You may also want to grab a drink.
This book covers a period of history outside my usual area of study. It wasn't covered in my history courses at school either; early American history went something like, "Columbus mumble mumble thirteen colonies mumble mumble revolutionary war." I'm relying heavily on quotes and Fischer's interpretation of events. For particularly controversial bits I've gone back to the primary source documents just to double check. I have yet to be pleasantly surprised.
While preparing this section I seriously considered giving up and writing about something less depressing... like the Plague.
|King Charles I and Prince Rupert before the Battle of Naseby, 14th June 1645|
With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).
-1066 And All That
"Right but Repulsive" is also a decent summary of the Puritan idea of "ordered liberty". Everything is free to be in its place and stay there. Geese are free to be geese. Farmers are free to farm. Mix up the order of society - God's order - and anything like the modern conception of liberty goes out the window.
Side Note: this entire chapter seems like it was designed to give Patrick Stuart an aneurysm (like last time). Patrick, if you do end up reading this, please remember to take small breaks to yell at the scenery and/or the uncaring heavens. Other readers, consider this fair warning.
The CavaliersIn 1641, just as the Puritans were finishing their great migration, a new era was beginning. 750 miles to the south of New England and almost a world away, the colony of Virginia received her new governor. Appointed by royal warrant, Sir William Berkeley arrived to shape the destiny of an unlikely and unfortunate colony. Every culture and country has some skeletons in the closet. Its safe to say that Berkeley was the architect of Virginia's closet, and he built a spacious enclosure.
Sir William Berkeley was born in 1606 to a powerful West Country family which had been seated since the eleventh century at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. [...]The Berkeleys, still securely in possession of their castle, are one of the few landed families in England who can trace their pedigree back before the Norman conquest. They claim descent from Eadnoth the Staller, a Saxon nobleman who joined William the Conqueror and was killed in 1068.Berkeley was not, therefore, just any nobleman and any royalist. He was possibly the noblest and the royalistiest. Given his background – Queen’s College, Oxford, a fellow of Merton College, a literary figure in London, knighted on the battlefield, and gentleman of the court – it’s inconceivable he should have been anything else.
I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering.Through relentless hard work, single-minded purpose, and completely certainty of cause, Berkeley took a struggling colony of 8,000 souls and, after thirty-five years in office, left it a colony of 40,000. I’d hesitate to say “a prosperous colony of 40,000”. Even Fischer, in listing Berkeley’s achievements, can’t do better than attribute, “a functioning economic system” to the colony.
In many ways, Berkeley was not an admirable character. He bullied those beneath him, and fawned on people above. He openly enriched himself from his offices, and set a sad example for peculation that long persisted in Virginia. In 1667, for example, he wrote directly to his superior, Lord Arlington, “Though ambition commonly leaves sober old age, covetousness does not. I shall therefore desire of your lordship to procure of His Majesty the customs of two hundred hogsheads of tobacco.” These were the vices of his age, and Berkeley had them in high degree.We’ll return to those vices later.
The Colony of Virginia
With their fortunes reversed, the cavaliers fled persecution to seek an ideal social order in the New World, just as the Puritans had in the preceding decades. New England might have been a cold and hostile place but Virginia, by all accounts, was far worse. Given the choice between exile in Europe and Virginia, whose reputation was “that none but those of the meanest quality and corruptest lives went there,” it’s a wonder anyone crossed the Atlantic at all. But they did. These “distressed cavaliers” formed the core of Berkeley’s hand-picked aristocracy.
When they arrived, he promoted them to high office, granted them large estates and created the ruling oligarchy that ran the colony for many generations. [...] After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Sir William Berkeley continued his recruiting campaign. In 1663 he published a pamphlet addressed to the younger sons of England’s great families:
A small sum of money will enable a younger brother to erect a flourishing family in a new world; and add more strength, wealth and honor to his native country, than thousands did before, that dyed forgotten and unrewarded in an unjust war… men of as good families as any subjects in England have resided there...Sir William Berkeley’s recruiting campaign was highly successful. Nearly all of Virginia’s ruling families were founded by younger sons of eminent English families during his governorship. Berkeley himself was a younger son with no hope of inheriting an estate in England. This “younger son syndrome,” as one historian has called it, became a factor of high importance in the culture of Virginia. The founders of Virginia’s first families tried to reconstruct from American materials a cultural system from which they had been excluded at home.
The cavalier elite rapidly became linked by blood and custom to the point where nearly every office or position of power was held by some cousin or another.
In company with a larger group of lesser gentry, they also kept a firm grip on the economic life of the colony. In 1703 an official wrote, “… in every river of this province there are men in number from ten to thirty, who by trade and industry have gotten very competent estates. Those gentlemen take care to supply the poorer sort with goods and necessaries, and are sure to keep them always in their debt, and consequently dependent on them. Out of this number are chosen His Majesty’s Council, the Assembly, the Justices, and Officers of Government."
This elite gained control of the Council during the mid-seventeenth century and retained it until the Revolution. As early as 1660, every seat on the Council was filled by members of five related connections. As late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660.
