By expanding the geographical scope of the history of violence and war, this volume challenges both Western and state-centric narratives of the decline of violence and its relationship to modernity. It highlights instead similarities across early modernity in terms of representations, legitimations, applications of, and motivations for violence. It seeks to integrate methodologies of the study of violence into the history of war, thereby extending the historical significance of both fields of research. Thirteen case studies outline the myriad ways in which large-scale violence was understood and used by states and non-state actors throughout the early modern period across Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Atlantic, and Europe, demonstrating that it was far more complex than would be suggested by simple narratives of conquest and resistance. Moreover, key features of imperial violence apply equally to large-scale violence within societies. As the authors argue, violence was a continuum, ranging from small-scale, local actions to full-blown war. The latter was privileged legally and increasingly associated with states during early modernity, but its legitimacy was frequently contested and many of its violent forms, such as raiding and destruction of buildings and crops, could be found in activities not officially classed as war.
In this chapter I want to talk about puritanism as a stereotype and about anti-puritanism, a discourse organised around that stereotype as an ideology, by which I mean a way of looking at the world and explaining what has gone wrong with it and what to do about it. Anti-puritanism provided a narrative, or series of narratives, about the recent past, the present and immediate future, a narrative that identified the villains and heroes of the piece. It thus provided a way of ordering experience, and of explaining things; of making appeals for support, and generating agendas for change and plans for action. A product of the post-Reformation in England, the stereotype of the puritan and the ideology of anti-puritanism that accreted around it might be thought to offer a perfect opportunity to study the development of a stereotype from its first inception, until, by the early eighteenth century, it morphed into something else.
It has long been a commonplace that the word ‘puritan’, and the stereotypes and ideologies that attended it, were a product of people who did not like the things being evoked or described by the term. This was a concept developed, not by the people subsequently known as puritans, but rather by their enemies. Thus, the conventional account sees ‘puritan’ as a pejorative term, a moniker, and an identity, to which no one would lay claim, not at least until very late in the game. As I hope to argue below none of this is quite right.
In the received account, the origins of anti-puritanism are threefold. They are to be found first in the polemical response to puritan arguments for further reformation, arguments which culminated in the Presbyterian movement for root and branch ecclesiastical reform, the conformist response to which produced massive, and sometimes abstruse, works of formal polemic written by ambitious clerical defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo: men like John Whitgift, John Bridges, Richard Bancroft, Matthew Sutcliffe, Richard Hooker. Starting in the 1570s, this move reached its culminating point in the 1590s, with the final official push against the puritan movement.1
While they might draw upon, these highly wrought polemical texts could not be collapsed into, the second source of anti-puritan animus which can be found in an altogether more demotic, ‘popular’ and spontaneously hostile set of responses to the evangelical efforts of a certain sort of rigourist puritan preachers and their lay followers and backers. Thirdly, it has been argued that these two long-standing forms of anti-puritan thought and feeling came together in an outburst of pamphleteering and popular theatrical performance provoked by the Marprelate tracts of the late 1580s, the result of which was the instantiation of the figure of ‘the puritan’ within the cultural scripts and political imaginary of post-Reformation England.
The Marprelate tracts were short, sharp pamphlets of remarkable vituperative energy and satiric bite that not only made the Presbyterian case for further reformation in the most uncompromising of terms, but also subjected the ecclesiastical authorities to a quite unprecedented series of ad hominem assaults. The Martinist assault provoked a series of responses written by denizens of proto-Grubbe street, like Thomas Nashe, Anthony Munday and John Lyly. These were produced at the behest of Richard Bancroft, Whitgift’s right-hand man, subsequently to be Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus represented an official, or pseudo-official, recourse to popular pamphleteering, a use of the puritans’ own propaganda methods, against the puritan cause.2
For all the emphasis on hypocrisy and self-interest that underpinned his analysis of the support base of the Presbyterian programme, even Richard Bancroft had concentrated his very considerable polemical energies on the puritan movement and the Presbyterian platform, rather than on the image of the puritan as a social type or what became known as a ‘character’. Indeed, as Patrick Collinson liked to insist, Bancroft rarely used the word puritan. According to Collinson it took the pamphlet replies to Marprelate to connect the popular stereotype of the puritan as a Pharisaical hypocrite and blowhard to the arguments about the nature of the puritan movement and the Presbyterian platform to be found within the formal polemic.3
On the back of the anti-puritan offensive of the early 1590s, it was thus the pamphlet press and the popular stage that combined to produce the stereotype of the puritan as an upwardly mobile, proud, presumptuous and utterly corrupt hypocrite, the most famous theatrical examples of which are, of course, Falstaff, Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure.4 The sins which afflict these figures – greed, gluttony, lust and social ambition – are of the most obvious and (mostly) carnal sort, while their pretensions to piety and biblically inflected modes of speech serve merely as blinds behind which these hypocrites can pursue their own quintessentially carnal ends.
The result of all this, Collinson claimed, was that ‘puritanism’ was, in effect, the ‘invention’ of the pamphlet press and the popular stage. It was a chimera, a stereotype, of the most factitious and crude sort, cooked up by the media of the day at the prompting of the most anti-puritan wing of the Elizabethan establishment. Collinson’s claims in this regard were part of a more general attempt on his part to collapse modes of piety and practice conventionally labelled ‘puritan’ into the mainstream of English Protestantism, a manoeuvre rendered all the easier if the stereotype of the puritan was both a relative latecomer and the invention of professional anti-puritans like Bancroft and their creatures amongst the play- and pamphlet-writing classes.5
These claims were the occasion of a certain scholarly debate, or, as Collinson once put it in a classically Collinsonian, both self-deprecating and pointed, put-down, a storm in a teacup; a scenario in which he was the cup and I (among others) the necessarily diminutive and ridiculous storm. My main objection to Collinson’s contention was then, and remains now, that the stereotype of the puritan as Pharisaical hypocrite was not merely an invention of the stage, a product of a largely factitious polemical exchange, with specifically contingent political causes, albeit one with serious and, from Collinson’s perspective, malign long-term cultural (and therefore political) consequences. Rather, it had far deeper roots in myriad local encounters between various sorts of self-consciously godly professors of true religion and their less-than-zealous neighbours, in the course of which the notion of ‘the puritan’ as a hypocritical busybody, a holier-than-thou arriviste, an avatar of social division and social control, had emerged.6 As such the emergent notion or image of ‘the puritan’ represented something more like a caricature, an (admittedly both malign and mischievous, and often grotesquely overdrawn) exercise in sociological generalisation and category formation, which, certainly by the 1590s, was feeding off existing and readily recognisable forms of behaviour, both ascribed and owned identities.
