Penance in a White Sheet

Penance in a White Sheet June 20, 2013

While rereading Edmund Morgan’s magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom, I was struck by his discussion of public penance performed by early Virginian fornicators and adulterers:

The courts, for example, prescribed penances for couples who appeared with children too soon after marriage, requiring them to appear at church the next Sunday dressed in white robes and carrying white wands. As in England, they prescribed whipping for the unmarried woman who produced a child, while her lover usually got off with doing penance and paying for the child’s support [pp. 150-151] … [Eady Hanting] married Thomas Tooker, but not soon enough. The churchwardens presented her and her husband for fornication before marriage; and when she came to stand before the congregation in her white sheet and was admonished by the minister “for her fowle Crime Committed” she “like a most obstant and graceless person cutt and mangled the sheet wherein she did penance.” She got twenty lashes for that.

It was easy to find more examples of this punishment in the Lower Norfolk County court records. For example, on 12 April 1641, the court ordered Cristofer Burrough and Mary Somes to

do penance in their parish Church the next sabbath the minister preacheth at the said Church standinge in the said Church upon a stool in a white sheet, and a white wand in their hands all the time of divine service and shall say after the minister such words as he shall deliver unto them before the congregacon there present and also pay the charges of the court.

One would, in such circumstances, hope for a short service.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how far back such forms of penance were practiced. Dave Postle [“Penance and the Marketplace,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2003): 441-468] has some rich examples; he traces the migration of penance from public marketplaces to their later performance within church walls (and then sometimes in both locations). Postle describes the penitential abjuration performed by Lollards in the fifteenth century: “nude except for a white sheet, barelegged and barefooted in the penitential manner; carrying a candle; marked out by the symbol of the faggot or bearing a bundle of faggots on his back; required to perambulate the markets or the four corners of a market; preceded by the apparitor and followed by the curate wearing a surplice and carrying a rod pointing at the penitent; and whipped and disciplined at each station of the market.” In medieval Europe, penance typically involved bodily discipline as well as public humiliation. Both God and the local community needed to be satisfied.

The carrying of candles remains part of many penitential practices today, at least among Catholics (see Robert Orsi’s description of Italian-American religion in Harlem). At some point, however, the curates became weary of carrying the rod themselves. And wary of the Catholic use of candles, Protestants had penitents carry the rod of discipline themselves. They retained the use of the white sheet (symbolizing the restoration to baptismal purity), though penitents at some point began wearing their regular garments (or at least something) underneath.

Postle has this example from a late-sixteenth-century act book for the Essex archdeaconry:

that on saterdaie next in the marquett place of horndon on the hil when the most people are there the both parties abovesaid to stand upon ij stoles wtih a whitt shete <a whitt rodd in ther handes> severalle about them and … to remain the space of ijj [eight] houres.

John Doyle, 1839 Lithograph

English colonists brought public forms of penance with them to North America. Standing clad in a white sheet was a fairly common civil punishment for fornication or adultery in both early Virginia and early New England. By the early nineteenth century, the wearing of white sheets and carrying of the rod/wand became unusual and seemed archaic on either side of the Atlantic. See, for instance, this clever lithograph printed in 1839. I am not sure when the practice ceased in North America. I suspect it was not common after the seventeenth century. I quickly found that many historians have made note of the “traditional” practice of penance in a white sheet, but I haven’t yet come across any sustained discussion of the practice (or its eventual abandonment). If anyone has such knowledge, I’m curious.

Standing in a public marketplace or church wearing nothing but a white sheet and holding either a candle or a rod would probably strike most twenty-first-century Americans as a rather severe and barbaric form of puritanical discipline. This is particularly true in an era in which — for public figures or church members — an oblique apology for misbehavior often suffices. Nevertheless, contextually, these were mild punishments because (as Carolyn Ramsey has pointed out), neither English nor most American populations tolerated severe punishments (such as death or imprisonment) for adultery, even if laws on the books sometimes required more than public humiliation. Cuckolds often received more humiliation than adulterers, moreover, and wags enjoyed commenting on the fact that offenders went from one set of sheets to another.



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