Negative Attitudes Toward “Molly” Subculture in Eighteenth Century London: An Analysis of Textual Agencies Regarding the Emerging Gay Community


In eighteenth-century London, the oppression of homosexuals, known as “mollies,” was prevalent, thus creating negative social environments that produced negative behaviors toward homosexuals as well as negative stereotypes in print media. This paper considers how text and diction used in eighteenth-century British print culture, specifically street ballads and court cases, acted as active agents of these negative environments. This paper combines emotional geography, linguistics, and social history, and proposes a new method for the emerging field of emotional geography by data mining historical primary sources, looking at language theoretically, and conducting statistical analyses of data.

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    This paper is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis that examines how texts in print culture were instrumental in fostering oppression towards mollies, or homosexuals. These texts shaped negative affective atmospheres and identities in eighteenth-century London in order to persuade and maintain negative behaviors and actions towards the mollies. They did this through print culture, which became a vital agent of communication in society with the emergence of newspapers, narratives of court cases, and street ballads. I expand existing molly scholarship by reinterpreting eighteenth-century society through the application of a new method for the emerging field of emotional geography. In my method, I examine the construction of affective atmospheres and look at statistical analyses of text and etymology of text in primary sources including court cases of the Old Bailey Proceedings and street ballads. I will show how the repetitive diction in the ballads was used to negatively depict mollies and to construct negative atmospheres and identities regarding the mollies.

    During the early eighteenth century, mollies were a covert underground subculture. Their members acquired and used designated spaces in the city where they discreetly participated in their culture. They created networks and used inconspicuous social gestures and language to communicate. They also used designated spaces, such as the cruising grounds of the “sodomites’ walk” in Moorfields and the “molly houses” that allowed them to engage with other mollies both sexually and socially. These spaces were generally located in lower-income areas in London in close proximity to their homes and locations of work. Molly districts included Moorfields, Holborn, the Royal Exchange, and Covent Garden among others. Mollies generally were categorized by lower-class occupations such as merchants, weavers, upholsters, tailors, butchers, servants, and the like, who worked in the public sphere of London (Norton Mother Clap Molly House 12).

    London was an oppressive society, significantly so regarding sodomy, forcing the molly culture to act furtively due to the fact that sodomy was a crime equivalent in caliber to homicide. In the late seventeenth century, in order to eliminate sodomy in the city, the Catholic Church created organizations such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, to conduct raids and to set up and apprehend mollies (McCormick 51). During the 1720s, the height of molly culture, members of the Reformation of Manners killed 1,363 people for engaging in sodomy (Norton Mother Clap Molly House 69). Though society was aggressively against sodomy, the sodomites also intrigued them, perhaps because they were new to the public (Haggerty 46). To fuel aggression and intrigue in society toward sodomites, the media, including newspapers and the Old Bailey Proceedings, began to publish pieces about molly court cases. These pieces grew in length over the course of the eighteenth century. The court cases and their diction (meaning the choice of words used), helped shape negative attitudes in society towards sodomites and began to create negative atmospheres in society, as well as a new awareness of a cultural characterization of men.

    By negative atmospheres, I mean an “affective atmosphere” that reflects negative affect. In emotional geographic scholarship, an affective atmosphere is a translucent and imagined space that is felt and exists in the “in-between” of selves and objects that act as a mold of feeling or subjectivity. Atmospheres have constructions such as “active agents” that influence affect and that are produced and felt within various situations between subjects and objects. Affective atmospheres are translucent, temporal, and malleable—they exist only through the interplay of emotion, subjects, and objects. Therefore, during the course of the eighteenth-century, text in court cases and street ballads, I argue, were the active agents that influenced affective atmospheres negatively toward the molly and sodomitical culture.

    After mollies were apprehended, they were put on trial and their court cases served as published criminal narratives in a popular periodical entitled, The Old Bailey Proceedings. The Proceedings, or Sessions Papers, were cheaply sold, read by the general public, and distributed in coffeehouses and taverns (Hitchcock). They covered felonies such as murder, theft, and sodomy. The Proceedings were not used solely for the court audience and authorities; they circulated throughout society allowing non-authorities access and people read them for entertainment, moral guidance, and news (London Lives). As this was a primary periodical among society, the content and language within the Proceedings were vital for the readers.

