William Walwyn’s Montaigne and the struggle for toleration in the English Revolution
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This chapter examines why Montaigne, the great French Catholic writer and sceptic, was so appealing to the radical writer and Leveller leader William Walwyn. It argues that Montaigne was crucial to Walwyn’s self-fashioning, though he would not have used the term with its implications of theatrical self-presentation. Plain, direct, true to his self (especially his conscience), and made uneasy by any kind of behaviour marked by dissimulation, the ‘honest papist’ (as Walwyn characterised Montaigne) provided a kind of broad-minded, multi-vocal European model for Walwyn in his seventeenth-century world too often marred by religious enmity, suspicion, treachery and uncharitable Christian behaviour. Walwyn was making a powerful polemical point by using the ‘honest papist’ writer as a major authority on ethical, religious and political matters. Montaigne may have been ‘but a Romish Catholique’, but his essays, and the often startling perspectives they provided, offered Walwyn some of the most provocative, unorthodox observations about Christian religion and behaviour in a seventeenth-century world of Protestant divisions in which ‘pretence of pietie and religion’ (to recall a phrase from Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’) was too often manipulated and where toleration itself was far from assured. Montaigne appealed to Walwyn the radical tolerationist not simply because of his irenic sensibility – as unusual as that was in his own age of religious extremism – but because of his tendency to interpret against the grain and to unsettle deeply ingrained stereotypes, dogmatic perspectives, and religious prejudices based upon claiming doctrinal infallibility.

Insolent proceedings

Rethinking public politics in the English Revolution

Editors: Peter Lake and Jason Peacey

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