Under a Thatched Roof: Sex and the Polish Peasantry of the 17th and 18th Centuries
Permission for premarital sex was commonplace. The village only reacted when a girl became pregnant, and if the father of the child didn’t want to marry her, he paid child support in the form of a cow. Dr. Tomasz Wiślicz tells Newsweek about customs from 300 years ago.
Newsweek Historia: Where did we learn about sex among the peasantry of the 17th and 18th centuries?
Dr. Tomasz Wiślicz: The peasants were illiterate, so they didn’t leave us any written records. The main sources come from courtroom testimony, although they represent situations which violated the established norms. We know the least about legal, marital sex. Church records also tell us a lot, and give us an idea about when people married and conceived children.
The romanticization of peasant culture began in the 19th century. Peasants were to be hard-working, God-fearing, and chaste. However, in reality their sex ethic was far less rigorous than the example set for them by the church. Virginity, in today’s sense of the word, was not an especially valuable asset. Past ethnography believed that the proof of a woman’s abstinence from sex prior to marriage relied on the ritual of pokładziny, or the public demonstration of a bloodied sheet during the wedding night for the gathered wedding guests. In spite of this there have been many known successful pokładziny for women who were known to have been pregnant at the time of the wedding. More often than not the village inhabitants were well aware of it too.
From both historical and ethnographic research we draw a complicated system of customs allowing a rather safe cultivation of premarital sex. For example, girls of a certain age had their beds moved from the common room they shared with the rest of her family, into a storage space, such as those used for storing food or valuables. Boys sneaking into a girl’s bedroom at night were a common motif of folk poetry, and from historical sources we can ascertain that the older generations didn’t particularly want to get in the way of these escapades.
NH: When did young people begin to engage in sex? One peasant song tells, “Od sochy do sochy, niech trawa rośnie. Nie dawaj picochy, az ci porośnie” (From plow to plow, let the grass grow. Don’t give up your pussy, until your grass grows).
TW: Girls were allowed to start having sex once they began to menstruate, most likely between the ages of 14 and 15. Boys may have started a bit later. Investigation of parochial books shows that the average age at which peasants were married in the 17th and 18th century was between 20 and 24 for women, and 25-29 for men. Therefore, between reaching sexual maturity and starting a family there was a period of about 10 years. Many peasant children left the home during their teenage years to find servant positions – something in the way of job training in different villages or a manor house. Serving in another peasant household had a family-like aspect. The servant was treated as one of the family, ate their meals with their employers, worked alongside them in the fields and at home, and in addition was paid a small sum of money. Their behavior was supervised by the host, but of course not nearly as scrupulously as by their own parents. Serving was an ideal occasion to form closer relationships with the opposite sex, and often times this was when first sexual encounters took place. At times these relationships ended in marriage. Most marriages were among people from the same parish, so the number of potential partners in a given area was rather small and everyone knew one another. It was a little bit like having to choose a mate out of the group of people you had gone to school with since preschool.
NH: How sexually aware were most villagers?
TW: They knew what sex led to, because mating horses or cows was a public act which was witnessed by entire families. It was also difficult to obscure people’s sexual activity. Children knew what their parents did at night because most of them lived in a single room. Since this took place under the cover of darkness, sex was more often heard than seen: the squeaking of beds, sounds of bodies…
But practical knowledge was rather scarce. I read testimony from a girl who attempted to establish paternity of her child by saying she had sex with a particular man on New Year’s, but her child was born in November. They called experts and midwives to the stand, but in the end the ex-lover was acquitted.
NH: Where did people make love?
TW: Finding an intimate spot was difficult. In a village consisting of a dozen or so homesteads it was easy to know everyone’s whereabouts. Going into the forest wasn’t very pleasant. Firstly, the forest was where pigs grazed, so you can imagine what the ground looked like. Secondly, it was difficult to hide because trees were stripped of lower branches gathered for firewood. Lovers would have to go deep into the woods. The most common places for lovemaking were barns and stables, and not always just at night. Every favorable moment was taken advantage of. There were accounts of a couples found making love in the manure pit, especially during the winter when it’s hard to go into the forest, and the heat from the manure was an additional bonus.
The most abundant sex was had during harvest time, when everyone worked together, often long into the night. Overall we can say that in the peasant community there was an atmosphere of silent approval for premarital sex. For example, parents allowed their children to have “sleepovers” in the barn, or even openly carry on sexual relationships if they were engaged.
NH: How were people partnered? In terms of wealth? Beauty?
TW: A sexually attractive partner was one who was good marriage material and with whom one could establish an economically successful household. Infertility was deemed as God’s punishment. Children were a free source of labor, so the more a family had, the less necessity to hire field hands there was. It’s important to remember that the specter of hunger was constantly hanging over villages, so health, or the ability to work, was highly valued. In those conditions the freedom to choose sexual partners (and perspective spouses) was a bit better than under feudalism, when wealth was the deciding criteria.
NH: Did people marry for love?
TW: Most likely yes, although this term wasn’t really used in its modern context. If anything, the word “upodobanie” (fancy) was common. Spouses were expected to respect rather than love one another, and a marriage was prominently looked at in terms of running a home in solidarity rather than passionate lovemaking. Perhaps this was a non-romantic type of love, but it doesn’t mean it lacked real emotional commitment.
NH: What happened if [an unmarried] woman became pregnant?
