Danger-Men

Tom Shippey

  • A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People: John Bunyan and his Church by Christopher Hill
    Oxford, 394 pp, £19.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 19 812818 5
  • The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History by Anne Hudson
    Oxford, 556 pp, £48.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 822762 0

Christopher Hill has shown literary critics the way before now. Many must have felt at least mildly chastened by his remarks in Milton and the English Revolution (1977), no less forceful for their studied moderation, on remembering the effects on Paradise Lost of censorship, fear, a social context in which men were hanged for expressing Miltonic opinions and judges expressed regret at not being able to order sentences of death by burning. Now Hill on Bunyan promises to carry out a similar work of rescue from those who would see the tinker-author as representing only ‘a timeless human condition’, as reaching no more than the status of ‘a great literary classic’. It is more truthful, more lively, and more interesting, Hill claims, to put Bunyan back into his ‘revolutionary age’, to see his books at once as products of local history, inhabited by real and substantially-documented men and women, and as reactions to national and social crisis with which even pampered armchair-reader moderns can uneasily identify.

In several ways Hill is totally successful, and it seems almost presumptuous for the non-historian, with no mastery of the sources, even to applaud. Hill has an at times overwhelming grip on the history of Bedford county, to the extent of being able to identify something of that loose but phenomenally successful ‘networking’ by which the English upper classes have long been able to get their way without being particularly obtrusive. He gives short histories of dozens of Bunyan’s contemporaries, noting, for instance, that John Kelyng, the judge who bullied Bunyan in 1661, had done 18 years in prison himself and had ‘grounds for feeling vengeful’; that Paul Cobb, the seemingly feeble Clerk of the Peace who tried to let Bunyan off, went on to become mayor twenty years later when Charles II decided to get rid of his own obstinate ‘hardliners’; that over the years Bunyan’s congregation managed to carry out bewildering sequences of getting into trouble, getting out of it as a result of forbearing ‘ignoramus’ verdicts from stubborn juries, finding their way even into royal favour, and of course being dropped again when their utility ceased. If nothing else, this world of vivid activity and turmoil makes one appreciate Bunyan’s sheer fortitude in getting anything written at all, let alone so much of it. It is too easy now for critics to assume that writers, especially writers of the past, write what their inspiration leads them to and not what their circumstances can manage. As with Milton, so with Bunyan, Hill reminds us of the constraints of real life, as strong in the 17th century as in the 20th.

Yet in other respects, and having admitted Hill’s immense reservoir of knowledge, it can seem that there is too much in his book of reading backwards from now. One warning sign is the prevalence of phrases like ‘must have been’. Bunyan was in the army of Parliament for several years, and in what appears to have been a particularly ‘bolshie’ unit (the adjective is peculiarly appropriate). It is true that Bunyan hardly ever mentions this, but it ‘must have been an overwhelming experience’; in this milieu radical ideas circulated so much that the young conscript ‘cannot but have been affected by them’. Maybe not. And quite likely reminiscing about the Civil War would have been ‘contra-indicated’ after 1660. But people can be stubbornly resistant to mere proximity, however much scholars like to forge connections. It is striking to note, for instance – to take an example from Anne Hudson’s book – that Margery Kempe, about whose orthodoxy there was at least considerable doubt, had as her parish priest William Sawtry, the first man to be burnt to death for Lollardy. If the authorities who interrogated her had known that, they might have felt that this was prima facie proof of contagion. Yet as far as one can tell, Sawtry had no influence on Margery Kempe at all: on all disputed points of doctrine she was rock-solid. Maybe the teenage Bunyan was as imperceptive. At least the evidence for his revolutionary radicalism has to be stretched a bit.

More seriously, it is clear what Hill would like us to believe. This is essentially that Bunyan’s works are a response to social and economic crisis. Bunyan himself was a tinker, a craftsman of sorts but also by the nature of his job a traveller, quite close to a vagrant, of notoriously low status. Yet his ancestors had held property and been landowners, till forced to sell out by the ‘massive redistribution of income’ of the later 16th century, which more than halved real wages and created simultaneously new village élites (from the successful yeomanry) and a class of permanent poor (from their more unfortunate neighbours). This is why, Hill suggests, Bunyan was obsessed with stories such as Esau’s sale of his birthright and with the fear that he had himself ‘disinherited my poor soul’. It was not Calvinist theology but family history: or rather, the family history explains the Calvinist theology. In the same way, Giant Grim and Giant Despair gained much of their power, for Bunyan and for his readers, not by being representations of psychological states but because they showed what it was like trying to cross a country estate owned by a malignant JP with powers of summary arrest, and the ability even to block off the King’s highway and make it private property by enclosure. In Hill’s view, Bunyan came from a world where even the 1645 abolition of feudal tenure had mainly profited the gentry by removing the lower classes’ customary rights, a world populated largely by desperate cottagers, whom we would now call ‘squatters’, by people caught in early versions of ‘the poverty trap’, and by different varieties of defeated revolutionary, disillusioned radical and mystic ‘drop-out’.