    To discuss the significance and influence that text had as an agent of influence contributing to the negative emotive atmospheres in society, I examine language and diction theoretically. For this paper, I look at language as something that occurs in a social context and that is dependent upon a recorder or a speaker to regulate specific words and diction so that they may be interpreted implicitly or explicitly by the receiver. Language is seen as the mold of social and cognitive interaction in humans’ “lived experience”; language is the most vital aspect of “social practice” (Sergeant). In addition to text’s importance of shaping the social sphere, I would like to strengthen the importance of text by examining the relationship of text to objects from the affective atmospheric perspective. I would like to look at text or languages as an object, meaning text has the same features as objects. Objects can influence affect and are temporal; they create attachments to subjects or humans, creating relationships between the two. Text has these same constructions such as the ability to cause affect and evoke emotion and is temporal as it constantly changes and evolves throughout history and context. Language is also temporal, as it is intangible when it is spoken, but when it is written it becomes a material, making it an object constructed of ink on paper, and thus becomes temporal as well. Thus, language has some of the same features that objects do; thinking of language as a vital component causing social situations, allows it to become an agent in its influence, creating an animate existence that circulates and reoccurs from past contexts to the present.

    Moreover, I also argue that diction preserves words’ historical uses and carries a constant sentimental lineage from its beginning. Every time one uses or reads a word, the then-present context is attached to the word, creating another shell of meaning and context. This context is then tacked onto the word, adding to its history of meaning and usage. This contributes to my methodology by looking at how diction in the Old Bailey Proceedings created atmospheres by examining the etymologies, or word histories and meanings, and examining how words circulated, shaped, and were interpreted in society. This method of reinterpreting eighteenth-century court cases in London has not been done in recent scholarship. Emotional geography and its perspectives have yet to be examined and reinterpreted through the historical context of eighteenth-century London. Although scholars like Tim Hitchcock have looked at diction-patterns and have data-mined the Old Bailey Proceedings, the scholarship has yet to apply the emotional geographic methodology of examining historic information.

    Methods and Materials

    For my methodology, I used emotional geography to examine how the Proceedingsused negative text and diction toward the mollies and thus ultimately shaped negative attitudes toward them. I data-mined primary sources of eighteenth-century sodomy court cases and street ballads, looking specifically at text and language. I examined meaning through the use of databases of eighteenth-century sodomy court cases and satirical broadsides to find textual patterns and emotional implications through those documents. I composed data sheets and statistical analyses of the diction and etymologies of the words associated with the oppressed demographic. The datasheet included information from 50 sodomy court cases from the years 1674 to 1779 from the digitized database of the Old Bailey Proceedings using the fields of “Sexual Offences” and the subcategory of “Sodomy” trials. I also used the printed hardcopy of Selected Trials at the Old Bailey Sessions Proceedings that the database had missed regarding sodomy trials. I created a data sheet that included names of the accused sodomites, dates, regions of where mollies were apprehended, streets and places they socialized, diction that was used in the court cases describing the “sodomites,” or “mollies,” and the punishment.

    The Old Bailey Proceedings

    In my statistical analysis, using Predictive Analytics SoftWare, I constructed a data sheet consisting of words that were associated with the sodomites that were heavily negative and derogatory. Examining the diction in court cases, I recorded 241 words that were directed toward the mollies and sodomites. Out of 241 words, only 31 were repeated more than once. Having only 31 words repeated more than once, and having 210 words occurring once, suggests a lack of legal phrasing pertaining to the mollies and exemplifies an unfiltered speech containing emotional attachment with every word, using the vernacular of the time. This is especially noteworthy, given the fact that most of the cases in the Old Bailey Proceedings allowed verbatim testimonies (Gladfelder 12).

    The 31 words that were used most frequently include “wicked,” “unnatural,” “sin,” “indecent,” “detestable,” and “vile,” to name a few. For the purpose of discussion, I want to consider the etymology and historic sentiment of one word, “wicked.” In the Oxford English Dictionary, “wicked,” means “bad moral in character,” a term normally used to describe the highest degree of immorality. In 1535, “wicked” was associated with the men of Sodom, and thus established a two-hundred year relationship between “wicked” and the town of Sodom, creating an implicit re-intertextual interpretation of the word. This original association of “wicked” and Sodom from a biblical text is then reiterated and reinstated within another text of the Old Bailey Proceedings. The sentiments that began with the wicked and Sodom association are exact; however, the sentiments now had a new meaning, a new identification—with the molly. This exemplifies text as an animate existence, as it evolves meaning and context. Also, it contributes to negative atmospheres of affect as the readers read, interpret, and feel the word that has a history of immorality and sodomy. As a result, the historic affect of the association of “wicked” with Sodom is directed toward a different construction of “wicked,” the molly.

