Friday, 19 August 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.5: Naming and Shaming

Even though urbanisation had led to greater flux in the population of 16th century London, parish communities such as that of St Botolph’s without Aldgate remained tightly knit groups, where protecting one’s reputation and avoiding the opprobrium of one’s neighbours were powerful motivating forces. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the church’s stance on sexual misconduct, where the involvement of the wider congregation played a key role, as Edith Ellis found when she and her husband were accused of consorting with women of ill repute...
19 Ianewary 1583
Richard Ellis and his wife weare Adioyned To make Thier purgation of thier Suspected evell Lyfe
Memerandumm that Richard ellis and his wyfe beinge presented by the church warden and Swornemen to live verye Suspitiuslye and contrarye to Lawe, by the wch prsentment beinge Suspeckted, it apeared that it was for receyvinge of Lyght women and for Suspition of Bawdrye
The Sayde wyfe whose Christian name is Edithe apearinge and Juditiallye answeringe ther to hathe denyed herselfe to be giltye thereof and thereupon She is inioyned to make her canonycall purgation therof in dewe forme of Lawe in the consistorye place in powles churche London upon Wensdaye beinge the xxixth daye of Janewary 1583 Betwene Howeres of ix ands xj of the clocke before noone wt Six honest women her neygbores beinge parishoneres and Inhabitantes of the parishe of St bottolphes extra algate of good and honest name fame and credit. These wordes weare pronownsed in ower parishe churche this xixth daye of Janewa'y in ano 1583
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.13r
You may have noticed that although both Richard and Edith were accused, it would appear that only Edith had to answer to her peers to make her purgation. The Parish Clerk gave no explanation of this, other than stating that Edith had denied being guilty of the charges. I could find no further mention of Richard Ellis, for example as having been excommunicated, so his fate remains a mystery.

Barely a week had passed before another scandal came to the community’s attention: there was a love rat within their midst...
26 Ianewary 1583
Iost Williamson Alijs Soll his penance
Jost Williamson alijs Soll a dutchmann beinge a cutler and Dwellinge in whightchapell parishe Ded pennance in a whyghet sheete in ower parishe churche of St buttolphes wt owt allgate London the xxvjth daye of Janewarye in ano 1583 And was For contracktinge him selfe unto one womann, and marryenge wt an other contrarye to the Law cannonicall
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.16r
Now this is interesting as it is an example of a well-documented form of shaming punishment which appears to have originated in medieval times and continued through until the 18th century, known as “sheet penance”. Being paraded before one’s fellow parishioners in a white sheet brought the penitent’s private indiscretions into the full glare of the public view just as effectively as today’s tabloid press exposés of Jost’s modern equivalents. But in the closely-knit communities of the 16th century, the potential repercussions were potentially more damaging, as those who were named and shamed could find themselves expelled from the community as well as publicly humiliated. Shakespeare drew on this practice in Henry VIth part 2, when he portrayed Humphrey’s wife Eleanor being led through the streets wearing a white sheet and carrying a candle after being accused of dabbling in witchcraft in order to further her husband’s political career, before being promptly banished.

I have been unable to find any information about how these practices originated, and what exactly was represented by the white sheet and candles. If any historians can shed a bit of light on this, or if you have further interesting information on shaming punishments in medieval or Early Modern England, please do let us know!

To return our Tales from St Botolph’s, I can only imagine the heavy sigh with which Mr Hayes the minister prepared his homily for that week:
26 Ianewary 1583
A part of a homelye read
A part of a homelye conserninge the dewties of maried folkes was Red in ower churche by mr Hayes the xxvjth day of Janewarye in ano 1583
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol.16r

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;

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