The modern resonances of these terms are again part of Hill’s argument (though he does not use them). He does, however, suggest, for instance, that religious conversion for 17th-century sectaries ‘perhaps played a role like that of the drug culture in our similar age of economic crisis, personal insecurity and degradation’, and even the parallels in timing are fairly clear. In 1660, we might say, Bunyan experienced a failure of his personal revolution like that which confronted many naive and hopeful radicals after the early 1970s; like them, he had to compromise, knuckle under, make the best of it, and indeed attain personal success for the rest of his life, while all the time looking back yearningly to the turmoils of his youth, never quite ‘excluding all possibility of revolution’, but knowing better than (so to speak) to take on the water-cannon again.

It is an attractive picture, and it leads to some stirring readings of Bunyan’s major works: The Holy City as an image of Bedford small-town politics as well as an allegory of Mansoul (though many of the events of small-town politics took place after the book was published instead of conveniently before); and Pilgrim’s Progress as the epic not just of any Christian but of the vagrant classes, who carry the burden not of original sin but of bedrolls and possessions, who steal children away not to the ‘strange country’ of salvation but to the dispossessed half of England’s ‘two nations’, and who aspire most of all to the sword, not of the spirit, or not only of the spirit, but also of the New Model Army which put weapons into ordinary people’s hands and deprived the literally ‘armigerous’ classes of their own most cherished and dangerous privilege. Bunyan, this book tells us, was a danger-man. To the ‘jittery rulers of Bedfordshire’ he seemed to supply ‘the ideological back-up for revived republicanism’. Jailing him for 12 years was not really ‘over-reaction’. Only with hindsight can the legislation against him and his like seem superfluous. All round, Hill implies, he was not the kind of man his modern admirers would welcome to the Senior Common Room.

This last conclusion may well be true. Yet I do not think that many of the others survive re-exposure to the texts. Bunyan’s Relation of his Imprisonment is terribly revealing. Judge Kelyng was no doubt a bully and Clerk Cobb a time-server, but between them they seem to have done everything but nail the door of Bedford jail shut in order to persuade Bunyan not to hurl himself inside it. Even from Bunyan’s account it is clear that the barest gesture on his part, or even a bit of tactful silence, would have stopped proceedings. Hill regards it as condescending of Cobb to have said: ‘But, goodman Bunyan ... Cannot you submit, and, notwithstanding, do as much good as you can, in a neighbourly way, without having such meetings?’ Desperately wheedling sounds nearer the mark. Later on, after Bunyan had been jailed, it is perfectly clear that he was repeatedly let out, allowed to go to London, given facilities for writing. When they found he had gone to London, Bunyan reports, his enemies were so angry ‘they had almost cast my jailor out of his place.’ Most modern jailers, in modern countries, who let suspected revolutionaries out of prison after a counter-coup, would face worse fates than being ‘almost’ fired. But then trying to break up illegal meetings in seditious areas in modern countries would be a more dangerous business than it was in post-Civil War Bedfordshire. When the authorities tried to do this in 1670, in an England (we are told) ‘bitterly divided’, seething with discontent, with arms being stockpiled in all quarters for revolution, what happened? The local constables refused to co-operate, and some desperate spirit pinned a calf’s tail on a churchwarden’s back. The gentry were furious, and said the country was going ‘rotten’. But then, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they? The image of Bunyan and Bunyan’s world given here by Hill is detailed, fascinating and provocative: but also retrospective, humourless, in the end unconvincing.

Maybe Hill should have been writing about Bunyan’s dissenting predecessors, the Lollards, who would have given him (we can now see) much more scope. But it is fortunate he did not, for we have instead a quite epoch-making book from Anne Hudson in The Premature Reformation, a book which at once subverts established theory, exposes an entirely new area of knowledge for study, reminds us of what was so good about traditional philology, and – this doesn’t happen often from the despisedly amateurish profession of literary editor and critic – turns the tables on historians.

What its author has done is to read and interpret the entire vernacular corpus of Lollard material. How much easier that is to say than to carry out! Much of the corpus is unpublished, and to be found only in manuscripts scattered from Durham to Prague or Brno (the Czech connection being especially strong). Those editions which exist date often from last century, and cannot be relied on. Even recognising a Lollard document, buried as it may be in unimpeachably orthodox contexts, requires both judgment and confidence of a high order. And overriding the whole thing, if you had asked the average historian of the period a few years ago whether there was a real subject there, you would probably have got the answer no. The general consensus was that after the early 15th century Lollardy was an ‘incoherent and inchoate’ movement, its back broken, dwindled to a milieu of stubborn but uneducated individuals and families in backward villages. K.B. McFarlane’s book of 1972 implied strongly that there was no more evidence to find, and little more to be wrung out of what was known. But then, Hudson says, he ignored most of the evidence, and she finds it hard not to conclude that he chose to ignore it!

