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The Old New Age

The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution

by Christopher Hill
Allen Lane/Penguin, 466 pp., $30.00

The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies: Miracles and the Pulp Press During the English Revolution

by Jerome Friedman
St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, and, except to believers in plenary inspiration, it is a rather random, miscellaneous, and fortuitous compilation. It is possible to regard it as in some sense a unity, but that unity has been imposed by history, by the fact that its parts have coexisted and been interpreted together for so long. If the early Christian bishop Marcion had had his way in the second century there would not be an Old Testament in Christian Bibles. But for good or ill the Old Testament has been, formidably and formatively, in the Bible. And the constituent books are not quite the same books as they would have been if each had survived in isolation.

Of course this is to say a great deal less than that, bound together, they offer the one essential reference book, a complete guide to conduct, private and public, as well as to salvation. Yet the notion that they did so—the Old Testament no less than the New—was generally assumed by the communities that accepted Reform in the sixteenth century, and it prevailed until late in the next.

The Book of Books;
On which who looks,
As he should do aright, shall never need
Wish for a better light
To guide him in the night….

So the poet Christopher Harvey, in one of the many well-chosen epigraphs in Christopher Hill’s book on ways the Bible was used during the English revolution. On the other hand, as Luther remarked, “the Gospel cannot be preached without offence and tumult.”

Here the Gospel means the whole Bible, and conduct derived from its teaching might indeed be offensive and tumultuous. Some Old Testament texts recommend extreme violence against opponents, people who in some way violate the norms of one’s group, so the habit of doing exactly what it recommends can have drastic consequences. All who knew the text thoroughly—and that was a large number, including, for example, Cromwell and his troopers—could easily hold that massacre, assassination, and other horrors, such as the persecution of witches, were mandatory.

According to Deuteronomy 7:1–6, those who were led by the Lord into other people’s lands should possess them, and destroy the previous owners without compassion: this, Christopher Hill points out, was a colonialist’s license to steal and exterminate. Saint Paul said women should stay quiet and accept subjection, and that was that. If simple literal instruction was lacking there was always the resource of allegorical interpretation, which made biblical events and examples directly relevant to one’s own moment. Babylonish and Egyptian captivities were regularly invoked. Charles I was Ahab, his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, Jezebel. The unfortunate royal habit of marrying alien and Catholic princesses was condemned in advance by several biblical instances.

The king was a principal target for biblical slings and arrows. A House of Commons preacher urged members to follow the orders of Jesus and Ezekiel: “those mine enemies…bring hither and slay them before me,” and “slay utterly, old and young.” By 1643 the preachers were demanding royal blood, even suggesting that it was dangerous not to shed it (Jeremiah 48:10). Charles was now “the Man of Blood,” and must be punished if his own guilt was not to contaminate the people. There is no shortage of suitable texts, or of bad biblical kings.

Since the culture was from top to bottom biblical, activities to which we cannot think the Bible in any way relevant were dominated by it: not only war and politics, but astrology, physics, agriculture, engineering, ethics, economics. Hill insists that absolutely nothing that took place at the time can be thought independent of religious and therefore biblical considerations. To ask, for instance, whether the reasons for the English reluctance to intervene in the Thirty Years War, or in the Spanish conquests in South America, were economic or religious, is to ask “an anachronistic question.” No such distinction can be made. Yet because it was the revolutionaries and not their opponents who regarded the Bible as the sole source of authority, it was certainly on the side of revolution. It is central to Hill’s argument that when that revolution failed the Bible shared the defeat; as Marx said, Locke replaced Habbakuk.

Hill has written so much about the Puritan Revolution and seventeenth-century radicalism that he has, inevitably, studied the importance of the vernacular Bible before, for example in Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (1971) and The World Turned Upside Down (1972), as well as in books on Cromwell, Milton, and Bunyan. The seventeenth century was an age of copious publication, under a relaxed censorship, and with cheap paper and printing; and in writing these books Hill must surely have already read and digested hundreds of sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. For this book he has read a great many more, yet he calls this effort “desultory general reading” and remarks that if he had fifty more years to spend on the material, which he has not, he “might—just—be able to cover the ground.”

