet someone who was religiously, economically, and socially suitable while also mutually acceptable to the potential spouses, e.g. dances for children of the patriciate in Augsburg.41 The French upper bourgeoisie was still more inclined to have the families arrange marriages and inform the potential spouses once the bargain had been struck. David Cressy (Cressy 1997) has described some courtship practices of prosperous mercantile families in England.

Intercourse prior to betrothal appears to have been rare. From hugging and kissing in the living room to making out among the cabbages in the garden, people were aware of a wide variety of sexual activities that did not include actual intercourse and are known to have practiced them, although many were, technically, crimes.42




SitSC-mtrmnyIn the 17th century, a betrothal was a legally binding contract. In the 19th century, occasionally still in the 20th century, you can find “breach of promise” suits occurring in the U.S. because a betrothal was, in law, a contract. Preferably, the betrothal was a public act, occurring with the consent of parents and/or guardians. For an illustration, literally, of the practice among the upper bourgeoisie, see Abraham Bosse, Marriage Contract in the City (French, 1633), showing the parents and lawyers at the table, with the young couple holding hands on the other side of the room ( the level of the more prosperous peasantry, albeit somewhat satirical, see Jan Steen, Marriage Contract, with the near-cliche of the suitor down upon one knee before his very pregnant bride-to-be.

The questionable elements of betrothal in the 17th century arose mainly when it did not take place as a public act, but was, rather, clandestine. All that was required for a binding betrothal was for the male and female to promise before witnesses to marry one another at some future time. But what if the betrothal did not take place in the presence of family and lawyers? What if those making the pledge were two teenagers at a barn dance,44 with the only witnesses a couple of other adolescents? What if it took place in a tavern when both the principals and the witnesses were more than half-soused? What if, two years later, one of the principals was about to enter into a family-sanctioned marriage when the other appeared and slapped him or her with a lawsuit? The result was, whether in Protestant or Catholic45 regions of the continent, often a case in the church court that held jurisdiction with a great deal of “he said; she said” narrated with feeling.




There were clear distinctions between the common metaphors46 of 17th century marriage and its reality.

The difference between a clandestine betrothal (see above) and a clandestine marriage was that the couple spoke the words of consent to marriage in the present tense (I do take you) rather than in the future tense (I will take you),47 but keep in mind that the betrothal promise de futuro followed by sexual intercourse automatically turned a betrothal into a marriage. This is one of the major reasons why so many of the lawsuits of the era involved a woman who was pregnant and a man who was alleging that there had been no valid prior promises. The Catholic church had, with little success, been trying to stamp out the practice of clandestine marriage at least since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Clandestine marriages, performed by an Anglican clergyman but without banns or family approval, remained valid in England, although disapproved by church and state, until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. Prior to Hardwicke, a Roman Catholic marriage performed by a priest was not recognized in English law, but for the purposes of inheritance, the same couple might be deemed to have married by consent in front of witnesses. The poet John Donne and his wife married clandestinely in 1601. So called “common law” marriages by mutual consent in front of witnesses, but without a church ceremony continued to be recognized as valid by the secular authorities in Scotland throughout the early modern period, although by the 18th century the Scottish church no longer recognized them.

This lead to the meaningful early modern question: “Is this couple married, and, if so, in the eyes of whom?” The early modern period was marked by a growing desire for enhanced parental control over the marriage of children,48 which in turn resulted in legislation in regard to the age of consent.49 In the 16th century, the French state raised the age at which men and women could marry without agreement of their parents/guardians to 25 (and it stayed there into the 19th century).50 The Catholic church’s rulings on the age of consent remained unchanged, with the result that it was possible for a couple to be validly married in the view of the parish priest and committing concubinage or fornication in the eyes of the secular authorities, while in Scotland, a couple could be married in the eyes of the secular government and “living in sin” in the view of the kirk.

