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Reformation of Sexual Immorality:
Punishment and Humiliation of the Adulterer and her Cuckold in Early Modern England

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December 6, 2021

In early modern England, between the years 1400 and 1700, adultery was a sin of major concern to everyone in the kingdom. Adultery represented the decaying of society’s morals because of its abnormal behavior that was outside the realms of shared social and marital values. The atmosphere around adultery, the act of a married person fornicating with someone outside the marriage, had become a parish-wide ordeal where judicial courts, ecclesiastical courts, and the populace altogether were active participants in reforming immoral sexual behavior through varying methods of social punishment. This created a social culture which constructed rituals, customs and traditions, along with inspiring the arts and establishing the appropriate manner of behavior to regulate moral sex. Those punished for the sin of adultery were not just the adulterer but also, if applicable, the cuckold husband. Adulterers could be either a man or woman who had broken the sanctity of marriage, while cuckolds were exclusively men whose wives had slept with another man. The culture surrounding adultery, through punishment and humiliation, influenced the correct sexual standards, promoted notions of proper sex and dissuaded deviatiations from it.

The general idea of proper sex in early modern England was to follow “practical methods of Christian duties...drawn out of the Scripture.” Sex must only occur between married couples, whose first sexual experience would ensue after being abstinent for three days following the wedding ceremony. They then must pray for God’s blessing and be given the priest’s benediction. On the fourth day they then will, “Consummate their Marriage,” and do so, “not like Brutes or Heathens, but with the fear of our Lord.” The idea of remembering the Lord during sex reinforces the belief that the Lord shall always come first, which is symbolically seen in church proceedings where the carrying of the cross at the onset of the ceremony initiates the ritual. This concept was to be mirrored not only in sex, but all facets of social life. “With the fear of our Lord must they likewise Celebrate the Marriage-Feast,” else, without fear, they are consecrating their full dedication to him and putting him second to sex. Everyone, even the “most educated and the most ignorant individuals,” believed in God and his punishments, so the rituals of consummation were culturally observed. 

Society as a whole tended to the need for responsible, stable marriages, and to deter people from their perceptions of heinous blatant sexual immorality was of utmost importance as seen in the quantities of ways and increasing occurances of the consequences bestowed upon the adulterers and cuckolds. To influence good sexual morals, printed works like ballads, essays, plays, etc. were published and spread negative narratives about the cuckold and adulterer. In combination with depictions of adultery in print, punishments such as public humiliation were also customary to reform sexual morality and keep society functioning as normal and agreeable as possible by correcting the disorder that adultery brought into the home and further, into society. Society was impacted by internal affairs of households because adulterous women were a threat to the peace of a community. They “disturbed the harmony of a community - through conflicts with neighbors,” and further, they disrupted the local peace as the inversion of her sexual and social assumptions propogated lewd and evil behavior that other women could observe and follow. The aim of punishing wrongdoers and sinners was to regulate social morals and community norms while proposing the proper sexual behavior as deemed by the governance of the kingdom and social rule. To understand social, moral, and sexual norms, we must look at the social, political, and economic roles of early modern society. 

The function of the kingdom maintained a hierarchy that was ruled by the king over his subjects, while the king was ruled by the Lord above him. All the other sorts of people were below him, whose social standings were dependent on their wealth, occupations, etc. The kingdom was patriarchal and women were assumed to be the naturally inferior sex, defaulting men to oversee them in the government. This is reflected in the household, where the husband’s role was reminiscent of the king, his wife being his subject. Like the kingdom, the household was also hierarchical and patriarchal to keep a structure that controlled the familial order. The wife’s role was to be quiet, agreeable and satisfactory to the husband. The patriarchal doctrine echoed strongly through the populace, who agreed that the woman was seen closer to property rather than a full human. As said by one parishioner who perpetuated this principal in a printed pamphlet, “Ile never doe thee wrong, so thoul’t be rul’d by me.” Each spouse has their role to play in the marriage. Further, this idea of ownership assumed that women were, by nature, unruly, and that “an unruly woman demonstrated that the patriarch was responsible for her.” As long as the wife is obedient to the husband, disagreements were presumed to not arise in the marriage and the larger community. This pamphlet exhibiting patriarchal rule over women was one of many works preaching the same idea. These were to be performed in front of crowds, as stated in the beginnings of a majority of the pamphlets,so they could communicate to the parish the correct behavior women are needed to follow to continue order in the family and kingdom. But what happens when that man loses control of his wife and cannot gain it back? What if adultery has become his neighbor’s and community’s business? Much commotion would occur, because “it turns out, however, that wives...often acted as they wished,” and husbands were to blame due to his lacking in his marriage role of ruling the wife.