Like his contemporaries, the English historians A.L. Morton, student of the Ranter tradition, and E.P. Thompson, chronicler of the English working class, he believes historians ought not to limit their attention to state papers, ordinances, battles, and the like; they “should listen—carefully and critically—to ballads, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, tracts,” to almanac makers and popular prophets. They may thus find out how life was lived in those days, and how great events were experienced not by the eminent only, but by ordinary people. Reading Hill is like suffering a benign barrage of apt quotations which lay down conclusions that can hardly not be correct, being so multitudinously attested.

Given his wide knowledge of the period, its “biblical culture” and its radicals—Ranters, Muggletonians, Quakers, Fifth Monarchy Men, etc.—it is not surprising that Hill should now attend directly to their use of the vernacular Bible for a variety of purposes, including social revolution as well as political. It could justify wild libertinism on the one hand and the enactment of capital punishment for sexual misconduct on the other; it could even lead to the rejection of the Bible itself as superseded, in a new age of the spirit, by the infallible promptings of the Inner Voice.

The ubiquity of the Bible was made possible by the currency of the vernacular translations, and the concomitant spread of literacy. For a century after its publication in 1560 the Geneva Bible was the one in most general use. There had been earlier translations—the Wycliffe Bible, late in the fourteenth century, in manuscript; it was banned on pain of trial for heresy, but two hundred copies survive. William Tyndale, inspired by Luther’s German version, published much of the Old and the whole of the New Testament, to the disgust of Thomas More, before he was seized, strangled, and burnt by the imperial authorities in Antwerp in 1536. The later versions owe much to Tyndale’s. Henry VIII, who had not demurred at his execution, shortly afterward approved a Bible based on Tyndale’s (the “Great Bible”). But this version was superseded by the Geneva Bible, produced by Protestants exiled by Mary Tudor and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth as champion of the Protestant cause.

The Geneva was a good translation, but ecclesiastics disliked it because it was swamped in marginal notes. These were often useful glosses, but they sometimes offered what the establishment saw as tendentious interpretations. Hence the preparation, for use in churches, of the “Bishops’ Bible,” based on the “Great” one. The Bishops’ Bible was large and expensive, and for private use no rival to the cheaper and handier Geneva, which was the Bible of Shakespeare and the poets, as well as of the sectaries of the Commonwealth period. Already Calvinist, as might be expected from its place of origin, it appeared in later editions with enlarged and theologically more aggressive marginalia, so that when King James commissioned his version he expressly ordered that there should be no marginal notes. Some of the Geneva marginalia he found particularly offensive, for instance the one on 2 Chronicles 15:16, where “the note taxeth Asa for deposing his mother, onely, and not killing her.” James was naturally enough thinking of his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots. His translators were instructed to base their new version on the Bishops’ Bible, but they used the Geneva anyway.* It was retained, against his wishes, in the churches of his other kingdom, Scotland. The Geneva was the Bible that traveled on the Mayflower, and it was the Bible of the English revolution.

Hill makes telling use of the Geneva annotations. Together with the texts they explicated, they had something of the dire effect prophesied by Catholics during the reign of Henry VIII when printed Bibles threatened the authority of the Holy Office (“either we must root out printing or printing will root out us”). The Catholics were eventually forced in 1609 to bring out a complete English Bible themselves (the “Douay Bible,” translated from the Latin Vulgate). But Thomas More had called the view that Christians “should believe nothing but plain Scripture” “a pestilential heresy,” and he would have regarded the sectarian explosions of the period after 1640 as fully confirming this view. Some Anglicans wished they could take a leaf out of the Roman Catholic book (“learn of our wise adversaries”) and keep the Bible out of the hands of the un-Latined laity, where it might make trouble for prelates and princes. An understandable sentiment: it has even been suggested that the Geneva Bible was ultimately responsible for the execution of Charles I, and if that was the case then it also was responsible for the condemnation to death of Arch-bishop Laud by the Long Parliament.