Can’t Somebody Else Do It?
No sensible young aristocrat wanted to work.
Many Virginians of middle and upper ranks aspired to behave like gentlemen. In the early seventeenth century an English gentleman was defined as one who could “live idly and without manual labor.” The words “gentleman” and “independent” were used synonymously, and “independence” in this context meant freedom from the necessity of labor. But in Virginia, independence could be achieved or maintained only by labor of the sort that a gentleman was trained to despise. Here was the root of an ambivalence toward “base getting” which became part of the folkways of Virginia.At first, the Virginian elite imported indentured servants – tens of thousands of them. Some were purchased, some bribed, some tricked, and some simply kidnapped.
Two-thirds of Virginia’s colonists were unskilled laborers, or “farmers” in the English sense—agrarian tenants who worked the land of others. Only about 30 percent were artisans (compared with nearly 60 percent in New England). Most were unable to read or write.) [...] Parliament in 1645 heard evidence of gangs who “in a most barbarous and wicked manner steal away many little children” for service in the Chesapeake colonies. Others were “lagged” or transported after being arrested for petty crime or vagrancy
Men outnumbered women 4 to 1. In some eras, 6 to 1. Women were “trapanned” or “snared” and sent against their will, or sold by husbands and brothers, or tricked into accepting false contracts.
This warm climate gave tidewater Virginia an asset in the length of its growing season, which was 210 days between heavy frosts—two months longer than in New England. But it also brought a liability in the relation between climate and disease. As the temperature rose, so did the death rate. [...] Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, enteritis and other diseases took a terrific toll... Rates of mortality may have been at least twice as high in tidewater Virginia as in rural Massachusetts.
All the effort to import indentured servants was wasted because they kept dying. It made life very difficult for the aristocracy. Luckily for the cavalier elite, there was a solution ready-made for Virginia’s climate. To quote Scott Alexander:
The Virginians tried their best to oppress white people. Really, they did. The depths to which they sank in trying to oppress white people almost boggle the imagination. There was a rule that if a female indentured servant became pregnant, a few extra years were added on to their indenture, supposedly because they would be working less hard during their pregnancy and child-rearing so it wasn’t fair to the master. Virginian aristocrats would rape their own female servants, then add a penalty term on to their indenture for becoming pregnant. That is an impressive level of chutzpah. But despite these efforts, eventually all the white people either died, or became too sluggish to be useful, or worst of all just finished up their indentures and became legally free. The aristocrats started importing black slaves as per the model that had sprung up in the Caribbean, and so the stage was set for the antebellum South we read about in history classes.
Or to get back to quoting Fischer:
The development of slavery in Virginia was a complex process—one that cannot be explained simply by an economic imperative. A system of plantation agriculture resting upon slave labor was not the only road to riches for Virginia’s royalist elite. With a little imagination, one may discern a road not taken in southern history. In purely material terms, Virginia might have flourished as did her northern neighbors, solely by complex speculations in land and trade, and by an expansive system of freehold farming. But Virginia’s ruling elite had other aims in mind. For its social purposes, it required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination. The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat. In short, slavery in Virginia had a cultural imperative. Bertram Wyatt-Brown writes, “ … the South was not founded to create slavery; slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South.”
But this solution created another set of problems. The harsh reality of slavery undercut the cultural ideal that it was meant to serve. The result was an elaborate set of subterfuges, in which Virginia planters tried to convince themselves, if no one else, that their peculiar system was little different from that which had existed in rural England. [...] A slave was rarely called a slave in the American south by his master. Slaves were referred to as “my people,” “my hands,” “my workers,” almost anything but “my slaves.” They were made to dress like English farm workers, to play English folk games, to speak an English country dialect, and to observe the ordinary rituals of English life in a charade that Virginia planters organized with great care.
In the end, these fictions failed to convince even their creators. William Byrd, in a more candid mood, confessed to the Earl of Egmont in 1736 that slavery was a great evil. It was typical of him (and others of his rank) to believe that it was hateful not so much because of its effect on the slave but because of what it did to their masters. “They blow up the pride, and ruin the industry of our white people,” he wrote, “… another unhappy effect of my negroes is the necessity of being severe.”
William Byrd, in company with many large planters, came to favor a parliamentary prohibition of the slave trade. But this was after his status as a country gentleman was secure. If slavery was not quite what Virginians really wanted, it carried them closer to their conservative utopia than any alternative which lay within reach.
All that nonsense about race, all the phrenological studies and quotations from the bible on Babel and Cain, all the endless justifications... came after the fact, and the fact was that the elite didn’t want to work. If the Irish had been immune to malaria, the Virginian elite would have invented a system to justify enslaving them. They tried enslaving the Indians; it didn’t work. If foul sorcery could call up untiring spirits to work the fields, they would have made it the state religion. I’d had this vague idea that it was somehow reversed, that pre-existing ideas of race and status allowed slavery to exist, but no, at least in Virginia, it was definitely the other way around.
It wasn’t even very successful. All that misery for nothing.