In the Medieval era preceding the early modern age, public humiliation had become a common cultural phenomenon, stretching itself into the fifteenth century and onwards to encapsulate the early modern era. Punishment via humiliation of deviators of social norms by fellow regular parishioners was an act of self-policing to regulate the set standards and social norms of the era, which include the community’s shared sexual norms on how to “celebrate the marriage feast”. Immoral sexual norms included incest, bestiality, masturbation, and any “intercourse except face to face with the woman on her back.” Adultery was included in ideas of forbidden sexual acts and could face similar backlash by way of public humiliation. The reasons why humiliation tactics were public, the specifics of those punishments to be touched on later, came from the need to substitute, or extend, institutional justice for popular justice. Many thought that ecclesiastical courts failed to please sexual justice, as thought by, mainly, the Puritans who wanted cruel and harsh punishments for adulterers. The church in the sixteenth century through the early 1700s sometimes ordered adulterers to attend rectification courts where only the paying of a fine by the adulterer was required to satisfy sexual immoral justice. This dissatisfied the Puritans who sought more lifelong retributions, such as hard labor or banishment of the adulterer from the parish. Advanced punishments were similarly asked for in judicial courts. A letter addressed to a member of parliament stated, “Adultery, it is the greatest of all Thefts, a Theft of which no Restitution can be made, Nulla reparabilis arte, Laesa pudicitia est, deperit illa semel.” The last sentence, in English, reads “No repairable device, Chastity is hurt, it is lost once.” This implies that there should exist no salvation for adulterers, and death is the only just punishment, for this one sin is grave enough to die for. In his letter, he cites lesser crimes that are punishable by death, like horse stealing or pickpocketing. He asks, is his wife not more important property “then my Horse, or a little pocket-money?”, suggesting adultery is an act of wife thievery. This reinforces patriarchal ideas established to control women’s agency and behavior, ultimately setting women up for negative consequences that are inescapable, as no one, man or woman, can live up to patriarchy's standards.” 

Amidst the English civil war an act was passed by an intermittent parliament in May of 1650 which stated that a female adulterer was to face three months imprisonment including the payment of a small fine. The intermittent court authorized the public whipping, pillory, and branding of the letter “B” on the forehead of the adulterer. The B symbolized the word “bawd”, defined in the OED as one engaged in “sexual debauchery.” These punishments were saved for multiple time adulterers. This would, for as long as the adulterer lived, associate the adulterer with their sin which would infinitely follow them. Afterwards, the adulterer was to be imprisoned again. Though we cannot be certain these punishments were enforced, it says a lot about the sternness of the attitudes forming against adultery by large portions of the population. 

In ecclesiastical courts, the function of trials was to provide a place for the confession for the absolution of a committed sin, but “faced with a problem of such magnitude [of demands for punishment for adultery], the ecclesiastical courts appealed primarily to the stigma of social disapproval,” thus appealing to popular justice by use of humiliation to satisfy the public. These types of trials were known as “bawdy courts” named for the sexual nature of the crimes, and “resorted to public penance, a drama of shame and humiliation, in their efforts to control sexual wrongdoing” such as adultery. Church courts often made adulterers adorn white sheets over their entire bodies and beg to be forgiven, not just by God but by the congregation composed of parishioners and neighbors. The adulterer held a white wand and wove their way around the church at the attention of the whole congregation, or were taken to "some conspicuous situation whence they may easily be seen by everyone.” They then stood there for two hours with their face exposed. “The construction of a picture of the whore depended on her visibility. So whores are imagined to be recognizable, first, through their appearance.” The shaming of adulterers communicates the repercussions of extramarital sex to discourage its recurrence and influence.