The Geneva Bible and its margins also provided ample matter for apocalyptic and millenarian speculation. Interest in this was by no means confined to newly literate radicals—it strongly affected Milton, for example—but they made much of it. Extreme newage sects like the Ranters advocated libertinism. Some abandoned, even burned, the Bible, convinced of the rightness of whatever they were prompted to do by way of sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, and disorderliness; they were incapable of sin. “No matter what Scripture, saints or churches say,” said their leader Laurence Clarkson, “if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned.” They were feared and despised, as were the Levellers, with their bold claim to equality—Abels reversing the claims of Cain, the murderer, the encloser, the symbol of property. The Muggletonians and Quakers depended on the Inner Voice. At first the Inner Voice advised violence, and George Fox deplored Cromwell’s failure to march on Rome. It was only after 1660 that Quakers took up peace.

The high point of millenarianism was 1649. Some, regarding the execution of the king as the defeat of Antichrist, expected the immediate arrival of the millennium. It seemed obvious that the English were the chosen people. And yet, as Hill convincingly shows, that sense of election was qualified by a consciousness of backsliding and a fear of divine retribution, specifically for the English failure to do much for the Protestant cause in Europe. Growing nationalism was accompanied by an increasing sense of national isolation. The mood must have been rather like that of Mr. J. A. Roebuck, ridiculed by Matthew Arnold in a later period of British puritanical happiness:

I look around me and ask what is the state of England?…I ask you whether the world over, or in past history, there is anything like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last.

It could not last. The Common-wealth ran into trouble, legislation and fatigue curbed the sectarian carnival, and, as Hill argues, the authority of Scripture began to decline accordingly. He cites evidence of a new skepticism about the literal truth of the Bible, and about its vulnerability to political manipulation. Some lost confidence in a rule-book that lent itself to any and every cause. Others saw the need for more tolerance in religion, either for doctrinal reasons, or because foreign trade required easy relations with infidels. Hobbes made religion a necessary instrument of autocratic policy. The attitude to biblical allegory changed and it could be used flippantly. Abraham Cowley prophesied that the Restoration would be a passing through the Red Sea for the people, who now regretted the Common-wealth; but he also compared Dr. Scarbrough, who cured kidney stones, to Moses, who “struck the rock and made the waters flow”—biblical allegory as early modern conceit or joke.

After 1660 scholars began to look more critically and scientifically at the text: “the world the Bible made,” Hill writes, “dethroned the Bible.” The millennium failed to arrive. Enthusiasm cooled. The biblical culture was ending, though the fear and hatred of Catholicism remained—Nell Gwynn had to explain that she was the king’s “Protestant whore”—and reached a new peak with the accession of James II, who was less discreet about his Catholic allegiance than his brother had been.

Hill has expertly marshaled a vast amount of information. His deep sympathy with his seventeenth-century radicals and their successors has not waned, and in an appendix he expresses hope that the new “liberation theology” may have as good an effect on the modern world as their libertine speculations had three and a half centuries ago. “We may be too conditioned by the way the world has been for the last three hundred years,” he wrote at the end of The World Turned Upside Down, “to be fair to those in the seventeenth century who saw other possibilities. But we should try.” He has a particular admiration for the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and his message of love, considered as the enemy of property and other social “bondages.” Among the more obvious things the English should have learned from the revolutionary period were and remain the need to dispose of monarchy, the House of Lords, and the domination of capital. But the upside-down world is not now really thinkable, unless it is our world that is upside-down.

I make one minor complaint about this and other books of Hill’s. He has understandably chosen to emphasize popularly accessible material, and he shares the anticlassical temper of many of his sources. But it can be distorting not to consider the degree to which, in the minds of the educated—and he often cites Milton, Marvell, and others—the classical and the biblical traditions were intertwined as well as in some ways opposed. To give but one small instance, he talks about Marvell’s poem “The Mower Against Gardens” as if it were a political poem about contemporary enclosures; yet it is a setpiece based on a rhetorical exercise reported by the Elder Seneca. He several times mentions George Sandys as the author of Psalm para-phrases, but never as the very influential translator and annotator of Ovid.

