Defamation and sexual reputation in Somerset, 1733-1850

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Morris, Polly
  • Subject: HQ | DA

This dissertation examines sexual reputation in the county of\ud Somerset between 1733 and 1850. Its purpose is to explore plebeian\ud sexual culture by tracing changes in the way plebeian men and women\ud defined and defended their sexual reputations in an era of social,\ud economic and cultural transition. In this period Somerset evolved\ud from a prosperous and rapidly growing county with an economy based on\ud agriculture and manufactures to a more static and primarily agrarian\ud county; its major city, Bath, went from being a thriving resort to a\ud retirement town. At the same time, the breakdown of the Puritan\ud sexual consensus left a hiatus before the triumph of Victorianism\ud during which a multiplicity of sexual cultures thrived.\ud The defamation causes heard in the ecclesiastical courts of the\ud diocese of Bath and Wells constitute the basic source for the study of\ud plebeian sexual reputation. By the eighteenth century, these causes\ud were concerned solely with sexual insults and the courts' clients\ud were predominantly and increasingly married women drawn from the\ud ranks of artisans and small tradespeople in the county's market towns\ud and the city of Bath. The survival of this jurisdiction reflects a\ud continuing need on the part of plebeian litigants for a cheap and\ud public mode of settling disputes over honour. Though plebeian men continued\ud to use the church courts to restore their good names long after\ud upper class men had ceased to do so, their eventual abandonment of the\ud courts has necessitated the use of common law sources to construct\ud a picture of male reputation.\ud As the industrial and agricultural revolutions proceeded, and the\ud personnel of the church courts adopted a sexual ideology emphasising\ud privacy, decorum and the double standard, traditional plebeian sexual\ud mores were challenged. Definitions of male and female reputation\ud diverged and the egalitarianism of the early eighteenth century weakened.\ud By the mid-nineteenth century, the dominant sexual culture had\ud triumphed: the distinctive plebeian sexual culture had been absorbed\ud by the more homogeneous sexual culture of the Victorian era; litigants\ud had ceased to use the church courts; and, in 1854, the defamation\ud jurisdiction was abolished.
  • References (41)
    41 references, page 1 of 5

    7 Francis A. Knight, Heart of Mendip (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1915), p. 411; John Haddon, Bath (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1973), p. 111.

    8 Toulmin, Taunton, p. 560; Emanuel Green, 'On Some Somerset Chap-Books', Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 24 (1878): 59.

    12Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society; The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (London and New York: Longman, 1981), espec. Chapters 2 and 4.

    13 Miranda Chaytor, 'Household and Kinship: Ryton in the late 16th and early 17th centuries', History Workshop 10 (Autumn 1980): 26.

    14 Notable contributions are Sharpe, Defamation and Sexual Slander; Chaytor, 'Household and Kinship'; and M.J. Ingram, 'Ecclesiastical Justice in Wiltshire 1600-1640, With special reference to cases concerning sex and marriage' (D. Phil. dissertation, Oxford, 1976), especially Chapter 9, 'Defamation Causes'.

    15 G.R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1979), pp. 72; 142. Burn, Richard. Ecclesiastical Law. 2 vols.

    London: H. Woodf all and W. Strahan, 1763. And subsequent editions: 1767, 1775, 1781, 1788, 1797, 1809, 1824 and 1842. Floyer, Philip. The Proctor's Practice in lhe Ecclesiastical Couts, As it is Regulated by the Rules sf Practice now in_Force. London, 1744. Hunt, Henry. Memoirs of Henry Hunt. Esg. Written_by himself, in His Majesty's jail at Llchester._in the county of Somers. 3 vols. London: T.

    Dolby, 1820-22. _________ 'To the Radical Reformers, Male and Female, of England, Ireland, and Scotland'.

    1820-22. ________• A Peep Into A Prison: Or. the Inide of lichester Bastile. 1821. lichester and District Occasional Papers, no.11. Guernsey: the Toucan Press, 1979. Ibbetson, Laporte and Hassell, 3., Mess. A Picturesque Guide to Bath, Bristol Hot-wells, The River Avon and the Adjacent Country.

    London, 1793. Law, James T. Forms of Ecclesiastical L.a. 2nd ed.

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