Thus, despite Collinson’s claims to the contrary, while I do not think that the likes of Falstaff, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy or Ananias the deacon were the result of value-free exercises in social reportage, conducted in the back streets and churches of post-Reformation England, I do think that the modes of scripturally infused discourse, the snippets of puritan-speak put into their mouths by Shakespeare and Jonson, were intended to recall to members of the audience patterns of speech and modes of diction that they had indeed heard coming spewing out of the mouths of what I still think we can call real puritans. It was only because that was the case that the audience’s attention could be obtained and the jokes be made to work.7
This is not to argue that, as a both ascribed and owned identity, an identifiable mode of behaviour and affective style, the notion of the puritan or of puritanism was not discursively constructed and continually contested, but merely that those processes of construction and contestation took place in myriad social interactions, interpretative and vituperative moves and counter-moves, over the course of the twenty or thirty years before the literary spats of the 1590s. In this chapter I want to illustrate and develop that contention by arguing that the stereotype of the puritan and its defining other, the image of the so-called ungodly or the profane, was first elevated to the level of printed discourse and formal argument in the writings, not of the enemies of the godly and their hangers-on and clients amongst the play- and pamphlet-writing classes, but rather in the printed works of the puritans themselves. In short, I want to claim that, at the level of formal, printed discourse and literary contrivance, the stereotype of the puritan was at least as much the creation of those being stereotyped as puritans as it was of their conformist and literary enemies.
In making that case, and in setting it in the appropriate historical and historiographical contexts, I hope I might also be making some contribution to the collective discussion of what stereotypes are and what ideological work they can be taken to be doing.
The birth of the anti-puritan stereotype, or Atheos tells it like it is
To make that case I want to turn to one text in particular, George Gifford’s famous tract of 1581, A briefe discourse of certaine points of the religion which is among the commo[n] sort of Christians, which may bee termed the countrie diuinitie.8 Gifford was, for a time, vicar of Maldon in Essex. Deprived during the subscription crisis of 1584, he was later reinstated as town preacher there. Gifford was up to his neck in the Presbyterian movement, serving as the leading light of the Braintree conference and attending various of the clandestine national synods held by the movement throughout the 1580s. On the outs with the ecclesiastical establishment, he yet remained very well connected with the lay elite. He dedicated A briefe discourse to Lord Rich and was well regarded by both Burghley and Leicester. He served as a chaplain in the latter’s expeditionary force to the Low Countries, ministering there to the dying Sir Philip Sidney. Thus, he survived the collapse of the classis movement and the repression of the early 1590s unscathed and died still in post at Maldon. He was the author of a series of dialogues and pamphlets exploring what he presented as the beliefs of the common folk who made up his flock.9 His tracts on witchcraft have attracted particular attention, and led to Alan Macfarlane describing him as something like ‘a Tudor anthropologist’.10 More recently his views on the ‘country divinity of the people’ have proved central to the work of revisionist historians of the Reformation and post-Reformation like Christopher Haigh.
The text in question takes the form of a dialogue between a godly minister, called Zelotes, and one of his parishioners, called Atheos, and contains at its heart a fully realised version of the stereotype of the puritan as proud, preening, Pharisaical hypocrite. This comes spewing out of the mouth of Atheos and is then amplified by the commentary of Zelotes. Here is the puritan as hypocrite and busybody, as ‘busy controller’.11 ‘Precise puritans do find fault where there is none; you condemn men for every trifle.’12 The puritans were ‘curious precise fellows, which will allow no recreation’.13 Despite their pretensions to be animated by ‘the spirit’, they were presented as grasping aspirants for status and power – ‘many of your spiritual men will never be satisfied’.14 They were ‘great scripture men’ who, while they pretended to almost superhuman levels of sanctity and learning, were in fact no better, indeed very often a good deal worse, than their neighbours. ‘None will deceive a man sooner than they; they will speak a man fair before his face and be ready behind his back to cut his throat.’ ‘They can say very well, but their deeds are as evil as other men’s, for who is more covetous than they.’15
Puritans were singular and divisive. ‘They will not do as their honest neighbours do, they will be wiser than their betters’, and were always ‘busy in checking every man’.16 ‘Ever meddling in small matters’, they could not keep their nose out of other people’s business.17 ‘You precise puritans do find fault where there is none.’18 But ‘holy as ye would seem to be’, the puritans had more than enough faults of their own.19 However, for all that, Atheos alleged, you ‘see not your own [sins] but other men’s’.20 Accordingly, Atheos enjoined the godly to ‘pull the beam out of your own eye. If every man would look to himself there should not be such finding of fault with other.’21
The puritans’ spiritual pride and hypocrisy was matched by their ‘presumption’,22 which reached its apogee in their claim that ‘they know they shall be saved. I think they would make themselves Gods.’23 ‘Men will say they know God hath chosen them. How can they tell … Did ever God tell them that they are elected?’24 But while they arrogated salvation to themselves, they preached ‘damnation to the people’.25 ‘Nowadays there is nothing among many of ye but damnation, damnation.’26 ‘They would drive men to despair and bring them out of belief with the fear of damnation.’27
The origins of these noxious habits of thought, and the entirely counter-productive preaching style such assumptions produced, were predestinarian. ‘They meddle with such matters as they need not, as election and predestination. What should such matters be spoken of among the people. They make men worse.’28 For ‘if a man be chosen for to be saved, let him do as evil as he can, he shall not be damned; and if a man be appointed before he be born to be damned, let him do never so much good, he cannot be saved, and therefore when ye teach this doctrine ye were even as good tell the people that they may live as they lust.’29
