Author Christine Lorraine
Puritan Lifestyle Included Many Curious Customs
by Christine Lorraine Morgan
May 16, 2009
The term Puritan was derived from the word “purify.” Witch trials, urine-laced cakes, sexual pleasure and alcohol consumption may not sound very pure, but they were all part of New England Puritanism in the 1600s. Disgruntled English folks who wanted to “purify” their religious practices headed across the ocean and settled at Massachusetts Bay in 1630. They were visionaries regarding education and literacy for children, but they were convinced that the devil was always nearby.
Puritan purification logic prompted them to believe that suffering was required to earn redemption from original sin. They were also convinced that working hard resulted in strong moral character and wealth. These tenets were at the center of the “Puritan Ethic.”
They also believed that someone who did not wish to work hard might fall prey to evil influences, so unproductive individuals were usually punished, hanged or asked to leave town. Those who moves away were the lucky ones. Those who stayed and adhered to Puritan standards risked being subjected to severe public humiliation and maiming.
The Shady Side of Puritanism
Puritans believed firmly that when children and adults erred, it was proper to whip them, maim them, or throw them in stocks. Righteous leaders preached that if such violent repercussions were not administered, their souls might fall to the devil, in which case they would be damned for eternity.
Brisk knocking on the door startles Mr. Purient. He hears feet shuffling and hushed whispers beyond the thick, oak door, and wonders what news will greet him when he unlatches the huge iron lock.
Seconds later, his question is answered. The town Magistrate, resplendent in his oversized white collar and imposing black suit and hat, is frowning as he holds Mr. Purient’s gaze.
“How may I help thee?” Mr. Purient asks meekly, dreading the answer to his humble question.
“We have come upon a mission of the most extreme importance, Brother Purient,” states the Magistrate matter-of-factly. “We insist upon your presence at the whipping post immediately. It appears as though you were absent from compulsory church services for two consecutive Sabbath Days.”
He had missed two Sabbath services because his wife had given birth to their sixth child on the first week, and she had been too weak to care for the newborn on the second Sabbath. Attempting to defend his actions would fall upon deaf ears, so futility sealed his fate.
Heart heavy with sadness and inescapable fear, Mr. Purient morosely follows the Magistrate and his unmerry gang of eight elders to the center of town. His gaze is affixed to the top of the tall wooden post as he approaches its aura of agony, shuffling in the dust of the main thoroughfare.
He reaches upward with both hands to accept his punishment for missing church services to care for his wife and baby. The Magistrate ties his wrists to the thick, blood-stained ropes dangling from the tip of the pillar. He feels his shirt brush-burn the tender flesh on his back as it is roughly ripped away.
Mr. Purient closes his eyes, cringes, and tries to reach God’s graces so his soul can be elevated from his physical essence to help him endure the violent whipping he is about to undergo. As his scarred ears pick up the sound of the whip being drawn back to administer the first of many lashes, his escape wish is granted and he faints.
Believe it or not, Mr. Purient didn’t have it all that bad as far as Puritan punishments go. He could have been sentenced to a variety of cruel and horrible penalties:
* his ears lopped off
* an “H” for heresy branded onto his face
* a cart’s tail whipping. The latter was reserved for serious threats to Puritanism, where the perpetrator was tied to the back of a cart, then transported to nearby settlements.
A handful of lashes was administered at each stop the cart made. In extreme instances, prisoners’ flesh hung shredded and blackened on their bloody, mangled backs by the time they reached the last stop of their torturous journeys. Some didn’t make it through this torturous journey alive.
* burning at the stake. This hot choice was usually reserved for bewitching convicts as it typically resulted in death.
* time in the “stocks.” Stocks refer to the gizmo where the person’s head and hands protrude from cut pieces of thick wood that meet and lock together. People would gather in the town square to throw rotten eggs and vegetables at these human targets, thus adding to the criminals’ humiliation. The purpose of locking their hands was to make sure they could not deflect the peltings.
