Friday, 13 January 2017

JEH First View: Lost Boys

I'm accustomed now to posting something each time a new number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History is published, and I'll be doing the January one when it appears shortly: but that will be the last, because we're entering a brave new world. Well, 'tis new to me. Using Cambridge University Press' 'First View' service, from now on we'll be publishing articles online in advance of print publication: they'll go up on the website as soon as they're edited and ready. We'll be putting them up in batches every so often. And the first batch has just appeared. Hurrah!

All of it good stuff, of course (I'm even pleased with my own contribution, a review article which singles out one of the most important books I read last year). But since I need to pick one out, I'll pick Jesse Zink's piece on Sudanese child refugees during the civil war of 1983-2005. I'm not aware that we've published an article that's strayed into the current century before, so that's worth noticing in its own right. And the fact that it is so firmly within living memory means that the grim events he is describing have a visceral immediacy: I defy you not to be gripped by it. But that's not what makes it an important article. The Christianisation of Africa is one of the most important stories in world history in the past half-century, and it is a process which has gone on largely out of sight. What Jesse has done - and his article is based on extensive fieldwork in Sudan and a lot of interview material - is to lift the bonnet on an extraordinary part of this process. His deep sympathy with the converts he is describing is plain enough, but he is clear-eyed about the process. The refugee camp emerges as a vital site for Christianisation.

I'm reminded of a comment in Michael Cook's provoking and underrated A Brief History of the Human Race, to the effect that, at certain historical moments, it not only makes sense to abandon your inherited religious tradition and adopt a foreign one, but that it is almost inevitable: whatever your problem is, the new religion is part of the solution. Cook was talking about Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century, but Zink's work implies that the same is true for much of Africa today.

Of course, since South Sudan's independence, civil war has returned with a vengeance. Christianisation has not brought peace, and it seems unlikely that war will stop Christianisation. If anyone out there wants to write a follow-up article, we will, now, be able to publish it online with appropriate speed.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Liberal futures

A rather fun New Year's gift from the Liberal Democrat party, of which I am a longstanding and not terribly active member. In an exercise which is apparently geared towards drawing up the next manifesto, they've asked members to come up with a 500-word account of what Britain might look like in 2030 if Lib Dems' dreams came true.

After a year in which the future has chiefly seemed like something to be afraid of, I found it a bracing challenge. It fits my historical patterns of thought, and I also thought the essential silliness of the exercise worth embracing. So, here is the attempt at optimistic provocation which I submitted.

In the angry, distrusting, hardscrabble world of the mid-2010s, it was hard to imagine we could create an open, plural, creative, sustainable society with renewed trust in public life and without left-behind communities. In retrospect, the key realisation was that we had been too small-bore and defensive. Liberal principles offered new solutions as well as old truisms: as long as we realised we needed not just to keep democracy liberal, but also to keep liberalism democratic.

So while we fought the Brexiteers’ nationalist fantasies, our aim was less to rejoin the old, crisis-struck EU than to take the international lead in weaving the web of democratic successor relationships which we now call EU 2.0. Likewise, we pressed for an immigration policy which favoured skilled and student migration, but which recognised the economic impact of unskilled migration and faced up to the racism implicit in systematically favouring would-be immigrants from Europe.

But we also recognised that the 2010s’ immigration panic was a symptom of much deeper ills in our social and political structure. Economically, the key policy was the infrastructure surge: digital, renewable energy, transport and, vitally, housing. It stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition, but our cross-party environmental audit of the old Green Belts made it possible to unlock significant areas of land for development while fully retaining our commitment to our environmental principles. At the time, the impact on the public sector deficit seemed alarming, but it was eased by the new Green Bonds and by cautious, eyes-open PPP deals. The assault on the housebuilding oligopoly and new permissions for self-build kept pressure on house prices while beginning to improve the dismal quality of new-build housing.

The immediate effect was a surge in low-skilled, high-wage employment in construction, the major sector of low-skilled employment least subject to offshoring. That is now fading, but the broader economic and environmental boost given by the projects is only starting to show.

Much of the rest was more obvious: integrating social care fully into the NHS, replacing council tax with a land and property tax which pensioners could defer until sale, reducing micromanagement of education within a more exactingly quality-focused inspection regime, boosting research funds with a post-fee-repayment graduate tax.

