Pulp [Social] Friction

Puritans, Happiness, and Rape

Oliver Cromwell would not have been surprised by the insouciant onanism of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. The Puritans had predicted with reasonable accuracy that a dissolution of institutions would follow King Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Modern common knowledge of the Puritans has been primarily established by luminaries of Enlightenment history such as playwright Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and playboy Hugh Hefner (naked women), who built their corpus atop the work of churlish defamer Nathaniel Hawthorne (“damned mob of scribbling women”). And from this rich pedigree we believe that the Puritans — in a fit of cognitive dyspepsia — banned the theater. Perhaps, though, a few details would be helpful to better establish a more perfect union between reality and our understanding of the contentious early years of modern theater.

A century prior to the Puritan’s 1642 theater ban, some odd confection of medieval morality play and ancient Greek and Roman theater produced early English Renaissance theater. The apex of classical-morality theater occurred in Elizabethan London, and though the theater was treated as a mildly infectious disease not to be permitted entry into London proper, all classes enjoyed the same plays (though theaters, as physical spaces for mass gatherings, did in fact contribute to the spread of actual infectious diseases). But the reign of Elizabeth was in many ways both the height and the end of Renaissance England. While her successor, King James (The Bible), was preoccupied with hunting witches and devising ways to keep Parliament from being blown up and burning Puritans at the stake and entertaining crypto-Catholics at court, the nascent entertainment industry began to develop. A “reading public” would not blossom until literacy expanded and the government loosened its grip on the press almost a century later, but a “viewing public” was readily available. And under King James, that viewing public began to bifurcate into an unsophisticated demographic eager to consume some kind of easily digestible entertainment and an educated demographic still interested in classical-morality theater.

The Renaissance was not an end but a bridge between the medieval world and whatever was next. It was clear to many that institutions were evolving — or dying or being created — and their new forms or replacements were yet in place. These were the concerns weighing on Oliver Cromwell’s depressed psyche when he walked into Doctor Theodore de Mayerne’s office in 1628. Mayerne was a Protestant Swiss physician who promoted the new-found discipline of toxicology, recommended standardizing medical recommendations from chemists, and treated Cardinal Richelieu for gonorrhea (which had been recently imported from Spain). The French King, Henri IV, favored Mayerne, but the doctor found his efforts thwarted by his peers who still practiced humorism, the Ancient Greek premise that health is determined by a balance of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Mayerne was ready to move on from Hippocrates just as Waldseemüller was ready to move beyond Ptolemic cartography in 1507. Waldseemüller had proposed the New World — and a new continent — and Cromwell, like de Mayerne, sensed that the new world was not limited to new continents. Cromwell, like fellow Puritans from John Winthrop to John Milton, struggled with the knot of problems posed by bridging the medieval with the modern. What was to be done with monarchy, the church, education, and the press? Should money exist in a form more accessible than gold and silver? Should private property be encouraged? Should laws be applied equally? Some found these problems hopelessly confounding in the Old World and set off for Waldseemüller’s new continent to attempt to start again from Eden, while others discovered that a power structure that had seized society from the Catholics was not about to hand it off to the Puritans — a group whose fealty to reason bordered on extremism and whose pervasive disdain applied equally to Christmas and prostitutes. Amidst these contortions in the firmament of civilization, the question of this new, unsophisticated mass media arose.