There was a deep ambivalence in attitudes toward wealth, which was much valued by Virginians, but not for its own sake. Wealth was regarded not primarily as a form of capital or a factor of production, but as something to be used for display and consumed for pleasure. A gentleman could never appear mean-spirited (in the old-fashioned sense of niggardly and grasping) without losing something of his rank. The display of wealth was important to Virginians not only as a way of demonstrating material riches but also as a means of showing a “liberal” spirit, which was part of the ideal of a gentleman.
The economic consequence of this attitude was debt. Most great families of Virginia fell deep into indebtedness. Even the richest planters were permanent debtors. Robert Carter of Nomini Hall had heavy debts to British creditors. In 1758, he wrote that “the produce of my land and negroes will scarcely pay the demand requisite to keep them.” He was often compelled to sell capital in order to stay afloat.
If you can’t make money on a system based on free labour, while selling an addictive product...
Ok. Take a break. Go yell at the scenery for a few minutes.
Ok. Take a break. Go yell at the scenery for a few minutes.
And we’re back.
Virginia Family Ways
For most Virginians the unit of residence tended to be a more or less nuclear household, but the unit of association was the extended family, which often flocked together in the same rural neighborhoods. [...] Individuals in Virginia were stereotyped by traits that were thought to be hereditary in their extended families. Anglican clergyman Jonathan Boucher believed that “family character both of body and mind may be traced thro’ many generations; as for instance every Fitzhugh has bad eyes; every Thornton hears badly; Winslows and Lees talk well; Carters are proud and imperious; and Taliaferros mean and avaricious; and Fowkeses cruel.” Virginians often pronounced these judgments upon one another. The result was a set of family reputations which acquired the social status of self-fulfilling prophecies.
In tidewater Virginia during the seventeenth century, most children—more than three-quarters in fact—lost at least one parent before reaching the age of eighteen. One consequence was to enlarge the importance of other kin; for when a nuclear family was broken in Virginia the extended family picked up the pieces. Another consequence was to change the structure of the household in a fundamental way. Historians Darrett and Anita Rutman observe that in “just about any” household one might find “orphans, half-brothers, stepbrothers and stepsisters, and wards running a gamut of ages. The father figure in the house might well be an uncle or a brother, the mother figure an aunt, elder sister, or simply the father’s ‘now-wife,’ to use the word frequently found in conveyances and wills.”
William Byrd liked to compare himself with the biblical patriarchs. He wrote, “Like one of the Patriarchs, I have my flocks and my herds, my bondsmen & bond women and every sort of trade amongst my own servants so that I live in a kind of Independence of every one but Providence.”
In the eighteenth century, race slavery created other opportunities for planter predators, some of whom started at an early age to exercise a droit du seigneur over women in the slave quarters. Philip Fithian noted that the master’s son, Bob Carter, one Sunday morning took “a likely Negro girl” into the stable and was for a “considerable time lock’d … together.” Bob was sixteen years old. The abolitionist indictment of slavery for its association with predatory sex had a solid foundation in historical fact. One thinks of Mary Boykin Chesnut’s response to the antislavery movement in the nineteenth century:
Like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds. … You see, Mrs. Stowe did not hit on the sorest spot. She makes Legree a bachelor.Mrs. Chesnut knew whereof she spoke, and was haunted by her knowledge of sexual predators within her own family. But she (and the abolitionists, and many historians too) were very much mistaken in thinking that the “peculiar institution” of race slavery itself was the first cause of this behavior. The same pattern had appeared in Virginia before slavery was widespread. It had also existed in rural England.
Virginia Marriage Ways
The Virginia pattern developed within a culture where marriage was regarded as something to be arranged between families, something that did not require love as a precondition, something that could never be dissolved, and something that joined husband and wife in an organic and patriarchal hierarchy. Given such an idea of matrimony, it seemed right and fitting in this culture that a typical Virginia marriage in the seventeenth century should join a man of maturity to a miss in her teens.
But the unwritten customs of the culture encouraged women to demand more freedom and respect. In 1687, for example, a spirited lady named Sarah Harrison married Dr. James Blair, the future founder of William and Mary College. When the minister recited the marriage vows, she startled the congregation by responding, “No obey!” Three times the vows were repeated. Three times Sarah Harrison answered with increasing firmness “NO OBEY,” until Dr. Blair finally agreed to take his chances and the wedding went forward without any promise of obedience. Their married life together proved to be deeply unhappy. Some years later, William Byrd noted in his diary:
Went to the Commissary’s, where … I was very much surprised to find Mrs. Blair drunk, which is growing pretty common with her, and her relations disguise it under the name of consolation.
You go, Sarah Harrison. I’d drink too and I’d call it inadequate consolation.
Virginia Child-Rearing Ways
Infant mortality was astonishingly high. One third of newborn babies perished in the first twenty months of life, and nearly half were dead before adulthood.
The culture of the Chesapeake colonies placed two different and even contradictory demands upon its young. On the one hand youngsters were compelled to develop strong and autonomous wills. On the other hand, they were expected to yield willingly to the requirements of an hierarchical culture. These psychic tensions took a heavy toll.