But as good Lib Dems, we know that the constitutional changes were vital too. Rebuilding trust and engagement in politics was not a luxury. PR now seems less important than it once did. But while the term limits for MPs have cost us some talent, they have sharply reduced career politicians’ dominance. The new Upper House, selected entirely by lot, has been derided as reality-TV politics, but it has produced both real engagement and a new kind of democratic legitimacy. The experiment of allowing parents additional votes on behalf of their under-18 children is still in its early days, but promises to alleviate the so-called ‘demography vs. democracy’ crisis. Does anyone seriously believe that, without such decisive changes to our political culture, Scotland would be about to rejoin the UK?

Friday, 11 November 2016

Long live the King

So, we have a politician whose characteristics appear to include narcissistic self-importance, a certain bearish charisma, intellectual laziness and a butterfly mind, a throwaway attitude towards women, a degree of real shrewdness which he himself persistently overestimates, and a lack of any sustained interest in the nitty-gritty of government. I am talking, of course, about King Henry VIII.

Let’s imagine that Henry VIII fell through a time portal and was elected President of the United States. How would he, and his new subjects, manage?

Well, the good news first. Henry VIII had one undoubted and enviable political skill: he could recognise in others the administrative talents that he himself lacked. If President Henry could quickly identify a Thomas Wolsey or a Thomas Cromwell, he would quickly delegate most of the business of government to that person and the political machine that he (it would definitely be a he) would build up. Most of the time he would leave his brilliant operative alone and take his advice. Stuff would get done and Henry would take the credit.

He would generally temper his wilder ambitions with some realism about what is actually achievable. He would not want to be seen to lose, and so would not take wild risks. He might chafe for military glory, but he wouldn’t embark on something entirely recklessly.

He would stretch the law rather than break it. He would use, circumvent and manipulate the structures available to him, and would bully and overawe opponents rather than, say, hiring assassins. He would want to know in his own mind that what he was doing was legal and right, although he has a remarkable ability to persuade himself that what he wants is indeed justified. But he would be entirely willing to trample norms and conventions when in pursuit of something he really wants, and he would reward those ruthless and cunning enough to find him ways of doing so.

He might, for example, order his military to commit atrocities, although, as he discovered when he gave such an order to a force invading Scotland in 1544, his commanders on the ground might refuse actually to carry them out.

He would be intermittently paranoid. As a result, he would use, and bend, the law vindictively and indeed irrationally to pursue those whom he took against. He would do so pretty implacably. His defeated former presidential opponent, for example, might be well advised not to plan a quiet retirement.

He would find his inability to bend foreign governments to his will infuriating, and would be ready to see - for example - their willingness to protect his critics as a deliberate provocation. Personal snubs, such as failing to turn up to a summit meeting with him, would not be taken well.

Most importantly, perhaps, for those working out how to survive a Tudor administration: he would be an odd mixture of stubbornness and malleability. You can’t tell him he’s wrong, and open opposition only makes him dig in. But if you can sidle up to him and work on him askance, you can often get him to change his mind or shift his priorities. He will never admit that he has changed his mind, and it would be foolish to try to get him to do so, but in fact he is remarkably open to persuasion and indeed manipulation. Just make him think that the idea you have planted in his head is in fact his own idea, and you are there.

A word of caution, though. That malleability does mean he can change his mind for no apparent reason, including turning vengefully on those who were once his trusted intimates. Especially if he starts to feel that he is being pushed around. As Wolsey said: ‘be well advised and assured what matter you put into his head, for you shall never pull it out again.’

Good luck, and hold on tight.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Reasons to be cheerful, part 99

Post the US election: another instalment of what appears to be becoming a regular service. Since my immediate instinct is to regard this as, without exaggeration, the most frightening public event of my entire life, I am having to dig deep. Still, if you want a dose of optimism, here's the best I can currently do.

1. It won't be as bad as we fear - and I can prove it. Those of us in the liberal elite have proved, over the past two or more years, that we are entirely unable to predict any political processes of any kind. And this one could scarcely turn out worse than we fear. Ergo, it will be better. QED.

2. I am, just about, old enough to remember the last time there was this much fear after a US presidential election: 1980, when there was a widely held view that the Americans had elected a crazy warmonger who was going to kill us all. I am not trying to defend every aspect of Ronald Reagan's policies, which were at times both callous and reckless, but it is fair to say that he turned out better than we feared. Yes, I know he had vastly more political experience, and policy coherence, than Mr Trump. I'm doing my best here.