The issue of this new mass media was most directly addressed by William Prynne, who began work on his magnum opus, Histriomastix, in the 1620s, which was published in 1632 in London. It was a Puritan critique of the theater, wherein Prynne found actresses to be “notorious whores.” It’s unknown whether Prynne’s intention was to insult Charles’ wife, who happened to be both the Queen and an aspiring actress, but she was a flagrant Catholic among insolent Protestants so the king assumed “notorious whores” included his wife and the inevitable resulted. Prynne was sent to the Tower of London, convicted, sentenced to life in prison, had his ears cropped in the pillory, fined £5,000, and, if that weren’t enough, forfeited his bar membership. Prynne continued to publish while in prison and was fined another £5,000 and lost whatever remained of his ears. Upon his return to prison from the pillory, he found no pens or ink or books except the Bible in his cell. The prosecution had made clear that Prynne wasn’t to read or write. He was then moved to Jersey, a channel island about 90 miles south of England and 20 miles west of Normandy, France. Fortunately for Prynne, King Charles unsuccessfully attacked Scotland and was soon in a desperate financial situation that only a disbursement from Parliament could solve. The king called parliament, which used its rare session to free Prynne from prison. Prynne continued to publish, variously attacking one side or the other, often surprising and confounding his peers. He attacked John Milton for his affirmative position on divorce, and Milton penned a sonnet about Prynne’s marginal ears. He defended Presbyterianism, much to the irritation of the Puritans now in power. He argued that the church cannot excommunicate anyone (unless the state asks it to). He argued against Quakers, papists and Jews. In 1650, he argued against paying taxes, didn’t pay his taxes, was arrested and again jailed. He was offered his liberty in exchange for a fine and a promise not to further antagonize the government. Prynne refused to promise but was released anyway. Prynne’s mental contortions were but a minor drama that reflected the major contortions of English society as they wrestled with the question of how to remake civilization. Prynne’s specific charge about the theater, though, was correct; prostitution and the theater were growing in robust symbiosis.

The Puritan ethos that fueled Prynne was one of pragmatic utility; they promoted what worked and disregarded what didn’t. They were inveterate empiricists, and this combination of empirical pragmaticism was a quintessential distillation of Enlightenment sentiment. The Puritans were not so much opposed to theater. The 1642 Act that “closed the theaters” only applied to London — in which public theaters traditionally had been more often banned than not. The most notorious closing was the Globe, Shakespeare’s old theater. The Globe, though, was not technically in London — again, theaters had not been generally permitted in the city proper — but was instead in the Liberty of Southwark, which had been controlled for centuries by the local Bishop. Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester from 1129 to 1171 and for a period the second most powerful man in England (after his older brother, the King), took control of Southwark and was entrusted by London to maintain all the urban area’s vices. Henry of Blois licensed and taxed prostitutes in Southwark. He used some of his prostitution revenue to commission the publication of books, including the Winchester Bible — the largest illuminated manuscript ever produced — and the Blois Psalter. Blois’ argument for licensing and taxing prostitutes was that prostitution was a manageable bulwark against greater evil. Southwark also permitted bull and bear baiting (torturing an animal for sport), erected a large prison in the sixteenth century (“The Clink”), and permitted theaters. Together with prostitution, gambling, and drinking, Southwark was a vice magnet. The Puritans viewed Southwark as a reminder of a barbaric Catholic past to be scrubbed away by a progressive Protestant future in which flesh could not be sold, animals could not be tortured, and prisoners could be sometimes reformed instead of punished all times (the Puritans were fans of the concept of parole). For the Puritans, reigning in monarchy and Southwark’s licentiousness were both efforts at the social reform demanded by the newly forming civil structure of the Enlightenment.

Once in power, these Puritans would attempt to remake civilization in London just as their brethren attempted to do so in Boston. Their first significant attempt to break with the feudal past came with the Long Parliament (1640–1660). One of the first fruits of Puritan labor was The Grand Remonstrance, a list of 204 reforms the Puritans demanded, including a separation of church and state, installing a true meritocracy in government, the end of arbitrary taxes, and ceasing selling stolen Irish land. But the problems in the Puritan’s own backyard were most evident in Southwark, which taunted the reformers like some pestilential Gomorrah biding its time across the Thames. In its list of grievances, The Grand Remonstrance was a proto-Declaration of Independence, though unlike the Declaration, the Puritans did not directly blame the King and instead lay blame at the feet of crypto-Catholics. The Separatists of 1776 declined to use the usual Catholic bogeyman and aimed directly at the King — the London Puritans would too, but it would take another eight years before they removed the perceived menace of monarchy by removing Charles’ head. The theater closing that followed the Grand Remonstrance two years later did not conclusively end London theater; occasionally a theater would open, and plays were still written and occasionally presented. The Puritans never went full Histriomastix but rather addressed the theater as one of many social problems, and the theater seemed to be tethered to the growing challenges of urbanization and vice.

