Common Thoughts

Eamon Duffy

  • The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas
    Oxford, 393 pp, £20.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 924723 3

Keith Thomas prefaces this book with a quotation from the greatest of English medievalists, F.W. Maitland: ‘A century hence . . . by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will become thinkable once more.’ That aspiration, to recover ‘common thoughts about common things’, was a novelty in Victorian historiography. In the century since Maitland’s death, however, it has become for many historians the holy grail. The archives have always had a great deal to tell us about the doings of kings and kaisers. The common thoughts of common people about common things have proved far more elusive.

Thomas has never been much of a one for kings or kaisers, or, for that matter, much of a one for the archives. Religion and the Decline of Magic, the book which established him almost forty years ago as a leading historian, did make effective use of manuscript records, particularly from the church courts. But it owed far more to an awe-inspiring range of printed sources: 16th and 17th-century pamphlets, plays, ballads, sermons, almanacs and broadsheets, scientific, medical, astrological, demonological and theological treatises, published memoirs and letters. Printed pages by the ream, by the barrow and the lorry load, read, absorbed, distilled into authoritative generalisation, underpinned by tellingly quoted phrases.

This vast and voracious acquaintance with the printed trace of the early modern past is on display once again in The Ends of Life. It is a much shorter book, yet it attempts nothing less than an exploration of what the people of early modern England made of life, death, the universe and everything. Or almost everything. Thomas’s aim, he tells us, ‘is to identify some of the central values of the English people between the early 16th and late 18th centuries’ – the ends they pursued in life, their aspirations, hopes and objectives – in a ‘retrospective ethnography’ which approaches the early modern past ‘in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society’. But no anthropologist approaching an exotic society would announce in advance, as Thomas does here, that they proposed to leave religion out of the picture. Religion, he concedes, was indeed ‘central to the lives of many contemporaries’, but ‘is too large a subject to be adequately treated here’.

This is an extraordinary decision. In early modern England, most books and all wars were about religion. The period included the profound institutional, ideological and social revolution we call the Reformation, the end of institutionally gendered religious lifestyles in the abolition of monasticism, the destruction of almost the entire corpus of medieval art and music, and the reconstruction of day to day Christianity on a drastically reconfigured base. Quite apart from the positive role of religion in shaping, interpreting and enhancing daily life, the nation was rocked by rebellions and plunged into civil war for the sake of religion; a king was beheaded and a royal dynasty replaced. Even when the ideological and political monopoly of the state church weakened towards the end of the period, religion remained powerful enough to trigger waves of life-transforming ‘revival’. It created new styles of piety, even new churches, to give meaning to lives caught in the bewildering upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.

To leave religion out of a ‘retrospective ethnography’ of the period, therefore, is rather like attempting a history of Europe in the 1930s without any discussion of Communism or Fascism. But, in fact, religion is not entirely absent from Thomas’s book. It is discussed in a final chapter, though only in order to establish that early modern people paid rather less attention to it than generally thought. In that chapter, on fame and the afterlife, Thomas considers attitudes to and beliefs about heaven and hell. This discussion mutates, revealingly, into a consideration of the desire for posthumous fame, and the quest for immortality via commemoration and memorialising. This, he suggests, weighed far more heavily with growing numbers of people than fading beliefs about an afterlife of bliss or torment. In this respect at least, he seems to suggest, this ‘exotic society’ was not really so very different from ours, in which religion matters hardly at all.

Of the many things that constituted the good life for early modern people, Thomas discusses six: military prowess, work, wealth, reputation, personal relationships and the afterlife, broadly understood. Characteristically, the chapters begin by evoking the strangeness of early modern attitudes (that ‘exotic society’). People in our society, for example, think of unemployment as a curse, and derive much of their identity and satisfaction from work. But Thomas begins his chapter on work and vocation by exploring the conventional early modern view that work was at best a necessary evil. For classical Greece the best life was one of leisure, ‘not idleness, of course, but virtuous activity of mind and body, involving no manual labour and unconstrained by the need to earn a living’. For ancient Christianity, work was the ‘primal curse’, inflicted on humankind as a punishment for the Fall. Both classical and Christian orthodoxies informed early modern attitudes, so that the devoutly Protestant John Locke could assert on both counts that ‘labour for labour’s sake is against nature.’ There would be no work in heaven. But then in the second half of his chapter, on ‘the rewards of labour’, Thomas inverts this picture, tracing ‘the rudiments of an altogether more positive’ view of work, as something desirable and rewarding in and for itself, a means towards human happiness, dignity and self-fulfilment, shaping a world in which ‘the idle are the only wretched.’