3. It was a clean result. No hanging chads, no birtherism: no-one is going to be contesting the legitimacy of the outcome as such. There's a little piece of the civilised world's fabric that won't be further damaged.

4. America still hates dynasties and turn-takers. Not since 1988 have the voters chosen the presidential candidate who thought it was their time. Remember a year ago when the smart money said we'd be looking at a Bush v. Clinton re-run? It's now up to the Democrats to produce some real presidential candidates for next time.

5. Demography isn't destiny. To be clear: I am, ahem, discouraged that a candidate who was so blatantly indulgent towards white supremacists and who seemed to embody racist assumptions so effortlessly could have won. (Although this is hardly a first in American history.) But I am not a great deal more encouraged by the Democratic campaign which seemed to focus on mobilising identity groups rather than offering a vision for the country. You can't just build up blocks of voters and take them for granted on the basis that your opponent is repulsive. From what I am hearing, Trump won a larger share of Hispanic voters than Romney did. If that's true, I am kind of mystified but also kind of cheered by it. Democrats can't simply, as they sometimes seem inclined to, wait for the old white folks to die and the Hispanics to have kids, and let the victories roll in.

6. After eight years of opposition and obstructionism from Republicans, it will be good for them, at least, to have to try to work out how to govern again. Either they will complete the self-destruct process as a party that they've been engaged on, in which case the mid-terms in 2018 will have consequences for them. Or they will find a way of making it work, in which case the US will have second functioning political party back.

7. Syriza. Brexit. The SNP. Podesta (the Spanish political party, not the Clinton staffer). M5S in Italy. Bernie. Corbyn. Thaksin Shinawatra, if you want to push it. Now Trump. ... At the risk of jumping to conclusions, could it be that voters are trying to tell us something? Yes, I know that the question is what. But surely now, at last, it is impossible to continue believing that merely defending a late 20th century politico-economic status quo is good enough?

Of course, if you happen to come up with anything which is better and which will actually work, do let the rest of us know.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

JEH 67/4: Buried treasure

The October number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History is out, and there are several articles I could blog about - Charlotte Kingston's wonderful argument that Gregory the Great's story of finding the devil on a lettuce is not one we should giggle at; Emma Wild-Wood's understated study of African Anglican missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century, beautifully bridging some of the divisions between missionary-led and indigenous-led histories of Christianisation; Eyal Poleg's study of the first Bible printed in England (in Latin), which turns out to be rather more than just a curiosity.

But for me, really, there is no choice: my heart belongs to Winchester. Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I (he died as her Lord Chancellor in 1555) was one of the most hated men in the sixteenth century, reviled by Protestants as 'Wily Winchester', the evil genius whose unseen hand lurked behind every misfortune that befell them. And there is no doubt he had both a certain ruthless lawyer's cunning, and a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way. In person he seems to have been stand-offish and awkward.

And yet ... the man could write. I think he was incontestably the finest religious polemicist writing in English in the generation between the death of Thomas More and William Tyndale, and the rise of John Jewel. And I'd argue he doesn't need to take second rank to any of them. I vividly remember reading his Detection of the Devils Sophistry (1546) and finding myself half-convinced that I did actually believe in transubstantiation ... His reply to William Turner's Hunting and finding out of the Romish fox (1543) only survives in fragmentary part, in the text of Turner's rebuttal of the reply. But even those fragments made it clear that he had essentially demolished large parts of Turner's case, and the rebuttal is no more than blustering restatement of an already shredded argument. And his brilliantly counterintuitive argument opposing attempts to move towards a more 'authentic' pronunciation of ancient Greek in Cambridge is not only immensely powerful, but deeply perceptive in terms of the much bigger issues that were at stake.

He not only could write, he did. During the reign of Edward VI, when most other English religious conservatives were for one reason or other paralysed into silence, Gardiner kept up the battle almost alone. But we know that the texts we have - most of them printed by James Arthur Muller in his indispensable 1933 edition - were not a complete set. We assumed the rest were lost.

Then along comes Spencer Weinreich, in - I am not joking - the first month of his MPhil studies at Oxford. And he finds early 17th century transcripts of two realio, trulio authentic Gardiner letters from the autumn of 1547, hiding in plain sight in a recusant manuscript in the Bodleian. We've just published his transcript of and commentary on them.

