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How to catch a fornicator, 17th-century style

And other highlights from the Ideas blog

It’s an obvious point that still manages to seem surprising every time you’re reminded of it: Even in olden times, even in austere early New England, people had a lot of sex.

Earlier this year, JoAnne Sweeny of the University of Louisville law school published a research paper called “History of Adultery and Fornication Criminal Laws.” She notes that in New England in the 1600s, women were prosecuted for fornication—including what was termed “open and notorious” fornication—more frequently than for any other crime. In Massachusetts, they’d get you if you had a child outside of wedlock or within eight months of being married. In some states, these laws were prosecuted well into the 20th century.

Sweeny points out that criminalizing sex posed a problem for the justice system: evidence. Unless there’s a baby, it’s hard to prove it happened. So prosecutors had to rely on circumstantial evidence to make the case.


Public affection, even a man putting his arm around a woman, could be considered incriminating. Going riding or fishing together was highly suggestive of seamier activities. Spending the night under the same roof was bad, and worse if it was at an inn with a bad reputation. One of the most incriminating things a man could do was pay a doctor to assist in a birth to a woman who was not his wife. In all of these scenarios, your neighbors were your enemies: Citizens were expected to keep close tabs on each other.

Over time, laws relaxed, and courts adopted stricter standards, so that finding two people together behind a locked door with an unmade bed was no longer enough to prove a crime. It’s surely a good thing, even if it leaves behind the Puritan’s blindingly straightforward epistemology: If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably an open and notorious duck.

Digital humanities, with punchcards

Father Busa used IBM’s accounting machines to help analyze Thomas Aquinas’s words.National Endowment for the Humanities

In the liberal arts, today’s disruptive new thing is “digital humanities,” the sometimes controversial application of computing power to disciplines like literature and history. An article by journalist Meredith Hindley in the current issue of Humanities, the official magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, reveals that this novel approach isn’t so novel after all.

It dates back to 1949, Hindley writes, when Father Robert Busa, a Jesuit priest, approached Thomas J. Watson Sr., the CEO of IBM, for help creating a concordance for the works of Thomas Aquinas. Using punch cards and IBM’s accounting machines, Busa demonstrated this new technology could perform tasks that had previously required decades of toil.


In 1964, researchers used computers to compare syntactic
patterns in the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Milton, to show that Milton had had a greater influence on Shelley than previously thought. That same decade, two mathematicians used an IBM 7090 computer to conclude that 12 Federalist papers published anonymously were very likely the work of James Madison.

Today, humanities scholars fret about whether computers can really teach us anything about “Moby-Dick,” and worry that the allure of digital knowledge stands to warp research. In that light, the article in Humanities should be reassuring: The humanities have had a digital side for more than 60 years, and they haven’t collapsed yet.

Extreme gardening

Guy Boily/Mosaicultures Internationales de Montreal/Mosaïcultures Interna

How far can artful planting possibly go? The small delights of the topiary hedge take a dramatic, exaggerated turn in the annual Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal summer festival. It features living sculptures so tremendous in scale that they make you feel like you’ve stepped into an ancient adventure story. The giant creations—not actually topiary, but elaborate mixed plantings trained to grow along metal frames—are on display in Montreal through Sept 29. There are oversized lemurs walking in a familial row; an old gardener bending to plant trees, whose very aspect seems to make the ground shudder; and, in a piece called “Shanghai” (above), a Chinese girl cradling a red crane, an intimate scene whose scale makes it feel as distant and expansive as a constellation.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.