Cuckolded men were made visible like his counterpart in the white sheet, the whore (a word which only applied to women). When cuckolds were publicly humiliated, such as during a Skimmington ritual where the cuckold was made to sit on a horizontal pole and paraded around town, horns were held in the air by those abusing the cuckold. Horn symbolism was attached to cuckoldry because it was allegorical for those who were aware of adultery: only people other than the cuckold could see the horns, since they were atop his head, thus everyone was in on the joke and knew him as an embarrassment but him. As Gowing states, “The construction of the defamed person as ‘other’,” as seen in the attachment of horns on a cuck’s head, “is crucial to the composition of insult.” The horns in literature make a scapegoat out of the cuck “by which a community’s anxieties are cast out, complete (of course) with a horn.” The male viewer of a play about a cuckold, maybe in a Shakespearean play, is content with the play and enjoys the humiliation of the cuck to distance himself from the possibility that he could just as easily become one. However, there is a common literary theme that cuckoldry is inevitable, rendering males’ anxieties to be material and they are not safe in their laughter. The cuckold is supposed to be a comical trope poking fun at man’s lack of masculinity, but “there is extensive evidence that men did not in fact laugh when they were cuckolded” or even jokingly accused: finding comedy the joke was based on if you were making the joke or the butt of it. “Cuckold jokes emphasise the sharp edge of ritual humor,” and were not just a literary trope as horns were used to identify cuckolds in real life as well. Horns were commonly placed on the door of the cuckolds’ home to bring his neighbors’ attention to him and the disorder he is causing, though the neighbors themselves are orchestrating more disorder by pointing him out for further ridicule. Horns being placed on houses were symbolic of the disorder in the household, yet horns were brought outside too, making adultery a problem for the community. In one case, horns were placed in the pew belonging to a couple with an adulterous wife. In another case, “Take that for the key to your bedchamber door,” was yelled by a Norwich man as he threw horns into a shop’s door.

There is at least one instance where a woman adorned a horn in print. A woodcut from the rare pamphlet, A myraculous, and monstrous, but yet most true, and certayne discourse, of a woman, depicts a woman with a horn protruding from her forehead. She was accused of defiling her marriage by her adultery, an act of which she may or not be guilty of, admitted by a “learned Preacher”, but that does not matter because she is used as a warning. Her name was Margaret vergh Gryffeth, a thirty-two year old woman from the parish Llhan Gaduain. According to the document, Margaret grew a four inch horn out of her forehead to the amazement of the world. The uniqueness of a woman having horns brings more attention to God’s divine judgment of sinners. Each time her horn was cut by surgery, it grew back stronger, thus rendering her unable to rid herself of her sin. God is inviting observers to behold her horns, “a token of his displeasure,” which serves as a representation of his judgment and righteousness, and to, “examine their owne consciences, and by this spectacle, to be warned to amend their former lives.” Though she was the adulterer, and her husband the cuckold, the attention was brought to her horn instead of his. This complicates the gender dynamics of early modern England, as men were suspected of being the sole wearers of the cuckold’s horns. In the end, Margaret had to leave her horn alone and she was used as a warning of the execution of divine punishment and judgment of God. A deep sense of loathing is supposed to be felt by observers of her. She defiled “the indissoluble knot of holie matrimony...for lack of faithfull love joyned with the feare of God,” and in return God makes it known that he will not be mocked, nor will his punishments be delayed. 

A small but also important inversion of gender dynamics comes from a story written named Hey for Horn Fair. The Horn Fair was an actual gathering in early modern England, yet was not explicitly linked to cuckolds. It was a fairgrounds where events were held, and people would hurl names and insults at each other. It is natural for the word “cuckold” to be used liberally here. “The fair itself seems to have been treated as little more than an excuse to engage publicly sanctioned debauchery,” and cuckolds would be summoned to attend. Though Gowing states that the word “whore” was reserved for women only, this story includes a quote from an attendee to another man that resists this: “See what a pretty leg and a foot. I protest it is enough to make a man a Whore.” The woman above gave her husband a horn, so she then was adorned with one; the man’s wife was deemed a whore, and thus he is now also one. The woman cuck and man whore challenge the ideological frameworks of gender and sex in early modern England.