Virginian children, especially boys, were allowed to be as boisterous, noisy, immoderate, unsettled, and fierce as they wished... and at the same time obey their father-figures absolutely, attend dancing lessons, practice courtly delicacy, and learn a thousand gradations of rank, title, and breeding.
The inner stresses were sometimes very great. A gentleman of Virginia was expected to have boisterous feelings and manly passions and a formidable will. But at the same time he was also expected to achieve a stoic mastery of self. This vital tension became a coiled spring at the core of Virginia’s culture, and a source of its great achievements during the eighteenth century.
Virginia Death Ways
Stoic fatalism, in a very 14th century post-Black Death sort of way. Everyone is dying all the time; don’t worry about it too much. Elaborate death rituals, but more for honour’s sake than to prick the soul with grief.
The children of the Chesapeake were taught this stoic fatalism at an early age. William Fitzhugh in 1698 wrote to his mother, “Before I was ten years old … I look’d upon this life here as but going to an inn, no permanent being by God’s will … therefore always prepared for my certain dissolution, which I can’t be persuaded to prolong by a wish.” The death of one’s children, he wrote, could be “cheerfully and easily borne” if one cultivated the proper attitude of resignation.
Virginia Religious Ways
The cavaliers and their servants were, for the most part, orthodox Anglicans.
The vernacular religion of Virginia was closely linked to its official Anglican creed, which had been imposed upon the colony partly by persuasion and partly by force. Private eccentricities were tolerated, but open dissenters were harassed and driven out. The leading architect of this policy was once again Sir William Berkeley.
Berkeley actively recruited staunch, sober, and orthodox ministers. We’d call them High Church Anglicans today, though the association with Catholicism would not have been welcomed by the cavaliers.
Sermons were a secondary part of Anglican worship, and in tone and substance they were also very different from Puritan preaching. Northern visitors observed that Virginia sermons were much shorter than in New England, less theological, more pietistic and “all in the forensic style.” Philip Fithian was astonished to find that they were “seldom under and never over twenty minutes, but always made up of sound morality or deeply studied metaphysicks.” For all their brevity, these twenty-minute Anglican sermons had rhetorical structures of high complexity. They developed in fixed and regular stages from the opening praecognito to partitio, explicatio, amplificatio, applicatio, and peroration. The composition was cast in a belletristic style which made much use of tropes and flowers and figures of speech. The religion of the cavaliers celebrated the holiness of beauty as well as the beauty of holiness.
I’ve listened to many 20-minute Anglican sermons in my time; I’ve even tried my hand at writing a few. It’s a decent style, though modern sermons diverge significantly from the “fixed and regular stages” given above.
Virginia Magic Ways
In the Chesapeake colonies, there was nothing like the Puritans’ concern with witchcraft. No person was ever executed in Virginia for that offense. Instead, the courts actively punished false accusations of witchcraft, often assessing heavy fines and costs against those who denounced their neighbors as minions of the Devil.
The gentlemen of Virginia were deeply absorbed in the study of stars, planets, spheres, and portents—not as signs of God’s purpose but as clues to their own fate. They believed that every man possessed a certain fixed quality called fortune, which could be understood by knowledge of these things.
Many gentlemen kept “fortune books,” which were collections of magical and astrological lore for good luck in love, marriage, sex, health, travel. One such fortune book included an entire chapter on marriage with entries on “whether a man shall marry, the time of marriage, how many husbands a woman shall have, who shall be master of the two, how they shall agree after marriage, and whether the man or his wife shall die first, and the time when.”
“His luck’s run out.” “His number’s up.” “Hard luck.” “Bad luck.” “Good luck.” The Virginian obsession with fortune and fortune’s wheel mirrors the 14th-century’s own obsessions.
This interest in fortune was linked to another striking characteristic of Virginians—their obsession with gambling. Virginians were observed to be constantly making wagers with one another on almost any imaginable outcome. The more uncertain the result, the more likely they were to gamble. They made bets not merely on horses, cards, cockfights and backgammon; but also on crops, prices, women and the weather.
Virginia Learning Ways
Visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkeley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: “I thank God,” he declared, “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”
This remark has earned Governor Berkeley a place of infamy in the history of education. But it was not merely the isolated absurdity of an eccentric reactionary. Precisely the same policy was adopted by Berkeley’s kinsman and successor, Lord Culpeper, who actively suppressed printing in the colony. When John Buckner set up a press, he was “prohibited by the governor and council from printing any thing, till the King’s pleasure should be known.” An historian observes that the King’s pleasure was “very tardily communicated, as the first evidence of printing thereafter in Virginia was … 1733.”
Virginia Food Ways
Native American plants such as potatoes and tomatoes rarely appeared on the best colonial tables until they had become fashionable in the mother country. Culinary tastes of gentlefolk in Virginia remained English in all of these ways.
Virginia Dress Ways
This culture was also highly distinctive in its habits of dress. “These Virginians are a very gentle, well-dressed people, and look perhaps more at a man’s outside than his inside,” a writer observed in the year 1737.