That is, however, the charitable explanation. The truth is much more likely to be that the evidence fell down a giant interdisciplinary crack (or chasm). It was not written in Latin, but in Middle English, a language notoriously unstandardised, dialect-haunted, poorly glossed. Medieval historians felt it was up to their philological colleagues to make sense of this before they could use it. Meanwhile their philological colleagues had all abandoned philology for the pursuit of literature, and tracts and sermons were not sufficiently literary. So a major subject was all but lost, to be rescued only by a major individual initiative. Scholarship, one may well conclude, has not yet become solely an affair of consensuses and committees and nicely organised projects.

What does the vernacular evidence tell us about Lollards? There were a lot of them. Over two hundred and fifty manuscripts survive of the Lollard Bible (possession of which, for over a century, could get you a death sentence). There are 30 manuscripts of the Lollard Sermon Cycle, which contains 294 sermons. In addition, there are the Glossed Gospels, texts like The Lantern of Light (owning which got John Claydon burnt alive in 1415), and major Latin works both for and against the movement. One conclusion is that the Lollards had to have scriptoria and – though this is a point scholars have been very reluctant to concede – something like organised schools: schools which were so successful that the movement managed to keep going in spite of the repeated ‘culling’ of its leaders, and even to have a presence in England when the real Reformation arrived from Germany. Hudson notes that in the 1520s two men from Steeple Bumpstead in Essex arrived in London and exchanged their Wycliffite Bible for a new one – how long, and how heroically, they had been holding the old one can only be guessed.

Yet though Lollards ended up entrenched in places like Steeple Bumpstead, they began, Hudson argues, in Oxford. Not only did Oxford have Wycliffe. It also had the scholars and the libraries necessary to start immense projects like glossing and translating the Bible. Lollardy was in fact an academic movement, in the sense of being learned, scholarly, book-orientated and – till Archbishop Arundel started burning people – prepared to engage in public debate. But the issues it raised were not ‘academic’ in the sense of being impractical, fussy, concerned only with minor details. The Lollard Disendowment Bill is a document allegedly presented to Henry IV and the House of Commons in (perhaps) 1410, suggesting that the Church should forfeit designated temporalities to the value of 322,000 marks per year, to provide for 15 new earls, 1500 knights, 6000 squires and 100 almshouses – as well as 15 new universties. Hardly anyone has taken this seriously, but Hudson points out that someone who worked on it had done his research. The figure given for the ‘spiritualities’ which the Church would have left (£147,734 10s 4d) was not plucked out of the air, and is likely to be accurate.

So, the Lollards were a genuine threat. For a while they had a good deal of high-level secular support. They were hard to look down on intellectually. One final point of difference from the 17th-century milieu studied by Hill is that even after the Lollards were hunted underground, even after the head of every Oxford college was obliged by statute to monitor the beliefs of his fellows once a month, even after the whole movement was driven down to obscure conventicles and meetings in the chesehous chambr, the Lollards seem to have preserved a peculiar good sense and sweetness of temper. What point is there in giving a candle to a church, they asked? Better give it to a poor man so that he may see to go to bed, or a poor woman so she may spin. When Anne Askew was faced with the traditional poser of what would happen to a mouse that ate the Host (under the mistaken impression it was only bread), and was eventually told by her interrogator that the mouse would be damned, she remarked only: ‘Alacke, poore mowse!’ Lollards made no bones about allowing women to preach (as Bunyan did). They recanted readily, without Bunyan’s stiff-necked pride, but did not change their opinions, and faced death when necessary with exemplary courage. On 5 March 1410, John Badby, placed in a barrel for forced-draught, with the fire already burning round his feet, had his execution stopped by Prince Hal himself, who offered Badby his life and three pence a day in perpetuity if he would publicly abjure. He refused, and was burnt to ashes.

Maybe if he had not things would have gone better. Henry V, instead of becoming princeps presbyterorum, might have been able to make an accommodation with the then-powerful lay and clerical reforming parties. Opinions might not have polarised. A reform could have been carried out both more sweeping and less greedy than that of Henry VIII. The attitudes of Langland and Chaucer might have become more representative than those of Gower or Hoccleve. The vernacular would have come into its own a century earlier.

It is all a ‘might-have-been’. But no one can say any longer that the Lollards did not have a programme, to begin with, and a stable set of beliefs all along. They have been underrated and vilified by history, while their more enthusiastic and splenetic successors have been held up for admiration. On every count, though, The Premature Reformation presents a more plausible and more attractive picture than A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People. On every count but one: the Lollards never produced a Pilgrim’s Progress.