ICYMI: Sex in Middlesex

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 17 March 2017.]

As one would imagine from the title, Roger Thompson’s most popular work (see my last post) is Sex in Middlesex, Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699.[1] First, a few words on the differences between academic historians and genealogists. Academic historians are concerned with the “why” of history. They gather large samples of statistical information but usually skim over individual people. Genealogists work from the individual, but usually we leave the bigger picture to the historians while we move on to another ancestor.

Thompson is an historian and Sex in Middlesex was written to gather data and test theories about how seventeenth-century sex and morals were being interpreted in the historical literature of the 1980s. Not all of his fellow historians agree with his conclusions, but not all historians agree with any fellow historian’s conclusions, and you can be your own judge of that. The point here, however, is that for genealogists that’s not the point.

Sex in Middlesex pulls its facts from the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, court records. Eleven chapters discuss court cases by categories such as “Fornication: Detection and Evasion,” “Courtship and Patriarchal Authority,” “Pregnant Brides and Broken Promises,” “Unfaithful Wives,” “Unfaithful Husbands,” and “Community Control.” Statistical charts include “Geographical Incidence of Sexual Misdemeanors [1649–1699]” (the winner is Charlestown with 60, next was Cambridge with 31), and “Incidence of Conviction for Sexual Misdemeanors.”

If you don’t find any ancestors, either, there are still three reasons to read the book.

We genealogists, naturally, will first look in the index to see if any of our ancestors are included – I don’t believe any of mine are, although certainly there are plenty of relatives. If you don’t find any ancestors, either, there are still three reasons to read the book.

The first is the introduction with a detailed description of Middlesex County and its court records. Definitely a must-read for all genealogists looking for ancestors in that county, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and much of the rest of New England.

Second, there are the more than 200 pages of endnotes that contain citations to a virtual reading list of historical works (as of 1986) about this topic (not so much genealogical references; Thompson depended mostly on antiquated compendia such as James Savage’s Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England). If one were to set oneself a goal of thumbing through every one of these sources, one would have a start on a good education in historical writing about early New England – obviously, to be supplemented with more current writings (we will talk more about this in the future).

Finally, and best of all, there is the fun of reading about characters such as William Bucknam, a Malden carpenter in his fifties who is described as “One of the most notorious village Lotharios.” Bucknam was a nuisance, “snatching kisses, feeling legs, grabbing on to laps or round waists.”

Definitely not one of my ancestors!


[1] (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986; reprint 2012).

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

12 thoughts on “ICYMI: Sex in Middlesex

  1. Alice,
    I love your explanation of the role of academic historians versus genealogists. Weaving the statistical ‘why’s of history around an anecdotal story is my interest.

    I suspect this book may dispel the myth that Puritans were all puritanical when it comes to S-E-X given the stats on how many brides approached the alter with a ‘bun in the over’ and the accepted practice of ‘bundling’ would seem to be a low hurdle for intimacy

    1. Dan, historians and genealogists who read court records have long ago dispelled all myths. Technically, bundling prevented pregnancies, as the man and woman were wrapped individually in blankets sewn shut. A lot depended on how good a needlewoman the girl’s mother was.

  2. We have a CT ancestor who took her seducer to court in Saybrook on 9 Aug 1739. She prevailed 🙂 When the court case was discovered, it sure blew holes in the “lost at sea…posthumous child ” story 🙂

  3. Alicia,

    This book gave me some great context for writing about my family’s ancestor, James Pike, whose daughter’s situation is described on pages 47-48.

    In 1674, Mary Pike was “for fornication, sentenced to be whipt or fined.” Mary named Benjamin Knowlton as the father of her child, and he was sentenced to provide maintenance and security. Mary was sentenced to twenty stripes or a fine of ten pounds, later reduced to five pounds. Her father appears to have been very supportive of her during the court processes. Reading about this experience really helped me to visual these people as human beings, living their lives much the same way we live ours.


  4. The difference between professional historians and genealogists you mention here is very interesting, and recently I have found another academic specialty to consider: sociology. A young Yale professor, whom I quote in a genealogy (in progress), writes of that family connections among East India merchants – and she is a professor of developmental sociology.

    1. Elizabeth, Yes. In taking orders for back issues of The Genealogist, I see many cross- overs where an article is ordered by someone outside the strict “genealogist” field. I love to read those articles, myself.

  5. Oh, William. One of my ancestors. My great grandmother Bucknam would probably have swooned of shame! She took great pride in the fine name and long tenancy of her family.

    1. Yup, nobody can choose their ancestors. There is at least one William lurking in our families somewhere.

  6. Alas, I can not put my hand on the book, nor can I remember the author’s name. Chapters were on couple relationships in the several 17th century colonies as they developed. Certainly post-2000 as she quotes Thompson.

    Part of the Mass Bay/Boston study involved a situation where a young wife at one point returned to her natal family as the young husband could not complete “his marital duties.” They were reported as not cohabiting (how could they not be reported as Boston was so small everyone knew everyone else’s business!), so the courts and the ministers all got involved. After extended counseling, a 2nd try that ended in failure, then more counseling, the 3rd cohabiting attempt proved more than adequate. The relief on all parties was great. Court records quote the bride as bidding the officials farewell with “And I will have the merriest time of any wife in Boston tonight.”

    The daily bawdiness of conversation only survives in the details of court records (browse through Morison’s Suffolk Court Records). But, yeah, they’d all been round Robin’s barn before.

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