The costume of this elite was made of fragile fabrics, perishable colors, and some of the more impractical designs that human ingenuity has been able to invent. An example was the wardrobe of Sir Walter Raleigh, who walked, or rather teetered, through a world of filth and woe in a costume that consisted of red high heels, white silk hose, a white satin doublet embroidered with pearls, a necklace of great pearls, a starched white ruff, and lace cuffs so broad as to bury his hands in fluffy clouds of extravagant finery. His outfit was completed by a jaunty plume of ostrich feathers that bobbed above his beaver hat, and precious stones in high profusion. The jewels that Raleigh wore on one occasion were said to be worth £30,000—more than the capital assets of some American colonies.
During the reign of Charles I, fashions changed again. Opulence was increasingly displayed in many layers of dress. Outer coats were cut and slashed to expose intricate underwear that had consumed many hours in the making. Contempt for labor was expressed in a fad for gossamer gloves so fragile that the slightest effort would ruin them. Wealth was displayed by necklaces, brooches and even earrings for men. Charles I went to the scaffold in 1649 with a huge tear-shaped pearl in his ear.
Breathe, Patrick, breathe.
Virginia Sport Ways
This section deserves to be quoted almost in its entirety. In an adapted form it applies to any medieval-ish setting. See: cat, post, battering.
The most striking fact about sport in Virginia was its stratification. From an early date in the mid-seventeenth century, a hierarchy of sports was deliberately created by high authority and actively enforced by law. A special class of recreations was reserved exclusively for the colony’s ruling elite.[...] By law and custom, horse-racing and betting were also reserved for gentlemen alone. People of “lower estate” were forbidden to compete, and punished when they did so.
Virginia’s favorite amusements were bloodsports. There was an entire hierarchy of these gory entertainments. Virtually every male in Virginia could be ranked according to the size of animals that he was allowed to kill for his pleasure. At the top was the noblest of bloodsports—the hunting of the stag. This was the sport of kings and noblemen in the seventeenth century. It was staged in Virginia with the same elaborate pomp and ritual that had occurred in Europe. Lesser gentry chased the fox—a quarry that the high nobility despised as low and vulgar until the sport came to be elaborately rationalized by the Meynell family in the eighteenth century.
“Very good blood” was also the object of another entertainment which was followed by the yeomanry and parish clergy on both sides of the water. This was the sport of coursing—an afternoon’s diversion, in which hares, rabbits and small vermin were hunted on foot with the aid of specially trained dogs. Such was the enthusiasm for this pedestrian slaughter that it was not uncommon to have several courses in a single day.
Husbandmen and laborers amused themselves in a more humble manner, by murdering birds of various sizes in social rituals of high complexity. One favorite bloodsport of farmers in Virginia was called ganderpulling. By an irony of the Christian calendar, this savage event was commonly staged on Easter Monday—a day of riotous celebration in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake. An old male goose was suspended upside-down by his feet from the branch of a tree, and the neck of the bird was lathered with grease. The contestants mounted their horses and galloped past the goose, endeavoring to tear off the bird’s head by brute force as they rode by. The game was dangerous to the galloper as well as the goose. More than one contestant was pulled backward off his speeding horse and succeeded only in snapping his own neck while the goose cackled in trumph. Others lost fingers or thumbs in the gander’s angry beak. But as the contest continued, the bird’s neck was slowly stretched and torn by one contestant after another, until some rural champion finally succeeded in ripping off the head, claiming the body as his prize. In early Virginia, one man remembered that a good ganderpull was “anticipated with rapture.” The scene was a lively one—shouting crowds, a swirl of violence, the goose twisting in agony, dismounted riders rolling in the dust, and finally the climax when the carotid artery gave way and the winner rode in triumph through a shower of crimson gore.
Apprentices enjoyed still another sort of bloodsport called cockshailing, which they played at Shrovetide. A cock or chicken was tethered to a stake, and crowd of youths tried to torture and kill it by throwing dangerous objects. The Puritans detested this barbarous amusement, and did all in their power to suppress it in New England—without entirely succeeding in doing so. But it flourished in Virginia, as it had done in the south and west of England, where one countryman wrote to another in 1668, “I cannot but give some touch of public affairs—what with the throwing at shrovetide and fighting this Lent time there’s a great mortality of Cocks.”
Smaller boys amused themselves in yet a different way by the juvenile bloodsport of annihilating songbirds. In Devon, one of these diversions was called “muzzling the sparrow.” A local historian described it thus: “A boy had his hands tied together behind him, and the tip of one wing of a sparrow or other small bird was placed in his mouth. He then tried by the action of his teeth and lips gradually to draw the wing of the bird into his mouth and bite off its head, the bird in the meantime pecking at his cheeks and eyes and endeavoring to escape.”