To my delight, they are not just Gardiner, but vintage Gardiner. There are some eye-catching details, not least the fact that Gardiner rather rashly cites the ongoing proceedings of the Council of Trent, but there is also simply the man doing what he does. One of the 'letters' is in fact simply a brief memorandum, but the second is a full-length rearguard action against the new regime's religious policies, and in particular the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I won't deprive you of the pleasure of reading it, but one titbit to give you a flavour. The evangelical doctrine of justification, as it was taking shape, insisted that there could be no human participation in justification of any kind, or it would no longer be a free gift and would reintroduce an element of works-righteousness. Nonsense, said Gardiner. Imagine that you invite a guest to your table and feed him for a year. Can he then grouse and claim that the gift was not freely given, because he was required to lift the food to his mouth and to chew it himself?

Friday, 26 August 2016

On Lake and Stephens' 'Scandal and Religious Identity'

I gathered some time ago that Peter Lake and Isaac Stephens’ 2015 book, Scandal and Religious Identity in Early Stuart England, was in part an attack on my Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (2013). Since I temperamentally prefer consensus to conflict – which I think may be one of the things which Peter Lake, at least, finds so infuriating about my writing – I’ve skirted around the book for a while, but I’ve now finally mustered the courage to sit down and work my way through it.

It is of course excellent stuff: I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Robert Woodford and Elizabeth Isham. But there is, indeed, quite a lot in it about me. A response to it may seem a little self-indulgent, but it’s my blog: so, here goes.

I feel I ought to apologise for stirring up such evident irritation, but I also have the sense that Peter Lake, at least, enjoys having an obviously wrong book to get his teeth into. (I don’t know Prof. Stephens, but I do have the sense that Peter is my main antagonist here.) And since he has put me in some exalted company – Alexandra Walsham, Ian Green, Christopher Marsh, Judith Maltby, and at least part of Patrick Collinson – I ought to accept the compliment and be content. In an age of bland academic writing, it’s a rare pleasure to see some proper polemic, pursued mostly through a series of increasingly incandescent footnotes, ending in a truly splendid rant on pp. 367-8 in which, at the last, he describes my book as a ‘perfectly serviceable, indeed an intermittently fascinating, account of the godly at prayer’, but one clothed in a ‘fat-suit of extraneous matter’: that made me laugh out loud in the library. It’s a good karmic payback for a similar, but in this case snarky and unjustified, line I wrote about someone else in a review some years back and have been feeling bad about.

So what are they so cross about?

At one level, the problem is that I’m a lumper and they’re splitters. I wrote about the experience of Protestantism in England and Scotland across a period of a little more than a century; Lake and Stephens have written a book about the experience of a handful of individuals in Northamptonshire in the late 1630s. Naturally they are able to engage with their sources much more thoroughly and to follow them down their particular idiosyncrasies: inevitably, I was interested in what my sources had in common with each other. So, for example, they are quite right to point out (p. 324n) that although I use Elizabeth Isham’s Book of Remembrance a fair bit, I never mention the sibling rivalry which is so prominent in it. Guilty: since I was writing a book neither about sibling relationships nor about Isham as such, I only drew on the sections of her text which addressed the issues I was interested in.

Generally, they do not like the fact that I have ‘culled’ or ‘source-mined’ material from a wide range of sources, and then ‘stitched [them] together under various topical headings’. I like to think I added some analysis to the mix as well, and I hope I treated my sources’ integrity with appropriate respect, but that’s a fair enough description. I don’t see how you could write a long history of those particular topics in another way. Lumpers always think splitters get too hung up on specificity and miss the big picture, and splitters always think lumpers cherry-pick their specifics to concoct whatever big picture they want. So it is as well we keep each other in line.

