Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 2: He said what??

OK, this one has me foxed, people.

In the Ellesmere MSS at the Huntington is a letter (MS EL 7977) which is, or purports to be, a letter from the puritan Exeter merchant Ignatius Jurdain to his son. It's undated, but Jurdain died in 1640.

The handlist to the Ellesmere manuscripts raises the possibility it is false, and perhaps the work of an Anabaptist, but there is certainly nothing Anabaptistical about it. Most of it seems like classic firebreathing Puritanism, of the kind we know Jurdain embraced (Samuel Clark wrote up his life). He is worried that his son is conforming to prayer-book religion, and much of the letter is unbalanced denunciations of the marriage ceremony (the phrase 'with my body I thee worship' is idolatrous, apparently), vestments, and - a more unusual preoccupation - of 'that hellish stick fetched out of Baals grove,the Maypole'. So far so good.

The boy is also urged to read good English divines, chiefly Dodd, Cleaver and Perkins, and to 'beware of vaine Philosophie, of the Heathen greeke, and of the Beasts language'. The idea that Latin is a gateway drug to popery is certainly unusual.

But then, in a final paragraph written to address the boy's 'Carnall infirmity', we find this:
I warne yow touchinge the bodye of the sisters, that yow ayme not soe much att their flesh, as att their spiritt rather make vse of yor Christian liberty in the howses of sinn.

Uh? I am not entirely sure I understand what he is saying, but it looks to me as if he is recommending his son visit brothels rather than lusting after godly women. That seems, um, out of keeping with the ethos of the rest of the letter? So is it a spoof? Is it an indication of a father-son relationship unravelling the father's principles? Is hypocrisy, or at least an indication that some Puritans had reached the point where maypoles were worse than fornication?

UPDATE 18 AUG: The mine of knowledge that is Arnold Hunt tells me that this letter was printed, apparently from another copy, in Notes & Queries in 1875. Which, as he suggests, tips the balance in favour if it being a satire or spoof of some sort. It still strikes me as an odd satire - pretty subtle apart from that last bombshell? I wonder if it might be based on a real text by Jurdain, but deliberately exaggerated or laced with other comments in order to discredit him? He was a man with a lot of enemies.


  1. If hypocrisy, then phenomenal hypocrisy. As an MP, Jurdain "moved ‘for some course to reform the public use of stews’, drawing attention to various places of ‘open bawdry’ on the outskirts of London. He was duly appointed to help convey the Commons’ concerns about this issue to the lord chief justice." Cf.

    1. Thanks for that - which only seems to sharpen the problem!