Book Notes: Albion's Seed, Part 1

Albion's Seed is a dense book - 900 pages of closely printed text, not counting the index. It covers a period of history outside my usual area of study. As the author puts it,
This book is the first in a series, which will hopefully comprise a cultural history of the United States. It is cultural in an anthropological rather than an aesthetic sense - a history of American folkways as they have changed through time.

Each volume (five are now in draft) centers on a major problem in American historiography. The first volume, Albion’s Seed, is about the problem of cultural origins. The second volume, American Plantations, studies the problem of culture and environment in the colonial era. The third volume examines the coming of independence as a cultural movement. Volume four takes up the problem of cultural change in the early republic, and volume five is about the Civil War as a cultural conflict. Other volumes will follow if the author is allowed to complete them.
David Hackett Fischer hasn't completed any of the other volumes. As far as I can tell, no one is preventing him. It was an ambitious program, and the other works he's produced seem to be very interesting... but if you're going to open your book with a promise of future volumes (and then refer to those volumes in the text), it seems a shame not to follow through. This is my only major criticism of the book, by the way. It's very good.

This volume describes four migrations: the Puritans to New England in the 1620s, the Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s, the Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s, and the Borderers to Appalachia in the 1700s. I wonder if Fischer intended to include others, but then realized, at 900 pages, that his work was rapidly becoming unpublishable?

Anyway, if you want a general review, check out Scott Alexander's notes over on Slatestarcodex. This review will be focused on gameable content... as well as bits I find interesting.


Folkways in this normative sense exist in advanced civilizations as well as in primitive societies. They are functioning systems of high complexity which have actually grown stronger rather than weaker in the modern world. In any given culture, they always include the following things:
Speech ways, conventional patterns of written and spoken language: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax and grammar.
Building ways, prevailing forms of vernacular architecture and high architecture, which tend to be related to one another.
Family ways, the structure and function of the household and family, both in ideal and actuality.
Marriage ways, ideas of the marriage-bond, and cultural processes of courtship, marriage and divorce.
Gender ways, customs that regulate social relations between men and women.
Sex ways, conventional sexual attitudes and acts, and the treatment of sexual deviance.
Child-rearing ways, ideas of child nature and customs of child nurture.
Naming ways, onomastic customs including favored forenames and the descent of names within the family.
Age ways, attitudes toward age, experiences of aging, and age relationships.
Death ways, attitudes toward death, mortality rituals, mortuary customs and mourning practices.
Religious ways, patterns of religious worship, theology, ecclesiology and church architecture.
Magic ways, normative beliefs and practices concerning the supernatural.
Learning ways, attitudes toward literacy and learning, and conventional patterns of education.
Food ways, patterns of diet, nutrition, cooking, eating, feasting and fasting.
Dress ways, customs of dress, demeanor, and personal adornment.
Sport ways, attitudes toward recreation and leisure; folk games and forms of organized sport.
Work ways, work ethics and work experiences; attitudes toward work and the nature of work.
Time ways, attitudes toward the use of time, customary methods of time keeping, and the conventional rhythms of life.
Wealth ways, attitudes toward wealth and patterns of its distribution.
Rank ways, the rules by which rank is assigned, the roles which rank entails, and relations between different ranks.
Social ways, conventional patterns of migration, settlement, association and affiliation.
Order ways, ideas of order, ordering institutions, forms of disorder, and treatment of the disorderly.
Power ways, attitudes toward authority and power; patterns of political participation.
Freedom ways, prevailing ideas of liberty and restraint, and libertarian customs and institutions.
Every major culture in the modern world has its own distinctive customs in these many areas. Their persistent power might be illustrated by an example. Consider the case of wealth distribution. Most social scientists believe that the distribution of wealth is determined primarily by material conditions. For Marxists the prime mover is thought to be the means of production; for Keynesians it is the process of economic growth; for disciples of Adam Smith it is the market mechanism. But to study this subject in a comparative way is to discover that the distribution of wealth has varied from one culture to another in ways that cannot possibly be explained by material processes alone. Another powerful determinant is the inherited structure of values and customs which might be called the “wealth ways” of a culture.

These wealth ways are communicated from one generation to the next by many interlocking mechanisms—child-rearing processes, institutional structures, cultural ethics, and codes of law—which create ethical imperatives of great power in advanced societies as well as primitive cultures. Indeed, the more advanced a society becomes in material terms, the stronger is the determinant power of its folkways, for modern technologies act as amplifiers, and modern institutions as stabilizers, and modern elites as organizers of these complex cultural processes
This is a fairly typical quotation from Albion’s Seed. If it’s made your eyes cross, this might not be the book to bring on holiday. The list makes a nice ethnographical questionnaire for worldbuilding. Dr. Zahir’s questionnaire is the standard, but this might help with regional differences. Zahir for nations; Fischer for counties.