Obsessed with preaching, the puritan clergy would not shut up, but rather ran at the mouth in the pulpit in myriad ‘flying sermons’,30 all delivered more or less extemporaneously without proper preparation. As for their followers, they were forever gadding after sermons, often travelling as much as four or five miles to hear the right sort of preacher. They claimed to be doing this ‘to learn to know God’, but in fact they did it out of ‘vainglory’, to set themselves apart and make themselves feel special.31 But while ‘they talk much’ they were no better than the rest of us.32 ‘These men are full of the spirit. These are precise fellows, these are holy saints, these think themselves God’s fellows’, ‘better than all other men’. They were ‘overfull of the spirit, over precise’.33 ‘They make themselves more holy than they be.’34
The result of all this was division and disorder. Confronted by a range of dissentient clerical voices, and different preaching styles, the godly called upon the people to ‘try the spirits’; in other words, ‘every man is for to judge whether the preacher speak true or false’.35 This was a recipe, if not for disaster, then at least for division, and predictably enough, now whole towns ‘are even divided one part against another since they had a preacher’. Asked who or what was to blame for such ructions Atheos answered ‘I think the fault must needs be laid upon the preaching, because they were agreed before that came’.36
Such broils were driven on by ‘young rash heads and troublesome fellows’, newly arrived in the ministry and anxious to make a name for themselves,37 and by their lay, sermon-gadding, busybody followers. Puritans were opposed to their governors in church and state. Hating bishops, they regularly disobeyed their prince. Defending a reading ministry, Atheos asks ‘are not men allowed which are but readers, even by the learnedst in the land. Do ye find fault with the bishops? Or are ye one of those which do not allow of bishops?’38 ‘Are there not many which count themselves very holy, and yet break the queen’s law?’39
We have here nearly all of the central features of the anti-puritan stereotype of the godly that would persist through the period down to the Civil War and beyond. While in the dialogue it is portrayed spewing out of the mouth of that ordinary punter in the pew, Atheos, it was in fact being introduced into the realm of public discourse defined by print by a leading puritan divine. Here is proof positive that the stereotype of the puritan existed years before the reaction against Marprelate. Indeed, here, in the early 1580s, we have ‘puritan’ being embraced as a term of self-description.
If there be any man which hath a care to know God and seeketh after his word, and will not commit those beastly sins which overflow in all places, then you, which cannot abide to have God’s word set forth, devise a number of lies and slanders against them, calling them puritans, rascals and many other such like. On the contrary part, let a man be a common drunkard, a dicer, an ignorant beast which hath no knowledge of God … he is an honest man.
Notably, Gifford defines the term ‘honest’ men as those who ‘liveth as the most do’.40
All of which explained the extreme hostility with which the ungodly responded to the charitable reproofs of their godly neighbours. As Zelotes told Atheos
ye know not that which the lord commandeth in sundry places, that we should admonish, and reprove one another, if any do amiss [and yet] ye cannot abide to be admonished, when ye commit any naughty thing … When a man doth, after a godly manner, admonish ye, he is by and by a busy meddler, what hath he to doe, he shall not answer for you. And because ye may not do what lewdness ye list uncontrolled, ye say it was never merry since every man might read the scriptures.41
If, no matter how ‘foul’ or ‘beastly’ the relevant ‘vice’, ‘crime’ or ‘sin’ might be,42 a man’s first response to any admonition was to ‘stamp and stare like mad men’, and declare himself ‘at deadly hatred with’ the person doing the ‘admonishing’,43 then he had, ipso facto, outed himself as one of the ungodly, just as surely as his interlocutor had been identified as, in all likelihood, one of the godly. It was, after all, a signal work of ‘charity to look unto others, and to convert them from their sin, if they can’,44 and, therefore, a central characteristic of the godly to admonish their fellow Christians ‘after a godly manner’,45 ‘according as God commandeth’,46 and an equally certain sign of an ‘obstinate’ member of the ungodly to resent the hell out of them for so doing.
Such behaviour marked the opponents of the godly as agents of the devil himself. ‘For those which do take part with those wicked men, and rail upon those which are godly, do fight under the same standard and seek to uphold the kingdom of the devil, labouring for to overthrow the gospel and to banish God’s word.’47 ‘The more careful a man is to be holy to the lord, the more he is disdained and disliked, which doth evidently show that such as you are led by the devil.’48 ‘So long as a man is void of religion and maketh profession of no more than they do; so long, although he be full and swarm with great vices, he is an honest man, but let him follow the word and be careful to amend, then there is no lewder fellow upon earth, divers slanders be raised, things shall be reckoned up which he did seven years ago, and now they hate him like a dog.’49
All of which explains the seeming paradox that the anti-puritan stereotype is to be found first achieving both fully rounded literary expression and the apotheosis of print, not in the works of the puritans’ enemies, still less (as Collinson would have it) in some anti-Martinist squib, but rather in text authored by a leading puritan divine. Gifford’s book was intended to be an entirely recognisable representation both of the sorts of thing that were regularly being said about puritans, and of the attitudes and assumptions regularly being displayed by puritans, both in this book and in real life. In a staggering display of precisely the sort of self-righteousness and presumption of which their enemies were coming so vehemently to accuse the puritans, Gifford clearly thought that his account of the image of ‘the puritan’ and of the uses to which that image was put, would be so self-evidently malign, or as he put it in the dialogue, so self-evidently ‘atheistical’, popish and demonic, that merely by putting these things on the printed page he could identify the enemies of the puritans as the wicked or the profane and vindicate the puritans as what they took themselves to be; that is to say, as simply ‘the godly’; personifications of true religion, the spreaders of saving knowledge and gospel light amongst a populace sunk into ignorance and irreligion by the combined efforts of the devil and his agent, Antichrist.
