No matter who you are, or what kind of life you lead, you have probably done something today that would have gotten you arrested centuries ago — back in an era when many of the activities that we now think of harmless and commonplace were considered crimes. Well, let's be real — you're reading a website filled with frank sex talk and political news, so you'd probably be tried as a witch if you lived 400 years ago (and good for you!). But even your most uptight and morally upstanding friends have probably engaged in an activity over the past 24 hours that was deemed worthy of cruel and unusual punishment in previous eras — a time when even bowling was not safe from legal scrutiny.
Though these past laws seem beyond absurd — what kind of society would dole out capital punishment to people who skipped church two Sundays in a row?!! — they speak to the values of their eras, which often prized control and uniformity over the happiness of individuals, and devotion to organized religion above all else. Some of them also — surprise! — speak to the idea that women (who should be quiet and always open to getting pregnant) or the poor and merchant class (who shouldn't have fun and should sell their goods at whatever prices the authorities decided they should) are a lesser class of citizen than land-owning men. So read these eight things you probably do all the time (hey, you may have done them all today), and think of how lucky you are to live now, in an era where you can gossip, bang, and blaspheme to your heart's content — and sell shoes at any hour of the day that you please, too.
1. Not Going To Church: Colonial America
You may or may not go to church, but in 21st century, it's definitely your own call (or, if you live at home, possibly your parents' call. Sorry! We'll send you some snaps from brunch, it'll be just like you're there!). But in 17th century America, sleeping in on a Sunday could definitely get you more than a dirty look from your folks. The "Articles, Lawes and Orders Diuine, Politique, and Martiall for the Colony in Virginia" — laws, written in 1611, that were used to govern the American colony of Jamestown, Virginia — stipulated that, among other things, failure to attend church twice a day every day would result in the church-skipper being fined for one day on the first offense; they would be whipped as a second offense; and spend six months in the galleys for their third offense.
Skipping out on Sunday church services however, was far worse; you would get you fined a week's pay for your first offense, whipped and fined for the second offense, and killed for your third. Other, later colonial laws sentenced church-skippers to pay fines in cash or tobacco, which I think you'll agree is a real bargain, comparatively.
2. Public Drunkenness: Elizabethan England
OK, I'm not saying you get drunk in public every day; but if you do, you probably expect that worst you'll walk away with is a stern talking-to from neighbors disturbed by your rowdy discussions about Kimmy Gibler. But in Elizabethan England, tippling anywhere outside your own four walls could end in you being forced to wear the "drunkard's cloak." Which sounds a lot better than what it is actually is — not a cloak at all, but a barrel. Once the barrel was in place, the alleged public drunk was paraded through the town, which would theoretically give him pause the next time he thought about hitting the bottomless mimosa brunch special a bit hard.
3. Letting Your Animal Eat Things It Was Not Supposed To: Medieval Europe
This one requires a bit of explaining. See, if an animal under your care — say, a pig — happened to eat something that was judged inappropriate — say, a communion wafer — you might receive a punishment, as well. But more importantly, your pig would go on trial in court, and possibly face a death sentence. Because in medieval Europe, animals were often tried in courts when they committed acts that fell outside the bounds of polite society — from mauling a child, to eating a communion wafer.
Medieval Europeans shared their personal space much more frequently with a wide variety of domesticated animals, from pigs to donkeys, than most of us do today, and when those animals ran afoul of social mores, they had their morals and personalities assessed in lawyer-led animal trials — trials that they occasionally won (a donkey who was tried as part of her owner's bestiality trial was found innocent due to character witnesses; her owner was sentenced to death). No such luck for that poor wafer-snacking pig, though — she was found guilty and hung in 1394 in France.
4. Setting Your Own Prices For Your Business: Colonial America
If you run a small business, you know that if a customer thinks your prices are unfair, they'll leave bad feedback on Yelp, complain about you to their neighbors, and possibly even light a bag of dog poop in front of your store during a peak shopping period. They do not, however, have the option of putting you in a stockade because they think your prices to be too high — an option that colonial American officials had, and made use of. In colonial Boston, the stockade had one very unique victim who was placed in them for an hour for allegedly jacking up his prices — Edward Palmer, the carpenter who built the stockades for the town. His crime? Charging more for his lumber and services than the town administrators thought was fair.
5. Bowling: Elizabethan England
Why was bowling banned in the British town of Warwickshire at the turn of the 17th century? Not because the town politicians thought it made people morally weak or spiritually suspect; the town officials just didn't like it. According to historian Neil Bettridge speaking to the BBC, "they didn't want people to be wasting their time on what they thought were frivolous things." Thus, the town's bowlers could be punished with a fine, as could anyone who played tennis, or tried to sell shoes before 1 p.m. Well, now you finally know where to plan your next long weekend!
6. Gossiping: Medieval Europe
Have you heard the latest dirt? Apparently, in medieval Europe, women who were viewed as being "rude" gossip-mongers were punished by being forced to wear this mask, called a "scold's bridle," which made them unable to speak. Scandalous! And also weirdly sexist (since almost only women were punished this way). And also inhumane. And also absolute, utter nightmare fuel. Ugh, where all medieval European countries ruled by that clown guy from Saw?
7. Taking God's Name In Vain: Colonial America
Remember when you stubbed your toe this morning and then let loose a stream of colorful expletives, which may have included both the words "Jesus" and "fartknocker"? In colonial America, you'd already be in jail. I mean, jail if you were lucky! In that same Jamestown legal code, "blaspheming" — which covered speaking " impiously or maliciously against the holy and blessed Trinity or...against the known articles of the Christian faith" was a crime punishable by death.
8. All Sorts Of Sex: Colonial America
Though sodomy laws were used to oppress gay people in the U.S. until 2003, when the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision found them to be unconstitutional, in the colonial era, sodomy laws prohibited not just sexual contact between two men, but anal sex between a man and a woman, and sex of any sort with an animal. Though colonial sodomy laws carried penalty of death, according to historian William Eskridge in his book Dishonorable Fashions, the laws were rarely enforced; there are records of less than 10 executions for sodomy throughout the U.S. during the 17th century, and most of those were for committing bestiality.
However, this isn't because colonial Americans were great champions of gay rights. Rather, colonial culture didn't really get the concept of sexual orientation, and these laws were just intended to steer people towards Puritanism-approved procreative sex, rather than sex purely for pleasure's sake. Most sodomy laws remained rarely-enforced until 1880 or so, when the term was expanded to include oral sex; that, combined with urbanization, increased policing, and increased social visibility for gay people, led sodomy laws to become the freedom-crushing rules we all grew up knowing about. So yeah, these horrific laws are a thing of the past...but not as much a thing of the past as we might like to think.