TW: If the man was found to be responsible, they married. From the analysis of church records we see as many as 30% of peasant marriages took place because of unplanned pregnancy. If the man refused, the community put pressure on him and his family. The village was, after all, a type of corporation for which another family meant increased productivity and a better chance of survival for everyone. If that didn’t work, the woman could take her lover to court. After interrogating both sides, if he was found to be the most likely culprit, and the possibility of a hefty punishment did not convince him to marry, he was to pay a one-time form of child support: usually this meant giving the pregnant woman a cow.
In the village this man would have been labeled as irresponsible and having brought shame to his family. He was mostly likely also ostracized by his peer group, and his chances of finding a future wife would have been greatly diminished. A single mother also lost on the marriage market, but having a child didn’t mean completely losing a chance at having a successful marriage. Another form of punishment for her was the cutting off of the braid and having her wear a cap, which initiated her into a group of adult women. At this point she was no longer allowed to take part in social events for her peers.
NH: Who was responsible for peasant behavior?
TW: The local priest could sentence a parishioner for sexual misconduct to public penance: lying face down in the position of the cross on the church floor, or binding him in shackles at the front of the church. These were highly stigmatized ways of punishment and most churchgoers knew why the sinner was being punished in this way. That, however, was the extent of the church’s power in that realm.
Most often, however, peasants watched over one another, and created their own, internal system of control. In many villages functioned what was called the rug: once a year all householders gathered in front of the public village court and confessed their wrongdoings, as well as those of their household members and sometimes neighbors. Many cases of sexual misconduct were revealed this way, such as adultery. In contrast to premarital sex, adultery was viewed as a serious offense and could even be punished by banishment from the community.
NH: Were there cases of wrongful accusation?
TW: Of course. There is a known case of the daughter of a village locksmith who was very active in the church. Someone claimed they saw her in a local inn engaging in inappropriate contact with boys. They thought a girl like that wasn’t worthy of carrying holy paintings. Her father took the accuser to court stating that if there is no child, there is no wrongdoing on his daughter’s part. She was cleared of all charges and the people who accused her were punished instead.
NH: What types of contraceptive methods were used?
TW: We know very little on this subject. Western historians are in a much better position here, diaries written in the 18th century by lower class citizens survived to this day. What we gather from them is that young people used many methods of sexual gratification that did not end in pregnancy – including mutual masturbation. This could potentially explain that in mid-17th century England there were so few cases of children born out of wedlock.
We have virtually no data for Poland in this area. Sometimes court documents show women accused of becoming pregnant before marriage, or due to an extramarital affair, who said their partners promised they would “make sure no result would come of it.” It can be assumed that this referred to the pull-out method. This, however, does not mean that a whole palette of contraceptives wasn’t used, it’s that they had more of a magical meaning behind them. People believed in the effectiveness of herbs, spells, or things like burying a placenta from one birth to prevent a subsequent pregnancy.
Induced abortions were also used, but in my opinion the most effective form of reducing the number of offspring was infanticide. The average established number of years between births was between 2 and 3 years. A woman who married at 20 could give birth to 7 or 8 children. However, the model of the peasant family before the Partitions was 2 + 2 or 2 + 3. So what happened to the rest of the children?
NH: Did every woman kill 3-4 children, then?
TW: Of course not. Mainly this deficit was the result of high infant and child mortality. Women gave birth surrounded by other mothers, grandmothers, and midwives. If they collectively decided during the birth that the family could not afford another child, or that it had a low chance of survival, they induced its death. The babies didn’t die as a result of direct trauma, but more so from neglect. No one considered this a crime, and the entire village saw it as a collective responsibility.
NH: Could the nobles force marriage among peasantry?
TW: Formally, yes. The need to obtain permission for marriage was presented as terribly humiliating by literature of the Enlightenment, however in reality it was purely a necessary formality. Especially if the betrothed came from land owned by two different masters. In this case one of them lost, and another gained a peasant. The one on the losing end usually felt entitled to compensation, either from the families of the newlyweds or from their new master. It was purely about money, and not about petty interjection into people’s private lives.
NH: Did the ius primae noctis come into play?
TW: Historians today believe that the “right of the first night” is a myth. Which by no means signifies that there was no exploitation of peasant women for sex by the noble class. We’re speaking about the status quo here, however. Why would a nobleman humiliate a peasant and invite aggression from an entire village by having sex with the bride on her wedding night? An easier target would be a servant. If she became pregnant, another man could take the blame, with a financial incentive of course. This type of system existed rather well thanks to hypocrisy and mutual benefit of the men involved. Priests lived under a similar rule. If one treated his woman like a man treated his wife, didn’t beat her too much, didn’t cheat on her, and supported her children, no one really cared. The community became outraged when a priest changed lovers too often and did not pay to support her child, or if he outright raped peasant women.
Sexual relationships among different classes seemed to have been based on exploitation of position within society, and were not devoid of physical and emotional abuse. However, instances of such relationships resulting from mutual love have also been known to happen. One noblewoman was so in love with her servant she convinced him to kill her husband. Deep feelings must have also brought together one nobleman and the daughter of serf, with whom he lived for many years and had several children. It wasn’t until after her death that he married a woman from his own social class.
Prof. Tomasz Wiślicz - historian, professor of the Zakład Studiów Nowożytnych Instytutu Historii PAN, researcher of the history and culture of Poland in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Author of “Upodobanie. Małżeństwo i związki nieformalne na wsi polskiej XVII-XVIII wieku.” (source)
Still from the 1973 film Chłopi (Peasants), directed by Jan Rybkowski. [x]
Józef Chełmoński, Sielanka (Przed burzą), 1885. [x]
Józef Chełmoński, Oberek. 1878. [x]
Wincenty Wodzinowski, Odpoczynek żniwiarzy (Grajek), c. 1893. [x]