Moreover, as the logic of his own argument demanded that he should, Gifford owned the term puritan as a description of his own position, if, that is, that position were rightly understood.
I abhor the error of the Catherists or puritans, I confess that I am loaden with corruptions: if that be your meaning, to charge me with that opinion, which is wicked and devilish. But if ye take the name puritan for one which hath more care to obey God than the common sort, and therefore laboureth to keep himself pure and unspotted of the world (as Saint James speaketh), then look to it, that ye be not found among those which revile not men but God. If ye mean by precise men, those which are so scrupulous, as to make sin where there is none, as your words doe plainly shew, then do I utterly renounce that name for to be called precise, and I disallow such fond persons, whosoeuer they bee. But I know you mean those which walk precisely as Saint Paul willeth, and doe take heed to their ways: not condemning men, but admonishing them, not in trifles, but in weighty matters: although you count them trifles. The commandments of God (at the least some of them) are but trifles with you. You see not, nor consider, how great the Lord God is, and therefore ye dare affirm divers sins done against him to be but trifling and small, ye measure not sin with a true measure, when ye do measure it after the rule of a man. Ye do not know wherefore there is eternal death threatened against every small sin: ye marvel at that, because ye are blind and cannot judge how great he is, whose will is disobeyed.50
Thus are decades of nonsense talked about ‘puritan’ being simply a term of abuse that no one would own or admit refuted by the simple expedient of reading the sources and returning the use of the word by the puritans themselves to the context provided by the stereotyping, inversionary discourses in which it was first developed and deployed.
On taking texts seriously, not literally
In large part by ignoring that discursive context, historians have managed to make something of a mess of interpreting texts like Gifford’s and thus have missed the ideological work that the notion of the ‘puritan’ was doing for a variety of contemporaries, including the puritans themselves. In discussing the resulting confusions and elisions I shall be dealing most obviously with certain central strands in the recent historiography of post-Reformation England. But as an effect of that discussion I shall also, I hope, be commenting on the ways in which historians might best exploit the stereotypes generated by contemporaries to make sense of their own concerns and experience as genuinely historical evidence, as well as literary and cultural tropes.
On one hand Christopher Haigh has cited Gifford’s account, along with that provided by another Essex puritan minister, Arthur Dent in his Plain man’s pathway to heaven, to prove just how unpopular Protestantism was with the people. This is part of his larger revisionist project to demonstrate that the English Reformation had no longer-term or deep structural causes, met no deep-seated ideological or spiritual needs, but was rather a function of the entirely contingent course of high Tudor politics. Because of this, as an attempt to change the religion of the mass of the people, the Reformation was more or less doomed to fail. Haigh in effect equates Gifford’s puritanism with Protestantism tout court and uses Atheos’s consistent rebuffs of Zelotes’s arguments, and indeed Zelotes’s own claim, for instance, ‘that where there is one of these towns which are forward, there bee five which are not’,51 to prove that the people did indeed prove impervious to the rigidly predestinarian rigourism being peddled by the godly. This was true, such texts imply, even in areas like Gifford and Dent’s Essex or Josias Nichol’s Kent, where Protestantism was supposedly strong, let alone in places like Haigh’s own more conservative, indeed Catholic-riddled, Lancashire.52
In response, others have argued that, for all of his distaste for the puritans and his claims that they simply could not engage with the religion of the people, Haigh is in effect placing enormous interpretative faith in the comments of the godly about that religion. Noting the centrality to the puritans’ view of themselves, and of the world, of a rigid, binary opposition between the godly and the ungodly, such historians have argued that the polarities inscribed in Gifford’s and Dent’s accounts were seriously overdrawn and tell us at least as much about the nature of the puritans’ own views as they do about the nature of contemporary social reality. In other words, such puritan jeremiads are not literally to be believed.
Others, drawing on the evidence of certain sorts of cheap print – on murder pamphlets and other cheap, sensationalised and providentialised pamphlets and plays – have argued that even a heavily predestinarian and providential form of Protestantism might, under the right circumstances, have achieved considerable traction with at least elements of the people, that is to say, with the social groups beneath the landed, mercantile and professional elites.53
Others still, most notably Alec Ryrie, have pushed such arguments further.54 Observing that most early modern English people probably regarded themselves as neither simply godly nor profane, but rather a bit of both, they have sought to assimilate the resulting middle ground to a consensual Protestant mainstream, stretching virtually without change from the 1520s to c. 1640. This is to collapse puritanism into Protestantism, but not in order, with Haigh, to characterise the resulting, narrowly predestinarian, word- and sermon-based style of piety as a failure, but rather to identify a consensual, emotionally intense, prayerful Protestantism as a raging success. We have gone here something like full circle, returning within thirty years to a version of the Protestant triumphalism against which Haigh and the other revisionists were (quite rightly) reacting in the 1970s.
While one might not agree with everything that the likes of Christopher Haigh ever said, the best way to respond to revisionism is not (with Alec Ryrie) simply to act as though it had never happened. Indeed, with its stably consensual post-Reformation Protestant mainstream replicating almost perfectly Eamon Duffy’s equally Panglossian (and consensual) account of pre-Reformation Catholicism,55 Ryrie’s work seems to me to be an object lesson in how not to respond to revisionism. We are in danger, in short, of another outbreak of Catholics and Protestants, and indeed of intra-Anglican polemicising, of the sort which used to dominate the historiography of the English Reformation. This, to me at least, is decidedly not an advance.
