Friday, 5 February 2016

Margaret Bullett's PhD: Unexpected Calvinists

In Huddersfield yesterday to examine a PhD – not something I would normally blog about, but then doctoral theses aren’t normally this good. Maggie Bullett’s title doesn’t stir the blood: ‘Post-Reformation Preaching in the Pennines: Space, Identity and Affectivity’ – I confess my heart sank when it arrived in the post. But the thing about books’ covers applies doubly to theses.

There’s real scholarly substance here. In sheer research terms, the most impressive thing is the careful reconstruction of a well-known and much-misunderstood major civic dispute in Leeds in the 1620s. Maggie has found stacks of highly relevant new documents and has very convincingly interpreted the dispute, not as a conformists v. Puritans punch-up, but as a split between two different factions of what she calls ‘progressive Protestants’. In the process, she manages to explain an old mystery: why St John’s Chapel in Leeds, which was built in 1631-4, is decorated with a set of royal arms dating from 1620. If you want to know more, read the thesis.

The most exciting innovation, though, is her use of financial records to unlock a whole new set of data about popular participation in local religion. It wouldn’t be possible to do this for the heavily-parished south of England, but in the North, huge parishes with multiple chapelries required and allowed much greater lay involvement. So when she shows us communities arriving at a consensus that they intend to levy a rate, or simply mobilising huge numbers of small donations, to pay for visiting ‘godly’ preachers; when we see them building or rebuilding their chapels with architecture which prioritises preaching, dedicating their pew rents to the support of the godly ministry, and pricing the pews so that the ones nearest to the pulpit (not nearest the communion table) are the most expensive – it’s hard to avoid the once-unthinkable conclusion that there is some real popular Calvinism happening in the Yorkshire dales.

My favourite nugget, though, hangs on my longstanding preoccupation with people who fall asleep during sermons. Readers of the indispensable 101 Things to Do During a Dull Sermon  will recall that it recommends, as well as discreetly pinching yourself to stay awake, discreetly pinching the person next to you, which should keep both of you awake. Of course, in the seventeenth century, pinching yourself was for wimps: Nehemiah Wallington tried pricking himself with a pin.

Maggie, however, has found another of those quarrelsome folks from Leeds, one Maria Beckett, who in 1615 was presented to the court for ‘misbehaving her selfe in tyme of divine service … by pricking them that satt next her with pinnes’.

I now propose to trawl through the church court records for people trying the other exercises recommended in 101 Things. ‘Rapture Bingo’ would have been great fun in the 1640s.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

JEH 67/1: Queen of all she surveys

The January 2016 Journal of Ecclesiastical History is out, with all the usual treats, including one example of the kind of review which we all occasionally have nightmares about receiving. But for me, given my own interests, there's no doubt which is the most exciting piece this time.

Cyndia Susan Clegg's article, 'The 1559 Books of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Reformation', revisits a well-worn question: just how did that 1559 Book of Common Prayer end up the way it did, that is, a version of the 1552 Prayer Book but with a couple of highly significant tweaks? If you're not a Prayer Book geek, trust me, this is a more important question than it looks: it is an important clue to the nature of Elizabeth I's government and indeed to the whole nature of subsequent Anglicanism. As such it has been vigorously contested down the years, with policy documents, parliamentary proceedings, diplomatic correspondence and even musical scores brought to bear on the question, with varying degrees of success.

Clegg's approach is that of a book historian, and as a result parts of the article can get a teensy bit technical. Stick with it, because what she has found is a genuine smoking gun. She focuses on one of the many anomalous pieces of evidence from the chaotic first half of 1559: a single edition of 1559 Prayer Book published, not by the Queen's Printer like all the rest, but by Richard Grafton, an unrepentant evangelical who had printed the 1552 Prayer Book back in Edward VI's reign. There have been several attempts to explain how this object comes to exist, but none of them very conclusive - but then it did not seem to matter very much. Until now.