Infidelity in the early modern era was depicted in many written pamphlets, ballads, essays, and more printed works by the people of England. There is no way to ensure all people held negative views on sexual immorality, yet print culture helps us come to that conclusion due to the overwhelming amount of primary sources portraying the sinners in similar lights: pitiful, immoral, sacrilegious, and foolish. A great deal of published works in early modern England poked fun at adulterers and cuckolds. Many works laugh at the cuckold, many punish the adulterer with harsh words and many revel in the overall absurdity of the idea of a cheated man. These texts were to be sold and performed in crowds of people, communicating to the town the order that sexual morality maintains in society, and the disorder immorality will cause. The ideas circulating orally and in print gave defamers a “range of visions which could be used to compose a picture of orderly household relations into which the whore did not fit.” In the ballad inaptly named A Pleasant Ballad, the author calls for a crowd to listen to the follies of sexual transgressions to deter people not to follow in the footsteps of the female fornicator. In the ballad, the husband of the adulterer, “oft wish’t the Devill to come and fetch his wife.” The devil does so yet he returns her quickly: “The Devill was not so plagu'd, a hundred yeares in hell...hell will not be troubled with such an earthly scold…The devill never felt the like for mortal yet.” The actions of the scold who disturbed the marriage order were found deplorable by even the devil determining the caliber of her unethical and nefarious deeds. This story was not satirical in nature which is indicative of the actual attitudes towards adulterers held by some of the populace of early modern England, though exaggerated. We can still see how much disorder the troublesome adulterer causes. 

 In a text written to entertain, a poem found in A Law Against Cuckoldom, a narrative is told of an unfaithful wife seen with another man who was not her husband. Her husband is bringing her to trial for her infidelity, yet the judge plans the court date far ahead of time to give her the opportunity to “slip away.” The wife, knowing she is facing the death penalty, decides to attend her trial. At trial, the judge says, “Lest she the Matter shou’d Confess, Her Case would then be past Redress. You must be Burnt, Madam.” The wife does not confess, and, in fact, looked “Chearful, Brisk and Gay, as those that Ogle at a Play.” She has planned to turn the case against her husband in retaliation for bringing her to court and defaming her. The wife says she takes pride in her sex and was spreading what she had to spare: her “Growing Overplus of Love” she’d rather share, “than suffer Envious Marriage Bands to keep it Dead upon my Hands.” The crowd erupted into laughter and the husband snuck away, ducking his head at the crowd who was delighted in this story of  his impotence. The victim of adultery was the butt of the joke instead of the adulterer. Many other ballads follow this same theme of taking the side of the adulterer to laugh at the emasculated cuck because what was funny about him is that he is “not a victim of female sexuality but a failure of his masculine power.” Further, “the repetition of these jests and worries might lead some to dismiss cuckoldry as simply a stock device in literature and cliché in the culture,” but the cuckold was alive and unwell outside of literature and in real life.

Making a public spectacle to amuse the parish and satisfy masculinity was an acceptable and appropriate social response because, though it created disorder in the moment, it still served the purpose of regulating sexual norms and reached the overall end goal of order. Public humiliation made the adulterer or cuck have only one option during humiliation rituals, and this was to confess to their delinquency and promise not to repeat it. The “practical response [to being humiliated]...was admission. Any other response, especially protest, would almost undoubtedly lead to more ridicule.” The Skimmington pole was a common humiliation tactic during early modern England used for admissions of guilt for cuckolded men, and sometimes adulterers of any gender. The Skimmington rituals consist of the cuckold being sat upon a horizontal pole held by men and being paraded around public spaces to announce the presence of the cuckold. It was accompanied by individuals of the parish banging on pots and pans, attempting to make as much noise as possible. Spectators tended to become involved in the procession; “they jeered at the rider, made obscene gestures, and threw various forms of filth.” If they wanted to make the rituals more humiliating, the cuckold would be made to wear his wife’s clothing. In some cases, the man and woman, if being humiliated in unison, were seated on the pole and made to face each other as a symbolic consequence of their actions. In more sparse cases, the man and woman were seated the same way but on a donkey. “The fundamental tenet and underlying philosophy of the Skimmington was, of course, the notion that men should be the heads of the households and dominant over their wives.” In The Pride of Noise, it is noted that banging of the drums during humiliation processions was “particularly potent in [men’s] ability to express masculinity” in a contest between other men and “emulate pure manhood,”  and power. Drums were an essential factor in the humiliation rituals. 