At the bottom of this hierarchy of bloody games were male infants who prepared themselves for the larger pleasures of maturity by torturing snakes, maiming frogs and pulling the wings off butterflies. Thus, every red-blooded male in Virginia was permitted to slaughter some animal or other, and size of his victim was proportioned to his social rank. Sport became a great chain of slaughter in this society. A European tourist observed with wonder, “… everything that is called fighting is a delicious pleasure to an Englishman.”
Virginian Rank Ways
Virginia ideas of hegemonic liberty conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was “slavery,” a degradation into which true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule. The idea was given its classical expression by the poet James Thomson (1700-1748) in a stanza that everyone knows without reflecting on its meaning:
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,Arose from out of the Azure main,This was the charter of the land,And guardian angels sang this strain:Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;Britons never will be slaves.In Thomson’s poetry, which captured the world view of the Virginians in so many ways, we find the major components of hegemonic liberty: the concept of a “right to rule”; the notion that this right was guaranteed by the “charter of the land”; the belief that those who surrendered this right became “slaves”; and the idea that it had been given to “Britain first, at heaven’s command.”
It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen—a property which set this “happy breed” apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world.
Virginia’s wealth ways developed within a system of stratification, which is not easily translated into the social language of a later age. Even in its own time, it was commonly described in metaphorical terms—which may still be the best way to approach it. In the year 1699, for example, an English landowner named Richard Newdigate explained his idea of society by a metaphor that came readily to the mind of a country gentleman. Society, he wrote, was like the landscape of his native Warwickshire. The common people were the grass that grew in the fields. The nobles and gentry were the trees that shaded the grass. And the clergy were the cherries that hung from the trees.
Fischer dances around the word “feudal”, but Virginian order seemed to be as close to the Three Estates as possible without invoking their name. His descriptions of a debt- and exchange-based economy might surprise a modern reader, but they’re perfectly sensible medieval ideas.
The psychological cement of this system was a culture of subordination which modern historians call deference. Country gentlemen in England and Virginia normally expected a display of social deference from their inferiors, and by and large they received it. “Everybody offered me abundance of respect,” William Byrd entered in his diary on more than one occasion. Gentlefolk and common folk agreed on the fundamental fact that social deference was normal in Virginia. The classical account, often quoted by historians, is the autobiography of Devereux Jarrett, who was born in the lowest order. “We were accustomed to look upon, what were called gentle folks, as beings of a superior order,” he remembered. “For my part, I was quite shy of them, and kept off at a humble distance.”
Hegemonic liberty. Lots of liberty for those at the top, just enough liberty for the middle-sized planters, and no liberty for anyone else.
The most frustrating thing about this system is that it worked almost exactly as intended. Somehow, reading about 14th century lords and their follies is less rage-inducing, probably because a 14th century feudal lord was stuck in the middle of a vast morass of cultural idiocy and cruelty. But the founding Virginians had a choice. They lived after the Enlightenment. Examples of how to do things differently abounded. They weren't trapped or tricked or blinded. They set out to deliberately build this awful system, privately admitted it was awful, wrung their hands, confessed, and did nothing.
Virginian Cavalier Plot Seeds
Because damn it all this is still a gaming blog.
1. Casks of the local cash crop are the default currency. Nobody bets, settles, or pays taxes in coin. The PCs are paid, but a jealous merchant steals or adulterates their casks.
1. Casks of the local cash crop are the default currency. Nobody bets, settles, or pays taxes in coin. The PCs are paid, but a jealous merchant steals or adulterates their casks.
2. The PCs are invited to bet a ruinous sum on an event appropriate to their station and purpose.
3. In the middle of a meeting a minor noble keels over and dies, They are politely covered with a sheet until the meeting concludes.
4. The PCs are invited to a rural estate to discuss using orc/goblins/foreigners/etc. as "imported servants". If they find a successful variety they could become rich. Alternatively, they could organize a riot.
5. The PCs meet a noble family who share a remarkably close resemblance. Men and women alike look like the same painted doll in a variety of costumes and wigs.
6. Local witch accuses local farmer of slander. PCs, as outsiders, called to act as witness for farmer, say that the local witch really is a witch. She'll curse them if they do.
7. A civil war suddenly erupts. The PCs and their allies are on the losing side. A charismatic nobleman offers them land in a dangerous wilderness across the sea.
8. The PCs sign a contract for a ship-board mission. Once aboard the ship, they discover it is sailing for a notoriously violent and diseased colony instead, and that their contracts are legally binding.
9. The PCs visit a large city. The most fashionable noble are draped in expensive jewels and silks. Can the PCs organize a daring robbery and escape the bloodthirsty retribution that is sure to follow
10. It's hunting day! Everything is being hunted by its level. Generate a list of creatures from 0 HD to 5 HD.
11. The PCs are hired to smuggle a printing press into a colony and distribute utterly pedestrian literature. Their attempts will be met with shocking violence.
12. A PC is challenged to a duel for a perceived slight.
13. A PC is chased by a mob for a perceived slight.
14. A rambunctious child has stolen a horse, a brace of pistols, and a sack full of cash. Go find the kid. He's seven and a damn good shot. Bart Simpson without a shred of conscience.