Shakespeare’s Globe theater was famously torn down in 1644 and the Puritans usually get the blame, as is custom. But dull reality must again supplant the arousing specter of black-cloaked zealots. The owner of the Globe had been agitating and litigating to have the Globe’s theater company evicted for a decade; the rents paid by a theater company were low as they had been set by a series of very old contracts and court rulings, real estate values in London were improving, and the owner wanted to replace the theater with housing. The Puritan’s general distaste for public theater’s seeming collaboration with vice and their interest in improving Southwark provided the necessary conditions, and, when the ten-year lease expired in 1644, the Globe was town down and replaced with housing for the poor.

To appreciate the progressive agenda pursued by the Puritans in the 1640s, consider what happened in 1660 when Puritan rule collapsed, and the monarchy was restored. For some, the Restoration was relief from the fraught and difficult efforts at civic reform, and a sigh promptly rolled off the presses in 1660 in the form of the first issue of Wandering Whore. Published under the guise of a public service announcement of persons to be avoided, Wandering Whore was a flesh-directory for London’s new theater district — Covent Garden. A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks & Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-friends, Kind Women and other of the Linnen-lifting Tribe followed in 1691 and listed 21 prostitutes who worked St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church and counseled readers that “Mary” was “tall, graceful and comely, shy of her favours” but expensive at £20, but her sister Elizabeth was a bargain at “a Supper and Two Guineas.”

Within a few decades, Covent Garden — despite its use of the old form of convent — was well-populated with gin-sellers and prostitutes, mostly because Covent Garden was also the part of West London that housed London’s theaters, and prostitutes were often actresses on sabbatical. Harris’s List provided graphic details of about 150 Covent Garden prostitutes, including their addresses and fees. The details were such that it may have sold as pornography. One young Harris’s List woman is introduced with:

There was a time, a time of childish joy,

When the sharp needle did the hands employ;

There is a time, the present time I mean,

When a blunt pin does twice the raptures gain;

Then seize the present, all ye bucks of spirit,

And with two guineas you may never fear it.

Her review begins with “Just piping hot from a boarding school,” and she could be located at “№4 Glanvillle Street.” Another girl, “the finger of time only pointing at seventeen years,” is only worth one guinea provided you can “throw a veil over her temper.” And yet another provides the full story behind one woman’s temper:

About twelve months ago a young fellow of family and fortune, whose name she now in a manner lawfully lays claims to, saw her and approved, and after a mighty short courtship was bona fide married; but a sad disaster took place the moment it reached the ears of his parents, and he was accordingly proved a minor, that married without his parents consent; severely reprimanded, then torn from the dear object of his future hopes, and speedily convey’d abroad, to the sad mortification of disappointment …. she therefore took companion upon her own feelings, and soon disposed of her figure in the best manner, she sought relief publickly, and pursues that and the dram bottle with unremitting diligence; so that if our reader has the least objection to a drunken pierce he must not come here, as the odds against sobriety would be very great; then her temper is “hot as hell, terrible as ten thousand devils;” … she refused no customers nor no money.

In summary, a 24-year-old woman married a boy not yet of majority, which usually means under the age of fourteen, and his parents became upset and shipped him to Europe. She then became a drunken prostitute.