The Lighter Side of Puritanism
Time-tested sayings that are still used today originated with Puritan philosophy:
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Puritans felt strongly that if they worked hard and pleased God, they had a much better chance of earthly success. Prosperity was perceived to be a sign of the Lord’s favor, a victory to be reached through perseverance and conviction.
Sex provided Puritans with an enjoyable reward for their labor, an intimate release that often resulted in labor pains. Large families were part of the Puritan lifestyle, considering there was no reliable birth control at that point in history, and if there were, God would probably find it a to be a disagreeable habit.
A lesser known fact about Puritans is that they frequently danced, sported colorful clothing, and occasionally consumed “strong waters.” So when they weren’t busy being disciplinarians, they knew how to relax and become inebriated as well as pursue pleasures of the flesh.
“Thou hast brightened the evening,” murmured William. He felt his heart pounding as he watched her long burgundy skirts swoosh across the room toward him. She was smiling his way, beaming with pride and love. Chastity had adored William for three of her sixteen years, and was ecstatic that he had taken a fancy to her.
William gulped, dreading the task ahead of him.
“Father is hither,” she whispered hoarsely, grabbing his large, masculine elbow. “I shall lead you to the barn, where he draws milk from the cows and indulges in the spirits of strong waters.”
“Well, Chastity, it is not my wish to, uh, disrupt the toil of your father.” He grinned weakly. “Perhaps it behooves us to wait for his presence, here in the cabin.”
William did not relish the thought of interrupting Chastity’s father. Everybody knew that Ezekial Purist pushed the limits of public decency by indulging in evening drunkenness. Rumors were floating through town that he was soon to be placed in the stocks to remind him that this overindulgent behavior was unacceptable.
“Art thou a coward?” Chastity pursed her thick, berry-colored lips. “Perhaps thou does not wish the fairest hand in the land as thine own.” She pretended to turn her cute little nose in the air at the notion of William’s sluggishness.
Struck by his overwhelming passion, William instantly fell prey to her feminine wiles. “Fine, lead me to him and I shall prove my courage and love for thee.” He leaned forward, his face only one breathtaking inch from hers. He spoke softly, “Then I shall escort you to the harvest dance at sundown so that all may see the prize to whom I am betrothed.”
Chastity broke the trance and led the bedazzled William to her father’s commanding presence.
“What wishes thee?” he growled from behind the shield of a large brown cow.
William straightened his strong, young shoulders, and cleared his throat.
“Mr. Purist, sir, I approach thee with tremendous respect. I am here to, uh, to ask, um, because, sir.” William stopped his meandering and cleared his cluttered mind by gazing upon Chastity’s beauty. “Mr. Purist, I wish to request your daughter’s fair hand in marriage.”
Mr. Purist stood, and walked heavily across the barn’s hay-covered floor until he stood in front of William. His six-feet of burly, pure male strength towered above William’s five-foot-six frame.
“Thou art the son of John, the blacksmith.” He seemed to be talking to himself. “Ye are a bit on the short side, what strength can ye demonstrate to win the hand of my daughter? And why dost thou wish to wed this daughter?” He gestured toward Chastity, who hovered timidly several feet in the background.
“If ye shows the strength of a mule, thou shalt have his pick to marry any of my daughters, Prudence, Charity, Faith, Patience, Penance or even my youngest, Intolerance. You shall take your pick and I will speak of your choice to my dear wife, Impatience.”
William was stunned by Mr. Purist’s reaction. He had been expecting a gruffly growled, “no,” or perhaps a begrudging “yes.” Proving himself to possess a mule’s strength was not on his original agenda.
He gazed at Chastity’s petite, perfect female silhouette, and gathered his bravado.
“Thank you, sir, for thine offer to prove myself and select any of your lovely young daughters. I shall show my strength to thee, and stand by my desire to wed the pious Chastity. I may not appear strong, sir, but as the blacksmith’s son, my arms are powerful from lugging large pieces of iron and my legs are strong from the strain of doing so.
