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.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 3: Things fall apart in Buckinghamshire

Also amongst the Ellesmere Papers, this oddly moving little snippet (MS EL 7765): a statement from the minister of Marsworth in Buckinghamshire, dated 16 August 1642. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety:

A certaine number of Souldiers calling themselues by the name of London Prentises came upon Munday being the 15th day of August to the towne of Masworth in Buckinghamshire, and there demanding of the Clerke the key of the church doore, went in to the said church and broke downe the rayles at the upper end of the Chancill where formerly the Communion Table stood, and beat downe all the painted glass in the windowes, and so coming downe to the Minister’s house demaunded of him the Service booke and Surpliss, withall threatning that if he did not deliver them to them, they would pull downe his house over his head, but he telling them they were not in his keeping, they returned back to the church, and finding them there, first tore the two Service bookes all to peices, scattring some of the leaues about the streets, and carrying the rest away vpon the pointes of their swordes, and afterwardes one of them took the Surpliss and putt it on him, as the Minister useth to doe, and so marcht away to Alisbury triumphing in comtempt and derision, In witness whereof I the minister of the said Parish haue here sett my hand: Date this 16th of August: 1642. Roger Wilford minist: ibid.

It’s countersigned by the parish clerk.

Amidst the national calamity that was starting to unfold, this was nothing. What I find compelling about this, however, is Wilford’s plaintive petition – apparently believing that this blatant lawbreaking might be punished. And why not? England, especially the South, had been at peace internally for longer than anyone alive could remember. Law had been upheld and rights respected. Yes, politics had become very shouty and embittered, but surely name-calling in Westminster is one thing, and soldiers barging into your village with impunity, smashing up the church, spiking service-books on their sword and threatening to pull your house down, is another?

In our own age, we could perhaps do with remembering that entrenched division and demonisation of opponents can eventually have  consequences.

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.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 1: Bears and squirrels

Thanks to the combined generosity of the Leverhulme Trust and the Huntington Library themselves, I have a delightful month to spend at this excellent institution, to which, shamefully, I’ve never yet been. It’s much like any top-rank library, except it’s 30 degrees C outside, and my family texted me this morning to tell me that a policeman had showed up at the house where we’re staying and advised them to go indoors because there was a bear in the next door garden.

But who cares about that when there are new manuscripts to play with? Today’s treat was a collection of anti-Parliamentary ballads from the 1640s, some but not all of which were published in the magnificently titled RUMP of 1662.

My favourite, which doesn't appear in the published version, is a cruel squib on Lady Grey of Groby, wife of a senior Parliamentarian general and regicide, who – supposedly – gave birth to ‘an Infant with a head like a hare and the tayle of a squirrel’. Tales of monstrous births like this, usually seen as judgements on the immorality of the parents, were common enough, but this one is done with a sharp comic edge. The monster, we read, ‘had been a beast at best of all / Had she brought forth a Gray’. And that fits with a wider sense that the entire parliamentary party are in some sense monstrous, and that the worst ‘ugly monsters’ are those that have been ‘hach’t by th’Assembly’s braine’ – meaning the Westminster Assembly, charged with the doomed attempt to create a new Protestant settlement for Britain.

What makes this more than routine name-calling, though, is its ironic voice, sustained almost to the end: in which it robustly denies that this and the many, many other monsters of all kinds which parliamentarians are bringing forth mean anything at all. Or as the subtitle puts it: ‘Whereby you may note, that the pious and godly / may be brought to bed of things that look odly.’

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Madeleine Ward on Quakers' persecution

Without wishing to make this all about me: this is, for me, a first. I've had many outstanding MA students, and I've had a student doing a research MA (hello, Karl Jones) who published an article off the back of it, an article which I shamelessly nabbed for a book I was editing.

But Maddy Ward did a taught MA in 2013-14, and the dissertation, which I supervised, was only a third of the total course. In theory she was supposed to get it done to hand in in mid-September.

Awkwardly, she had researched and written what was clearly an outstanding dissertation by June. I didn't think that two and a half months polishing it was a good use of anyone's time. So we (by which I mean, she) set about converting it into a publishable article. She submitted it to Quaker Studies just after she left Durham for Oxford (boo, hiss) to pursue her PhD with Sarah Apetrei (hurray!); it was accepted, and it's just appeared.

And a very good piece it is too: on the distinctive theological response that early Quakers had to persecution, which drew on but was also distinct from classical Protestant martyrology, infused as it was with the Quaker emphasis on personal transformation. Her fundamental point, that we need to take Quakers' ideas seriously rather than simply seeing them as reacting to external stimuli, is a nourishing one. It's a great piece, and she's a scholar to watch.