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’ clichĂ© 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.

1 comment:

  1. A really expert and gracious response here, Alec. Thanks for continuing to set an enviable example for your current and former students and the scholarly world. Hope you are well. (Nathan Parker)