By use of the drum, a loud cacophony was generated to announce the arrival of a military or civic procession. They continued to be played throughout the processions to maintain the aura of authority as audible reminders of power. Like martial and civic drums, “unauthorised drumming implied the existence of alternative sources of power,”continuing the theme of popular justice enacted by the laity for moral reform. Drums, along with its relationship with power, shared “an overlapping second life as a communicator and stimulator of collective happiness,” so, for this reason, the use of drums during Skimmington processions was intentional and key to humiliate adulterers because “the sound of a drum on an urban street promised good times and sociability.” The cacophony produced happiness, dictated by the righteous beat of the drum, elating the processioners and inviting onlookers to participate with “any resonant object” which emboldens them. As the streets came alive with music and joyful arousal, the opposite was true for the cuckold and adulterer on the pole through an inverse relationship. The music around them growing indicated an unfavorable outcome for themselves. This use of rough, boisterous, public music is starkly opposed to the soundscape of liturgical music used in church services which was soft, harmonic, and sacred. The use of music in church processions was important because it was God’s gift to his children being repeated back to him for the intention of praise and devotion to his word. It, in the same effect as rough music, promoted the same ideas of the bible: chastity and repentance. Though rough, through the banging of pots and pans, people used the tools the Lord gave them to encourage temperance and moderation of sexual acivity just as in church services. Music was made to “enlarge upon the noble themes of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness.” So it is true for both civil and liturgical uses that, “Musick, can give Life and Quickness, Majesty and Splendour to any performance,” encouraging temperance and moderation. Whether in a manic cacophony, disorder, or its opposing method during a thoughtful practice in a sacred space, order, the same message was received to the adulterer. 

The dichotomy between men and women, quietude and cacophony, obedience and unruliness and order and disorder had an interactive dialectical relationship throughout early modern England that conversed with itself frequently. Printed works by the populace that invented stock devices and wrote stories mocking the cuckold deterred the influence of adultery through creating male anxiety. Adultery was also deterred by acts of parliament whose penalties resulted in threats of physical discipline and abuse. Strengthening judicial rules and ecclesiatical records, plus pressure by popular justice to do so, indicated the strong growing attitudes against sexual immorality by the larger public. Popular justice wielded ideological tools of the courts and God, like repentance and punishment, along with God’s gift of music, though inverted stylistic wise, to punish adulterers and cuckolds. Both bolstered designs of salvation and judgment and communicated the consequences that would be threatened to deviators of sexual norms. All of the intentions of punishments by all forms of justice were shaped by God, and also the kingdom’s hierarchical and patriarchal structures that determined the marital order. This trickled down to the populace which reinforced sexual morality by the self-policing of their community as shown in public humiliations in ecclesiastical courts and public spaces. Public humiliations using rough music promoted chastity, along with rituals of sex and public processions. The Skimmington and rough music mirrored liturgical and religious processions that prioritized God, then stimulated similar consequences enforced by ideas of salvation and absolution of sin. Music, ecclesiastical courts, judicial courts, and popular justice together preached repentance and expanded upon God’s will for sexual morality disproving adultery and threatening judgment and punishment. The overall anxiety felt far and wide of God’s wrath, public humiliation and punishment regulated sexual standards. The sin of adultery which defamed the marital order and upset patriarchal ideals was such an upset to the kingdom that harsh and dictatorial processes had to be weaponized in retaliation to reform the sinners who defiled early modern England’s set social, sexual standards. 


Primary Sources

A Law against cuckoldom (s.l., 1700).


A Letter to a Member of Parliament with two Discourses Enclosed in it : I.The one Shewing the

Reason Why a Law Should Pass to Punish Adultery with Death, II. The Other Shewing

the Reasons why the writ, De hæretico comburendo, Should be Abolish’d. London, 1675.


A miraculous, and monstrous, but yet most true, and certayne discourse, of a woman. London, 1588. 


A pleasant new ballad you here may behold, how the devill, though subtle, was guld by a scold. London, 1635.


Estwick, Sampson. The useuflness of church-musick a sermon preach’d at Christ-Church. London, 1696.


"May 1650: An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication.," in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1911), 387-389. British History Online, accessed October 25, 2021,


Tootell, Christopher. The layman’s ritual containing practical methods of Christian duties both religious and moral (London, 1698).


T.R. Hey for Horn Fair, the general market of England (London, 1674).


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