In rural areas generally, the events accompanying a wedding, particularly the charivari, could be very bawdy.51




During the 16th century, a clear distinction developed between the Catholic concept of marriage as a sacrament and indissoluble as finalized by the Council of Trent53 and the possibility of marriage dissolution in both Lutheran and Calvinist54 theology,55 and the intermediate stance taken by the Church of England.56 It should be noted that in Protestant Europe, during the early modern period, divorce was regarded as “a punishment for matrimonial crime and relief for the victim of the crime” (Phillips 1998, 90).

In the Netherlands, William the Silent divorced Anna of Saxony for adultery after the marriage had produced six children. He imprisoned the co-respondent for a few months and then released him. The man went on to become the father of artist Peter Paul Rubens. In Saxe-Coburg in the early 17th century, the duke divorced another Anna of Saxony, also for adultery. In neither case was the woman executed, although in theory adultery was a capital crime.




Overall, illegitimacy rates in early modern Europe were very low—the best data that demographic historians have been able to determine using all indicators is that it ranged from 1% to 4% of total births, varying somewhat from place to place and time to time, with no clear trend either upward or downward until the late 18th century, when the rate started to rise more or less simultaneously with the dropping of average age at first marriage. This may appear counterintuitive, but it is what did occur.

The handling of illegitimacy was largely a matter of law and economics—more so than resulting from any universal social attitude. This was not unique to the 17th century, nor was it unique to Europe in the early modern period: see the North Carolina bastardy bonds from the 18th and early 19th centuries.57 The main issue was: “Who is responsible for the support of the child?”58 Illegitimacy, however the legal status of the child might vary under local laws, was not usually perceived as a big problem when there was no danger that the child would become a charge on the public purse. One Italian noblewoman received regular reports from the tutor of her “stepson,” aka her husband’s bastard son, in regard to his academic progress, need for new clothes because he was growing, etc. (Medici Archives, online at, as matter-of-factly as if he had been her husband’s son by a prior marriage. The general assumption in Italian culture was that when the paternity of an out-of-wedlock child was indisputed, he or she would be integrated into the father’s household rather than being the mother’s responsibility as was the case in England.

When there was no father, affluent or otherwise, to acknowledge and support the child, and the local laws and customs were harsh, infanticide was not unknown, although it was often hard to prove in court.59 From place to place in Europe, it seems to have been relevant as to whether or not there was a labor shortage. In some areas, such as Scotland and Norway, there was no particular stigma attached to the mother (or father) after the sort of embarrassing public penance that involved sitting in front of the congregation for a number of Sundays wearing a straw dunce cap (for the woman) or straw sword (for the man). Often, the child’s mother remarried within a year of two of the birth, most often to someone other than the child’s putative father.

In England, the attitudes toward illegitimacy were heavily shaped by the Elizabethan Poor Law of 160160 and the concept of “settlement” in a parish (these continued in the former British colonies of the U.S. until well after the achievement of independence, especially in New England).61 It was “settlement” that led to the woodcuts of vagrant pregnant women being whipped out of one parish into the next by the overseers of the poor until she finally fell and gave birth, thus burdening the taxpayers of that specific parish with the cost of upkeep for the child.

Even in Spain, which was often depicted in creative literature as having an “honor culture” focused on the preservation of an unmarried daughter’s virginity, there is no indication that young women who became pregnant outside of wedlock were ordinarily rejected by their families or stigmatized by their neighbors (Dyer 2003). Dyer states that many of the suits for seduction under promise of marriage were brought to court jointly by the injured party and her father, while their neighbors and acquaintances came into court to testify that she was of good family and good repute. In regard to Gallegos, in Spain, Allyson Poska stated that things were “functional according to a popular culture which, despite the Counter-Reformation church’s best efforts, readily accepted dissolvable marriages and illegitimate births.”62


Extra-marital Sexuality


At the highest and most “international” levels of society, attitudes varied widely, from the “Catholic Puritanism” of the Austrian court under Ferdinand II to the “libertinage” or near-institutionalization of adultery in the French royal court under Henri IV and Louis XIII (and, later in the century, under Louis XIV).

