How the Pilgrims' Image Evolved

What if the Pilgrims hadn't invited the Indians to a Thanksgiving feast, but instead took them out to the local tavern and regaled them with boastful tales and lewd jokes?

Well, there weren't any bars in the tiny Plymouth settlement in 1621, so it couldn't have happened that way. But our image of the hosts of the first Thanksgiving as somber, gray-clad men wearing hats with buckles took some time to evolve. And it certainly wasn't the way most of their contemporaries thought of them.

Religious separatists like the Pilgrims — often called Puritans because they believed the Church of England needed to be "purified" of all Roman Catholic influences — were mocked and vilified in the literature of the day, says Kristin Poole, an associate professor of English at the University of Delaware.

"The way people were imagining the Puritans in England was almost 180 degrees opposite" to the way they are seen today, says Poole, author of Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton. "They were being portrayed as drunken gluttons and routinely accused of being sexually promiscuous."

Reputation Goes From Drunken to Dour

This stereotype predominated from the 1590s to the 1640s, as evidenced by plays of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton, says Poole.

"Probably the most famous character is Falstaff," she says. "The character of Falstaff — probably the most drunken, irreverent character in the Shakespeare canon — is based on a religious figure."

Indeed, Sir John Falstaff, the fat, boisterous, roistering knight who appears in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, was originally called Sir John Oldcastle — after a religious reformer martyred for his faith in 1417.

"There are some very cruel jokes Falstaff makes about this," says Poole. "The original Oldcastle was hung in chains and burned alive. Falstaff makes jokes about being roasted."

Contemporary audiences thought this was uproariously funny, but Oldcastle's descendants were not amused. They protested, and eventually the character's name was altered.

But the image persisted, says Poole. It wasn't until the Restoration, when Charles II became king in 1660 and established a very licentious court, that the religious reformers' image changed, at least in literature.

"At that point, to be drunken and sexually lascivious was a good thing," Poole says. So when it comes to mocking the Puritans, "the characters become really dour and repressive."

Glossing Over History

The real Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620, and the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony 10 years later, were certainly not a debauched bunch, but they weren't universally dour, either.

"The image we have of the Pilgrims is a caricature," says Bryan LeBeau, an American studies professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "I think elementary school textbooks, the media, children's films all painted a picture."

Since most Americans' study of the Pilgrims begins and ends in grade school, their story is simplified.

"It's mostly a glossing-over of history," says Carolyn Travers, research manager at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass., that includes a recreation of life in 1627 Plymouth and a replica of the Mayflower.

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