Order in the household : domestic violence in 17th century Massachusetts
Mayr, Patricia A.
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The 17th century was quite nakedly a period of nation-building, cultural dislocation, and renegotiation of status within the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a binding legal document formulated on Puritan religious principles The Body of Liberties mapped out the relationship of the church to the commonwealth, the Commonwealth to the male head of household, and the head of the household to the wife, children, and servants. By formalizing what had previously been a matter of custom and tradition, this early document solidified the social hierarchy and brought it under the purview of law. It was within this context that the first legal prohibition against domestic violence was formulated in the West, dictating that “Every marryed woeman shall be free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defence upon her assault” (excerpt from the Body of Liberties cited in Pleck 1987:21-22). Given that this migrant culture lay at the precipice of change (geographically displaced and in the process of displacing), and because they were equipped with the technical means to ‘fix’ these relations through law backed by force and sanction, it is reasonable to ask: ‘Why this law?’ ‘Why now?’ and ‘Toward what effects?’ I begin by arguing against Pleck’s (1987,1989) claim that the Massachusetts Bay Colony devised a law against domestic violence out of humanitarian concern for women. By describing the socio-political context in which this law was one small aspect of a much broader and somewhat fragmented endeavor to assert ‘order’ and to establish authority, I argue that it would be a mistake to emphasize its prohibitive message over and above its productive and often contradictory effects. Drawing from Haskins insights on 17th century English legal tactics, and Roberts-Millers (1999) analysis of Puritan logic and language use, I warn against reading Puritan rhetoric or legal discourse literally, or ignoring the ways in which a complex system of regulatory controls and discursive slippages interacts to produce unexpected effects. When this new law prohibiting domestic violence is placed within this context, new insights and new questions emerge.