Abortions were not mentioned often in the 17th century outside of medical literature. Some chemical abortifacients were known, most often taken orally as teas but occasionally in the form of pessaries,63 combined with the practice of tight binding of the abdomen. Attempts at abortion appear to have been more frequently resorted to by married women whose husbands had been absent long enough that he could not possibly have begotten the child than by unmarried women. This was because, given that the pregnancy in and of itself was evidence of adultery, because of the harsh penalties for that crime, some women appear to have concluded that the known risks of the procedure were worth taking.


Perceived Perversions


First, let me do a little forthright speaking. This is not a 21st century PC heading, but it is historically accurate in period terminology.64

Secondly, during the past half-century, there has been a tendency of feminist writers in regard to “women’s history” to have so much of an agenda that a significant amount of what they publish can’t be relied on for factual information. This is pretty much also true in regard to much of what has been published in regard to LGBT in the early modern period (i.e., it’s useless for any author trying to work into a perception of the way things were).65

In the general consensus of 17th century law and theology, sex was supposed to be, at least potentially, procreative. The treatment of homosexuality by theologians of the era largely depended on the various Biblical mentions, in which it was no more severely condemned than adultery,66 and had far less frequent allusions.67 In England, acts of “sodomy” carried the death penalty—but, then, so did just about all crimes defined as “felonies” under the common law, the great majority of which did not involve sexuality. Additionally, “sodomy” aka “buggery” or anal intercourse was as much an “unnatural act,” and therefore a crime, when it occurred between a man and a woman as it was between a man and a man, which sometimes makes deciphering exactly what was being discussed in abbreviated court entries difficult. Bestiality was known to exist, was also specifically condemned on biblical grounds, and was simultaneously the subject of a lot of dirty jokes.

Sexual attraction to members of the same gender was not considered by most to be an issue of exclusivity and certainly not to be a “lifestyle.”68 Most identified European “homosexuals” of the era (admittedly, due to the nature of surviving records, almost all were members of the upper classes), whether male or female, were married and had families. Indeed, one role of a powerful patron in regard to his “favorites” was often to locate generously dowered brides for them.

In regard to male homosexuality, there was a wide variance in attitude from place to place.69 It is also often difficult to sort out from the records whether the relationships of affection among men, such as the issue of male “favorites” at the court of James I in England, involved more than emotional attachments.”70 Certainly, James I and his wife Anne of Denmark had several children. In other cases, the documents make the situation indisputable, such as the 1631 trial of the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, who had six children by his first wife, for sodomy with one of his male servants and also for assisting in the rape of his second wife by another of his servants.71

At the French royal court under Louis XIII, there was the same kind of ambivalence as in England. Louis XIII, certainly, had male favorites to whom he was emotionally attached. He also had a wife, Anne of Austria, who became pregnant several times early in their marriage, and, probably, a couple of mistresses. There was comparative tolerance among the French upper classes, although the Counter-Reformation Catholic church did bring a few cases into court.72

Overall, the insistence of the authors who published in the 1980s that 17th century homosexuality was essential an “upper class” phenomenon stemmed from the fact that they didn’t have the slightest idea whether such activity occurred among ordinary people, or to what extent. We still don’t, to tell the truth, because much of the data is so specialized. In the case of the abolition of the Piarist73 teaching order in Italy, for example, the issue was not simply homosexuality. It extended to pedophilia, a cover-up, and betrayal of trust by the teachers to whom parents confided the education of their children.