Mere Christianity – Atheos style
One way to respond to both Haigh and Ryrie is to return to George Gifford. Throughout his tract Gifford tried very hard to characterise the positions he attributed to Atheos as atheistical and popish, indeed as in effect satanic, since they represented precisely the sort of subtle, serpentine and apparently commonsensical arguments devised by the fiend, throughout human history, to obstruct the progress of true religion. But what Gifford actually portrayed was, in effect, an alternative version of Christianity, of the role of the clergy and of the nature of the Christian community; one that, while it was deeply antipathetic to his own style of Protestant rigourism, was arguably just as much a product of the somewhat episodic course of the English Reformation as his own style of piety.
Atheos is committed to a vision of social unity based on various forms of sociability and recreation that are viewed by Zelotes as simply sinful. He values clergymen who do not preach, or if they do, do not preach ‘damnation’ in the style of the puritans, but rather seek to preserve peace and good neighbourhood amongst their flock, eschewing the disruptive admonitions of petty offences. Such a minister goes along to get along, joining his parishioners in the harmless recreations of the ale bench or May game. ‘He will seek for to make them friends for he will get them to play a game or two at bowls or cards and to drink together at the ale house. I think it a godly way.’56
As for his personal piety, Atheos is no moral incompetent. ‘I can tell when I do well and I can tell when I do evil.’57 He trusts that ‘God will not require more at my hands than I am able to do’,58 and takes comfort from his own efforts ‘to live honestly, serve God and think no man any harm’.59 ‘I thank God I can bring many to testify that I am an honest man and always have been.’60 ‘I am no thief, no murderer, nor traitor, I pay every man his own. I think this is God’s bidding.’61 In terms of formal religious profession he asks, ‘what should unlearned men’, that is to say, ‘plain country men, plough men, tailors, and such other’, ‘meddle farther than to say the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer and the articles of faith’?62
But his is no simple works theology. He knows that he is a sinner, as are all men, even, perhaps especially, the puritans, and takes comfort from the fact that, in a fallen world, the best that anyone can do is ‘repent, call for mercy and believe’.63 ‘Because Christ shed his blood for us I look for to be saved by him, what would you have me more?’ ‘I trust I believe as well as any scripture man of them all.’64 He believes, because the bible told him so, that at ‘what time soever a sinner doth repent him of his sin, God will forgive him’.65 ‘If a man be sorry and ask God forgiveness is he not even as good as those which are the most precise; the mercy of God must save all, and what would you have a man care for more than to be saved?’66 Indeed, on this basis, he claims to have as ‘good a faith and as good a soul to Godward as the best learned of them all’.67
Over against the strenuous, predestinarian, scripturally infused piety of the puritans, he opposes a vision of Christian profession based on the discharge of social duty and the maintenance of good neighbourhood, described under the rubric of ‘love’, a quality he ascribes to a golden age before the rise of puritan preaching. ‘Now there is no love, then they lived in friendship and made merry together; now there is no good neighbourhood, now everyman is for himself, and we are ready to pull one another by the throat.’68 Later, he writes,
If a man labour all the week truly and honestly, and upon the Sabbath day come to the church and make his prayers, shall we say God regarded not his prayer, because he doeth not understand what he prayeth: his intent is good, he doth his good will: he hath a wife and children to provide for, he must follow the world, and let preaching go, or else he shall beg: and so long as he doth hurt no man, but dealeth uprightly: I think God doeth require no more at his hands. Such as have naught else for to doe, let them seek for knowledge.69
There is, of course, more than an element of caricature at work here. For Gifford is constructing a stereotype of the works righteousness of the ungodly against which the true godliness of the puritan can emerge, and by which the truth of the positions being pushed in the dialogue by Zelotes about the nature of true faith, the real terms upon which salvation is offered by a perfectly just and perfectly merciful God to sinful humanity, can be vindicated.
But just as with Gifford’s evocation of the stereotype of the puritan, so here we can, I think, detect claims, indeed patterns of speech, that Gifford had heard and committed to memory and out of a pastiche of which he had constructed his account of the ‘country divinity’. Certainly, in his Plain man’s pathways to heaven, Christopher Haigh has gone to great lengths to corroborate the attitudes ventriloquised by Gifford, and his fellow Essex minister Arthur Dent, by trawling through and source-mining vast quantities of church court records. It is not clear to me that church court records provide any more direct or unfiltered access to contemporary social reality than the printed tracts produced by the likes of Gifford, but the fact that so many echoes and parallels can be found between a range of very different sources certainly confirms that for all its highly wrought constructedness there might be more than a grain of truth in Gifford’s account of ‘the country divinity’.
Being Protestant, Atheos style
Haigh’s aim in thus corroborating the findings of the likes of Gifford and Dent was a way of confronting his critics and defending his own views about the inherent conservatism of the people, about what he terms elsewhere ‘the continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation’70 and thus about the inherent unpopularity of Protestantism and the failure of the Reformation. But it would be a mistake to view the position attributed by Gifford to Atheos as anything like Catholic, or even, in any simple sense of the word, ‘conservative’.