    Another etymology to discuss is “unnatural”; the Oxford Dictionary describes it as not complying with the course of nature, something that is against nature, or something that is excessively cruel and wicked. This definition relates to the use of the word, wicked, meaning morally deprived. Another word that was used only four times in my data, “brutal,” is defined as pertaining to the nature of brutes, or animals. It also includes a definition of being in an animal or sensual nature. This sensual nature and animalistic behavior is then tacked onto sodomy and the mollies’ actions and their social and sexual behavior. Looking at various etymologies, the diction was repetitively leading to other words that were also used in the Old Bailey Proceedings that interplayed within other adjectives of the mollies that were used in the print culture. With this interlocking of diction that describes the mollies, we find an example of the linguistic term of “language regulation scenario,” defined as language being regulated in social situations. In this situation, the print culture is one that is regulating the language.

    Street Ballads

    These text-based associations and sentimental historical etymologies used and practiced in the Old Bailey Proceedings were also practiced in street ballads; these two types of media used similar words when describing the mollies. They circulated and were read repetitively in social spaces such as coffeehouses and taverns, shaping affective atmospheres and attitudes towards mollies, making the text in theProceedings and particular street ballads the active agent influencing the atmosphere. For example, a street ballad created in 1760 titled, “Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England,” has a section stating “For leaving Women fine and gay/ To make a monstrous Sort of Play/ With wicked Men/ Coiting when / More Brutal then/ Than savage beast” [underlining added] (Bartlett 1997, 561). This ballad contains four words used in my text data sheet—“monstrous,” “wicked,” “brutal,” and “beast.” They constitute an example of the Old Bailey Proceedings’ tactic of repeating words that influenced its readers, or language regulation scenario. As a result, I argue that readers “felt” these words either cognitively or non-cognitively, comprehended their historical origins, and associated them with the contemporary issue of sodomites. This association resulted in negative affective atmospheres, as the repetitive text is the active agent in the construction of the atmospheres. Furthermore, by examining the activity and interworkings of an affective atmosphere, text in print culture, which circulated throughout the social environments, actively influenced the general population maintaining negative affect through negative words. Due to the repetition of the negative diction that was transposed from one publication to the next, it was a phenomenon that created a collective group of negative words. These words then exemplified a collective atmosphere of negativity towards mollies causing a more concrete image and reception of mollies—a negative identity.

    The difference between negative affective atmospheres and negative identities are that atmospheres are what carry affect. They are constantly temporal as they vary between different agents and subjects that are constantly evolving, moving through spaces, and influencing passivity. Negative identities are more of a concrete identity and perception of an object, self, or culture. I argue in this case that repetitive diction caused both negative atmospheres on a more personal level and negative identities on a more general scale. Identity is what is known in society, while an atmosphere is what is felt in society.

    Another example of a satirical street ballad that helped shape negative identities of mollies and sodomites were the mollies in the “Women-Hater’s Lamentation” (Norton “Woman-Hater’s Lamentation”). It was printed in 1707 and described the tragic events of mollies who had been apprehended during a raid and who then committed suicide while awaiting trial and their hearing. The street ballad consists of a poem that is to be sung in a tune of “Ye Pretty Sailors” describing how the mollies’ “fate was just.” Diction that describes the mollies in “Women Hater’s Lamentation” also corresponds to the datasheet of the Old Bailey diction. Words that were used in the ballad were “wicked minds,” “brutal,” “unnatural Lusts,” and “shame.” These words provoked historical meanings and definitions of sinfulness in Christianity, as well as alluded to the acts and behaviors of one that is against nature and sociability. The repeated diction used for the oppressed demographic in three different aspects of print culture consist of the Old Bailey Proceedings, the “Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England,” and “Women-Hater’s Lamentation.” The diction suggests that print culture created negative attitudes by interrelating, or referencing, each other to create the same negative affect—to regulate negativity.

    Text shaped negative attitudes by shaping the identity and characteristics of mollies through its evolution of categorization of the culture and societal perception. Comparing the societal perception on “sodomites” or mollies from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century differs dramatically regarding criminal identity and, more importantly, an identity of the subculture. In the seventeenth century, men whom were accused of sodomy would be placed within an ambiguous criminal category referred to as “otherness and subversion” rather than being characterized by having sexual relations with other men regarding emotional matters (Hammond 226). They were classified in the same category as Jesuits, Spanish spies, and werewolves. Because of this generality of being placed within other criminal identities, the mollies lacked their own identity and society lacked the vocabulary to grant them an identity, until the use of diction in print culture. This is important because it sheds light on the use of language in the eighteenth-century as a way to identify and also to feel about the new identity.