There was not a lot of discussion of lesbianism in the first half of 17th century, nor does there appear to have been a lot of concern about it. In the case of Benedetta Carlini in the 1620s, the concern of Roman Catholic church officials appear to have focused as much on the possibly heretical nature of her mystical visions as on her sexual activity with a younger member of the religious order. She was “held under guard” for the remainder of her life.74 There were certainly romantic emotional attachments between women, as in the case of Henri duc de Rohan’s sister Henriette and the duchesse de Nevers. Here, though, as with the male nobility, the sources are almost entirely literary – in this instance, poetry by Henriette’s sister Anne de Rohan.75

There was supposedly an instance, for which I cannot currently find a citation, in which a bewildered 17th century Calvinist minister, upon being hassled to denounce lesbian activity, asked in bewilderment, “But what could they possibly do?” This may indicate a lack of imagination on his part, for the officials of Plymouth Colony, in 1649 New England thought that two women (both of them married; one recently abandoned by her husband) could perform “lewd acts.”76

The court of Charles II of England essentially transferred to England in the second half of the 17th century the mores of the French royal court of the era. Of the various officials at that court, it was probably hard to embarrass Samuel Pepys as far as sexuality was concerned, but one writer managed it.77




This has been a very brief review of the topic—essentially an overview of some of the more pertinent secondary literature.


Additional Bibliography, beyond that contained in the footnotes:


To save space, I am not repeating the works cited in the footnotes as a formal bibliography. For one thing, it is not comprehensive, because I limited it to English-language publications, on the presumption that those would be of most use for the people who attended the LibertyCon presentation. I can provide some additional bibliography in other languages at request.


Selected art and illustrations, with urls


Varriano, John. Fruits and Vegetables as Sexual Metaphor in Late Renaissance Italy. Gastronomica, v. 5, no. 4.



Ward, Katie. Decoding Eroticism in Dutch Golden Age Painting. Posted on February 28, (


Various classical-themed scenes

Joachim Anthonisz Witewael (Utrecht 1566-1638). Mars and Venus, Late 16th-Early th Century Giclee Print


Antonio Tempesta, Vulcan Entrapping Mars and Venus



Honthorst, Gerard van. Granida and Danilo.

See also the following article: Gudlaugsson, S. J. Representations of Granida in Dutch Seventeenth-century Painting. The Burlington Magazine, 1948.


Various biblically-themed scenes


Badaloccio, Sisto. Joseph Escaping from Potiphar’s Wife (1607).

van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmenszoon. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1634).

Bathsheba Holding King David’s Letter (1654). (

Gentileschi, Artemisia. Susanna and the Elders (1610).

de Gelder, Aert (1645-1727). Ruth and Boaz. Later 17th century; slightly out of period.





1Not that the mores of all people in Victorian England conformed to the preferences of upper-middle-class and upper-class etiquette for young, unmarried women, but that issue is irrelevant for this paper.

2For an introduction to Erasmus, see

3Turner, James Grantham. Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England 1534-1685 (Oxford University Press, 2003).


4Roberts, Hugh. Obscenity in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France. French Studies, v. 67, no. 4 (2013), pp. 535-542.

5Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World (Routledge, 2000).

6Wiesner, Merry E. Disembodied theory? Discourses of sex in early modern Germany. In: Rublack, Ulinka, ed. Gender in Early Modern German History (Cambridge University Press, Past and Present Publications, 2002). For practical contrasts, see Roper, Lyndal. The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

7Perry, Mary Elizabeth. Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990). Poska, Allyson M. Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia. (Oxford University Press, 2006. Note also the wide popularity of images of Judith beheading Holofernes and Jael pounding a tent peg into Sisera’s head in the the art of the period. The versions by Artemisia Gentilischi were not by any means the only ones.

8Laslett, Peter. Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (Cambridge University Press, 1977). This book is heavily focused on England. Matthews-Grieco, Sara F., ed. Cuckoldry, Impotence, and Adultery in Europe (15th-17th Century). (Ashgate, 2014). See also, for a short summary:

9Ozment, Steven. The Bürgermeister’s Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth-Century German Town (St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

10Consult, for example, William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew.