To begin with Catholicism, Atheos was portrayed as having absolutely no truck with the pope or with popery. ‘I defy popery as much as the best of ye all.’71 ‘What tell ye me of the pope. I care not for him. I would both he and his dung were buried in the dunghill.’72 Not only does he oppose the pope and popery now, he denies that even under Mary he had ever committed idolatry, for while when papists ‘bowed unto images’ they ‘put devotion in it, I meant no such thing, but to be obedient to law’.73 ‘I never put any trust in images, nor thought they could do me any good.’74 ‘So long as I did keep my conscience and heart to God, I trust I did well.’75 As Gifford noted, this position was designed to allow a certain Nicodemite conformity to a variety of even overtly Catholic or popish outward forms, which meant that, if things changed and ‘it go with the laws of princes’ to do so, those espousing such views could and almost certainly would conform again to popery. ‘For ye use popish reasons to excuse your falling from God by idolatry, and whereby a man may easily see that you are ready unto it again if time served.’76
But the works theology that Gifford attributes to Atheos – Zelotes at one point remarks that ‘I perceive you are a free will man, one of those that think by natural understanding to conceive of the mysteries of God’ – bears none of the characteristics of Catholicism.77 There is no trace of purgatory, of the cult of the saints, of the necessity for intercessory prayer or spiritual sacrifice. That is to say, all of the central defining marks of pre-Reformation Catholicism identified by Eamonn Duffy and others are notable only for their complete absence from Atheos’s position. His hopes for salvation are located entirely outside anything resembling a Catholic economy of grace or penitential cycle.
At one point Atheos does exclaim that ‘I pray God I may have time to repent at the end’, but Zelotes does not seek to assimilate that sentiment to popery, merely observing that ‘this reason’ should be termed ‘the porter of hell, for it openeth even the widest gate, that a thousand may go in on a rank’.78 Again, there may be a trace of the Catholic distinction between damning and venial sin in Atheos’s distinction between really serious sins, such as theft, murder or treason, and minor infractions, which he calls ‘small matters’ and Zelotes disgustedly describes as ‘swearing, railing, talking in your filthy ribaldry, singing foul and beastly songs, these and such like are your petty faults’.79 Again, when Atheos is admonished by Zelotes for swearing ‘by my faith’ he dismisses the practice as a mere peccadillo – ‘I am not so precise as to make any account of swearing by my faith’. For Zelotes however it is an offence against the majesty of God and the cause of true religion.80
Admittedly, at times, Atheos cites approvingly the doings of his ‘forefathers’. Of those that were not learned, he asks ‘what should they do otherwise than their fathers before them. I knew some of their fathers, honest men, and never troubled themselves that way.’81 In the face of Zelotes’s unyielding denunciation of idolatry, Atheos responds that ‘if you say true, then all our forefathers should be condemned, because they did worship images. I doubt not but God was as merciful unto them as he is unto men now. I think they pleased God better than we do now. Let us not stand so much in our own light.’82
Evidently, while happy enough to repudiate the pope and all his works, Atheos is much less willing condemn the doings of ‘our forefathers’ whom he tends to assimilate to a golden age of good neighbourhood and Christian love, far preferable to the fractiously divisive present. But he makes no attempt to assimilate or associate that lost golden age with Catholicism, locating it rather in a hazy period before the likes of Zelotes came on the scene. Thus while anything but hot Protestant, such views fall well short of anything that we, or more importantly for our purposes Gifford, felt comfortable calling overtly or simply Catholic.
Zelotes is certainly anxious to tar Atheos with the brush of popery, observing at one point that he is as ‘crammed as full of popish dross as you can hold’,83 but, in fact, the position Atheos actually espouses locates his hopes of salvation in his own faith, the power of Christ’s sacrifice and the mercy of God in Christ. Indeed, his insistent claims that since all men are sinners, all that anyone can do is have faith, repent and beg for divine mercy might be taken to represent a sadly watered-down internalisation of justification by faith alone, and certainly a repudiation of anything remotely resembling a Catholic theology of works.84
To all this can be added Atheos’s excoriation of the puritans’ disobedience to the prince and opposition to the bishops and his own repeated expressions of dutiful submission to authority. When Zelotes remarks that ‘I know there be many which care not for the pope, but yet believe much of his doctrine. They be those which we call atheists, of no religion, but look whatsoever any prince doth set forth, that they will profess’, Atheos replies that ‘I think that is good, ought we not to obey our princes, and would ye have us to take upon us for to be wiser than they and their councilors?’85
Atheos is thus an avowedly loyal member of the English national church; a strident opponent of the pope and all his works, for all his nostalgia for a lost golden age of good neighbourhood and love, and for all his deference to his forefathers, he never associates such views with the old religion, or regrets the religious changes of Elizabeth’s reign. Rather he restricts himself to rabid expressions of hostility to puritans. Atheos, then, is a certain sort of protestant, albeit not of a kind to gladden the heart of the likes of Gifford, or of his alter ego Zelotes or indeed of historians like Alec Ryrie whose version of the ‘Protestant mainstream’ excludes even Richard Hooker, let alone poor Atheos and his ilk.
Enter the ‘church papist’
In thus excluding this strand of opinion from the magic circle of Protestant rectitude described in his book, Ryrie is in fact following a lead provided by Gifford himself. For in 1582, a year after he published A briefe discourse, Gifford produced another Dialogue betweene a Papist and a Protestant, applied to the capacitie of the vnlearned. In the dedicatory epistle he observed how ‘some do wonder how it should come to pass that among us there should be so many which, being born since the gospel was restored to this land, are so zealously addicted unto popery, which they never did know’.86 Just what sort of ‘popery’ was at stake became evident in the opening pages of the book, where Gifford explained that, while there are ‘papists which will not come at the church’, there were others ‘which can keep their conscience to themselves and yet go to church’; indeed, he proceeded to finger his notional popish interlocutor as one such.
When the ‘papist’ asks Gifford’s ‘Protestant’ just how he could tell that many of those attending the services of the national church were indeed papists – ‘how can ye tell what is in men’s conscience, you judge very deeply’ – Gifford’s mouthpiece outlines the characteristics and opinions that defined such people as ‘papists’:
Some of them will not stick to maintain such popish opinions, as they know there is no great danger of law for. The simple sort … speak of a merry world when there was less preaching, and when all things were so cheap that they might have xx eggs for a penny. Other there be that never name papists but Catholics, and if ye reason with them, they do but for argument’s sake, not that they say so, but the Catholics say so. Another sort there are, and those are as pestilent as can be, for to the end they may do the greater mischief, they are protestants, but yet if any preacher do zealously beat down popery, he doth rail, he is choleric, he is uncharitable, and so they devise all means possible to disturb him. These and such like are the notes to discern a church papist.87
These last were, of course, precisely the opinions and propensities attributed in the previous dialogue to Atheos, now removed from the category Protestant, which designation Gifford even now tells us many of the owners of such views proudly claimed for themselves and redistributed under the heading of ‘church papist’.