But on to specifics. They make quite a lot of sideswipes at my book over various minor points, many of which appear to be simple misunderstanding (no doubt my fault) or plain error. I didn’t call Isham’s Book of Remembrance a ‘diary’ (p. 295n): I called her other text a diary, as its online editors do. I am criticised for my ‘inexplicable refusal to talk about the taking of sermon notes’, a subject I touched on several times and discussed at some more length on pp. 358-60 of Being Protestant – they probably won’t like what I said, but that’s a different matter. And, trivial as it may seem, I don’t have a daughter (p. 367n): the paragraph in question could hardly make that clearer. These are mere niggles of course, and I am confident that they will have read their source texts more carefully than they read my book. Slightly more significantly, they misunderstand (p. 336) my point about Nehemiah Wallington’s supposed suicide attempts, which I evidently did not express as clearly as I had hoped. Of course his self-poisoning was ‘serious’. My point was that none of the other incidents (and the literature commonly describes him attempting suicide 18 times) was an earnest attempt to end his life, and I’d question even whether that one was. They were, in modern parlance, self-harm incidents, the kind that get characterised as a ‘cry for help’. Obviously such incidents are extremely serious. My point was simply that they are not the same as trying deliberately and with full intention to end your life.

I am also repeatedly criticised for using the phrase ‘preacher’s talk’ (eg. p. 358), which as far as I can tell never occurs in my text. I did once use the term ‘preacher’s rhetoric’, to belittle the claim that time spent in prayer makes you work more rather than less effectively, and ‘preachers’ tales’, to refer to improving and implausible anecdotes about godly prayer. I was similarly dismissive of a few other unrealistic preachers’ tropes. But I can’t imagine anyone would be upset about that.

They really, really do not like my suggestion that the ‘simplest’ motivation for Elizabeth Isham’s voluminous writing – not the main, primary or fundamental motive, just the ‘simplest’ – was ‘to fill time absorbingly and blamelessly’. This they paraphrase, rather freely, to say that I claim she wrote ‘just to pass the time’, a claim they find ‘staggering in its inattention to, and insensitivity before, what the text actually tells’ (pp. 336-7). Do I need to point out that I am not suggesting that was all she was doing? If they disagree that ‘redeeming the time’, filling the long hours, was a concern for godly Protestants such as Isham; or that writing projects were one of the means that could be used to that end; I’d be interested to hear the argument.

They also – and this, to my eyes, is their most powerful critique – suggest that I don’t take the religion of everyday antipuritan Protestants seriously enough. I think their claim that for me ‘such people simply do not signify’ (p. 173) is a bit harsh, since I had quite a lot to say about Prayer Book religion, the use of set prayers, the religion of the illiterate and the intertwining of religion and national identity. But they are probably right that I did not do enough to resist the gravitational tug of my source base, which pulled me towards the godly. This is partly because I think, as they do not, that the godly had by the end of Elizabeth’s reign managed to make their broad view of what Protestantism is pretty normative, so much so that even antipuritans shared a good deal of it: a success which can be obscured partly by the rise of Laudianism (which I take to be something novel) and partly by the refusal of the godly to admit that they had shaped popular culture to the extent I think they had.

But a critique which they clearly feel is more important, since it is repeated several times, is of what they call my ‘quite mistaken … attempt systematically to play down the role of preaching in the affective and devotional lives of the godly’ (p. 204), which they find ‘inexplicable’ (p. 362n). If that’s what I had been trying to do, it would be. My argument, which again I evidently failed to make adequately clear, was not that preaching was unimportant or secondary in godly Protestant experience. That would be absurd. I was questioning the preachers’ cliché that preaching was utterly dominant and primary. I cited evidence suggesting that preaching was sometimes not as edifying in practice as it was in theory, and that reading and other forms of private devotion could supplement or sometimes substitute for it to a greater extent than preachers themselves liked to admit. I also suggested that the early modern truism the preaching was the ‘only ordinarie meanes to beget faith’ is not borne out by the evidence, which suggests that while many people were indeed converted by preaching, many others were converted by other means.  I can see how that could be taken to imply that I was minimising preaching: it wasn’t meant that way. Lake and Stephens admit that a ‘slight shift of emphasis’ might be useful in this area (p. 205n): I would only put it a little more strongly.

At the risk of provoking them further, I think there are other areas where we don’t actually disagree very much. I think what they dislike about my non-phrase ‘preacher’s talk’ is that they think I am implying that puritan-antipuritan divisions were mere rhetorical creations. Again, that is not something I meant to do. To be plain: yes, obviously, there were intense and bitter religious rivalries and hatreds in post-Reformation England, and divisions such as that between puritans and anti-puritans were deeply felt. They were rarely as sharp and as intense as in the late 1630s, but they were perennial. The reason I sidestepped those rivalries in my book is not because I think them unimportant, much less that I deny their existence, but because I think other scholars (not least Lake himself) have already anatomised them very ably, and that our focus on them can risk being misleading. My book was arguing that pious practice and religious experience did not vary very much across the spectrum – not that the people who shared that practice and experience agreed with each other. Plainly they didn’t.

