Monstrous Acts

By Fudge, Erica | History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview
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Monstrous Acts

Fudge, Erica, History Today


Erica Fudge explores a shift in attitudes towards bestiality in the sixteenth century and how this impinged on wider issues concerning human status.

IN 1670 THOMAS RIGG OF Hadmore in the North Riding of Yorkshire appeared before a Justice of the Peace. His deposition reads:

   Upon Sunday last being the 22nd day of May betwixt nine and ten of the
   clock in the morning, as he and Elizabeth his wife were going through
   Gillimore town field ... they espied one Christopher Sunley of Gillimore
   aforesaid being upon a mare with his arms clasped about her loins, and
   jumping at her with his body, in beastly and unseemly manner for the time
   they were going about twenty yards. And saith that when he came off her he
   looked down betwixt his legs, then looking about him he espied this
   informant and his wife, whereupon he went to the other side of the mare,
   and laid him down.

The Riggs were not the only people to find their walks interrupted in the seventeenth century. In June 1656, for example, John Sweedale of Easby had a similar experience. He stated that:

   On Saturday last as he was going to look at some horses belonging to the
   Lord Eure that pastured in my lands around Easby for fear they should get
   into the corn, he saw William Clarke of the same town, labourer, about the
   hour of ten of the clock at night standing very near a mare, and coming
   near unto him perceived him (to the best of his judgment) committing
   buggery with the said mare, being William Ripley's. He saith the mare is of
   a chestnut colour, and that this fact was committed in a place called
   Burrow Green, belonging to the Lord Eure. When this informant came first up
   to and spoke with this said William Clarke and asked him what he was doing
   for he had a wife of his own, the said William Clarke prayed him for God's
   sake, to keep his counsel, and he would not stay two days in England.

When Clarke himself was questioned -- he obviously had not left the country -- he stated that he was, as Sweedale had deposed, in Burrow Green, but that he was

   ... looking at the thighs of a mare behind, to see whether the ox had
   hipped or gored her behind or not, for as his master's draught was going
   down a hill that same day in the afternoon he saw one of the oxen hip at
   the said mare which was then in the draught, but denies that he committed
   buggery with the said mare.

Clarke's denial of the accusation made against him was not surprising. Since 1533 bestiality had been a felony without benefit of clergy, and anyone convicted of the offence would `suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods, chattels, debtors, lands, tenements, hereditaments'. The 1533 statute presented the offence as `that detestable and abominable vice', and used the term `buggery' to describe it. A later statute of 1548 added an additional clause advising that:

   No person be received for witness or to lay or give evidence against the
   said offendor ... [who] should take any profit or commodity by the death of
   the said offendor if he were attained or convicted of the said crime and

This addition can only be regarded as a protection against wilful accusations made for gain. Buggery was too serious an issue to be threatened lightly.

The particular danger of an accusation of bestiality was not only the threat of execution, however. In legal documents the terms vice, crime and sin were all used to describe the offence, and the slippage in the language hints at the variety of ways in which people living in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries understood bestiality. There is more to this than just committing an illegal act. For Edward Coke, the seventeenth-century systematiser of the common law, bestiality was `a detestable and abominable sin, amongst Christians not to be named.

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