September 25, 2009

Mercurius Medicus: a salve to sovereign problems

Mercurius Medicus was one of many short tracts published during the English Civil Wars. It came out in two editions in October 1647, today I want to concentrate on the first edition, dated by Geogre Thomason the London bookseller October 11th 1647. Mercurius Medicus was, so the catalogues inform us, authored by Henry Walker: the pamphlets or newspapers themselves actualy don't tell us who wrote them butmerely that they were printed for William Ley. Walker or whoever else wrote Mercurius Medicus was obviously a Parliamentarian and a supporter of the New Model Army- the first pamphlet is directed at the citizens of London and imagines itself as answering a citizen's questions about the New Model and the purpose of keeping it in existance after the war had ended. (The first English Civil War finished in 1646 and the New Model had stayed in existance until the autumn of 1647 despite Parliamentary orders to disband and unrest in London because of high taxes to pay it to stay in the field.) Mercurius Medicus was therefore a topical document: it was addressed to an audience who were vitally interested in what it was saying.

The pamphlet begins with wit, pointing out that the royalist 'firebrands' are 'quenched'- that the newspapers Melancholicus, Pragmaticus, Diabolicus and Clericus, the 'ink squitterers' are vanished. The titles mentioned are parodies in part- Mercurius Clericus and Diabolicus parody the royalist affection for the priest and the devil (this is a broad attack!) but the point is serious. For what he moves onto was a real question in the autumn of 1647- who was to blame for the English civil war. The author adopts a providential line of argument reminding his audience that ''Tis his [God's] chief glory to bring good out of evill, as it is the Devills greatest ambition to bring evill out of good, who can tread his inscrutable pathes'. (2) To assume that human beings have caused the sufferings of the civil war is 'great madnesse' 'to lay upon our own shoulders more then we are able to bear and great wickenesse to debar our Maker of that honour which he so greatly delighteth in, to wit, to use us at his pleasure' (3). This Jobian sentiment is interesting because one of the common places of independent thought was that history reflected God's providence and was discernable to mankind: this pamphlet advances a sceptical case about our abilities to read God's intentions out of the book of history.

The second interesting idea that we can pick out of Mercurius Medicus is another cynical one. The pamphlet is subtitled 'a soveraigne salve for these sick times' and that word 'soveraigne' is important. The English Civil War produced many important texts on the idea of sovereignty. In the early 1640s, Henry Parker argued that the King was not sovereign if he did not maintain the public interest. In the early 1650s, Thomas Hobbes and other thinkers like Francis Rous and Anthony Ascham maintained in the engagement controversy that a reasonable person should support their government in lieu of protection even if they believed that government to be, as many Royalists considered the Rump, illegitimate. We can see the begginings of a formation of such an idea in Mercurius Medicus: he writes in defence of the New Model

therefore my good Citizen, forbeare not to commerce for fear of shadowes, doth it greive you to pay your owne, now they guard you from a forraigne as well as when they opposed your domestic enemie; now you may easily imagine what will happen, at most but to part with money to maintaine them till things are setled; But were they disbanded, you nor the wisest living, could promise any man his life or livelihood;
The passage is important: the author argues here that the citizen supports the soldiers because they guarentee his life and liberty, were they disbanded the guard from foreign (Irish?) enemies would be abandoned too. Furthermore his point is that they have saved the citizen from worse tyranny, from that of Bishops and that of Kings.

The last point about the pamphlet I want to draw out is a point about its author. A better piece of work on Walker in the blogosphere can be found here, but whoever wrote this pamphlet was well informed. From the autumn of 1647 onwards you are beggining to get rumblings in the New Model Army about the status of the King. John Morrill convincingly argued in the Ford Lectures he delivered a couple of years ago that this argument about the King was a forgotten aspect of the Putney debates. Mercurius Medicus implies that such rumours were traversing his circles and distubring some, 'the Army ground their proceedings on this axiome, that the greater the persone is that offends, the more occasion is given to impeach him.' This principle is stated in the most general way in order to draw away its conclusion- that the King could potentially be put on trial. However his following sentence conditions it: 'the Souldierie in generall, I beleeve they will not be hastie to undertake that which is above their might to mannage, nor I beleeve have they the least thought to wrest the sword out of the hand of justice'. Whatever perspective or circle this pamphlet comes out of, it reflects the fact that by the end of 1647 there was a debate going on in some circles about judicially trying the King.

Mercuruis Medicus is a short but interesting document for the three reasons I have given above- but also because it gives testament to the lack of a peace dividend at the end of the English Civil War. It has to disappoint the citizen who expected the army and its commander Sir Thomas Fairfax to bring the King back to Whitehall, 'Sir Thomas when he made that promise expected not those obstructions which have since happened, and were it a wise course, thinkest thou, for his Majesty to come to his Pallace rather to heare controversies then to end differences.'. (5) Likewise it closes by councilling its audience 'since things are as they are, let us strive to make the best of them and according to the proverb, Since we cannot doe as wee would,d oe as we may' (6). In this sense, I think the pamphlet is useful, too often we pay attention to those exhilerated by revolution: Mercurius Medicus's author was when he wrote it addressing those who were not exhilerated and neither does he reccomend over optimism.

Instead this pamphlet is uncertain, wry and sceptical: it recommends caution about overestimating providence, support for the New Model because they keep things from getting worse, defends the possibility of trial and says that a settlement is still far off: it reminds us of how uncertain and dangerous the end of the first Civil War was and how much of a backlash there was against the side that won the civil war, not to mention the difficulties of creating out of a wartorn country a new state. Mercurius Medicus holds itself out as curing the newspapers of the time: actually its salve is more to do with the sovereign issue, what to do in the aftermath of victory?