Your homework for today is to pick a culture in your setting and briefly define their Ways, listing one plot hook, gameable event, location, etc. for each:
Speech ways, Building ways, Family ways, Marriage ways, Gender ways, Sex ways, Child-rearing ways, Naming ways, Age ways, Death ways, Religious ways, Magic ways, Learning ways, Food ways, Dress ways, Sport ways, Work ways, Time ways, Wealth ways, Rank ways, Social ways, Order ways, Power ways, Freedom ways.
John Tradescant the elder and Elizabeth Day

Part 1: Puritans

I knew very little about the specific history of the Puritans in New England before reading this book. I had the general gist of things, but my mental image was a bit... Addams Family.
This little elite was destined to play a large role in the history of New England. Its strength developed in no small degree from its solidarity. Many of its members had known one another before coming to America. They had gone to the same schools. Nearly half had studied in three Cambridge Colleges—Emmanuel, Magdalen and Trinity. Approximately 30 percent had attended Emmanuel alone. They intermarried with such frequency that one historian describes the leading Puritan families of East Anglia as a “prosopographer’s dream.”
The heads of these families tended to be exceptionally literate, highly skilled, and heavily urban in their English origins. They were a people of substance, character, and deep personal piety. The special quality of New England’s regional culture would owe much to these facts.
 Before you get all excited, prosopography is the study of the shared connections and characteristics of a historical group. If you want smut, see Part 2: Cavaliers.

Anyway, I had no idea how small and tightly connected the Puritans really were. The book makes their migration seem less like a religious exodus and more like a school outing. They wanted to live in a better world and, amazingly, they actually set out to do it.

The mood in the Puritan colonies was conservative in the strictest sense of the word. Colonists pined for England – not the real England, but an imagined, better, older world.
In the early records of the Bay Colony, the adjectives “new” and “novel” were pejorative terms. In 1639, for example, a special “day of humiliation” was called in Massachusetts on account of “novelties, oppression, atheism, excesse, superfluity, idleness, contempt of authority, and trouble in other parts to be remembered.” In this catalogue of depravity, it is interesting to observe that “novelty” led the list. Dissenters were severely punished for “innovation.” Roger Williams was banished for opinions that were condemned not merely as dangerous, but “new and dangerous.” Thomas Makepeace was warned by the General Court that “because of his novile disposition … we were weary of him unless he reform.”
As that statement implies, reform was regarded in Massachusetts mainly as a process of recovery and preservation. Reformation meant going backward rather than forward, on the assumption that error was novel and truth was ancient in the world. The Protestant Reformation meant a reversion to primitive Christianity. In politics, reform was a return to the ancient constitution. In society, it meant a revival of ancestral ways.
An attitude not unfamiliar to people who visit old-school gaming forums.

Puritan Marriage and Sex Ways

Marriage was delayed ten years beyond puberty but nearly everyone married—94 percent of women, and 98 percent of New England men.
Women who did not find a partner by the age of thirty were called “thornbacks” in Massachusetts—as they had been in England. Worse, Puritans suspected that failure to marry was a sign of God’s ill favor. There was a New England proverb that “women dying maids lead apes in hell.”
I was very surprised at Fischer’s description of Puritan courtship rituals. I’d imagined some sort of family-dominated arranged marriage system, where the starched and scrubbed bride and groom were rigorously separated until locked together in holy matrimony. I was completely wrong.
But in their bluff and awkward way, the Puritans cherished true love, and insisted that it was a prerequisite of a happy marriage. The Puritans used the expression “falling in love.” They believed that love should normally precede marriage. Their courtship rituals were designed to promote this order of events. East Anglian Puritan Mary Josselin refused a suitor partly on the ground that he was “not loving,” and her father acquiesced, even though he strongly favored the match.

Customs of courtship in New England were carefully designed to allow young people privacy enough to discover if they loved one another, at the same time that parents maintained close supervision. This was the purpose of “bundling,” a European custom which became widespread in New England. The courting couple were put to bed together, “tarrying” all night with a “bundling board” between them. Sometimes the young woman’s legs were bound together in a “bundling stocking” which fitted her body like a glove.

Another regional custom was the “courting stick,” a hollow pole six or eight feet long, with an earpiece at one end and a mouthpiece at the other. The courting couple whispered quietly to one another through this tube, while members of the family remained in the room nearby.

