A conversation about the future of society and a question raised about how stable it might be when church influence disappears. The question in response was to ask how healthy society had been under church influence. The abuse of children, the mistreatment of women, the interference by clergy in couples’ married lives, these were hardly the hallmarks of a healthy society.
The question reflects that strain of thinking that says that contemporary problems are something new and that people in the past lived much more good and perfect lives. Pondering the conversation prompted a return to the lines of the journal of the Revd John Skinner of Camerton, Somerset.
An entry dated 1807 has much of the hypocrisy of the time, women being regarded as sinful and deserving any treatment they might receive. The woman is described as a ‘strumpet’, whereas the man who appears to leave the family home to live and contract a marriage with someone else escapes without comment.
‘I had had occasion to notice the behaviour of a woman of the name of Sarah Summers, who kept company with Coward, a servant of Burfitt’s.
In the beginning of November, 1806, she came to me saying she wished to have the Banns asked between Coward and herself. I told her that it had been mentioned to me that her husband was alive, and therefore it would be very wrong in her to think of being asked without she was certain he was dead. She said it was all false what folks said about his being alive; that he went to the East Indies as a soldier upwards of seven years ago, and had never been, heard of since.
I accordingly asked the Banns in Church. Just as the parties were preparing to be married the husband made his appearance at Camerton, and on enquiring for his wife found out her residence and surprised her by his coming so unexpectedly upon her; whilst he on his part was no less astonished at finding four children, instead of the one he had left when he went abroad. However, as reproofs and complaints were useless, like a second Socrates he forgave the frail one and took her again to his bosom, and for near a month they lived together, I understand, in perfect conjugal felicity; but, unfortunately, the husband returning from his work in the coal pits sooner than was expected, found his rival with his wife. He beat her as long as he could without absolutely killing her, and immediately left the strumpet, going to take up his abode at Timsbury. The man afterwards married a Timsbury woman by licence’.
Desertion, brutal violence and bigamy on the part of the husband seem to escape condemnation, while the wife who has contracted a new relationship, a relationship for which she has sought official recognition, is described as a prostitute. The present time seems far better than times two centuries past.