For similar reasons he here offers once again a reductively distorted account of Milton. This was true of his book on Milton, but here again we find him reducing Samson Agonistes to a summing up of Milton’s arguments in support of his political cause. The literary culture was even more complex than Hill makes it appear. Of course he knows a great deal about the “high” literature of the time, but he always seeks to reduce its discourses to the discourse of politics, rather in the manner of some of those younger scholars, the New Historicists, who meet with his express though mild disapproval. These are small complaints, and one can make one’s own adjustments to them; Hill is always his own man, and a great scholar of the left.

Jerome Friedman’s interesting book complains that too little account has been taken of popular writing during the Commonwealth period, that scholars write as though it “was wholly removed from the political conflict of the day.” This will seem odd, coming from a scholar who is clearly familiar with Hill’s books. But he does find different texts (the volume of publication during the relevant period was fantastic) and proposes, on the strength of publications he regards as the seventeenth-century equivalents “of People magazine and the National Enquirer,” to give a new view of the period.

Friedman’s is less the world of inspired reformers than of people living anxiously in a culture of “enchantment”—of magic, superstition, timid credulity—a people dreading change and dreading retribution, yet not without means of relaxation (the ale house was the great proletarian meeting place) and as fond as their descendants of sex, scandal, tobacco, and marijuana (“Spanish” tobacco). They too had inveterate prejudices against women and Catholics, alike regarded as unreliable and probably malevolent. Friedman notes that by 1649 the revolution had become puritanical in a more modern sense of the word—repressive. Parliament condemned excess and fun, ruined Sunday, and diluted the ale. Friedman suggests that nearly everybody was glad when the interregnum ended and they got back both their king and the church as they had known it of old, bishops and all.

Many examples of these ephemeral and torrential pulp publications are illustrated in Friedman’s book. They are about Robin Hood—like highwaymen, ancient prophecies, a monster born in Scotland, a homosexual murder, a house infested with poltergeists, prodigies and apparitions of all kinds, usually read as signs of the evil times. There are attacks on the Ranters—here Friedman adds to the considerable body of scholarship already available on these, the most interesting of the Antinomians. Unlike Hill, he finds the Levellers “boring.” He has more to say than Hill (who of course has read him) about the astrologer, William Lilly, who took the Parliamentary side, prophesying the death of the “White King” and other events agreeable to the mood of the ruling party.

The title of the book alludes to a farcical controversy that arose in 1660. In Fairford, a small town in Gloucestershire, some rude persons, presumably Anglicans, broke up a pious Puritan assembly. When the magistrates curtly refused to hear the Puritan complaint, God sent an army of frogs and toads, which marched in like soldiers, departing at once when the magistrate recanted. This memorable event was reported in a pamphlet characteristically called Strange and True News from Gloucester. Shortly afterward an Anglican woman and her daughter mocked another prayer meeting, whereupon the girl fell dead. The Puritans were charged with her death and they were exonerated, but charges of malignancy against them continued. Another pamphlet appeared, ridiculing both tales, the frogs and the girl’s death; whereupon Fairford was assaulted by “a great swarm of flies,” and the author of the skeptical pamphlet in his turn dropped dead.

Friedman concludes that the biggest worry of the uneducated who read this kind of thing was that the nation, and they, would suffer retribution for the death of Charles I. Moreover he thinks their submersion in magic, idées reçues, what he calls enchantment generally, was continuous with our own credulities, and also that it occupied their minds to the exclusion of much concern about grand political events. This sounds right, but there were among their contemporaries those heroes of Christopher Hill, who honorably foresaw and worked for a different future, and looked forward not to the restoration of the magic of monarchy but to a world in which everybody would be freed from the self-inflicted bondage of property and exploitation. When Hill himself works out the profit and loss account he allows that the vernacular Bible—with its rival enchantments and temptations—was by no means entirely a force for good; but in its favor it must be said that if it had never come into being these often admirable visionaries could not have existed.

  1. *

    See Lloyd E. Berry’s introduction to the fine facsimile of the Geneva Bible (1560) (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); and Gerald Hammond, The Making of the English Bible (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982), chapter 4.

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