11Schama, Simon. Wives and Wantons: Versions of Womanhood in 17th Century Dutch Art ( Prescriptive literature is beyond the scope of this essay, but some English-language treatises of the late 16th and early 17th centuries are mentioned on this site in an excerpt from the introduction to the Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Seventeenth Century ( For the Germanies, a researcher can start with Wunder, Heide. He is the Sun, She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

12Taylor, Gordon Rattray, Sex in History (Vanguard, 1954) was anecdotal rather than the product of systematic research. The same is true of Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage: A History (Viking, 2005). Do not rely upon journalists and popularizers no matter how much their works are hyped in the media. For an introductory summary that covers a much wider time span than the first half of the 17th century, try Crawford, Katherine. European Sexualities, 1400-1800 (New Approaches to European History No. 38). (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

13Few other ancient texts are as forthright as the Bible about the various and ingenious ways in which people managed to diverge from the routes prescribed for them to follow in managing sexual relations. Seventeenth-century artists took full advantage of said forthrightness with repeated depictions of Judah and Tamar, David and Bathsheba, etc. While Adam and Eve were unendingly useful as a justification for depicting nudes, portrayals of them did not provide much in the way of sexuality, in that the assumption was that prior to the fig leaf episode, they didn’t particularly notice, and after the fig leaf episode, they wore clothes.

14Flandrin, Jean Louis. Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality. Translated by Richard Southern. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979).


16Thompson, Roger. Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, -1699 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986 [reprint] 2012).

Online, see for similar examples:

17Quaife, G. R. Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives (Rutgers University Press, 1979). Ingram, Martin. Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Safley, Thomas Max. Let No Man Put Asunder: The Control of Marriage in the German Southwest (Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies). (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1984).

18This is one reason why, in colonial Virginia, you find in many counties more marriage bonds and licenses than marriage returns in the 18th century, since the couple may have been married by an unrecognized Baptist or other dissenting minister who was not legally authorized to file a return.

19Coverage of these social elements is still hit or miss in the modern world, when governments devote many more resources to tracking them than could be afforded in the early modern era.

20There is quite a bit of useful pre-1630s information regarding northern European customs in: Mia Korpiola, Between Betrothal and Bedding: Marriage Foundation in Sweden 1200-1600. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009). Anyone specifically interested in medieval rather than early modern sexuality can start with Salisbury, Joyce E. Medieval Sexuality: A Research Guide (New York: 1990).

21Perry, Mary Elizabeth. Magdalens and Jezebels in Counter-Reformation Spain, in: Anne J. Cruz and Mary Elizabeth Perry, eds., Culture and Control in Counter-Reformation Spain. (Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

22There is a Wikipedia article re: bordello scenes, with illustrations and a quite good bibliography for further reading:

See particularly representations by Gerard [aka Gerrit] van Honthorst (1592-1656).

23van de Pol, Lotte C. The Whore, the Bawd, and the Artist: The Reality and Imagery of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Prostitution. Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, v. 7, no. 2 (2015). You can find a short summary of the content of this article at: ( Neither is it likely that the majority of the customers were quite as good-looking or elaborately dressed as they are shown in these paintings.

24For a general overview, see Hsia, R. Po-Chia, Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe 1550-1750. (London: Routledge, 1989). For more localized studies, the reader can begin with: Harrington, Joel F. Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Witte, John Jr., and Kingdon, Robert M., eds., Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume I, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005). Haynes, Alan, ‘Untam’d Desire’: Sex in Elizabethan England. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997).

25For a map of the distinction, see the Wikipedia article European Marriage Pattern, with additional bibliography: For some introduction to Europe east of that line, see Cerman, Markus. Marriage Patterns and Family Structure in Central Europe, Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. In: Wall, Richard, Hareven, Tamara K., and Ehmer, Josef. Family History Revisited: Comparative Perspectives. (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2001) and also the relevant chapters in: Levin, Eve. Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

26Hajnal, John. European marriage pattern in historical perspective, in: D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley, eds., Population in History (London: Arnold, 1965).

27Forster, Marc. The Counter-Reformation in the Villages: Religion and Reform in the Bishopric of Speyer, 1560-1720. (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).

28Plummer, Marjorie Elizabeth. From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation. (Burlington, VT: St. Andrews Studies in Early Reformation History, 2012).

29Think, as a practical matter. How many possible choices of spouse did the average villager actually have within walking distance of his or her home?