This dialectical pattern is traced in most of the chapters. The discussion of military prowess as an aspiration begins by outlining the aristocratic ideal which saw physical courage and ‘prowess in warfare’ as ‘the supreme proof of manhood’. That manliest of men, the Elizabethan hero Sir Richard Grenville, dining with the Spanish sea captains who had captured him, proved the robust superiority of the Englishman to the Don by chewing his wineglass and swallowing the pieces, ‘the blood pouring out of his mouth’. But this military ideal waned, and achieving prowess in battle ceased to be the main occupation of the aristocracy and gentry. The notion of ‘physical conflict as the supreme masculine activity’ would decline, Thomas argues, surviving into modern times mainly in the public school culture of games, and echoed in the glee of men like the poet Julian Grenfell when dispatched to the trenches of the First World War, ‘radiant with excitement and joy to be getting back to fight again’.

Thomas’s method as a historian, often commented on and sometimes attacked, is that of the collagist or mosaicist. His book is built up from hundreds of almost invariably brief allusions and citations, either phrases embedded in the text or, more commonly, accumulations of authorities cited in a footnote, underpinning an argument or generalisation. The range of material drawn on is astonishing. This relatively brief book of 267 pages of text is supported by nearly a hundred pages of dense and minutely printed notes and references, the accumulated harvest of a lifetime’s reading, both primary sources and secondary literature. Thomas has formidable organisational ability, and an unerring eye for detail. Almost every page offers something to intrigue, amuse or provoke, from the hilarious glimpse of the Puritan congregation of Uggleshall, who sacked their rector for eating custard ‘after a scandalous manner’ (it was liberally laced with alcohol), to the sobering list of items which were rare or non-existent in Tudor England, but had become commonplace by the 18th century: tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea, clocks, looking glasses, forks, porcelain, pictures, newspapers, wallpaper, curtains, glass windows, upholstered furniture, in fact much of the familiar paraphernalia of modern domesticity.

But his method has its problems. Thomas very rarely offers a consecutive discussion of any of his primary sources. No book is analysed for its argument, no author’s work explored for its shifts or nuances. Instead, the glittering texture of the book is woven together from threads and fragments, asides, ‘casual observations or short-term responses to immediate problems’, all presented as equivalent testimony to the mindset of an age. Thomas is sensitive to the vulnerabilities of this method, and to the charge that it falsifies the material selected by decontextualising it. ‘To this charge, I can only plead that I am well aware of the perils that beset source-miners and quotation mongers. Before quoting a text I have always tried to ask myself who said or wrote it, and why.’

This won’t quite do. There is something unavoidably flattening and indiscriminate in the massive piling together of tiny tesserae of thought, and their arrangement into an argument whose pattern, however alluring, is not in fact directly derived from any of them. Consider Thomas’s account of 17th-century speculation about the state of the human body after the resurrection from the dead. It was thought, he tells us, that in heaven everyone would be young and beautiful. He cites a range of thinkers, from John Donne to John Evelyn, as witnesses to the belief that ‘there would be no cripples in heaven, no blind persons, no sufferers from chronic disease.’ ‘Some even believed,’ he declares, ‘that women would be reborn as men, that black people would become white, and that everyone would be in their early thirties (Christ’s age at the time of his death). Many centuries of Christian commentary underpinned these expectations.’

Well, up to a point. Some of the beliefs outlined in that paragraph did indeed have centuries of accumulated Christian consensus behind them. The idea that the resurrected body would be beautiful and disease-free, and that all human beings would be raised at the same age as Christ, derives ultimately from St Augustine’s fifth-century speculations in City of God. Endlessly refined and elaborated by theologians and preachers, it had long constituted the Christian mainstream. By contrast, the quasi-Gnostic view that women would be raised as men had been explicitly denied by Augustine, was incompatible with the cult of the Virgin Mary, and would have been repudiated as heretical by both Protestants and Catholics. On examination of the relevant footnote, it emerges that the unspecified ‘some’ who held this curious belief in early modern England belonged to the Muggletonians, a tiny, eccentric and emphatically heterodox sect. To bundle their beliefs into the same sentence as mainstream Augustinian orthodoxy is profoundly misleading.

One of the authors Thomas frequently draws on is that most copious of Puritan divines, Richard Baxter. In the chapter on friendship and sociability, Thomas presents Baxter as a critic of close exclusive male friendship. His influential Christian Directory (1673) is quarried for a warning against the dangers of ‘intimate special friendship’, and a denunciation of the excessive love of another human being as ‘a sin of deeper malignity than is commonly observed’. Yet Baxter might just as easily have been cited to the opposite effect. In the posthumous autobiographical compilation Reliquiae Baxterianae, he left one of the most poignant accounts of an ‘intimate special friendship’ in 17th-century writing. It described his teenage friendship with a fellow pupil in the house of his tutor Richard Wickstead in Ludlow. Baxter and this ‘intimate Companion’, never named, had been inseparable: ‘We walk’d together, we read together, we prayed together, and when we could we lay together.’ The friend became Baxter’s spiritual mentor and example, his ardent religious temperament a perfect foil to Baxter’s clearer head but colder heart. But Ludlow was a garrison town, full of temptations. Gradually Baxter’s friend succumbed to drink, and rationalised this failing by denouncing sobriety as Puritanism. Inexorably, Baxter and he drifted apart. ‘And the last I heard of him was, that he was grown a Fudler, and Railer at strict men. But whether God recovered him, or what became of him, I cannot tell.’