15. The PCs are invited to a feast and exhaustively quizzed on fashion, manners, and tastes. Everything foreign is inferior.
16. The PCs are challenged to an impromptu horse race by a lone nobleman and his friends. During the race, while out of sight of everyone but one PC (and furiously fighting that PC with whips and spurs), the nobleman falls from his horse and breaks his neck in a very suspicious way.
17. A noblewoman offers the PCs an enormous sum to kill her husband and most of his relations. She will provide a convenient chart. It's a two-day job at least.
18. One family seems to be untouched by disease, poverty, or ill-fortune. Their noble neighbors attribute it to a book of true and accurate astrological charts kept in the family mausoleum.
19. A helpful farmer the PCs know well asks the PCs for a loan. He dies shortly afterwards. His last words, witnessed by a crowd of illiterate villagers, gave everything to the PCs. Some unscrupulous characters turn up with a sealed written will purportedly signed by the farmer. Without documentation, the PCs have no claim, no chance to get their money back, and no way to support the farmer's squabbling children.
20. An ancient evil has awoken. Only the Chosen One, carrying the bloodline of an ancient hero, can defeat it. Unfortunately, the ancient hero's bloodline is somewhat... diffuse. Everyone is in the same geographic area. There's no way to tell which son, daughter, illegitimate child, etc. is the Chosen One. Ages range from infant to elder. Can the PCs rally this enormous gaggle into some kind of world-saving army, or should they just get on a boat and go home?
Also, plantation-style settlement, as opposed to the town-based settlements of New England, seems ideal for hexcrawling and domain management.
|William Byrd II|
Fuck You, William Byrd III’m giving him a whole section. Think of it as a sort of... rage quarantine. Considering the content of the previous sections this should be a fair warning to you.
First, go read William Byrd II’s Wikipedia article. Just the first two sections please (Biography and Trans-Atlantic Ties). Good? Here’s where we first meet William in the book.
A case in point was the successful but very stormy marriage between William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd. In this relationship, which lasted ten years (1706-16), Byrd acted the role of the domestic patriarch. He disposed of his wife’s estate without consulting her, kept all his property in his own hands, and forbade her even to borrow a book from his library without permission. He also interfered in her domestic management, and infuriated her by dictating the smallest details of her appearance even to the shape of her eyebrows, which she was compelled to pluck according to his pleasure. At table one day, he and his male guests entirely consumed the best dish and left nothing for his wife to eat. She did not hide her outraged feelings.
The most violent quarrels were about the house servants, whom Mrs. Byrd abused with a sadistic cruelty that shocked even her husband, who was no humanitarian. One domestic battle occurred when Lucy Byrd ordered a little slave girl named Jenny to be burned with a hot iron for a minor fault.
Often a bitter quarrel ended in a bout of love-making. One furious battle began when Mrs. Byrd flogged a slave in the presence of a house guest—a major breach of etiquette in Virginia where slaves were supposed to be beaten after the guests had gone home. It ended in bed the next morning, when Byrd noted, “I lay abed till 9 o’clock this morning to bring my wife into temper again and rogered her by way of reconciliation.”
Women, especially gentlewomen, were held to the strictest standards of sexual virtue. Men, especially gentlemen, were encouraged by the customs of the country to maintain a predatory attitude toward women. A famous example was the secret diary of William Byrd II, an exceptionally full and graphic record of one planter’s very active sex life. In its attitude toward sex, this work was very different from any diary that was kept in Puritan New England. William Byrd was a sexual predator. Promiscuous activity was a continuing part of his mature life, and in some periods an obsession. With very mixed success, he attempted to seduce relatives, neighbors, casual acquaintances, strangers, prostitutes, the wives of his best friends, and servants both black and white, on whom he often forced himself, much against their wishes.
In the period 1709 to 1712, for example, when Byrd was more or less happily married, he was frequently engaged in sexual adventures:
2 [November 1709] I played at [r-m] with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed till she was angry and my wife also was uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone. I neglected to say my prayers, which I ought not to have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife.It is important to note that the remorse he felt on this occasion had to mainly to do with his sense of violating another gentleman’s property. More often, he felt no remorse at all.
Sometimes Byrd and his Virginia gentleman-friends went on collective woman hunts:
11 Mar. 1711. After church Mr. Goodwin invited us to dinner and I ate fish. Here we saw a fine widow Mrs. O-s-b-r-n who had been handsome in her time. From hence we went to Mr. B’s where we drank cider and saw Molly King, a pretty black girl.
20 [October 1711] Jenny, an Indian girl, had got drunk and made us good sport.
21 [October 1711] At night I asked a negro girl to kiss me.During this period in his life, Byrd’s sexual adventures were comparatively restrained. After his wife died, he sometimes engaged in this activity on a daily basis. An example comes from a visit to London in the month of September 1719:
7 September … went to see Mrs. S-t-r-d but she was from home …
8 September … saw two women, a mother and daughter who stayed about two hours and then came Mrs. Johnson with whom I supped and ate some fricasee of rabbit and about ten went to bed with her and lay all night and rogered her twice …
9 September … the two Misses Cornish called on us to go to Southwark Fair. We were no sooner there but Sally Cornish was so ill she was forced to go away to her sister and Colonel Cecil and I gallanted them to G-v-n [Covent] Garden.