Bundling boards and courting sticks were not merely pieces of amusing social trivia. These two ingenious folk-inventions were instruments of an important cultural purpose. They were designed to reconcile two requirements of New England courtship—the free consent of the young, and strict supervision by their elders.
And after all this business with boards and sticks and bundles, the Puritans had another surprise.
Sex among the Puritans was very far from being puritanical in the popular sense. Copulation was not a taboo subject in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, as it later became in the nineteenth. It was discussed so openly that the writings of the Puritans required heavy editing before they were thought fit to print even in the mid-twentieth century.
I wouldn’t describe the Puritan letters I’ve read as erotic, strictly speaking, but they are very... practical. Tender too – I can see why the Victorians were shocked. If sex within marriage was given as much privacy and respect as possible, sex outside of marriage was, famously, punished as harshly as possible.
Their criminal codes made adultery a capital crime, and at least three people were actually hanged for it in the Puritan colonies. When cases of adultery occurred, it was not uncommon for entire communities to band together and punish the transgressors. In the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, for example, a married woman named Sarah Roe had an affair with a neighbor named Joseph Leigh while her mariner-husband was away at sea. Several townsmen warned them to stop. When they persisted, no fewer than thirty-five Ipswich neighbors went to court against them and gave testimony that communicated a deep sense of moral outrage. In this case, adultery could not be proved according to New England’s stringent rules for capital crime, which required two eye-witnesses to the actual offense. But the erring couple were found guilty of “unlawful familiarity” and severely punished. Joseph Leigh was ordered to be heavily whipped and fined five pounds, and Sarah Roe was sent to the House of Correction for a month, with orders that she was to appear in Ipswich meetinghouse on lecture day bearing a sign, “For My baudish Carnage,” written in “fair capital letters.”
Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had a genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentence was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. Under great pressure, he confessed, recanted, confessed again, and recanted once more. The laws of New England made conviction difficult: bestiality was a capital crime and required two witnesses for conviction. But so relentless were the magistrates that the deformed piglet was admitted as one witness, and the recanted confession was accepted as another. George Spencer was hanged for bestiality.
I love this case. I cited it in an earlier post on the medieval mindset. What is the law? What is justice? What is sanity or insanity?

Puritan Name Ways

Few biblical names failed to be bestowed upon one New England baby or another. Some parents cultivated a spirit of scriptural uniqueness. One unfortunate child was named Maher-shalalhasbaz, the longest name in the bible. Another, the son of Bostonian Samuel Pond, was baptized Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin Pond. There is evidence that parents sometimes shut their eyes, opened the good book and pointed to a word at random, with results such as Notwithstanding Griswold and Maybe Barnes.

Puritan Death Ways

..the mid-seventeenth century was a very grim period in Europe, Asia and America. This was the only era after the Black Death when the population of the Western world actually declined. New England, fortunate as it may have been in a comparative way, was not exempt from the general suffering.
Throughout this period, the death rate in New England was also highly unstable. As the country became more densely settled, epidemics of smallpox, measles and diphtheria struck with increasing frequency and force. Despite the comparative advantages of their environment, the builders of the Bay Colony shared with most other people in the seventeenth century the same dark foreboding of danger and insecurity. Journals and letters in this period were filled with stories of sudden deaths. “Mr. Creswell, was suddenly seized of an illness, which carried him off in a few minutes,” wrote a diarist in 1728. Epidemics struck families and even entire communities with the same appalling force.

The Puritans of Massachusetts shared this feeling of insecurity in an exaggerated degree because of their theology. Their Calvinist faith was one of the most harsh and painful creeds that believing Christians have ever inflicted upon themselves. One New Englander described this dark philosophy as a “bitter pill in a chestnut burr.” The fabled “Five Points” of New England’s Calvinist orthodoxy insisted that the natural condition of humanity was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in the twilight of this culture, understood these feelings very well. “The underlying foundation of life … in New England,” she wrote, “was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune.”

This way of thinking led New Englanders to adopt some of more lugubrious deathlore which human ingenuity has invented. One of these customs was an exceptionally brutal method of preparing the young for death. Puritan parents compelled their youngsters to stare death in the face. Children were forced to read some of the most gruesome verses in the Bible until they dissolved in tears of terror and despair. They were lectured at length about the sudden deaths of other children, which happened to young Samuel Sewall until “he burst out in a bitter cry and said he was afraid he should die.” They were dragged screaming and twisting to the edge of an open grave and made to stare into the void and to reflect upon their own mortality.
Puritan death-rituals were somber, restrained, and brutally focused. They were designed to nourish and maintain grief, to never deny death its sting.
After the funeral, food and drink were served. Then suddenly the restraints were removed on one of the few occasions when New Englanders drank to excess. Entire communities became intoxicated. Even little children went reeling and staggering through the bleak burying grounds. There are descriptions of infants so intoxicated that they slipped into the yawning grave.
Imagine coming across an entire community, drunk as lords, in “black scarves, ribbons, cloaks and gloves”, stumbling around, completely insensible.

