The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

sheepThe Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’, was one of the most commented upon in the whole Decalogue.  ‘Adultery’ was quickly expanded by Protestant authors to include all forms of ‘uncleanness’, in thought, word and deed, alone and with other humans and creatures, both in and outside of wedlock.  Fornication, buggery, masturbation and bestiality were some of the headline crimes, but authors also sought to proscribe all ‘occasions’ and ‘enticements’ to sins of the flesh, including mixed dancing, excess consumption of food and alcohol, as well as lewd pictures, cosmetics, alluring gestures and coquettish glances.  In contrast to such filthy living, the commandment enjoined chastity, both in and out of marriage: ‘immoderate use of the marital bed’ was as much a sin as pre- and extra-marital sex.

In this post, however, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Seventh Commandment which attracted a great deal of attention during the long sixteenth century – how crimes of the flesh ought to be punished.  It did not fail to escape the attention of a range of (mostly clerical) authors, that whilst murderers and thieves might face execution by the secular authorities for their actions, the most the church courts could do to adulterers was issue a harsh fine or a stern penance.  Was not adultery also a breach of God’s law, and was the breach of every single commandment not a serious offence in the eyes of the Lord?  The Old Testament had known how to deal with such crimes.  Leviticus 20:10 threatened that ‘the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife … the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death’, while Deuteronomy 22:22 thundered, if a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then both of them shall die’.

sturoundheadsIt has long been known that, during the Interregnum, the Puritan government issued, on 10 May 1650, an ‘Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery, and Fornication’.[1]  This act made the sin of adultery into a capital criminal offence, punishable by death.  Keith Thomas has explained that the act was almost a ‘dead letter’ from the moment it was passed – the harshest sentences were ‘scarcely ever imposed’ and the act lapsed in 1660 and was not renewed.[2]  What is less often remarked upon is that this was not simply a Civil War-era expression of unfettered radical puritanism, but the realisation of a much longer campaign of agitation and attempted legal reform.

Probably the longest and most passionate case for introducing the death penalty for adultery came from the pen of the prolific evangelical author and translator George Joye.  Joye’s 1549 treatise A contrarye (to a certayne manis) consultacion: that adulterers ought to be punished wyth deathe was a vernacular response to a Latin treatise published a year earlier by John Foxe, in which the future martyrologist made a humane argument for the merciful treatment of adulterers (along the lines of hate the sinner, love the sin).[3]  Joye, in contast, argued that adultery was as serious a crime for his own society as it had ever been for the Old Testament Jews, and that God’s will was as ‘immutable, constant and ferme’ as his commandments were ‘constante perpetuall and invariable’.[4]

shutterstock_126852710Joye approvingly cited the Decades or sermons of Heinrich Bullinger, dedicated to the English King Edward VI, in which the Swiss reformer ‘affirms death as the punishment for adultery, neither abrogated nor changed’.  Joye had also, in the 1520s, translated the Strassburg reformer Martin Bucer’s Latin psalter into English; Bucer’s Latin treatise De Regno Christi also argued at length that those found guilty of adultery ought to be executed.  Against the charge that the death penalty for adultery had been abrogated by the new law brought by the coming of Christ, Joye answered, why abrogate the punishment for adultery and not those for crimes such as theft and murder?  Magistrates had been given the sword and sceptre to punish wrongdoers according to God’s word and commandment: ‘for whom the worde can not refrayne, God hath ordyned the swerde to repress’.

Thomas Cranmer’s (abortive) Edwardian attempt to reform English Canon Law, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, also mentioned how ‘the wickedness of adultery’ was ‘specifically attacked by one of the Ten Commandments’ and was punishable by death under the old law.[5]  Cranmer’s new proposed sentencing guidelines fell short of execution, but did suggest penalties of perpetual banishment or life imprisonment, alongside transferral of goods and property from the guilty party to the innocent.

While Cranmer’s proposed legal reforms never took effect, they do reflect the extent to which the morality of the Ten Commandments came to shape the debate about key social, ethical and legal issues, such as adultery, during the course of the English reformation.

[1] ‘Table of acts: 1650’, in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. lxxvi-lxxxii. British History Online [accessed 22 October 2017].

[2] Keith Thomas, ‘The Puritans and Adultery – The Act of 1650 Reconsidered’, in Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (eds), Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth Century History Presented to Christopher Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 258.

[3] Foxe, John, De non plectendis [ad]ulteris consultatio Ioannis Foxi (London, 1548) STC2: 11235.

[4] Joye, George, A contrarye (to a certayne manis) consultacion: that adulterers ought to be punyshed wyth deathe (London, 1549), STC2: 14822, sigs. Aiiv-Aiiir.

[5] Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, ed. Gerald Bray (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), p. 265.

1 thought on “The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

  1. Pingback: Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface | the many-headed monster

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