11 September … I wrote some English till nine and then came Mrs. S-t-r-d. I drank a glass of wine to our good rest and then went to bed and rogered her three times. However, I could not sleep and neglected my prayers. …
12 … went to the coffeehouse … after supper I was very sleepy and about nine went home in a chair. It rained hard.
14 … About eight I went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met Molly and had some oysters for supper and about eleven we went to bed and I rogered her twice …
17 … about seven I went to Mrs. FitzHerbert’s where I ate some boiled pork and drank some ale. About nine I walked away and picked up a girl whom I carried to the bagnio and rogered her twice very well. It rained abundance in the night.October was a lean month.
1 October … we went to Will’s and from thence to the play, where was abundance of company and particularly Mrs. [Cambridge], as pretty as an angel. After the play I walked home and said my prayers.
2 October … went to meet Molly H-r-t-n at Mrs. Smith’s in Jermyn Street where I went to bed with her and lay till 9 o’clock but could do nothing. Then we had chicken for supper and I gave her two Guineas and about twelve walked home and neglected my prayers …
6 October. … endeavored to pick up a whore but could not. I neglected my prayers, for which God forgive me…
7 October … picked up a whore and carried her to a tavern where I gave her a supper and we ate a broiled fowl. We did nothing but fool and parted about 11 o’clock and I walked home and neglected my prayers …Within a few weeks he was well again.
16 October picked up a woman and went to the tavern where we had a broiled fowl and afterwards I committed uncleanness for which God forgive me. About eleven I went home and neglected my prayers.
17 October … to the play where was but indifferent company …
20 October … to the play where I saw nobody I liked so went to Will’s and stayed about an hour and then went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met a very tall woman and rogered her three times...In November, William Byrd and his English gentleman-friends were prowling in packs.
11 November, went with Lord Orrery to Mrs B-r-t-n where we found two chambermaids that my Lord had ordered to be got for us and I rogered one of them and about 9 o’clock returned again to Will’s where Betty S-t-r-d called on me in a coach and I went with her to a bagnio and rogered her twice, for which God forgive me …
12 … sat a little with Mrs. Perry …
13 … took my ways towards Mrs. Southwell’s but she was from home. Then I walked in the park and went to Ozinda’s … After we went to Will’s … then … to Mistress B-r-t and stayed about an hour.
14 … went away to Will’s where a woman called on me … then went to a bagnio where I rogered my woman but once. Her name was Sally Cook. There was a terrible noise in the night like a woman crying. …
22 … walked home and by the way picked up a woman and committed uncleanness with her, for which God forgive me …
27 … We sat and talked till ten and then retired and I kissed the maid and neglected my prayers.
28 … I ate some boiled milk for supper and romped with Molly F-r-s-y and about 9 o’clock retired and kissed the maid so that I committed uncleanness, for which God forgive me.
29 … After dinner it rained, that I could not walk so was content to romp with Molly F-r-s-y. In the evening we drank tea, and then sat and talked till seven, when I ate some boiled milk for supper. After supper we sat and talked and romped a little. About ten I retired and kissed the maid and said my prayers …In his last years, Byrd’s private life continued to be as crowded as his public career. He began each morning with lessons in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, and took his exercise almost every day. In the evenings he proved himself a mighty trencherman, and at any hour of the day he could be dangerous to unwary housemaids who came within reach. Even in his seventies, William Byrd continued to be a sexual predator:
9 May 1741 I played the fool with Sally …
15 June 1741 In the evening I played the fool with Marjorie. God forgive me.In old age Byrd moved more slowly, and rarely caught his prey. But he preserved most activities in his life even as he approached the end of it.
I would now like you to return to the Wikipedia article and review the list of accolades. These diaries aren’t a secret anymore. They’ve been published since the ‘40s. If the #metoo movement had struck in the early 1700s, William Byrd II would have been denounced by every woman he had ever met.
I’m not even quoting Fischer’s long section on domestic violence and punishment of servants, in which Byrd's diary is given a prominent place. Byrd asks for God's forgiveness after most of his sexual indiscretions; his violence never concerned him.
The only reason we know about William Byrd II’s evil ways – and I do not use the word “evil” lightly – is because he obsessively recorded them, possibly as a sort of penance, possibly as an attempt to become a better person. Byrd is damned by his own hand. How many other noblemen of Virginia, whose diaries were not quite so thorough, committed the same crimes or worse?
History might rage at him, but it hasn’t renamed the goddamn park.
Side Note: It’s very tempting to look at monsters like William Byrd II and congratulate ourselves. Be... cautious.
“These were the vices of his age,” Fischer writes while introducing Berkeley. I'm not entirely sure that's valid. They were the vices of his age and class and location. The Puritans of the same age did not fall into the same sins. Different sins, true, but for different reasons. In the next section, we’ll get to meet a few people who also acted outside their time.