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The White Sheet

The White Sheet Jamestown TV series

Scene from the “Jamestown” TV series.

It was a word—or rather the lack of one—that effectively ended Englishman Robert Barker’s illustrious career in 1631. He had achieved fame as royal printer to James I by producing the first edition of the King James Bible in 1611. But while holding the same office under Charles I, his reprint of the 1611 Bible was published with a glaring typographical error that cost him a hefty fine and the loss of his printer’s license. His mistake? In Exodus 20:14, Barker had left the word “not” out of the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.” His 1631 Bible became widely referred to by the moniker of “the Wicked Bible.” King Charles was outraged, and Barker was disgraced.

Adultery was not only held as a mortal sin in the Church of England. It also was a serious threat to the establishment of a stable society, a threat so severe that the martial laws for the Jamestown colony in 1611 proclaimed death as its punishment. We have no evidence that this sentence was carried out on any errant colonist guilty of adultery. In fact these types of sexual transgressions were often overlooked unless they resulted in a pregnancy. Children born of adulterous affairs could be disavowed by a woman’s husband and thereby become a financial burden to society. A wife’s adultery was considered a more serious offence than that of a husband as it was a threat to the authority of the patriarchal household. Not only was it a sin, but because men had legal control over the bodies of their wives, it was a violation of a husband’s property rights. But adultery from a colonial woman’s perspective was viewed as a type of insurance policy in a society of high mortality and long-absent husbands.

In the “Jamestown” television series, Jocelyn appears to be cultivating prospective mates when her husband, Company Recorder Samuel Castell, falls short of the ambition she expects. In Episode 5, Secretary Farlow confronts Dr. Christopher Priestley [interesting choice of surname, which will become more evident in Season 2] about the affection that is visibly growing between the single doctor and Jocelyn. In an attempt to scare Priestley, Farlow relates in a private meeting that he once witnessed the spectacle surrounding a woman punished for adultery. She was made to stand bareheaded and barefooted in full view of the church congregation, wrapped only in a white sheet “to represent the shroud.” Despite her vocal regrets for her actions, the woman’s penance was deemed insufficient and she was ostracized from the community. It is only after Farlow recounts his story that we learn “the woman” was his mother and that he was the witness who, as a 12-year-old, had turned her in.

Public shaming using a white sheet was a common punishment in colonial Virginia for sexual transgressions. This practice followed rituals of penance enforced by English ecclesiastical courts and was intended to purify the offenders who were required to ask forgiveness in church clad only in white sheets. Banishment, as related in Secretary Farlow’s story, only occurred in the northern colonies.

Punishments for adultery or fornication were sometimes equally exacted on male and female offenders. But, as reflected in Farlow’s assurances to Priestley that he would remain “unblemished and untouched by reprimand and correction” for his adulterous affair, men often suffered few consequences. Women were typically either whipped or publically humiliated. For Elizabeth Storkey in 1641 Accomack County, Virginia, it was both. From the civil authorities she received twenty lashes for adultery and from the church vestry she was made to repent in a white sheet.

The same sort of punishments were levied on married couples if their first-born child arrived too early. When Edith Tooker and her husband Thomas of Lower Norfolk, Virginia were thus accused of fornication before marriage in 1641, Edith was made to stand before the church congregation in a white sheet. Upon receiving a lecture from the minister “for her fowle Crime Committed,” she angrily “cutt and mangled the sheet wherein she did penance.” For her rebellion at the perceived injustice she had suffered, she was further sentenced to receive twenty lashes.

Stories of women like Elizabeth Storkey and Edith Tooker will be told in the Jamestown Settlement’s  “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia” special exhibition opening in November 2018. Illustrating the penalty for sexual transgressions will be a rare survival of a 17th-century white linen sheet from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Sheets like this represent important aspects of women’s lives in colonial Virginia. They were integral parts of women’s dowries and, as the coverings for the conjugal bed, symbolized the union of marriage, subsequent childbirth and eventual death. As we have seen, white sheets also were used to punish women when they strayed from expected mores.

Bly Straube, Curator
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

One thought on “The White Sheet

  1. bobjeffrey says:

    Yes, you may. Please give credit to Bly Straube, Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

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