Part of the argument depends on one of those too-obvious-to-mention points: there were no photocopiers in mid-Tudor England. So, if Parliament was to consider a bill authorising a substantial text such as the Book of Common Prayer, how were all its members supposed to be able to read it? It might well make sense to produce a small, bespoke print run of the book simply for Parliamentary use. And if you're to do that with a draft Prayer Book, then surely the obvious person to turn to is, not the Queen's Printer, but the bloke who produced the most recent editions of the Prayer Book and will be best placed to rush one into print.

Clegg's argument that this is what Grafton's mystery edition was turns in large part on the technical correspondences, and differences, between his 1552-3 and 1559 editions. But it also depends on, or rather is clinched by, a single copy of the Grafton edition which is signed by nine members of Elizabeth's Privy Council. A little bit of careful detective work allows Clegg to prove that, to have attracted those nine signatures, it must have been signed no later than 20 January 1559, and possibly as much as a month earlier.

For the Prayer Book geeks amongst you: yes, that is 20 January. And yes, the Grafton text is a text of the 1559 Prayer Book as it was eventually authorised by Parliament.

So whatever else happened in all the delicate negotiations and brinksmanship in Parliament in the spring of 1559, it now looks very, very clear that the Elizabethan regime came out of the process with exactly the text of the Prayer Book which it had decided on from the very beginning of the reign.

And it also looks as if Elizabeth I's early mastery of her realm was no less impressive than Clegg's mastery of this subject.

Monday, 7 December 2015

In sheep's clothing

Reading a splendid article forthcoming in JEH on the Anglo-Saxon origins of the office of Lord Chancellor, I discover that the office likely derives from the office of the keeper of the royal reliquary. And that one of the first holders of this office, under King Alfred the Great, was called ... Werwulf.

No wonder his successors like to sit on a woolsack.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Reasons to be cheerful II: Oldham by-election

So, Dr Pangloss is pressed into service once again for the Oldham West and Royton by-election, where a contest between two unpalatable parties saw my own pressed into a bad fourth place. But it's not as bad as it looks! Here's why.

1. UKIP's flush remains busted. The collapse of Britain's most authentically nasty party continues. Rather wonderfully, they decided to blame their defeat on poll fraud and on a scarcely-disguised implication that it was those unwelcome Asians voting against them in droves. A good rule of politics, I think, is that when you are defeated, a mixture of sour grapes with racial slurs is not going to broaden your appeal. I look forward to watching their continued evaporation with enjoyment, and hope the unpleasant sludge left over at the end doesn't smell too bad.

2. None of this means that the Corbyn leadership of Labour is a success. It is not, simply in competence terms: regardless of ideology, there is no indication that the current leadership is up to the formidable challenge of running a major political party. BUT it might just put paid to the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption amongst what used to be the Labour mainstream that the whole thing is just a nightmare that they will soon wake up from: that if they can simply find a way of defenestrating Corbyn then it will all go back to normal, or that the party membership will pretty soon realise what a ghastly mistake it has made and will humbly do what the PLP advises.

What is still yet to appear (at least to my eyes) is any sign in the Labour establishment of a real willingness to harness and work with the energy and anger that created the wave that flung Mr Corbyn up the beach. It doesn't need to mean 1970s Islington socialism. What it does need to mean is a serious and credible attempt to change Britain's political culture, a culture which was embodied in the hapless Messrs. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall and which could not have been rejected louder or clearer by the wider party. My hope is that somewhere on the Labour benches lurks someone who combines some genuine moral standing or at least apparent personal integrity; pragmatic realism and creativity about policy which is capable of pinching good ideas from other parties; an ability to challenge some of the many doctrines which the British political consensus says are unquestionable but which majorities of voters say they oppose; and an ability to make the consensus appear crazy, rather than themselves.

If anyone knows of such a person, perhaps give them a nudge?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Emotional obscurity

We all love edited collections of essays, festschriften, conference proceedings and so forth – I have edited enough of them myself to be deeply implicated in the form. But things do have a way of vanishing into them. An outstanding essay can easily disappear without trace into a miscellaneous essay collection. No services like ZETOC exist to bring them to general attention (if anyone knows of any, please tell me!).

Case in point: I’ve just (don’t ask how) stumbled across this volume, a festschrift for a systematic theologian and literary critic who is clearly very distinguished but of whom I have never heard. It is simply not the sort of thing I’d ever bother looking at in the normal course of events.

