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.

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