What Gifford was doing here was eliding a series of positions that were anything but the same; those who on a particular topic might take what he regarded as a Catholic position; others who reacted to the divisions and aridities of the present religio-political scene with a nebulous nostalgia for a lost golden age before religion got difficult, divisive and demanding, whenever such conditions were taken to have pertained; and lastly those who resented and resisted the rigorously anti-popish preaching of a certain sort of Gifford-style puritan preacher. None of these groups were formally Catholic, nor did they necessarily overlap. Certainly none would have fitted within the category of church popery as Gifford’s Catholic contemporaries were then starting to deploy it, to denote a group they also called schismatics, that is to say, people who maintained that they remained Catholic in heart and profession, but who also claimed that they could retain that status in the eyes both of God and man, and still go to the heretical services of the national church, at least enough to escape the penalties for recusancy. Those were the people whom the Jesuit missionaries Campion and Parsons had been hoping to convince of the error of their ways, and, by reconciling them to the church of Rome, convert from church popery to recusancy. On this account, while church popery was a term coming into currency at about the same time on both sides of the confessional divide, it did not denote a stable religio-political position or identity. Rather, it meant different things to different people, and operated, particularly on the Protestant side of the equation, as an ideologically and polemically constructed boo-word designed to play up the extent and pervasiveness of the Catholic threat at a moment when the puritans, dislike of whom united all of the groups being excoriated and elided by Gifford, were coming under massively increased pressure from at least parts of the Elizabethan establishment. This means that it is a mistake to take the increasing prevalence of the term to mean the rise of a particular religious identity or strand of opinion. We are dealing here with an ideological construct, developed and deployed for specific purposes, by different groups, each responding to the same politico-religious conjuncture – crudely the multiple and overlapping religious, political and dynastic crises of the early 1580s – in order to further their own particular factional or ideological interests and agendas. As ever, context – and the basic questions of who was doing what to whom, and why – matter enormously. Consequently, leaving the politics out in favour of a mode of cultural analysis that effortlessly spans ‘the post-Reformation period’ nearly always obscures a good deal more than it reveals.88
Quite remarkably, in the dedicatory epistle to his tract, Gifford admitted that the people whom he was grouping together under the moniker ‘church papists’ were a direct product of Protestant preaching.
True it is, that our ministry doth fight against them, but yet in such sort that it doth greatly increase them. Seeming and pretending to tread upon those cockatrice eggs for to break them, and so destroy utterly the viperous generation, when as indeed they sit upon them, and so hatch the broods of this evil kind and bring them forth in great plenty. For behold a number cry out against popery and proclaim utter defiance in speech, but their doings are such that for every one which they convert to the gospel, they cause an hundred to revolt, to be hardened in their errors or to fall into flat atheism.89
Conventionally enough, Gifford proceeded to lay the blame for all this firstly on ‘ambitious’ pluralists and non-residents, ‘not caring who feed the flock so they may come by the fleece’, and secondly on the admission into the ranks of the parish clergy of ‘a rout and swarm’ of unpreaching ministers, ‘not only unlearned idols, which have mouths and speak not’, but also ‘riotous dicers, gamesters, quaffers, quarrellers, adulterers and such like’.90 Here are Atheos’s ‘godly’ agents of social unity and Christian ‘love’ being redescribed as unlearned impostors, louts and hooligans, the very source of the ignorance and obstinacy with which the likes of Atheos met the strenuous evangelism of Gifford and his ilk.
That Gifford chose in 1583 to describe those attitudes as a form of ‘church popery’ and to blame this on his variously defective – either unlearned or ambitious – colleagues in the ministry was almost certainly a function of the political and polemical conjuncture of that crisis year, when the avatars of the puritan movement like Gifford were attempting to resist Whitgift’s drive for conformity with a renewed insistence on the need for a common front against the popish threat – now considerably expanded to include the likes of Atheos and his mates on the ale bench – and a renewed assault on the unpreaching ministers that made up so much of the manpower of the national church.91 Hard as Gifford tried, in A dialogue betweene a Papist and a Protestant, to blame Atheos on the activities of the wrong sort of minister and to type his views as a form of popery, on the evidence of A briefe discourse it is difficult not to conclude that Gifford was quite right that the nexus of attitudes attributed to Atheos were indeed a product of the realities of the post-Reformation English church, and that the style of ministry to which they represented a response, indeed against which they represented a reaction, included his own zealously strenuous style of ministry. When Gifford himself tells us that Atheos’s style of Christianity was a product of people ‘born since the gospel was restored to this land’, who thus ‘never did know popery’, and that many of the people espousing such views proclaimed themselves ‘Protestant’, I think we can believe him, and them. His move, made between 1581 and 1583, to redescribe them as ‘zealously addicted unto popery’, effected through his coinage of the neologism ‘church papist’, perhaps deserves to be regarded with somewhat greater scepticism. Certainly, the ascribed identity as ‘church papists’, conferred on them by Gifford, seems to be a function of the ascribed identity as a ‘puritan’, conferred by them on Gifford and his ilk. This was a move made in the very particular political and polemical circumstances of the early 1580s, designed to move Gifford’s local adversaries entirely beyond the pale of Protestant respectability and to vindicate puritans like Gifford as stalwarts of all order in church and state.
