J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Speaking Up for Bundling “like a Roman heroine”

Yesterday I started to retell the Rev. Samuel Peters’s anecdote about “a shoal of good old women” berating a minister from some Northeast port after he had preached in a rural town against bundling, implying that women who participated in that custom were “naughty.”

Invoking the newly fashionable sofa, the local women suggested that the minister preach that “a sopha is more dangerous than a bed.” And then things got ugly:

The poor priest, seemingly convinced of his blunder, exclaimed, “Nec vitia nostra, nec remedia pati possumus,” hoping hereby to get rid of his guests;…
That’s a quotation from Livy: “We can bear neither our shortcomings nor the remedies for them.” I think the real meaning was: I’m a clergyman; I know Latin; so you ladies should stop bothering me.
…but an old matron pulled off her spectacles, and, looking the priest in his face like a Roman heroine, said, “Noli putare me haec auribus tuis dare.”
From Trebonius to Cicero: “Don’t think I speak this only to your ears [i.e., to flatter you].” (Though in most editions I see hoc in place of Peters’s haec.) Additional meaning: Don’t assume that we women are ignorant and easily cowed!
Others cried out to the priest to explain his Latin. “The English,” said he, “is this: Wo is me that I sojourn in Meseck, and dwell in the tents of Kedar![”]
Psalm 120.
One pertly retorted, Gladii decussati sunt gemina presbyteri clavis.
And I can’t find a source for that line. It may mean, “Crossed swords are double the key of priests” or “are twins of the key of priests.” Anyone?
The priest confessed his error, begged pardon, and promised never more to preach against Bundling, or to think amiss of the custom; the ladies generously forgave him, and went away.
Peters was a Loyalist in the Revolution, but he later came back to live in Vermont and New York. Connecticut authors of the 1800s spent a lot of pages arguing that he made up most of his claims about their colony’s bundling, blue laws, and other customs out of political spite. But does contemporaneous evidence support Peters’s claims?

TOMORROW: When did sofas become common in America?


EJWitek said...

I will take a shot at translating " Gladii decussati sunt gemina presbyteri clavis."
I think it should read "Gladii decussate sunt gemina presbyteri claves."
A rough translation would be: "Crossed swords are (worth) twice that of priests' keys."
The "crossed swords" refers specifically to swords crossed in the form of an "X", the Roman number 10. "Claves" is the plural of "clavis" and makes more sense since "presbyteri" is plural. I would speculate that "keys" refers to the "keys to the kingdom of heaven."
Quite frankly, the minister's reference to psalm 120 and especially to "the tents of Kedar" is really quite insulting since he is calling the ladies uncivilized barbarians. I'm surprised that they didn't box his ears, at a minimum.
The Latin quote is rather strange and I have the feeling that the woman is referring to something that has been lost in time.
By the way, Gaius Trebonius was one of the principal plotters of Caesar's assassination and was the man who delayed Marc Antony outside Pompey's Theater so that he could not come to Caesar's aid while he was being murdered.

J. L. Bell said...

Any connection to the sword emblem of Paul and the keys emblem of Peter?

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating discussion, and one that raises the question of how sexy our Revolutionary and colonist societies were. I've read some pretty risque jokes from the 1840s, and now this bundling custom makes me wonder, how much fooling around was tolerated through the system? Obviously, it was designed as a form of birth control, but was everything else considered OK? -- Joe Bauman

EJWitek said...

My first reaction when reading this quote was that "presbyteri claves" was indeed a reference to the crossed keys (in an X) of St Peter, the symbol of the Pope. Given the internal structure and logic of the sentence it makes perfect sense as a foil to "gladii decussate." But given the context of the discussion between the minister and the women, and the insult it was in response to, the quote made little sense to me except as a non sequitur - a non sequitur insult? Calling one a "Papist" in that day and age would certainly have been a devastating insult.
One could get overanalytical and note that the use of the word "presbyteri" could be fraught with implication. "Presbyteri" is a latin translation of a greek word used in the New Testament. Its translation is fraught with theological implications. Catholics translate this word as "priests" and Protestants as "elders"; and its translation has a lot to do with the role of priests and the Church as opposed to a congregation in obtaining forgiveness. The theological implications would most likely be known to the minister but the woman would really have to know her stuff.
I fo feel that there is a context to this quote which has been lost to us especially given the fact that it made this rather obnoxious minister just shut up.
The only thing I'm sure about this quote is that I'm not sure of it.
Know any Jesuits?

J. L. Bell said...

There's a possibility that the minister in this story was an Anglican (perhaps even Peters himself) while the women, if they were New Englanders, we're almost certainly Calvinist Congregationalists. For some Puritans the Church of England, especially if ministers were suggesting any change, was too much like the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Still, it would be hard to argue for the tradition of St. Paul yet against the church with the mighty symbol of St. Paul's Cathedral.

J. L. Bell said...

Another possibility is that Peters's point was that the second woman was just reciting some old Latin phrase she knew, with no understanding of its meaning and no link to the conversation. Like, say, the Wizard's description of the Scarecrow's diploma in the Wizard of Oz movie. But then I'd expect that phrase to show up elsewhere.

Thanks for the analysis!

J. L. Bell said...

On the question of fooling around, studies have shown that 30-40% of first-time New England brides were pregnant on their wedding day in the early 1700s. However, that was a significant rise from the 1600s when sharing beds was probably more common, indicating that bundling alone wasn't the cause. There appears to have been a more general relaxing of sexual mores which shows up in other areas as well: almost no judicial punishments for consensual gay sex, for example.