Fort Klock Historic Restoration
& Indian Castle Church

The Art of Bundling

Being an Inquiry into the Nature and Origins of that Curious but Universal Folk-Custom, with an Exposition of the Rise & Fall of Bundling in the Eastern Part of North America.

By Dana Doten, 1938

Chapter V


This our World has been by the Sin of Man so perverted from the true Ends of it, and rendered full of such loathsome and hateful Regions, and such Scelerata Castra, that the revenges of God would have long since rendered it as a fiery Oven, if our blessed JESUS had not interceded for it.... COTTON MATHER, The Christian Philosopher.

IN TAHITI, as various writers since Melville have delighted to explain, men and women live with each other more simply and excitingly than they do in Brooklyn or Des Moines. The relationship is as unhampered by the red tape of civilization as the lovely bodies of South Sea natives are by ugly, binding European clothes. The missionary zeal to force these island people into our pattern, our physical and mental garments, is rapidly disappearing. And it is losing ground because we are beginning to realize that native peoples must be judged by their own codes, their own sets of values. Once we sense the tradition, the thousands of years of living and reasoning behind Tahitian customs, we no longer are shocked by sarongs. For we see them as logical, genuine, and inevitable under the circumstances. We acknowledge that the evil lay in our own minds, our own judgments, and not in the erect pride and beauty of half-naked island women.

All this should warn us against arbitrary, smug and priggish indictment of manners which seem strange only because we are ignorant of the reasons for them. Bundling is an excellent example of a misunderstood custom. To form an intelligent opinion of the moral quality of bundling, we should take time to understand the morality of the age, the moral inheritance of bundlers. The aim in this chapter is simply to appraise bundling behavior against the background of standards in seventeenth and eighteenth century America. Inasmuch as the middle eighteenth century was the classic period of bundling, it is primarily this era which requires analysis. But we shall need also a little light on the behavior of the early New England Puritans and the practical results of their engrossing religion.

Chief among the points to be thought of here are the following: the moral tone of eighteenth century America necessarily reflected the moral tone of Europe at the time; after making ample allowances for the harshness of early Puritan codes and punishments, we must still survey with respect the formidable record of sexual offenses established by the seventeenth century New England Colonies; it should not be forgotten-as it usually has been-that the Pilgrims were virtually Elizabethans; furthermore, it is now well established that the very predominance of a repressive religion resulted in neurotic and often hysterical behavior (THE SCARLET LETTER); lastly, New England and the Middle Atlantic States were still at that time largely in the frontier stage of development, and were exposed to both the actual peril and the moral dangers of a century-long war, the various campaigns against the French and Indians.

Joseph Tracy, in his book on THE GREAT AWAKENING, has traced the psychological background which accounted for the tremendous emotional impact of sermons by such preachers as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield during the great revival movement of the 1740's. Tracy's summary is relevant here.

"It was a time, too, of agitable nerves," he writes. "There had been two centuries of tremendous nervous excitement. There had been the Reformation, the peasant's war, and the religious wars in Germany; the Reformation, the rise of Puritanism, the Republic, and the times of the Covenanters in Great Britain; the rise of Protestantism, the religious wars, and the persecutions of the Huguenots in France.... New England sprung out of some of the strongest, deepest, and most permanent of these excitements; and, to say nothing of her religious history, her contest with boisterous seas, and gloomy, unexplored forests, and savage foes, the arrow from an unseen hand by day and the war whoop that startled her sleepers by night, had kept her spirit ready for excitement. Though not to be frightened, she was easily roused, even to an unnatural intensity of feeling and action."

The general moral level of the eighteenth century as a whole is, then, our first concern. Probably no word was in greater disrepute at that period than the adjective "vulgar"; yet no word so adequately describes whole areas of eighteenth century experience, as judged by modern times.

The novels of Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, the sketches of Hogarth, the satire of Voltaire, the table-talk of Samuel Johnson-in whichever mirror we look we find eighteenth century society reflected as basically coarse and brutal. In no age, it is true, have elegance and refinement of manner been carried to greater excess, but this brilliant veneer was both thin and rare. London, Versailles, the miniature courts of the tiny German principalities-a few choice groups perfected that precious loveliness which now seems to have had no purpose deeper than serving the brush of a Watteau. But the rest of mankind neither shared nor appreciated delicacy. And surely country life in the eighteenth century was, if we can believe the great English realists just named, frequently reduced to the level of human stock-farming. As for the swelling urban population, the "Paris mob" of the French Revolution was a fair cross-section of the effect of contemporary overcrowding and poverty on the working class. As a matter of fact, although the French aristocracy could echo Burke's hollow plea that in their case vice lost half its evil by losing all its grossness, the English aristocracy could hardly enter such a defense-grossness was surely the fashion in the London of the German Kings. Even in Versailles the magnificence of formal gardens and gilt-framed mirrors was in corrupt contrast not merely to the realities of courtly conduct, but to the royal standards of health and decency.

