The Punching-Office: Where 17th-Century Ladies Go for Sex

by Lili Loofbourow

As a woman of the 1690s, you’re nobody’s fool. You know the facts of life: Conception happens only with simultaneous female and male orgasm. If you look at a rabbit while having sex, your child is likely to be born with a hare lip. Et cetera, et cetera. However! Despite knowing all these things intellectually, you also know what society expects, and you’re a pro at juggling the demands of a society that uses purity to assess your social worth. In a word, you are a virgin.

But then you wake up one morning to find that the rules have changed. Apparently now your worth depends not on abstaining from sex, but from physical confirmation that you’ve had it. The news is clear: You must have had sex in order to be a worthwhile member of society.

What do you do?

Luckily, there’s a broadside in the archives that tells us exactly that.

Broadsides were the posters of the seventeenth-century set; posters that doubled as new lyrics to familiar songs. Some lamented the latest murder while juicing it for sensationalism. (Picture Nancy Grace singing your news to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart.”) Others told of strange monstrous sightings — of sea monsters shaped like friars, or whales that turned up with priests inside. (Picture The Enquirer.) Others are more bloggy in their approach. Some are downright serious.

Some don’t really fit any of those categories; they’re just weird, and take you two whole months of Miss Marpling to figure out.


Take a look at the first stanza of this broadside with me:

As I of late was walking by a Country Bakers door
I heard some women talking, near 17 or more,
Then one among the rest, cried out, “I do protest,
Of all the news I ever heard I think this is the best,”
I long’d to hear what this good news might be,
She scarce could speak for laughing, but at the last quod she,
“Come maids be of good cheer, for joyful news I hear,
Now every Lass that means to pass must all be puncht this Year.”

What follows are a bunch of stanzas describing how incredibly psyched various women are that they have be “punched” by year’s end, with examples of how they’re going to arrange for their “punching.” Take 29-year-old Joan, who says she’s going “send to Dick, my dear, And once again I’ll tell him plain, I must be puncht this year.” Or Betty, the tailor’s daughter, who condemns the five men who work for her father as “silly fools with pointless tools” and decides to delegate her punching to a “lusty farmer.” Remember the “marigold” from our last installment, along with all the cloth genitalia? Well, Sarah airily admits that her marigold “is blown,” while the older and sadder Gillian worries that her maidenhead will “strike [her] dead” if she’s not “puncht this year” and asks the others to help her. They offer her a “rusty Punch.”

I hope that by this time you’re as confused as I was. What is this joyful news that makes it not just OK but mandatory for ladies “who mean to pass” to have sex? What are they “passing” for anyway? And why is “punching” the word for what is obviously sex?

After many a sleepless night spent combing through the OED’s entries for “punch,” none of which include sex, reading tons of descriptions of the alcoholic beverage (I’m sort of an expert on seventeenth-century punch recipes now) and a study of various trades that involve punching (like shoe-making — maybe the ladies were shoes or something and the awl was “punching” them?), I stumbled, half-crazed, on the answer.

It was none of those things.

It was all about coins.

Join me on a little trip down Coin History Lane. The “good news” our ladies are so excited about dates back to the Great Recoinage Act of 1696 (which — spoiler alert — turned out to be not so great), an attempt to deal with the currency crisis. Much as we’d like to think that the Wills and Kate coins are a numismatic blot on an otherwise proud history of British coinage, the fact is that England has never had an easy time with its currency.

At this particular moment in history, the problem was that the coins were made of silver and lacked a standard edge. Since they didn’t have the milled edge modern coins have (those ridges on the side of a quarter that define its circumference), people made a habit of “clipping” bits of silver off the coins and squirreling it away. As a result, a hefty percentage of the coins was missing. Since the value of the coin was tied to its silver content, this was a problem.

The Great Recoinage Act specified, among other things, that the only old coins that would be allowed to circulate in the future were those that hadn’t been tampered with. To make it so,

it was further enacted that every person having such unclipped hammered monies in his possession should before the 10th day of February 1695 or before he disposed of the same cause them to be struck through about the middle of every piece with a solid punch that should make a hole without diminishing the silver and that after the said 10th day of February no unclipped hammered monies (that is, as it is explained in the act, such pieces as had both rings or the greatest part of the letters appearing thereon) should be current unless they were so struck through, and if any piece struck through should appear afterwards to be clipped no person should tender or receive the same in payment under the penalty of forfeiting as much as the clipped monies so punched through should amount to in tale to be recovered to the use of the poor of the parish where such money should be so tendered or received.*

*That’s William Paterson, from the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

Basically, punching the coin through was the equivalent of chalking tires. The hole verified that the coin hadn’t been clipped as of its punching. This way, if anyone tried to pay for something with a coin that had a hole in it and had been clipped, he could safely be assumed to be the clipper.