30This one area in which the use of literary sources can be very misleading. No matter how many authors quote and requote Shakespeare in regard to Juliet’s sexual maturity at 13, it appears that the average age of first menstruation in the 16th and 17th centuries was about 16 1/2.

31For some discussion, see The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, tr. Marvin Lowenthal, with a new intro. by Robert Rosen (New York: Schocken Books, 1977 [reprint of 1932 edition]).

32For additional information and bibliography, see Cowan, Alexander. Marriage and Dowry.


33Schutte, Anne Jacobson, Thomas Kuehn, and Silvana Seidel Menchi, eds. Time, Space, and Women’s Lives in Early Modern Europe. Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, v. 57. (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001).

34For an introduction, see Kertzer, David I., and Barbagli, Marzio, eds. Family Life in Early Modern Times 1500-1789. (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2001).

35For England, there is useful discussion and description in Cressy, David., Birth, Marriage, & Death; Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford University Press: 1997). It should be noted that the age of consent to sexual activity and the age of consent for marriage (with or without parental consent, which were usually not the same), were rarely identical in any jurisdiction. This had significant consequences in prosecutions for rape, where part of the consideration was whether or not the female was sufficiently well-grown to have any prospect of resisting an adult man.

36Cf. for poetry: Donne, John, The Bait.

37Babin, Adam Michel. Marriage in Seventeenth-Century French Theater. (M.A. Thesis, Louisiana State University, Department of French Studies, 2011).

38Ozment, Steven. Magdalena and Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in Sixteenth-Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).

39Becker, Daniel Charles. “There is no harm in a boy talking to a girl”: The Control of Sexuality and Marriage in Early Modern Navarre and Guipuzcoa (Ph.D. Diss., University of Maryland, 1997). Fischer-Yinon, Yochi. The Original Bundlers: Boaz and Ruth, and Seventeenth-Century English Courtship Practices. Journal of Social History, v. 35, no. 3

(Spring, 2002), pp. 683-705.

40For the early years of Maryland, see: Wilkinson, Susan. Courtship & Romance in the Colony (Historic St. Mary’s City).

41Bosse, Abraham. The Ball, c. 1635. ( This is not specific to Augsburg, but provides an image of wealthy upper-class entertainments in the era. Images with the same title, allegedly by Friedrich Brentel the Elder, are a copy of this work.

42For example, “onanism,” otherwise known as petting to ejaculation, and oral sex.

43For England, see Erickson, Amy Louise. Common Law versus Common Practice: The Use of Marriage Settlements in Early Modern England. The Economic History Review v. 43, no. , February 1990, pp. 21-39. Available in the Wiley Online Library as of 2008.

44Or at some socially more upscale event – again, see Romeo and Juliet.

45Dyer, Abigail. Seduction by Promise of Marriage: Law, Sex, and Culture in Seventeenth-Century Spain. Sixteenth Century Journal v. 34, no. 2 (2003).

46See, for example, Mary Lyndon Shanley, Marriage Contract and Social Contract in Seventeenth Century English Political Thought, The Western Political Quarterly, v. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 79-91; Belinda Roberts Peters, Marriage in seventeenth-century English political thought (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, ).

47Conversely, a formal marriage ceremony that was never followed by intercourse could, sometimes, under specific circumstances, be held invalid under the law. Flood, Dom Peter, O.S.B. The Dissolution of Marriage: Non-Consummation as a Ground for Annulment of Dissolution of Marriage: A Study of English Civil and Church Law as Compared with the Canon Law. (London: Burns & Oates, 1961). There were reasons that most political marriages in the era involved official witnesses in the bedroom watching the couple have intercourse at the conclusion of the wedding day. Consider the complications that had ensued from “no clear evidence one way or the other” in the case of the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur of England in the early 16th century.

48Harrington, Joel F. Paternalism and Marriage Reform in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Central European History, v. 25, no. 1, March 1992, pp. 52-75.