“I am at your humble disposal. Please instruct me of the challenge so that I may display my strength for your final approval, sir.”
Mr. Purist grunted, and his weathered face nearly broke into a meager grin. “Finish milking this cow then, and when thou hast finished, carry all of the buckets of milk to my doorstep. Enter my home, and I shall give you further chores you will fulfill to earn my respect.”
The stocky father walked to where his second eldest daughter stood and put his powerful arm around her delicate shoulders. “Walk with me home, child, and allow William to begin his journey of proving himself worthy to earn your hand in marriage.”
“Will you be permitting William to escort me to the dance later this evening, Father? I wore my best frock.”
Mr. Purist chuckled. “That depends on how much work the blacksmith’s son completes before the hourglass is turned.”
After a week, or a month, or perhaps even a year, he would relent and allow poor William to wed his beloved Chastity. But for the moment, he had devised a way to get his evening chores down so he could settle in for the night.
A warm fire on the hearth and a hidden bottle of fiery spirits both beckoned to him as he entered his humble abode.
The Dark Side of Puritanism
When a person’s soul became tainted with evil, that individual was in danger of being labeled a witch by the Puritans. Their fear of Satan was so overwhelming that they strived to eradicate evil in places where it may not have existed.
As May 1692 drew to a close, about 200 people were imprisoned for allegedly participating in witchcraft. The majority of those jailed were held because they were identified as witches, usually by their fellow Puritan neighbors. No hard evidence was needed. Just a crooked, pointing finger and a sprinkle of spectral accusations did the trick.
Another interesting and odoriferous way that witches were flushed out was by baking a “witch cake.” This telltale pastry’s main ingredients were urine from the suspected witch, and rye meal. One can only imagine what this delicate pee-astry smelled like as it baked at 400 degrees on a hot summer afternoon.
The “witch cake” was then fed to the poor, unsuspecting family dog that belonged to the potential witch. If the cake-eating canine began to display similar “witchy” behavior as the witch suspect, that was a sure-fire sign of subversive witchcraft. The afflicted “witch” was then placed in jail to await conviction.
Decrease (husband): “Indulgence, pray tell what is that horrid smell permeating our humble cabin?”
Indulgence (wife): “Ye have caught a whiff of the witch cake I baked earlier.”
Decrease notices that the family dog’s head is drooping, and its eyes appear to be rolling backwards into its head. The pathetic animal is cowering in a corner of the room, panting.
Decrease: “Is that perhaps why our dog, Distemper, is looking half-mad?”
Indulgence: “Yes, that would be why.”
Decrease studies the dog momentarily, then furrows his brow. “Indulgence, bearing in mind that thou has not yet bore me any children, whose urine did you add to the cake?”
Indulgence does not answer. Instead she waits for the townsfolk to pound upon the door to remove her husband.
* * *
Logically, a couple of questions arise pertaining to the concept of the “witch cake” theory:
a. What if the family didn’t have a dog?
b. What if the doggie declined to devour the dubious cake?
c. What if the cake made the dog sick and it acted abnormally due to ingesting human urine? (See dramatization above.)
By the end of 1692, humanity took a turn for the better. Many settlers began to speak out that the “witch” accusations were getting way out of control. According to historical records, the reigning governor suspended “witch” arrests after listening to a plea from a gentleman named Increase Mather.
Mather told the governor, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.”
Puritan life in New England was harsh and difficult, yet rewarding and pleasurable. Their desire to educate children blossomed into the roots of our present educational system. Also, the Puritans’ concept of “self-government” still lingers.
Luckily, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that the witch-hunting and unforgiving forms of punishment were eradicated.
And no one in today’s world will every have to worry about making a pet pooch sick by forcing it to devour a “witch cake.”
Check out the author’s band performing live at the Erie Festival of the Arts