Therefore, before we weigh the morality of American bundling, we must remind ourselves that the Colonies could not escape this general European atmosphere, this "mal de siecle". If bundling impressed the Continental traveler as an innovation, certainly any such new scheme must be held an improvement in a century when the only variations in open eroticism were those of class distinction, when love, frankly, tended to be either crude or vicious.

But, coming to an examination of Colonial morality itself, let us get back to the very beginning, taking as our text a paragraph from Governor William Bradford's HISTORY OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION. The year in question is 1642.

"Marvilous it may be to see and consider how some kind of wickedness did grow & breake forth here, in a land wher the same was so much witnesed against, and so narrowly looked unto, & severely punished when it was knowne; as in no other place more, or so much, that I have known or heard of; insomuch as they have been somewhat censured, even by moderate and good men, for their severitie in punishments. And yet all this could not suppress ye breaking out of sundrie notorious sins, (as this year, besides other, gives us too many sad presidents and instances), espetially drunkennes and unclainnes; not only incontinencie betweene persons maried, for which many both men and women have been punished sharply enough, but some maried persons allso. But that which is worse, even sodomie and bugerie, (things fearfull to name), have broak forth in this land, oftener than once."

Debunking, especially of the Puritans, is a jejune occupation. This is not a debunking book. The purpose here is merely to correct a still-prevalent misconception concerning the first white inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard, namely that they were exclusively prudes and prigs. Evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

Several theories have been put forward. In his HISTORY OF AMERICAN LIFE, Thomas J. Wertenbaker lays much of the blame on the "sprinkling of servants and laborers" among the Puritans.

"The Puritan leaders," he says, "found it a difficult matter to force such persons to conform to their moral code. The records show many cases of gross impurity. In a single day, in 1633, at Plymouth, we find three instances of this kind: a certain John Holmes being fined and placed in the stocks for drunkenness; 'John Hows & Jone, his wife' condemned 'to sitt in the stocke because the said Jone conceived with childe by him before they were publickely married;' 'John Thorp & Alice his wife' accorded similar treatment for the same offense. On September 3, 1639, Mary Mendame of Duxburrow, for 'uncleannesse' with an Indian, was sentenced 'to be whipt at a carte tayle through the townes streete, and to weare a badge upon her left sleeve.' The Plymouth records show many whippings for sodomy, and one execution for 'bestiality.' It was the latter case which so discouraged Governor Bradford, a case which he felt constrained to mention only because 'the truth of ye historic requires it.' Similar conditions existed in other parts of New England. 'Violations of modesty and purity before marriage were but too frequent,' says one writer, 'and this in the face of a stern magistracy and strict Puritan usage.' At New Haven, Medford, Boston and elsewhere there are many instances of gross misconduct.

"The testimony shows, however, that in the early years offenses of this kind were generally confined to servants and freedmen. The mass of the Puritan settlers lived pure and godly lives, in strict conformity with the ideals which led them to the New World.

"The rigid standards set by the ministers eventually proved harmful to morality itself. In all ages waves of asceticism have been followed by periods of moral relaxation, and New England proved no exception to the rule. The laxness which marked British society under Charles II and James II had a faint counterpart in Boston, Providence and Hartford. As the licentiousness of the Restoration period was a reaction against the rigid code of Cromwell's time, so the stern censorship of Endicott and Norton was, in part at least, responsible for the general loosening of moral standards in New England during the last three decades of the seventeenth century. A regime which will not compromise with human nature must sooner or later succumb."

Not all authorities are content to lay all the blame on the lower-caste Colonists. Arthur W. Calhoun, in his SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FAMILY) suggests other possible sources of contamination.

"These manifestations of carnality so alien to the traditional picture of Puritanism demand explanation. Doubtless the bleak barrenness and economic dearth that oppressed the first settlers helped to reduce life to elemental levels. As Lamb put it, 'Poor men's smoky cabins are not always porticoes of moral philosophy.' Moreover, where wealth was scant, questions of legitimacy and inheritance were less urgent. Besides, the settlers had brought from England a fund of coarse sensuality, veneered it might be with modish asceticism, yet certainly demanding to be heard. The form of sex indulgence that developed may have been due in part to the stern morality that did not allow for a class of recognized prostitutes..."

The picture seems pretty black. Probably too black. In one sense the Puritan leaders, such as Bradford, give prejudiced evidence against their own people through obsession with sin. Many of the heinous, unspeakable crimes of the settlers might not be considered quite so evil today. The masochistic nature of the Puritan faith outlawed even innocent pleasures to an alarming extent. A light heart was frequently judged to be an evil heart, and many offenders were simply seeking fun. The celebrated Maypole dancers at Merriemount, for instance-Endicott destroyed Merriemount as a farmer burns out a hornets' nest-might nowadays have been satisfied with reading the New Yorker.

