Saints on Sundays, Devils All the Week After

Patrick Collinson

  • The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England by Peter Lake and Michael Questier
    Yale, 731 pp, £30.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 300 08884 1

What was it that Samuel Johnson said about Laurence Sterne’s unusual novel? ‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’ I wonder whether the Doctor would have said the same had he lived long enough to reach the end of The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat, whose odd title is only explained on page 584, when we come across a quote from The Alchemist. Some of the chapter subtitles are no less zany: ‘Sex, Lies and Cheap Print’, ‘What Was So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’; some just pretentious: ‘Compliment as Meta-Critique’. Is this the way the history and culture of lost worlds will be recovered in the future? Conventional lines of demarcation between respectable academic disciplines breached, twisting dust-devils of ideas, a kind of historical News of the World? (All human life is here.)

Perhaps. Dryasdust has had his day and good riddance. Don’t be deceived by the slick subtitles, however. Peter Lake knows more than anyone else about the religious culture of the secondary and tertiary stages of the English Reformation. This is not only a book of dazzling brilliance and acute intelligence, it has many important things to say about the construction, deconstruction and swapping of religious identities; about the book trade at the cheaper end; about the Jacobean stage; about penal and capital procedures as propaganda and theatre; about what historians can and cannot do with language and rhetoric; and, fundamentally, about the containment or non-containment of social and moral tensions and contradictions.

Let us begin with Ben Jonson, the source of the title, whom Lake eventually gets to, rather like the dragon in Robert Graves’s poem. Jonson had the most turbulent, up and down existence of any of Britain’s greatest writers. It’s just possible that he was the son, born posthumously, of a radically alienated Puritan preacher, Robert Johnson, who died in a Westminster prison, denouncing the ecclesiastical establishment with a satirical rhetoric worthy of his son – if Ben was his son. This might, or might not, explain a lot, including Jonson’s ambivalent attitude towards Puritanism. Ben was himself in prison, three times, the first for killing a fellow actor in a duel, and on one occasion was given ‘lustie strong poison’ by his mother to take if, as appeared possible, he was to be hanged. He was charged with treasonable intent before the Privy Council, soon after the Gunpowder Plot. He changed his religion, twice. But he was sufficiently streetwise in the ways of the Court to make it, eventually, with James I, and in the ways of the street to write Bartholomew Fair (a chapter on this play, along with The Alchemist, and another on Measure for Measure, is the prize which awaits us inside all the wrappings, at the end of this pass-the-parcel of a book).

Like the play itself, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat is a study of Jacobean London, its high life and low life, its media crazes, its commercialism, its vanities, its fluid religiosities: in the alliterative p-words which for some reason fascinated the Jacobethan age, it is peopled with Papists, Puritans, players, printers, pamphlets, pimps, punks and pigs; profit, pride, pleasure and power.

It will be no surprise to anyone to learn that Bartholomew Fair is a play which has it in for Puritans, an attack carefully tailored, or so it would seem, to harmonise with the prejudicial views on that subject of James I, to whom the play was dedicated and before whom it was performed on 1 November 1614. But as other commentators have observed, Jonson seems to express a suppressed kinship with Puritanism in his disgusted portrayal of the excesses of London’s annual August carnival, epitomised in the character of the pig-woman Ursula – in the words of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), ‘belly, womb, gaping mouth, udder . . . the celebrant of the open orifice’. It is a commonplace among critics that, since ‘Bartholomew Fair’ is almost the same thing or place as the theatre (‘our whole life is like a Play’), Jonson’s scenario expresses his unease about the grosser tendencies of the art form from which he made his living. But the anal retentive ‘rabbi’ from Banbury, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the representative Puritan from the representative Puritan town, is just as fat, a secret glutton who ‘breaks his buttons and cracks seams at every saying he sobs out’ (compare Falstaff, according to Kristen Poole in Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton, 2000), and Busy is far more disgusting because, unlike the irresistible Ursula, he is fundamentally antisocial.

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[*] ‘The Sherman’s Tree and the Preacher: The Strange Death of Merry England in Shrewsbury and Beyond’ from The Reformation in English Terms 1500-1640, edited by Patrick Collinson and John Craig (1998).