This masterly vignette of lost friendship recalled in old age captures with unforgettable pathos a mini-tragedy, youthful ardour and idealism overwhelmed by bitter experience. Baxter of course gave the story a characteristic moralising twist, as part of a meditation on God’s mysterious shaping of his own life. But he never suggests that the friendship itself was anything but good. The love between the two young Puritans is recalled as a milestone in Baxter’s journey of faith, ‘so that God made him a great means to my good.’ Baxter the elegist of friendship decayed, and Baxter the moralist bemoaning particular friendships, are no doubt reconcilable. Thomas offers an overview of an age, not a resolution of the inconsistencies of any single thinker in it; but the reasons for presenting one Baxter rather than the other are not immediately obvious.

Some of Thomas’s underlying assumptions become explicit in his final chapter, in which he suggests that Christian hopes and fears about heaven and hell gave way in this period to merely secular preoccupations with fame and remembrance. He believes that ‘intense fear of hellfire was never more than a minority sentiment,’ and suspects that the conviction that ‘we die like beasts, and when we are gone there is no more remembrance of us’ was widespread among the poor as well as among aristocratic sceptics like Sir Walter Raleigh. Such scepticism might have been ‘more audibly expressed’, he considers, if the upper classes hadn’t believed that the fear of hell was needed to keep the plebs in order. So he sees in the growing interest in secular remembrance, elaborate church monuments and posthumous fame, a search for this-worldly substitutes for a fading eschatology. Christianity offered meaning only in the next world. Despite its cultural ascendancy, therefore, ‘in practice, most of the population implicitly took a more secular view: they cherished life for its own sake, not merely as a preliminary to some future state.’

That seems to me a fairly impoverished account of how religion works. There is surely a fallacy in reducing Christianity to a bleak system of rewards and punishments, and then concluding that no one believed in it when we find they looked for rather more from life. The sterner kind of Christian preacher and ascetic had indeed a perennial tendency to present Christianity as largely otherworldly, to see this world as nothing but a vale of tears. But that has never been the whole content of Christianity, or indeed of any other religion. For most of its adherents, most of the time, Christianity has been just as importantly a ‘road to fulfilment’, a code of conduct, a key to the good, the beautiful, the true, a motive for hopefulness about the world, and a call to the love of God and neighbour. These functions too were integral to religion in early modern England, whose Christianity was far more than a grimly calculated system of rewards and punishments in the world to come.

And in any case, the evidence Thomas cites for his belief that there was a growing and widespread scepticism is largely anecdotal and impressionistic. This was an age that produced avalanches of books and sermons inculcating Christian belief, catering for an immense and lucrative market. That demand, and ipso facto the religious agonisings and upheavals of the period, would be unintelligible if most people had lost or were losing their grip on the central tenets of the religion they professed and often fought about. One is bound to wonder whether Thomas’s sense of the inexorable erosion of religious commitment in the early modern period owes as much to his own sense that rational men and women must always have had their doubts about such implausible claims, as to any compelling signs of widespread secularism in the sources.

Part of the trouble lies in his implication that non-identical motives must have been mutually exclusive. So, he claims, when we consider the social elite of early modern England, ‘we find that fame’ – rather than religion – ‘was the spur, the acknowledged incentive to perform deeds of merit.’ The demon is in that little word ‘the’, as if desire for fame ruled out other more selfless reasons for doing such ‘deeds of merit’. Believers too might hope for renown, yet be believers none the less. Thomas supports his argument with some verses on the allure of fame as a motive for good by the Jacobean grandee Fulke Greville, in which he asks

what governor would spend his days,
In envious travail, for the public good? . . .
liv’d not this fame in clouds, kept as a crown;
Both for the sword, the sceptre, and the gown.

But Fulke Greville is a decidedly dicy witness for secularism. He doubtless shared the hopes of his age and class for posthumous fame – why else, indeed, would he have written so much verse? But he was also a Calvinist who most certainly believed in heaven and feared damnation, the ‘uncreated hell with all privation’, and the terrifying consequence of unrepented sin.

The Ends of Life is a compellingly readable book, richly researched, fascinatingly detailed, delightfully written. But its overarching argument does not entirely convince. For all its vivid evocation of the quiddities of the past, Thomas’s ‘retrospective ethnography’ too neatly trims the ‘common thoughts about common things’ of those very exoticisms, contradictions and religious complexities which made that age different from ours.