Saturday, 29 June 2013

UK student loans

Even I can occasionally be roused from my blithely Panglossian view of British higher education policy, and this is just the issue to do it. Possibly this is mere scaremongering: in which case, what harm could there be in petitioning against it?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Swedish Scots and Oliver Bonaparte

As a newcomer to studying the Civil War era, one thing has been bothering me: how on earth did the Scots win the Bishops' Wars in 1638-40?

It is, I think, the only genuinely successful Scottish invasion of England ever. Before that date, Scottish invasions of England had normally either failed catastrophically (1346, 1513, 1542) or been blocked by the Scottish nobility before they could happen (1557). This was not just because of the balance of populations and of wealth, but because the Scots forces consisted principally of feudal levies, that is, men raised from the lands of particular noblemen and bound to serve for specific, short periods. They could be seasoned fighters, but they weren't professional soldiers, and in any case they worked much better as a defensive than an offensive army. The further they got from home, the unhappier they became.

Worse, in 1638 Scotland
had enjoyed sixty-plus years of unprecedented internal peace. So those local levies would not have had even that level of experience. I know the English were divided and the Scots furious, but how hard can it have been to see off an army like that?

But now a twenty-year-old article by Edward Furgol* explains it to me. Turns out the Scots had spent the previous 15 years serving a brutally effective apprenticeship in modern warfare: from the mid-1620s, something like 25,000 Scots - around a tenth of the adult male population - had served in the armies of Denmark and Sweden during the Thirty Years' War. When they came home, they weren't just battle-hardened: they had learned the hard way how best to fight a 17th-century war. The Scots Covenanters, raising their armies in the late 1630s, deliberately put Swedish veterans in charge. This didn't just mean that these armies were far more professional and formidable than any previous Scottish army, and indeed more so than the English forces. It also meant that, using Swedish methods of conscription, the Scots were suddenly able to field huge numbers: again, some 24,000 men in the field in 1640.

Which is interesting in its own right, I think, but it connects with one of my wider hunches: that we do not take the connections between the British wars of the 1640s and the European war of 1618-48 nearly seriously enough. Could the one have even happened without the other?

It's not just training and personnel. David Trim pointed me to this wonderful woodcut from a 1659 representation of the European wars:

There is one wing of the Habsburg eagle, symbolic of ravaging Catholic armies, in the Netherlands: the other wing in Yorkshire. There was a case, some at the time thought, for seeing the wars on either side of the North Sea as the same struggle.

And if the Catholic threat could spill over from the Continent to Britain, why could Protestant vengeance not do the same? By the early 1650s, the New Model Army had become more formidable still than that Swedish-inspired Scots host. Was there an army in the world which was a match for it at that date, man for man? Some of its supporters were keen to take the battle to the enemy. In 1653 the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers was asking, ‘how durst our Army to be still, now the work is to do abroad? Are there no Protestants in France and Germany (even) now under persecution?’ Others pondered an invasion of Rome.

Big talk. But when the French revolutionaries talked of setting Europe alight, that seemed ridiculous too: till they did it. Could the English revolutionaries have done the same? Cromwell as Napoleon, or as a latter-day Alexander the Great? Well, no. But it is, I think, just about imaginable. For us: and more importantly, for them.

*Edward M. Furgol, ‘Scotland turned Sweden: the Scottish Covenanters and the Military Revolution, 1638-51’ in John Morrill (ed.), The Scottish National Covenant in its British Context (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990).

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sin and Salvation

My new Ranter friends would insist that you didn't have to choose between those two, and in this case at least they turn out to have been right. Registration closes on 14 June.

A brief history of Protestant orgies

Perhaps it's just me. But as I spend time dabbling around the wilder edges of the Protestant world (using the broadest definition of 'Protestant'), this keeps coming up. Radicals of all kinds, from Anabaptists to Quakers, were regularly accused of wild sexual license; so too were magisterial Protestants, under some circumstances. Most of the time this is plainly prurient, hyperventilating scaremongering. It's linked to the blood libel (the claim that Protestants secretly murdered and ate babies, just as witches, Jews and early Christians had been accused of doing): after all, orgies are hungry work.

But then consider the case of the conseiller de Pleurre, which Penny Roberts and Luc Racaut have uncovered for us. He was a city councillor in the French city of Troyes, arrested for heresy in 1562 after he had been reported for attending a secret Protestant meeting. He admitted the offence before the court, but added that
he had attended a Protestant assembly and sermon to fulfill his carnal desire and have sex with the woman of his choice, thinking that the rumour was true, that women gave themselves freely at those assemblies. But having seen and understood that this was false, and not having found what he was looking for, he had resolved not to go there again.1
The court, 'trying hard not to laugh', let him go. And clearly this proves that real sects are usually duller than people imagine them to be. But it also proves that there was a real constituency for religious or quasi-religious orgies out there?

So what are we to make of marginally more circumstancial or well-evidenced cases like the Thuringian sect known as the 'Bloodfriends', who gathered outdoors for clandestine nocturnal meetings, which ended with the command 'be fruitful and multiply’ – whereupon they would pair off discreetly? Or indeed the English 'spiritualls' known to the morally panicky as the 'Ranters'? One ex-Ranter claimed to have once believed that 'till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it sin, you can do nothing but sin'. Another claimed that 'I can if it will be my will, kisse and hug Ladies, and love my neighbours wife as my selfe, without sin'.

Now of course the first quote fits a sensationalising agenda, and the second was not a call to licentiousness but part of a wild, profound attack on the hypocrisy of structured religious life. No doubt formal mass orgies were only ever imagined. But de Pleurre reminds us that they were imagined, and not only with horror. It does seem pretty clear that there were some eyebrow-raising practices in and around some of these groups.

As various professedly radical and alternative groups discovered in the 1960s: if you boldly throw off the shackles of convention, but you still leave the men in charge ... well, is it any surprise?

1. Luc Racaut, Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity during the French Wars of Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 62.