Puritan Religious Ways

The meetinghouses of New England were often set high on a commanding hilltop. Roxbury’s aged minister John Eliot was heard to say as he climbed meetinghouse hill on the arm of a townsman, “This is very like the way to heaven; ‘tis uphill. The Lord by his grace fetch us up.”
From the outside, these buildings made a grim appearance. The walls were rough unpainted clapboards. On them were nailed the bounty-heads of wolves with dark crimson bloodstains below. The doors were covered with tattered scraps of faded paper which told of intended marriages, provincial proclamations, sales of property, and sometimes rude insults in which one disgruntled townsman denounced another.
Alice Morse Earle remembered that “the pulpit of one old unpainted church retained … as its sole decoration, an enormous, carefully painted, staring eye, a terrible and suggestive illustration to youthful wrong-doers.”
Albion's Seed

Puritan Magic Ways

The bit you’ve been waiting for. Witchcraft!
The Puritan founders of Massachusetts, like most of their Christian contemporaries, lived in a world of wonders. They believed that unicorns lived in the hills beyond the Hudson, that mermaids swam in waters off Cape Ann, and that tritons played in Casco Bay.
Many such wonders presented themselves to the people of New England. Their diaries tell us that heads without bodies would sometimes appear before them. Animals would appear to change their shapes; dishes would suddenly dance upon the table; doors and windows would mysteriously fly open and shut. They heard God and the Devil speak to them through the mouths of children. Dark warnings were detected in the whisper of the wind and the babbling of streams. Heavenly messages of high significance were thought to be written in clouds that scudded across the ever-changing New England sky.
the practice of black magic was regarded with obsessive fear and hatred by Puritans. The biblical injunction weighed more heavily upon them than upon others of their age: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” A great many people were formally accused of witchcraft in New England—at least 344 individuals altogether. Of that number, 35 were actually executed, and another person who refused to testify was pressed to death with heavy stones. These terrible events happened much more frequently in New England than in other colonies. More than 95 percent of all formal accusations and more than 90 percent of executions for witchcraft in British America occurred in the Puritan colonies.

 Puritan Food Ways

The Puritans of Massachusetts created one of the more austere food ways in the Western world. For three centuries, New England families gave thanks to their Calvinist God for cold baked beans and stale brown bread, while lobsters abounded in the waters of Massachusetts Bay and succulent gamebirds orbited slowly overhead. Rarely does history supply so strong a proof of the power of faith.
Another favorite dish was the New England boiled dinner: meat and vegetables submerged in plain water and boiled relentlessly without seasonings of any kind.
Because of course they did.

Puritan Dress Ways

The typical New England Jonathan—and Abigail as well—were also known by their habits of dress. The founders of Massachusetts had strong views on this subject. For them, clothing was not a matter of cultural indifference. By and large, they believed that costume should not be a form of sensual display. This did not mean that the Puritans wore the black suits and gray dresses of historical legend. With a few exceptions, they avoided black—not because it was too plain for their tastes, but because it was not plain enough. 
Because of course they did.

The taste of New England ran not to black or gray, but to “sadd colors” as they were called in the seventeenth century. A list of these “sadd colors” in 1638 included “liver color, de Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger lyne, deer colour, orange.” Other sad colors were called “gridolin” from the French gris de lin (“flax blossom”). Still others were called puce, folding color, Kendall green, Lincoln green, barry, milly and tuly. Specially favored was russet, and a color called philly mort from the French feuille morte (“dead leaf”).


I’ve got to agree with Scott Alexander here. Puritan life does seem fairly awful by modern standards. It’s a pure dystopian bargain; order, security, and peace at the cost of anything that could possibly make life worth living. It was an impressively well-ordered society, but order isn’t everything.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions below.

