Ever moved your sheeprack on Sunday morning?

Detail from a penance sentencing Elizabeth Farnam for adultery. MA 665.12

Ever moved your sheeprack on Sunday morning?

Now, it might not be a big deal. But if you were caught doing this in the 1500s, you could end up in an English church court.

The Morgan’s collection of 16th-century penances records the sentences imposed by such a court. From these documents, we learn that Henrie Barker was convicted of playing cardes uppon the Sabboth daie, that John Tims is a common swearerand that Robert Stennell and William Ffowler did abuse drinck.  Busybodies Elizabeth Boltwell and Katharine Oliver were found guilty of being a pratlinge gossip and a slaunderouse person.


The red dots painted on this 1801 map show where some parishioners carried out their penances. MA 665.19

Elizabeth must wear a white sheet with papers pinned, the one upon her breste and the other upon her backe, declaringe her abhominable offence, and stand in the bull ring in Cambridge from 10 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, holding a white wand and asking the passing parishioners to forgive and pray for her.

The sentences for these relatively minor infractions usually involved simply confessing your sin to the churchwardens. However, if you were so unlucky as to be a woman brought to court for adultery or bearing a child out of wedlock, the sentence was much harsher. Elizabeth Farnam, who was convicted of adultery, has been assigned the following penance (pictured above):

The following Sunday, she is again required to dress in the white sheet with papers pinned to her breast and back. This time, however, she must stand with her white wand on the church porch all morning, asking the passing parishioners to forgive and pray for her. The minister is then to bring her inside (while the congregation sings the psalm Misere), where she is sentenced to kneel before the congregation during the reading of the gospel and then publicly confess "I have broken his divine lawes & commaundementes in committinge the most shamefull and abhominable sin of fornication." After this she has to stand before the congregation while the minister reads a homily against adultery and fornication.

And as if once isn’t enough, she is sentenced to go through the whole thing again the next week as well.

For more information about this collection of penances, click here.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

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