So, what does this mean for our broadside ladies?

Simple: It inverts the laws of chastity.

Whereas before, the way you guaranteed your status as legal “currency” was to remain, ahem, “unpunched,” now, if you wanted to “pass” or (as the grumpy 13-year-old in the last stanza puts it) be “current,” you had to receive a punching. Penetration was the new guarantor of legal status, sort of like a passport. This, then, was the “good news”! You, as a seventeenth-century woman, no longer had to sit around waiting like Joan, who complains “is this not dirty, men should mock & jeer / And ask us when we’ll marry, alas how do we know, / When they are pleas’d to call us, then we are free to go.” Instead, Joan gets to send for Dick and demand that he punch her! And not even because she wants it particularly — those are the legal rules.

Of course, the good news had a corollary: Not getting punched meant you were corrupt currency, a clipped coin. (The pun fun just keeps on going, since “to clip” also meant to embrace, or to hug.) If no one was willing to punch you, you were by definition unpunchable, and could therefore no longer circulate. So ladies, hie thee to your local punching-office!

Here’s the rest of the poem (which you can also see here):

“O this is joyful news,” said the baker’s daughter Nan,
“I lived have fifteen years, yet never any man,
Would be so kind to me, to punch me well, said she,
Or from the torment which I bear would ever set me free,
For what’s a greater plague than a heavy maidenhead
And must I still endure it, I’d rather sure be dead,
Since this good news I hear, my heart is void of fear,
Neither Friend nor Foe, shall say me no, for I’ll be puncht this year.”

The farmers daughter Joan stood moulding of her bread,
Said she, “Good neighbour Nancy no more words to be said
You complain in 15 year of the torment which you bear,
I’m almost 30, is this not dirty, men should mock & jeer
And ask us when we’ll marry, alas how do we know,
When they are pleas’d to call us, then we are free to go.
And since this news I hear, I’ll send to Dick, my dear,
And once again Ile tell him plain, I must be puncht this year.”

The Taylors daughter Betty cried, “It is a burning shame
Tho’ I am young & pretty my sorrow is the same,
My father keeps 5 men, but what if he kept ten,
Such silly fools with pointless tools, can never punch me then
Unto some lusty farmer with speed I must repair,
And tell to him the cause of my sorrow, grief, and care,
Then he with merry cheer, will banish all my fear,
And I as well as other Maids shall be well puncht this year.”

Then in came lusty Sarah, who lived at the Crown,
Saying, “I’m as brisk and airy as any Lass in town,
My friends was at great charge in breeding me so large,
To pass away my youthful day I think it dont me urge
I’m Punchable ’tis known, my Marygold is blown,
Come soldier or come sailor, and take me for your own,
Let mother draw the beer, and father in his chair,
For I’ll no longer be their slave if I’m not puncht this year.”

And then said aged Gillian, “Tho’ I am old and weak,
Yet Neighbours I am willing a word or two to speak,
My beauty is decayed by living long a maid,
And to lead apes in Hell at last indeed I am afraid,
Accept of my petition, and let me have a share,
I’m forced with submission my sorrow to declare,
Then do not flout nor jeer, for since this news I hear,
My maidenhead will strike me dead if I’m not punched this year.”

The Bakers daughter Nancy, and all the rest replied,
“What man alive can fancy to make of you a bride,
And therefore pray forbear your sorrow to declare,
Yet if there’s any rusty Punch that we can freely spare,
We’ll see what we can do, and be a Friend to you.”
“I hope you will” said she; “so my neighbours all adieu,”
And thereupon each one departed & went home,
With joint consent to be content till punching time does come.

But one there was among ’em that they did think too young
And as they all went dancing, she likewise had her Song,
“What though you flout at me ’cause that I am young you see,
For all you hunch, yet I’ll be punched, that current I may be.
For I am thirteen it is well known,
And why mayn’t I, good Sirs, then be punch’d as well as Joan.
I am resolv’d, I say, that I’ll not loose a day,
But straight to John my father’s man, & be punch’d as well as they.”

[Printed for P. Brooksby in Pye-Corner]

If you think our story ends there, you’re wrong. Like any good story, it got a sequel. The Great Recoinage Act didn’t work out well for England. A different publisher (on the aptly named Guiltspur Street), annoyed, perhaps, by the ladies’ ebullience, published a correspondingly dire account of their fates. His response is even set to the same song as the original, the Scotch Hay-makers. In this dark second act we see what happens when the laws of the universe are turned upside down.