But lurking in it, on pp. 218-242, is an essay by the incomparable Ashley Null, whose combination of historical subtlety, theological passion and a bloodhound nose for manuscripts is unmatched. When I see that name, my expectations are high, but his piece – titled ‘Comfortable Words: Thomas Cranmer’s Gospel Falconry’ – still surprised me.

What Ashley does here is to connect Cranmer’s theology, and especially its liturgical expression in the Book of Common Prayer, with the history of the emotions, using the way humanist rhetoric sought to engage the affections as a bridge. He makes a very powerful case that Cranmer used Erasmian rhetorical tools to convey the emotional power of his doctrines through his liturgy. And indeed Ashley himself, through the recurring image of the minister as falconer (am I only imagining an unspoken rebuke to Yeats?), pulls off something of the same trick himself.

So, first, if you are at all interested in English Reformation theology and liturgy, in humanist rhetoric, or in the history of the emotions, I recommend this piece.
Second, what makes this particularly enjoyable for me is that I am not sure that Ashley quite realises what he has achieved here. The history of emotions is quite the thing at the moment, and I am at present sufficiently enthralled by it that I am inclined to think that the history of religion, and quite possibly all cultural history of any kind, in the end comes down to this. Ashley’s piece powerfully supports my prejudice, but it is written without any reference to the history-of-emotions industry or to that vein of scholarship. He has been, as is his wont, mining his own seam, and while it has led him unwittingly to a crowded place, on the evidence of this piece he has at least as much to teach those of us who are already there as we have to teach him.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The spirit of '76

One of the problems I've been wrestling with in writing my current chapter is the disappearance of a vocally Christian Left in American politics since the 1970s, which I think is symptomatic of a whole series of wider issues. In the process, I came across this poster, from the great moment of the American evangelical left, the Carter campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency off the back of the evangelical vote.

A little ironic in retrospect, I give you. But: that is actually funny, isn't it? And deliberately, slightly self-parodically funny. The Obama campaign in 2008 could have used a little of that kind of humour. So my question: where did the funny go in American politics? The religious Right isn't given to self-mockery, though the broader Right is certainly capable of top-notch satire. And the Left tends towards earnest and rather dreary righteousness.

I am afraid that my hunch is that, although I really like that poster, it is a sign that things were already going wrong for this constituency. It is the sort of thing produced by people who not only know that they can look a little bit ridiculous but, crucially, who even look a little bit ridiculous to themselves. It's clever, sharp and nuanced, but that's not the kind of thing that ever got anyone up on a barricade.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

More from Vancouver

I thought I was done blogging the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but the session on Early Modern Women's Writing in the punishment slot (8:30am on Sunday) was too good not to notice: I think probably the all-round best panel I attended.

I'm accustomed to expecting great things from Kate Narveson, who didn't disappoint, in her account of how several early seventeenth-century women produced Bible collages which constructed a very particular view of God - emphasising his comforts, care and (it seemed to me - Kate didn't put it this way) his maternal qualities. In doing so they clearly constructed the God they wanted, needed or had encountered, but did so on the irrefutable grounds of the bare scriptural text.

Paula McQuade, whose book on catechisms is stuck in editorial limbo but must surely emerge soon, was also as humane and insightfue and as ever. He sense that the act of catechesis could be and often was a profoundly intimate moment in family life, and in particular between mothers and children, is worth holding on to. As she points out, the stereotype of catechesis as a repressive and disciplinary process simply is not supported by any significant evidence from the earlier period, even if some Victorians felt that way.

Victoria Burke's work is newer to me, but she was talking about a text I thought I knew, namely Elizabeth Isham's autobiography from the 1630s. What she revealed, however, was the extent to which Isham is, quietly and unfussily, making herself into a scholar in this text: not just referencing an enormous amount of reading, but processing it critically and testing her emerging views against various authorities and against Scripture. She began by suggesting that Isham's work is intellectual rather than conventionally devotional, which is clearly the case, but she ended up demonstrating something rather more important: that this was devotion by the means of intellectual labour. It's quite a trick.