I had seen various references by social historians to the 1650 Act of Parliament by which the Puritan House of Commons sought to make fornication a felony punishable by death, but I’d never actually read the official publication, a brief and solemn black letter pamphlet, An Act For suppressing The Detestable Sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication. The Act legislates first to make incest (both by blood and by marriage) a capital felony, and declares any children produced by an incestuous partnership (even if that marriage of relatives had previously been declared valid) illegitimate, and unable to inherit. The Act then continues, ‘That in case any married woman shall from and after the four and twentieth day of June aforesaid (ie., 1650), be carnally known by any man (other then her husband) (except in Case of Ravishment) and of such offence or offences shall be convicted as aforesaid by confession or otherwise, every such Offence and Offences shall be and is hereby adjudged felony; and every person, as well the man as the woman offending therein, and confessing the same, or being thereof convicted by verdict upon Indictment or Presentment as aforesaid, shall suffer death as in case of felony, without benefit of Clergy’.
After this drastic and momentous decree – legislating for both sexes - some anxious (and interestingly asymmetrical) clauses obviously inserted in debate appear – adultery must be a capital felony for the man committing the offence unless he didn’t know that the woman was married, a capital felony for the woman unless her husband had been abroad or absent for three years, or was believed dead (even a Puritan Parliament seems to acknowledge that women have their needs). Having thus resoundingly discouraged adultery, the act considered fornication, with virgin, widow or unmarried woman (those convicted get three months in prison, and release only after finding someone to stand security to their good behaviour for a further year), and finally the case of the common bawd and prostitute: ‘That all and every person and persons who shall from and after the four and twentieth day of June aforesaid, be convicted as aforesaid, by Confession or otherwise, for being a common Bawd, be it man or woman, or wittingly keeping a common Brothel or Bawdy-house, shall for his or her first offence be openly whipped and set in the Pillory, and there marked with a hot Iron in the forehead with the Letter B’ – then after this, three years in prison: with death for a second offence.
The Act ended with an attempt to prevent anyone accused and in mortal danger from this law using confession to retaliate in kind: ‘Provided, That no parties confession shall be taken as Evidence within this Act against any other, but onely against such party so confessing’, and an attempt to prevent domestic murder by judicial means: ‘nor the husband shall be taken as witness against his wife, nor the wife against her husband, for any offence punishable by this Act.’ This final clause apparently removes the operation of the act from the aggrieved parties most likely to call upon its provisions. It either served to make this a piece of dead letter legislation as far as adultery was concerned, or witnesses the confidence of the legislators that third parties would be self-righteous enough to come forward with their sworn accusations.
Shortly after the act passed into law, some interested party, remembering many a bawdy theatre scene, thought to express the likely reactions within the early modern sex industry. This was in A Dialogue between Mistris Macquerella, a Suburb Bawd, Ms Scolopendra, a noted Curtezan, and Mr Pimpinello an Usher, etc, Pittifully bemoaning the tenour of the Act (now in force) against Adultery and Fornication. (It was published in early July 1650). The names are traditional: the bawd’s name is as in John Marston’s The Malcontent (“Maquerelle, An olde Pandresse”), while ‘Scolopendra’ stems from a piece of lore as retailed in Deloney’s Jack of Newbury: “like the Fish Scolopendra, that cannot be toucht without danger”, and had been used for the monster lady in James Shirley’s play The Duke’s Mistress (1638).
It was a small act of resistance, but quite sprightly. The characters are differentiated - the older woman is given a piquantly Biblical phraseology (‘we the citizens of Sodome’), while the courtesan Scolopendra is throughout insistent in her view that her body is hers, to do with as she likes: ‘Alas, poor women, who are suspended from that priviledge the very Cats enjoy, who play and sport with their Tails, and yet fear no censure for so doing.’
Mistress Scolopendra complains of not having had a customer for ten days (‘we may een hang up our Harpes’), while Macquerella the bawd grumbles throughout in her characteristic quasi-moral way: ‘Ah wicked world, that I should live to see this day; a fine Age yfaith, when procreation must doe penance in an halter … The Act, the late Act against Fornication, and other Veniall sinnes, 'tis that hath undone us all … Oh! I hate the thought of being branded with the letter B. 'tis ten times worse then the Mark of the Beast I’le maintain it.’
Stanzas from what purports to be (and probably was) a ballad by Martin Parker about the act are read out, to initial disgust ‘Out upon thee (Pimpinello) this Song is made in disgrace of us, and our profession, prithee wipe thy posteriors with’t’, though they like more a stanza in which Parker (if it was him) recommends extra security against prying eyes in brothels.
Just as Shakespeare made Pompey resilient in his ignominy (‘the valiant heart’s not whipped out of his trade”), the dialogist has the three take some comfort from the thought that the effect of the act may not last long (‘This is but a paper pellet, a nine dayes wonder at the most’), and that it will in the meantime serve as a pretext to put up their prices: ‘this mutation we may well justifie, alledging the hazard we run’. Scolopendra, however, resolves to take to flight to
I had half-expected some more explicit echoes of Measure for Measure, which would seem to be the text to have quoted (‘here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!’), but the dialogist operates via a general reminiscence of whore, bawd and pimp scenes. It might have been a retired dramatist, speaking for the abolished theatre’s long-time partner. But the derision is muted, and perhaps Measure for Measure was just too loaded a text to allude to (with the Puritan Angelo’s hypocrisy, and Pompey’s devastating common sense), and so it was more a matter of voluntary suppression than a failure to bring to mind Shakespeare’s great play about the relative wisdoms of 'Justice' and 'Iniquity'.