For one thing, ladies have to pay for it.

Young Men were so unkind,
That pretty youthful lasses could not a Puncher find,
Without ready money down, some a guinea, some a crown,
Young mistress Nancy, for her fancy, fairly pawned her gown.

Other women had better luck. Doll’s fellow said, a little discouragingly, that he “will not stand,” but it turns out he didn’t mean that his penis wouldn’t stand, but that he himself wouldn’t wait. He gets down to business: “without shyness, straight he took in hand / His Punch, and pleased her passing her well.”
You can guess where this is going:

“But now, alas! She finds that her womb begins to swell…”

It gets worse. Civilization devolves into a horrible dystopia with lusty women roving the countryside seeking poor beleaguered “Punchers” who reluctantly please them for money. By poem’s end, the ladies’ “slender flaw” (ahem) has developed into an apocalyptic crack. Everyone is pregnant, wild and defiled.

Here, without further ado, is “The Young Damsel’s Lamentation: Or, Their Dreadful Outcry against the late Punching, which Has cracked above four hundred and fifty West-country Maiden-heads, To the Tune of, The Scotch Hay-makers” (which you can also see here).

Here’s a lamentation that’s spread abroad of late,
Young girls do sigh and wimper to see their wretched state;
Let me tell you now in brief, though the Punching-trade in chief,
Was much admired, and desired now poor girls with grief,
Through town and city they make sad moan,
Young Susan, Nancy, Kate, Ginney, likewise Doll and Joan:
Poor girls they’re almost wild, to see themselves defiled,
This Punching, Punching, O this Punching, has their glory spoiled.

Was it not a pleasure to every handsome Maid,
When first they heard the tidings, of this new Punching-trade &
Of a truth it was we know, they with cheerful hearts did go,
Without delaying, begging, praying, for to punch them so,
As other damsels had been before;
Nay, some would needs be punched, full a dozen times or more:
But now they’re almost wild, to see themselves defiled,
This Punching, Punching, O this Punching, has their glory spoiled.

Doll went to the Miller when first she heard the news,
Declaring with a smile, he must not the least refuse
For to Punch her out of hand. He replied, I will not stand
For such a kindness, without shyness, straight he took in hand
His Punch, and pleased her passing well;
But now, alas! She finds that her womb begins to swell,
Which makes her most wild, she can’t be reconciled
This Punching, Punching, O this Punching, has her glory spoiled.

We are told at Reading, young men were so unkind,
That pretty youthful lasses could not a Puncher find,
Without ready money down, some a guinea, some a crown,
Young mistress nancy, for her fancy, fairly pawned her gown.
Then to a Plow-Man away she went,
Who pleased her with his Punch, but too late she does repent:
For she is almost wild, and can’t be reconciled,
This Punching, Punching O this Punching, has her glory spoiled.

Then a tailor’s daughter, young Genny called by name,
Full freighted with desire, to Roger straight she came,
“I am Punchable,” she cried, “therefore will not be denied”;
He being willing, for a shilling, readily complied.
She gave it freely with all her heart,
because he should not fail for to play a lover’s part:
But now she’s almost wild, finding herself defiled,
This punching, punching, etc.

Many pretty lasses might have a slender flaw,
Before this Punching time, which they valued not a straw;
But with Punching them anew, they are cracked quite through and through
That none will take them, but forsake them, ah! What will they do?
Burmigem Money will pass as well,
As one of these poor girls, it is a dismal tale to tell:
Now, now they’re almost wild, finding themselves defiled,
This Punching, Punching, etc.

In the town of Plymouth, it seems there’s seven-score,
At Exeter and Weymouth, there’s twice as many more;
Nay, they have been double done, since this Punching-trade begun,
The girls did crave it, and would have it, Man nor Mother’s Son,
Could be at rest if Punch he had
They came from Town to Town, just as if they had been mad:
But now they’re worst than wild, finding themselves with Child,
This Punching, Punching, O this Punching, has their glory spoiled.

[London: Printed for J. Deacon, at the Angel in Giltspur-street.]
Spelling and punctuation have been modernized. Broadsides are available at the English Broadside Ballad Archive.

Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She writes about 17th-century ideas of reading and digestion, cognitive science, Chile, and femscularity. She blogs for Ms. Magazine and as Millicent over at Millicent and Carla Fran.