What I said in Being Protestant (p. 6) was that ‘the division between puritan and conformist Protestants, which has been so important in English historiography,almost fades from view when examined through the lens of devotion and lived experience.’ Please note the qualifications there: not just the weaselly almost, but the argument that there is one perspective from which this division ceases to be apparent. I was very far from arguing that the division did not exist. I emphasised that ‘English Protestants were self-consciously divided into puritans and conformists … these divisions were real and bitter’ (my p. 471). Rather, I argued that ‘when we look at the lived experience of religion’, what its daily practice consisted of, ‘the supposed distinction between puritan and conformist dissolves into a blurred spectrum in which even the extremes do not differ too starkly from one another’ (my p. 6). OK, the use of the word ‘supposed’ there may have been a bit provocative. And certainly, by the late 1630s, that spectrum was becoming less blurred and more stark. But – again, when looked at from the perspective of daily experience – it was still a spectrum, not a chasm.

This is not at all to suggest that the division did not matter. Quite the opposite. It’s a common enough observation that people who have something in common can disagree much more bitterly than those with nothing in common. Most English Protestants in this period – so I would argue – conducted their arguments within a common cultural frame, and while they reviled each other they experienced their religion in not dissimilar ways. Maybe that commonality is banal. Maybe it is something that Lake and Stephens don’t find terribly interesting. Still, it seemed worth pointing out to me.

I should also point out, of course, that we are very close to talking at cross-purposes in another way. Lake and Stephens’ book is about the years 1637-41. If a common Protestant culture had ever existed, plainly by this time it was on the point of collapse. As they point out, I mostly exclude Laudianism from my account, and that’s because I think it was genuinely different, and can’t be folded into the common culture I describe (though it does have some points of contact, naturally). They themselves argue on p. 166 that the ‘moderate puritan axioms’ by which many (let’s just leave it as ‘many’ for the moment) English Protestants had lived were breaking down under the impact of Laudianism: I can only agree.

They argue in their conclusion, in opposition to what they take to be my view, that ‘the division between the godly and the ungodly’ was ‘central to their sense of themselves and indeed to some of their most intensely felt spiritual, and even devotional, experiences’ (p. 357). Um … yes. I would want to underline that some more than they would. Is that what we’re arguing about?

So: in the event there was ever a second edition of my book (I don’t wish to give them nightmares), I would evidently need to clarify some things. I am not suggesting that the many and serious disputes in the post-Reformation English Church were ‘mere polemic, disagreements about trifles, entirely peripheral’ (p. 361): just that those disputes happened within a shared devotional culture, a shared context which probably made them all the bitterer.

But there seems to be something deeper going on here. It would seem that Lake and Stephens see ranged against them a kind of Anglican conspiracy, the pseudo-historical defenders of a sort of atavistic Englishness, ‘inherently moderate and timeless, indeed positively Hobbit-like’ in its religion (p. 174). They more or less accuse their opponents of making, not only an ‘a priori value judgement about the appropriate hierarchy of sources’ but also of being informed by preconceptions of ‘what real Christianity is all about’ (p. 361). In particular, they detect ‘a struggle over the origins, and therefore the quintessence, of “Anglicanism”’ (p. 363), a notion which they compare to Rasputin for its refusal to die:  ‘A set of cognate assumptions about mainstreams, via medias, consensual religion/s of the prayer book, of the English people or, still worse, of “English folk”, just keeps coming back out of the water’ (p. 364). This seems to be linked in their analysis to my suggestion that spirituality is difficult to analyse historically, a suggestion which they summarise as concluding that we should simply ‘fold our tents and go home, muttering the while about the ineffability of it all’. (p. 295)

Well, we can all play these sorts of games if we want to. I could reply that I think they have a tin ear for spirituality in their sources, and a frustratingly reductive insistence on reading all of those sources exclusively through the lens of confessional conflict. I do find their claim that ‘scarcely a scintilla of difference exists between the testimony of the public polemical sources … and the private sources’ (p. 7) staggering. Yes, of course the ‘private’ sources (if they want to use that division) confirm that confessional divisions existed and mattered. But are they really suggesting that the confessional divisions which dominate their public, polemical texts are equally dominant in and constitutive of the religious lives of people like Woodford and Isham? That when Woodford was praying for his sick children, or Isham was wrestling with her temptations to atheism, the partisan identities which they both certainly embraced were at the forefront of their minds?