For a seventeenth century Puritan, life itself came pretty close to being a sin. And to insure that erring mankind did not deceive itself concerning probable future existence, a code of punishments was devised, the completeness and ingenuity of which might be considered an accurate sample of Divine wrath to come. The gallows, the pillory, the lash, and a dozen auxiliary arrangements made generous contributions to the Puritan technique of preparation for the next world.

To list but one category of punishments, here is an inventory of scarlet letters (of which the first has been immortalized by Hawthorne):

These letters were an evolution from the earlier branding of forehead, cheek, or hands; they were cut from red cloth, attached to the outer clothing on breast or arm, and were worn for stipulated periods (the length of which depended upon the gravity of the offense). Only in New England, apparently, were they popular, the other Colonies never taking up the fashion.

All this may seem a far cry from bundling, but it is really to the point. For the soil where the seed of bundling was planted is quite as important as the seed itself. Thus early Puritan behavior reinforces eighteenth century morality in the inheritance of Yankee bundlers. Another inheritance was the Elizabethan spirit. Few of us connect the somber, plodding Pilgrims with the glory and glamor of Shakespeare's England. But the Mayflower did actually carry to our shores young men and women who were straight out of the most virile and picturesque era in English history.

The present author has reason to remember this, for his own family progenitor, an active and doubtless troublesome youth, was arrested for fighting a duel shortly after the Mayflower landed. It was the old Elizabethan style of duel, with sword and dagger, such as you see in HAMLET, and, though it did not end mortally, he was punished severely by leaders who intended to discourage this dangerous pastime in a land where every man was needed to fight the wilderness.

It might not always have been good blood, this Elizabethan strain in the first settlers, but it was hot blood, eager, daring, adventurous. Think of it as running in New England veins, unsubdued despite necessary external conformity, through a full century and a half, till the Revolution found it ready.

Even in the early period, when the power of the Church was at its height, the repressions of Puritan religion, often nurtured the very evil they fought. It is not surprising, therefore, that when that power weakened, when the old leaders died and the old convictions no longer held men's minds as in a vise, we find a natural, rising tide of immorality setting in. By the end of the seventeenth century standards were loosening rapidly. And again the Church fought fire with oil. The following entry from the church records of Braintree, Massachusetts, for March 2, 1683, gives a typical picture.

"Temperance, the daughter of Brother F-, now the wife of John B-, having been guilty of the sin of fornication with him that is now her husband, was called forth in open congregation, and presented a paper containing a full acknowledgment of her great sin and wickedness,- publickly bewayled her disobedience to parents, pride, unprofitableness under the means of grace, as the cause that might provoke God to punish her with sin, and warning all to take heed of such sins, begging the church's prayers, that God would humble her and give a sound repentance, ec. Which confession being read, after some debate, the brethren did generally, if not unanimously judge that she ought to be admonished; and accordingly she was admonished of her great sin, which was spread V before her in divers particulars, and charged to search her own heart wayes and to make thorough work in her Repentance, EC from which she was released by the church vote unanimously on April 11th, 1698."

By forcing open confession of cohabitation before marriage, the Church, which, in those days, combined both civil and religious authority, hoped to discourage premature assumption of matrimonial duties. How successful it was we shall see if we trace the custom down through the following century. Charles Francis Adams has searched the records of many old Massachusetts towns, and reports as representative his discoveries in Groton.

He found that, under this system of public confession, "the records of the Groton church show that out of two hundred persons owning the baptismal covenant in that church during the fourteen years between 1761 and 1775 no less than sixty-six confessed to fornication before marriage. The entries recording these cases are very singular. At first the full name of the person, or persons in the case of husband and wife, is written, followed by the words confessed and restored' in full. Somewhat later, about the year 1763, the record becomes regularly 'Confessed Fornication' which two years later is reduced to 'Con. For.;' which is subsequently still further abbreviated into merely 'C. F.' During the three years 1789, 1790, and 1791 sixteen couples were admitted to full communion; and of these nine had the letters 'C.F.' inscribed after their names in the church records."

Calhoun remarks that "the greater part of the Braintree confessions of incontinence were between 1726 and 1744, the period of the Great Awakening.... Perhaps confession increased with the rise of religious enthusiasm. It may be that sex excitement was concomitant with the religious frenzy."

It may well be.