In 1663, fewer than three years after ascending to the throne, Charles II granted two patents for “legitimate” theaters, one of which was assigned to Thomas Killigrew who would open “Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” in Covent Garden. The King frequented the theater, as did notorious (and married) diarist Samuel Pepys, who enjoyed recounting his adventures with actress-prostitutes. And Killigrew’s leading actress was a seventeen-year-old cross-dressing prostitute named Nell Gwyn, who had been raised in a brothel by her prostitute mother. The King, Pepys and other theater-goers enjoyed the main themes of Restoration theater: sex and revenge, often distilled as comedy. Elevated amidst this rebellion was dramatist Aphra Behn, who specialized in plots of intrigue, deception, and sex with foreigners (and sometimes relatives). With the King’s blessing, Covent Garden quickly became a new Southwark, reformed by the financial and moral affirmation of a restored morally flexible aristocracy, deformed by elevating vice as social institution, and transformed into a kind of Playboy Mansion — a lawless Eden without The Clink.

The Puritan effort was not one of minor social reform but was rather directed to create and recreate institutions. Public secular theater had grown ensnared in the Southwark criminal world and so it, along with other recent inventions, were tempered in their growth to allow it to find its constructive place in society; the Puritans did not want a Bishop-of-Winchester capitulation whereby the solution for young, unskilled and soon-to-be pregnant girls was to tax them. The restoration of the monarchy smashed Puritan reform efforts into a million pieces of what appeared to be retrograde perversion. That the old, blind Puritan John Milton wrote Paradise Lost at this time is not some coincidence of intellectual history, but the paradise that Milton feared lost was the promise of the Enlightenment.

Despite the best efforts of monarchists and crypto-Catholics, great institutional reform was not long off; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was, in effect, some compromise between the rights of the Grand Remonstrance and the monarchy of feudal heritage. Social reform would not occur until the nineteenth century, when Britain was again infused with moral righteousness — an infusion so strong that it resonated in the United States in the Civil War, in many ways America’s final break with feudalism mirroring Britain’s first break in their Civil War. This nineteenth century British moral indignation –a belated and possibly excessive effort to place Puritan morality into the Enlightenment — continued beyond abolition into suffrage, universal education, and concepts around labor rights and fair wages.

So if Harvey Weinstein walked into a Puritan pub, the crowd would have viewed him as emblematic of a larger problem that required reform, not taxes and regulation; in the mid-seventeenth century, the need for reform was clear but the social and government framework was too nascent to effect such reform. (And despite what Hugh Hefner oft said, the Puritans were not opposed to alcohol — there were many Puritan pubs.) For many Puritans, the foundation for this reform could be found in the concept of happiness; the Puritans, like the Greeks, dwelled on the concept, and as Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) argued that happiness was the highest goal of humans and governments, the Puritans also wrestled with what this meant in practical application. This practical application of happiness found its way into The Declaration of Independence (“the pursuit of Happiness”), but it also informed their reaction to the theater district, full of desperate, poor girls “Just piping hot from a boarding school,” who could be too readily baited by predators with the lure of fame. The Puritans in that pub would have been disappointed that it took until 2017 to realize that the entertainment industry — intentionally or not — produces fertile ground for easy prey. The Puritan pursuit of happiness meant creating a society wherein individuals could attempt to be their best — in virtuous daily action, not by attending church on Sundays — and the London theater ban of 1642 was a small component of that attempt.

While Aphra Behn wrote of the sexacades of Englishmen in Catholic countries, the first female poet published on multiple continents, Bostonian Anne Bradstreet, explored the concepts of happiness and virtue. Of course, she was a Puritan. Her husband and father, both Puritans, had conspired to get her work into print. Neither Anne nor the Puritans of London would have been alarmed by Shakespeare in Love, but they also would not have been surprised that the road to public entertainment was paved with sexual assault. And so when H.L. Mencken opined “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was only demonstrating that he knew no ground between incisive brilliance and abject ignorance. The Puritans of the 1640s instead had a haunting fear that usurious rape culture had no place in modern society. It took the rest of society almost four centuries to agree.

(Yes, sometimes I write about history….)


Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.). Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….



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