But turn-around is fair play, and if Gifford’s and Ryrie’s refusal to admit such people within the magic circle of Protestantism will not wash, neither will Haigh’s tendency, on precisely the same grounds, to assimilate such views not merely to the inherent conservatism of the people, but to what he has memorably termed the ‘continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation’. For what we have here is nothing like simple conservatism, nor any sort of continuity. Rather, as Gifford himself more than implies, we should see the position espoused by Atheos as a response to the course of religious change over the past fifty years and thus as a tribute to the very considerable impact, if not the success (certainly as the likes of Gifford or Haigh or indeed Ryrie would define it) of the Reformation. The result is a version of mere Christianity collapsed into the discharge of everyday social obligation and the duties of good neighbourhood. It is a position that would enable the holder of such views to negotiate without risk the switchback changes of the mid-Tudor years, changes which many Catholic and Protestant contemporaries either hoped or feared were by no means done with by the 1580s. It was also a position that would enable its bearers to resist the claims of the various sorts of Christian rigourist to be found on both sides of the confessional divide. Moreover, the central doctrinal or pietistic claims attributed by Gifford to Atheos represented a watered-down version of Protestant doctrines of justification by faith and were legitimated by an overt repudiation of the pope and all his works and attended by elaborate protestations of obedience to the Protestant authorities in church and state.
Thus the position ascribed to Atheos was not so much a product of the changeless rhythms of popular belief, the timeless essence of English Christianity, untouched by the activities and attitudes of extremist minorities like the puritans, but rather of a tense interaction between the claims of the godly and the (often frankly hostile or assertively indifferent) reactions thereto of their neighbours.92 Indeed, we might argue that the provocation of such a style of piety in reaction to their own rigourism was one of the most important of puritanism’s effects on the post-Reformation religious scene. Far from the theatre creating ‘puritanism’, as Patrick Collinson would have it, might we not be dealing here with the creation, by the insurgent effects of puritanism, of the sort of ‘popular Anglicanism’ that the likes of Ian Green and Christopher Marsh tend to equate with the inherently moderate and timeless, indeed the positively Hobbit-like, instincts of what J. J. Scarisbrick once called ‘English folk’.93 Neither timeless nor moderate – in its anti-puritanism it was viscerally extreme – this strand of opinion would appear to be the other side of Collinson’s tense relationship between the godly and their neighbours and sometime enemies, and as such perhaps one of the most important effects of the English Reformation, and in particular of the activities of the evangelical avant garde of that Reformation, the puritans. My claim here is that all this emerges only if we take stereotypes, like those being formulated and manipulated by Gifford, seriously as ways of thinking about and interpreting the world and as forms of historical evidence.
In the context provided by the post-Reformation Protestant national church, not only does talk of a Protestant mainstream that omits all mention of the strands of opinion represented by Atheos make no sense whatsoever, but if we factor that strand of opinion in to the analysis, it gives new salience to the notion of the puritan and puritanism as a crucial analytic category – a salience that Collinson has used the term’s status as a polemical and literary construct, if not altogether to deny, then certainly to underplay, and Ryrie altogether to elide.
But Collinson was, of course, quite right to insist that the modes and models of anti-puritanism set in the late sixteenth century played a central, at times determinative, role in the cultural and religious politics of what we might term the long seventeenth century. The tensions between the godly and the ungodly, and the central, albeit highly ambiguous and contested, role played therein by the figure of ‘the puritan’, continued to dominate the puritans’ view of themselves. Over the succeeding decades the course of anti-puritan polemicising and stereotyping revealed the extent to which the hostile view of the godly attributed by Gifford to his local enemies in 1581 had effectively prefigured subsequent developments. Myriad polemicists and hacks depicted the puritans as proud, ambitious, divisive and overbearing hypocrites, who used their entirely spurious claims to superior godliness, and their starkly bipolar, predestinarian view of the world, both to further their own sinful purposes and to construct a position of privilege and power for themselves, in ways that threatened not merely the harmony of local society, but all order in church, state and society.
As we watch the godly use the ungodly to construct their own position, reproducing as they did so both their own stereotype of the ungodly and the ungodly’s stereotype of them, in what seems to me to be a classic exercise in group identity formation,94 we need to retain a healthy perspectival relativism, and realise that both the godly’s view of their enemies and their enemies’ view of them were equally plausible, albeit equally overwrought, descriptions of what appeared to those involved to be social reality. For what, when viewed from the inside looking out, appeared to be godly prudence and mutual edification, conducted in the face of a hostile world, looked very different when viewed from the outside looking in. Just like Falstaff, far from being more virtuous and godly than the rest of us, the puritans were a good deal more sinful than the average Christian precisely because of their propensity to use a merely outward pretence of piety to mask their own sinful natures and corrupt purposes.
Certainly, we will get nowhere if, with Alec Ryrie, we simply dismiss such images, and the processes of mutual identity construction of which they formed so central a part, as so many chimeras, mere ‘preachers’ talk’, so polemically motivated and literarily (over)wrought, that they conceal rather than reveal what was really going on. Nor will we get much further if, with Christopher Haigh, we simply believe them. Rather, as I have tried to argue, such materials are far from being irredeemably polemical expressions of self-interested political and personal animus that over time ossified into ideal types so crude and schematic as to have nothing to tell us about the real nature of post-Reformation experience or events. Rather, read aright, that is to say, set in the discursive political and cultural contexts which produced them and into which they were, in turn, designed to intervene, we can get rather a lot out of stereotypes.
Indeed, I would argue that if we marginalise or dismiss such polemically constructed images, caricatures and ideal types as expressions of mere prejudice, we will never be able to understand the fraught and contested ideological landscape of post-Reformation England. Indeed, horribile dictu, we might even be left with the (entirely false) choice between Ryrie’s and (in certain moods, although not in others) Collinson’s consensual ‘religion of Protestants’ on one hand, and Christopher Haigh’s and Christopher Marsh’s seamless web of popular conservatism and mere Christianity on the other. And almost anything would be better than that.