49Since the 11th century, the Catholic church had set the minimum age of consent to marriage, even without the agreement of parents and/or guardians, as 14 for boys and 12 for girls. Noonan, John T. “The Power to Choose” Viator, v. 4 (1973) pp. 419–34. The Church of England raised the age for marriage without parental consent to 21 for both bride and groom.

50In the 18th century, Blackstone thought that the age at which French men could contract a valid marriage without parental consent was 30 rather than 25. Prest, Wilfrid. Blackstone and his Commentaries: Biography, Law, History. (Hart Publishing, [reprint 2014]).

51Bosse, Abraham. Le Mariage à la campagne, c. 1633. Charivari du marié ou le chaudeau (

52For a general introduction, see Phillips, R. Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

53It should be noted that Catholic church courts did issue decrees of permanent separation a mensa et thoro, with financial support to the aggrieved party. The major difference between this and divorce was that neither party had the right to remarry. Becker, Rainer. Traces of Emotion? Marital Discord in Early Modern Bavaria. In: Wall, Richard, Hareven, Tamara K., and Ehmer, Josef. Family History Revisited: Comparative Perspectives. (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2001).

54Kingdon, Robert M. Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). Watt, Jeffrey R., The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of Sentiment in Neuchâtel, 1550-1800. (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).

55For the provisions of Tametsi and the various forms of Protestant vows, see my 2008 guest blog on Laura Vivanco’s Teach Me Tonight website (

56The English situation might be summarized as, “the husband could, rarely, get a parliamentary divorce decree if he had enough money and political clout.” For original source material, see Thompson, Torri L., ed. Marriage and its Dissolution in Early Modern England. (4 vols.) (2005).

57Camin, Betty, and Camin, Edward, transcribers. North Carolina Bastardy Bonds. (Mt. Airy, NC: Mountain Press, 1990).

58Harrington, Joel F. The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans, and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Safley, Thomas Max, Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

59Rublack, Ulinka. The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (Oxford Studies in Social History). (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). The death of a neonate usually brought suspicions of infanticide if the woman had tried to conceal the pregnancy and did not summon a midwife to assist with the birth.

60For an introduction with additional bibliography, see

61Hambleton, Else L. Daughters of Eve: Pregnant Brides and Unwed Mothers in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts (Routledge, 2004).

62Poska, Allyson. Regulating the People: The Catholic Reformation in Seventeenth-Century Spain (Boston: Brill, 1998). See especially Chapter Five: Marriage in Heaven and on Earth.

63The herbs were readily available from apothecaries, since they also had the medical use of expelling a fetus that had died in the womb, thus sparing the mother, if they worked, from the much more dangerous surgical procedure.

64Cf. Romans 1:26-27 “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

65For an example of a publication that is essentially useless for historical research because it is really about neo-Petrarchan styles in poetry, see Powell, Amanda. Baroque Flair: Seventeenth- century European Sapphic Poetry. Humanist Studies & the Digital Age, 1.1 (2011) ISSN: 2158-3846 (online) (

66Massachusetts Bay Colony made “adultery” a capital crime in 1631, but the only adulteress known to have been executed under its provisions confessed to adultery with a dozen different men.

67Thompson, Roger. Attitudes towards Homosexuality in the Seventeenth-Century New England Colonies. Journal of American Studies, v.23, no. 1, Sex and Gender in American Culture (Apr., 1989), pp. 27-40. The appendix to the following article contains a transcription of the 1624 trial for sodomy and sentencing of William Cornish in the Virginia Colony in: Crompton, Lewis. Homosexuals and the Death Penalty in Colonial America. Journal of Homosexuality, v. 1, no. 3, 1976, pp. 277-293 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, Faculty Publications – Department of English, 1976). (

68A different conclusion is reached in Borris, Kenneth. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. (Taylor & Francis, 2003). See also: Borris, Kenneth, and Rousseau, George Sebastian. The sciences of homosexuality in early modern Europe. (Routledge, 2008).



