Defamation and sexual reputation in Somerset, 1733-1850
This dissertation examines sexual reputation in the county of Somerset between 1733 and 1850. Its purpose is to explore plebeian sexual culture by tracing changes in the way plebeian men and women defined and defended their sexual reputations in an era of social, economic and cultural transition. In this period Somerset evolved from a prosperous and rapidly growing county with an economy based on agriculture and manufactures to a more static and primarily agrarian county; its major city, Bath, went from being a thriving resort to a retirement town. At the same time, the breakdown of the Puritan sexual consensus left a hiatus before the triumph of Victorianism during which a multiplicity of sexual cultures thrived. The defamation causes heard in the ecclesiastical courts of the diocese of Bath and Wells constitute the basic source for the study of plebeian sexual reputation. By the eighteenth century, these causes were concerned solely with sexual insults and the courts' clients were predominantly and increasingly married women drawn from the ranks of artisans and small tradespeople in the county's market towns and the city of Bath. The survival of this jurisdiction reflects a continuing need on the part of plebeian litigants for a cheap and public mode of settling disputes over honour. Though plebeian men continued to use the church courts to restore their good names long after upper class men had ceased to do so, their eventual abandonment of the courts has necessitated the use of common law sources to construct a picture of male reputation. As the industrial and agricultural revolutions proceeded, and the personnel of the church courts adopted a sexual ideology emphasising privacy, decorum and the double standard, traditional plebeian sexual mores were challenged. Definitions of male and female reputation diverged and the egalitarianism of the early eighteenth century weakened. By the mid-nineteenth century, the dominant sexual culture had triumphed: the distinctive plebeian sexual culture had been absorbed by the more homogeneous sexual culture of the Victorian era; litigants had ceased to use the church courts; and, in 1854, the defamation jurisdiction was abolished.