Puritan Plot Seeds

1. A strange pig bearing the features of one of the PCs has been born in a town the PCs regularly visit. The PCs are put on trial.
2. The PCs are fined for dressing in improper colours.
3. The PCs are invited to a sermon in the middle of winter. They can’t light a fire because the church is full of gunpowder and they have to bring weapons in case they are attacked. After four hours, test for frostbite and/or attackers.
4. A local strange event the PCs caused has been interpreted as a sign from heaven. No one is sure what it’s a sign of, but everyone is convinced it’s important.
5. The PCs are invited to present their point of view at a meeting to determine if Elves have souls. (Hint: no.)
6. An NPC asks the PCs for courtship advice. In public. In front of several elders, who will judge the advice and offer some of their own.
7. A woman in town has a scarlet letter “J” sewn on to her dress. No one will tell you why, except that it is “a great shame” and “an indelible mark upon the community”.
8. The PCs are fined for wasting time.
9. The PCs are asked to give a lecture at a local schoolhouse. The schoolmaster expects them to offer both a useful and a moral lesson.
10. The PCs are fined for owning spices.
11. Someone eats a spiced dish prepared by the PCs and falls ill. The PCs are chased out of town until they repent. Alternatively, they must wear a scarlet letter “S” for “Seasoner”.
12. The newest law in the area states, “If any man shall exceed the bounds of moderation, we shall punish him severely”. Do the PCs exceed the bounds of moderation? Hrm? Do they?!
13. The PCs are hired to protect a weekly group of travelers heading to a meeting hall across 20 miles of hostile, boggy territory, roadless territory and back again. No one thinks this is unusual. They will be paid in boiled food if the locals can get away with it.
14.  When a local sage can’t solve one of the PCs’ problems, he calls on his father (age 80), who in turn calls on his father (age 101). All three generations disapprove of the PCs.
15. The PCs are fined for not being married. If they are married, they are fined for insufficient children. If they have sufficient children (and paperwork to prove it), they are fined for not contributing enough to the poor.
16. Shipwreck! A group of settlers has been wrecked just off the stormy coast. Do the PCs dare row out in a boat to rescue the survivors? If they succeed, they will be well rewarded (with a hearty hand-clasp). If not, they will be fined.
17. This week’s sermon seems to specifically call out one of the PCs, hinting at horrific crimes against decency and the community. The guest minister didn’t mean anything by it; they were just fascinated by the PC’s unusual appearance and couldn’t stop staring and pointing.
18.The PC must warn a village of an impending attack. They arrive just after a funeral. Everyone is drunk. Even some of the horses are drunk.
19. One of the pious PCs is asked to help pick a name for a child. The PC’s finger lands on “emissions”. The disgusted parents interpret this as a sign of holy displeasure (with the PC, their child, or both).
20. The PCs are accused of witchcraft. If witchcraft is legal, they are accused of illegal sorcery or something equally damning.


  1. I love this book - nice job pulling some Dying Earth style gameable stuff out of it!

  2. If Puritans thought that "that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them." why did they live the harsh way they lived? Had they thought themselves not to be 'most mortals'?

    1. So this is probably /the/ question of post-Reformation theology. "If we are saved by faith alone, and not by works, why bother to be nice?".

      The answer(s) vary. The Calvinist answer, if I can grossly oversimplify, is that it's impossible to know if you are saved or damned, but you are less likely to be saved if you don't follow God's laws as laid out in the Bible (and interpreted by Calvinist theologians, community standards, etc.) No earthly effort could ensure salvation or damnation but God was still a judge (even if his criteria were hidden). Best not to risk it.

    2. So they go through a hardships of various kinds just in _hope_ it works as a salvation, without any guarantee in sense 'IF you eat your vegetables THEN you'll go to Heaven'?

    3. Yup, most Puritans these days are amateur hobbyists.

    4. Skerples, your answer for the Calvinist answer for doing good works is false. You make it sound like a Calvinist might simply do good works (as opposed to just having faith) because it makes them more likely to be saved. In actuality, it's the other way around: if you're already saved, you're going to do works; they're simply a *symptom* of being saved and having faith.

      Thus, the question that you posed, "If we are saved by faith alone, and not by works, why bother to be nice?" isn't even valid. If a person has faith in Jesus Christ, then he is saved *and* he will do good works *because* of his faith.

    5. Thanks for the clarification. I wasn't trying to link "do good works -> get salvation" in a transactional sense. But I'm not sure your explanation of "a person who has faith will therefore do good works because of his faith" entirely explains the Puritan colonies, the value they placed on work, and the continual fear and apprehension that seemed to hover over their lives.

    6. Yeah, that it doesn't. The Puritans are a different beast altogether from most other Calvinists, old and modern.

  3. It seems that about 1/4 of the book includes the citing of facts. I have read to page 50, and I need more action. I need a plot or something that is captivating. I shall read on and hope it gets better soon. I need something that states for example the Bradstreet family connections with today's world. It's dry, and the family trees are in small print. I have to brighten my lights to see. I will read on and hope the book gets better soon.