Perhaps that counts as ineffable muttering. In the face of this sort of thing, all I can do is admit to being quite short, but a bit above hobbit stature; and to being a member of the Church of England, albeit a somewhat cranky one, with no particular affection either for notions of Englishness or ‘Anglicanism’, whether as an anachronistic historical construct or as a modern denominational label. I carry no brief for the Rasputin or, perhaps better, the Moby Dick they are pursuing. Although I would suggest that when an idea refuses to die despite repeated harpoonings, it perhaps needs to be engaged with in a subtler way.

‘When contemporaries make a fuss about something it pays the historian to take notice and try to work out why,’ they quite rightly say (p. 361). Yes, a lot of sources pay a lot of attention to partisan religious divisions, which is why we have a great deal of excellent scholarship on those divisions. A lot of sources, many of them of them very widely circulated at the time, also pay much more attention to, for example, devotional practice than to intra-party divisions, and these have not been so widely studied. Evidently people cared a lot about their divisions. Equally evidently – and really, this was all my book was trying to argue – that was not all they cared about. My judgement, based on reading those large number of texts, was that for many people, much of the time, especially before the 1630s, those divisions were not their religion’s beating heart.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 4: Voting on God

In the first of these despatches I mentioned RUMP, the collection of anti-royalist poems and songs published in 1662 (there was a shorter collection published in 1660). One of the better-known of those runs:

We fasted first, then pray’d that War might cease
When Praying would not serve, we paid for Peace
And glad we had it so, and gave God thanks,
Which made the Irish play the Scotish Pranks.
Is there no God? let’s put it to a Vote;
Is there no Church? Some Fools say so by rote;
Is there no King, but Pym, for to assent
What shall be done by Act of Parliament?
No God, no Church, no King, then all were well,
If they could but Enact there were no Hell.*

The last six lines were often quoted by nineteenth-century historians, sometimes as an indication of the crazed radicalism of the parliamentarians, sometimes, more sensibly, as an indication of the alarm of the nascent royalist party. They tended to skip the first four lines, which are more period-specific – they seem to put it in late 1641 or very early 1642 – but which feel a bit bolted-on.

Well, a stray page in the Temple correspondence here at the Huntington confirms that. Manuscript HM 46532 is a single sheet containing a sonnet, which I transcribe as follows:

Is there a god? let it be put to vote
Is there noe king but Pym as some men dote?
Is there noe church? bee it soe wee are content
Soe it bee down by Act of Parliament.
Is there noe god noe king noe church tis well
If they can find at last there is noe hell
Is there noe god why doe they the Commons foole
Is there a king why then dothe Pym leave rule
Is thiere a church? why are the members rent
And not made up agayne by Parliament
Is there a god a king a church tis even
As iust they should enact there is a heaven                              
Vnles that god the king hell heaven all
Like Strafford by one king ^Pym^ must stand or fall.

We can imagine that amused / appalled squibs of this kind were circulating widely in 1640-2, as provincial folks tried to keep up with what was happening, just as shocked post-Brexit Remainers spent a few days sharing barbed jokes on Facebook.

The verse here is less polished than the published version, though the whole thing works better. It appears to be earlier – the lack of any reference to the Irish and the allusion to Strafford would put it in mid-1641, at a guess, though those who know the detail better will no doubt be able to be more precise.

It looks to me as if the first line here was simply too good to resist, and made its way meme-like into another verse, and perhaps elsewhere. (The later version is a touch more aggressive, with Parliament apparently presuming the non-existence of God.)

What I like about this is the sense of just how high the religious stakes were from the very beginning of the Civil War era. It is not only with the explosion of Independency and sectarian movements in the age of Gangraena that wild views become possible.

If the Civil War was for one side the last of the wars of religion, it was for the other a war against atheism. The fact that the radicals themselves were often struggling to find firm anti-atheist ground on which they could stand only made matters worse.

*Alexander Brome (ed.), Rump: or An exact collection of the choycest poems and songs relating to the late times (London, 1662), p. 64.