    New layers of meanings tacked onto words that circulated through society were also prevalent in the identifications of the same-sex demographic. The etymology of “molly” was first synonymous with female prostitutes; however, when the molly community emerged within the public sphere, the term then transferred to the “effeminate” male demographic (Trumbach 256). Due to the shift of identification, the prostitutes of eighteenth-century London were then raised to a higher status within society, as the new “molly” dwelled in the lowest social class. So, as social groups move through this word of “molly” starting from female prostitutes to men of same-sex relations, the meaning and the social perception of that word remain consistent.

    As text created these atmospheres, they were then formed and practiced in society at pillories—the space that was meant for public humiliation of felons−and to which mollies were often sentenced. The pillory was a designated space in the public sphere that created public humiliation and was perceived as a symbol in space for fear (Bartlett 557). At these pillories, mollies would have to stand in the middle of the street to be publically humiliated because of their new identity as a molly and sodomite as passersby would throw produce, rotten eggs, offal, dead animals, excrement, stones, mud, and yell profanities (Bartlett 557). This phenomenon is an experience that convicts feared, as several attempted to bribe their way out of the sentence, while others had instances of fainting, including “Mother” Margaret Clap, who was convicted of allowing sodomy to take place in her boarding house. The pillory can be seen as the physical place where the negative affective atmospheres could have been the most heightened and present due entirely to print culture of the Proceedings and the street ballads. It was not unusual for the media to disclose pillory locations and times of men to be pilloried so they could see the men depicted in the cases and allow negative expression from society to be unleashed on the felon.

    Moreover, the affective atmospheres that existed around the pillory were comprised of relationships between the audience and the pilloried. In this case, the active agent in this situation was the audience, with members influencing each other to act against the passive subject—the convict. Usually in collective groups, according to the Dynamics of Crowd-Minds, emotion will trump reason in crowd behaviors due to feelings’ of contagion that pass through the individual subjects (Adamatzky 15). Therefore, since rage and negativity were expressed in the pillory, it spread throughout the audience through usual crowd behavior and natural emotional response. The affective atmospheres around pillories were constructed through active agents of negative subjects who were influenced by the active agents of text in print culture.


    In conclusion, repetitive text in print culture aided and shaped the negative identity and negative affective atmospheres of mollies and sodomites in eighteenth-century London. Looking at the linguistic term of language regulation scenario of repeating words and diction of spanned literature over mollies allows us to think about how that was practiced in historical print media. The reception of mollies became intertwined with the emerged culture that endured hate, humility, and death. This interpretation of eighteenth-century society and print culture reception and atmospheres is important because it allows diction and text to be seen as agents of influence and affect towards an oppressed demographic that is in many ways still oppressed. This gives insight into how words interrelated with each other and how they formed identities before a word was yet fixed with its own identity or character. This is important because it shows that the compilation or collaboration of words is what brings us to new levels of understanding, acknowledgment, and feeling.

    Works Cited

    • Adamatzky, Andrew. Dynamics of Crowd-Minds: Patterns of Irrationality in Emotions, Beliefs and Actions. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2005.
    • Bartlett, Peter. “Sodomites in the Pillory in Eighteenth-Century London.” Social and Legal Studies 6 (1997) 553-572.
    • Gladfelder, Hal. Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth Century England: Beyond the Law. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
    • Haggerty, George E. Men in Love. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
    • Hammond, Paul. “Friends or Lovers? Sensitivity to Homosexual Implications in Adaptations of Shakespeare, 640-1701.” In Texts and Cultural Change in Early Modern England. eds. Cedric C. Brown and Arthur F. Marotti. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1997.
    • Hitchcock, Tim. Digital History Seminar, (Presented at the Digital IHR Conference, London, England, February 21, 2012).
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    • McCormick, Ian, ed. Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing. London: Routledge, 1997.
    • Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap Molly House. London: GMP Publishes Ltd., 1992.
    • Norton, Rictor, ed., "The Woman-Hater’s Lamentation, 1707", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 1 Dec. 1999. <>.
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    • Trumbach, Randolph. “Erotic Fantasy and Male Libertinism in Enlightenment England,” The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800 Ed. Lynn Hunt. New York: Zone Books, 1993 253-282, 381-390.