August 07, 2009


Plutarch mentioneth a certaine painter, who when he had made a goose and a cock both alike, was faine to write ouer their heads for distinctions sake, this is a goose, this is a cock. I haue now drawn (curteous Readers) the picture of a Puritane and the picture of a Papist and haue set ouer theyre heads with Plutarchs painter, this is a goose, this is a cock; this is a puritane, this is a papist. (Oliver Ormerod, 1605)

Oliver Ormerod was an anti-puritan if there ever was one- he published tracts against puritanism and campaigned against its theological barbarity. Ormerod though was one of many: the early modern period was rife with anti-Puritans, distinguished anti Puritans (one hardly gets more distinguished than the creator of Malvolio!). Patrick Collinson in an article in the Cambridge Companion to Puritanism deals with the origins of this movement and what he shows is very interesting- anti-Puritanism and Puritanism grew and were sustained together for centuries but the origins of each are separate and their strength and genesis was different.

The issue of what was a Puritan and where Puritanism began is not easy: historians give answers which differ considerably, many of the early essays in the Cambridge companion examine the question of when people started believing that they were Puritans. The ideological traits behind Puritanism go back much further though and are part of a story about the reception of continental ideas about Christianity, particularly Calvinism, and godly networks from the reign of Edward VI onwards. Anti-Puritanism though as a phenomenon originates much later. Collinson suggests the word dates to anti-Protestant Catholic polemic in the 1560s, Thomas Stapleton labelled all English Protestants, Puritans in 1565. Some like John Stow in 1567 or Thomas Harding in 1568 believed that puritans were more radical protestants- Stow linked them to Anabaptists, Harding agreed. Puritan though was a word like any other that might be used as a term of abuse- often the last in a list of epithets cast at radical protestants- and significant contemporaries did not use it when criticising the radical fringe. In 1588, the Anglican enforcer, Richard Bancroft (future Archbishop of Canterbury) did not use the term in a notorious sermon that he preached against radicals or 'precisians' as he termed them.

So puritanism as a word enjoyed a fragile early life. Collinson shows that it emerged suddenly as a consequence of the Marprelate tracts in London- these tracts published by a Martin Marprelate (an anonymous pseudonym) called forth responses and angry attacks. The Puritan grew as part of the weaponry of the conservative opponents of Martin. Puritans start to feature in drama from 1593 (when Marlow is the first identified playwright to attack them). Puritanism, Collinson argues, became a mobilising label both in London and outside- whereas Puritanism was actually in retreat in the 1590s (its major court patron the Earl of Leicester died in 1588), the label created a threat, crystallised a sense of attack on the estabilshed church and led to an anti-Puritan response. Whether in Banbury, Stratford upon Avon, Chester, Wells or London itself puritanism could provide a label to mobilise anti-puritans and individual conservatives against unsettling godly reforms- it could unite the cause of the townsmen at Wells who objected to the wealthy constable John Hoyle with the townsmen at Banbury, keen to keep their Maypoles and market crosses.

There are a couple of things are interesting about Collinson's brilliant and perceptive article. One of which is the way that language gives you the means to identify and pursue your enemy- once you know him, you can identify his emanations and his devices. Once you have drawn the portrait as Ormerod suggested you could see how he worked and performed. (This issue is a familiar one to any early modern observer- trained to spot the workings of the devil in whichever guise he appeared.) Language in this sense unites a set of phenomena and divides them from us. The second is when this process happened- Collinson argues that it happened in the moment of puritanism's decline. That thought and the prominence of the Martin tracts prompts two ideas in me- that as a movement declines it becomes more vulnerable and as a defence mechanism more forcefully articulates its beliefs, noise is inversely proportional to size, and that as a movement articulates, it offends, and eventually prompts a backlash- a backlash that as Collinson describes took the form of a new nomenclature and a new contrary movement which supplied part of the base of civil war royalism.

There are lessons here I think for how we understand other historical periods including our own: the ideas that are accepted are not those that are challenged, the social forces that are powerful are often unspoken and the language of description is a political weapon par excellence.