70Hill, Christopher. Male Homosexuality in 17th Century England. Chapter 10 in: The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England, v. (University of Massachusetts press, 1985). The chapter is basically an analysis of Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).

71Herrup, Cynthia. A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

72Crawford, Katherine. Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance. (Cambridge University Press, 2010). This is focused upon the upper classes and literary (poetry, poetic theory, astrology, and philosophy) expressions of sexual culture.

73Liebrich, Karen. Fallen Order: A History (Grove Press, 2005). This book discusses a pedophile scandal that led to the 17th century abolition of the Piarists, a 17th century Italian teaching order.

74Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford University Press, 1985).

75It may be possible to find a little data here, but the level of available information is more or less equivalent to what Foucault could find in regard to sexuality in antiquity, anecdotal, based on literary sources, very little for the period of interest for the 1632verse, and nothing sufficient for statistical analysis. Castle, Terry. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology From Ariosto To Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

76I was able to locate only a reference to this case in a Wikipedia article; the link to the following was broken: ” Legal case: Norman, Hammon; Plymouth, March 6, 1649. OutHistory (2008-07-15).” It appears to be a citation to the following: Both participants were married. The older woman was admonished; the younger, who was under 16, was not prosecuted. Sara Norman was later, in another case, brought up on charges of “sodomy” with a man (




About Virginia DeMarce

Virginia DeMarce update photo v2

Virginia DeMarce was born in Missouri and lives in Arlington, VA. She is retired from the federal government, where she was a historian for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

She received a Ph.D. in early modern history from Stanford University in 1967, which is less obsolete than would be the case had she been in a scientific field of endeavor. She proved unsuited to an academic career, although she taught at the college level for fifteen years, since she was plagued by an irresistible desire to know more and more about more and more, rather than about less and less.

Her most persistent hobby is genealogy. In 1988-1989, she served as president of the National Genealogical Society.

She has been married to James DeMarce since 1962. They have three children and a varying number of grandchildren.

Previously published works by Virginia DeMarce are:

“Biting Time,” Ring of Fire

“Motherhood and Apple Pie, While You’re At It,” “Common Sense,” Bypass Surgery,” “In the Night, All Hats are Gray,” “Who’s Calling This Race,” “A Nightmare Upon the Present,” and, cowritten with Eric Flint, “The Ram Rebellion,” 1634: The Ram Rebellion

1634: The Bavarian Crisis, cowritten with Eric Flint, was released in October 2007.

2 thoughts on “Sexuality in the Seventeenth Century

  1. Cyrus Levesque

    Interesting article, but personally I’d find a general overview like this much less interesting than something focused on one particular person: Princess Kristina. “As an adult, it was said that Christina “walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers”. Christina’s contemporary John Bargrave described her comportment in a similar fashion but said witnesses ascribed her style more to childishness or madness than masculinity… Christina’s gender ambiguity did not end with her style of dress. The question of her sexuality has been debated, but modern biographers generally consider her to have been a lesbian, and her affairs with women were noted during her lifetime” (,_Queen_of_Sweden#Gender_ambiguity_and_sexuality).

    I’m not exactly complaining; an article like this about general trends is more useful context for writers and readers than an article about one particular person would be. And of course, Kristina was 5 years old when the Ring of Fire happened and her life in the 1632 timeline won’t happen remotely like in real life. No doubt many details about her aren’t even decided yet. It’s just that a discussion of sexuality in the early modern period seems lacking without a mention of a very complicated example of it who’s already a character in several RoF novels.

    Beyond that, I can’t help wondering what’s already canon, what writers plan to do with her but haven’t yet, and what’s still up in the air. 1633 have had very brief discussions of her life; how much details do down-timers have access to? Did any of this come up in the betrothal negotiations with Ulrik? She was exhumed in 1965 to look for characteristics of being intersex (inconclusively); do any books in Grantville have records of that? The short story “Venus and Mercury” indicates that some down-timers know about the up-time concept of homosexuality, and Colonel Hand is one of them; what would he think of her life?

Leave a Reply