The Great Awakening was a tremendous surge of revivalism which swept the Colonies in the 1740's. It was inspired largely by the burning eloquence of George Whitefield, the great English preacher, who roused multitudes in open-air sermons from Boston to Savannah. It was animated also by Jonathan Edwards, the most powerful theologian New England was ever to produce. Both men succeeded, as few revivalists ever have, in making real to their audiences the perpetual, intimate, fearful relationship between the individual and God. The personal observation, the personal judgment, the personal vengeance-these Divine attributes became excitingly, horribly alive to those who took part in the Great Awakening. And before long there developed every symptom of what was later to be known as camp-meeting hysteria. Trumbull says of Edwards' famous Enfield sermon that "before the sermon was ended, the assembly appeared deeply impressed and bowed down with an awful conviction of their sin and danger. There was such a breathing of distress and weeping, that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard."

Mass excitement passed over into an epidemic stage; convulsions, fainting spells, shouting and wailing-the mesmerized communicants experienced all these signs of spiritual rebirth.

Truly, it may well have been that the lengthening entries of those cryptic initials "C. F." in the church records were but normal human consequences of the Great Awakening. Thus were our fallible forbears helped by their religion in the hand-to-hand struggle with Satan. Stiles, in a passage which stirred to wrath all the patriotic scholars of Connecticut, introduces the theme of the Colonial Wars. "Then came war, and young New England brought from the long Canadian campaigns, stores of loose camp vices and recklessness, which soon flooded the land with immorality and infidelity. The church was neglected, drunkenness fearfully increased, and social life was sadly corrupted."

We are all familiar with the aftermath of war. If the lesson of 1914-1918 can be forgotten-as it seemingly can, by dictators-every one alive today is witnessing the moral disintegration following the campaigns in Ethiopia, Spain, and China. Nothing is more immoral than wartime morale, and like breeds like, after the shooting stops. Perhaps postwar orgies come simply because people get so sick of lies that they turn against even the benign deceptions of conventional ethics. In any event they do turn.

The great battle for world empire between France and England, beginning with Louis XIV and ending with Napoleon-a century and a half-was waged in India and in the New World as well as in Europe. The English Colonists were engaged in campaigns against Canada through most of this period, fighting successively King William's War (1689-1697), Queen Anne's War (1702-1713), King George's War (1741-1748), and the French and Indian War (1756-1763). In some cases there were large-scale formal maneuvers, as when Sir William Pepperrell led four thousand Massachusetts militiamen to the capture of the great French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745. For the most part it was guerilla warfare-a long, indecisive series of frontier skirmishes and forest massacres. Through the entire first half of the century, with only short breathing-spells, the Colonies were sending their young men out into the wilderness to the north and west, to fight an enemy composed largely of savages, often led by fanatics; for the Jesuit principle of casuistry fitted well with incitement of Indian outrage against the heretical English Protestants.

It would be unwise to over-stress the point, but this military background surely must, as Stiles indicates, have colored Colonial morality of the period. War is in itself demoralizing; frontier war, with the inevitable brutalities and indecencies which accompany it, is more so. Moreover the contact with French influence could hardly have had a salutary effect on Yankee youngsters. If London had traditionally feared corruption from her gay neighbors across the channel, how much more invidious must have been Gallic morality as personified by the coureurs-de-bois, the voyageurs, of Canada, with their transient squaws and their wild ways of life!

Every little New England village must have felt the shock of these influences, as the most vigorous of the young men came back, decade after decade, from a thrilling, dangerous, libertine life in the wilderness wars.

Now, at last, we can get back to bundling. The digression, if somewhat extensive, was only to give us a little insight into the moral and religious forces at work in the society which created bundling, and into the ethical problems of eighteenth century Americans. The plain fact emerges that bundling was by no means a unique corruption introduced into an Eden of simple Puritan virtue. Quite the reverse. Bundling was clearly superior to prevailing practice, was, in fact, one of the few healthy influences in an era beset by neuroses, vulgarity, and constant war.

To sum up: the eighteenth century Colonists were in part inheritors of Elizabethan vitality, were naturally influenced by current European morality, found their religion no complete ethical support, but rather a source of hysterical and morbid inversion, and, lastly, were almost always burdened by war and all the attendant evils,

These men and women perfected the institution of bundling. They did not apologize for it then. We, their descendants, need not apologize for it now. They were rightly amused when sophisticates and foreigners accused them of grossness, for they knew what city standards and continental standards were.

Bundling may not be better than our modern procedure, but it was vastly better than what went on in Parisian salons or among the English landed gentry. It was vastly cleaner than much that the Pilgrims had found amongst them, vastly saner than the religious-sexual hysteria of the Great Awakening, with its sequel of camp-meeting babies.

If there were probably some church records where the entry might have read "C. B." (confessed bundling) rather than "C. F.," at least bundling was by no means responsible for the prevalence of the "C. F." degree. Incidentally, it is to be hoped that no zealous genealogy-tracer has seized with misguided alacrity upon the "C. F." after a family entry, and boasted of some special Colonial distinction thereby implied!

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