September 13, 2009

Some things memorably considerable in the conditions, Life and Death of the ever blessed and now eternally happy Mris Anne Bovves

Of all the multitude of sins in the English civil war, one that still hits home is bad poetry- take this from a hagiographical pamphlet dedicated to Anne Bovves and published in 1641:

Never fleshe lesse fear'd to dye
Nor soul fled more cheerfully

The rhyme does not work and the rhythm of the two lines is completely distinct. However as a means to close off the pamphlet the sentiment is right. The argument of the pamphlet is about Anne Bovves's religious leanings and the way that she died. She was born in 1598/9 and died at the age of 41 in 1640. She appears to have been unmarried, living in close congress with her brother and his family (like one imagines many single women of the time) who fulfilled her as far as a social life goes. Apart from that we know very little from the pamphlet about Anne Bovves- the writer rather than going into the particulars of her life includes some generic compliments, we get praise of her faithfulness, modesty, pity, gratefulness, business, forgiving nature and much else of the same tint- leading of course to a commendation of 'the excellence and sweetnesse of her naturall disposition'- but that does not tell us much about who Anne Bovves was and why we should remember her.

The reason I think for this is that the writer, whoever he or she was, of the tract is less interested in Anne than in Anne as an example of a religious life. In that sense all those conventional epithets make sense- you could tie them to Anne but equally they are things anyone could acheive. Hence I think it is interesting to look at the latter part of the pamphlet in which the writer defines Anne's religious practice- both the writer and Anne have a particular position within the theological struggle of the seventeenth century and reading what the author says about his subject allows us some access to what a normal person might be expected to do if they were a puritan. The first thing that we should note is that Anne was not, as modern commentators (and not historians believe) averse to 'Musick, sportings and divers Christmas solemnities'. She also took dreams and indications from the almighty seriously- in her last days her conviction that she would go to heaven and was redeemed by God was confirmed by the vision of a 'white sheet or a large foure square linnen cloath... let down to her by cords from heaven'. Anne's religious nature accepted both dancing and dreams.

The tone of the pamphlet's description of Anne's religion places her for me into the puritan side o the debate. She was 'for certain inwardly and ardently most religious', a 'severe judg of her selfe: a dayly weeping and broken-hearted penitent: never satisfied enough in the strength of her faith, measure of repentance and sufficiency of charity'. Priests in the pamphlet are called 'ministers'- something Archbishop Laud had striven to drive from the English language. Anne's religion was scriptural- 'it was very ordinary to hear her pray, and most joyously to sing whole Psalms in her sleep'. She clung to her sense of the mercy of God and the promises of 'her dear saviour'- the rhetoric as always in the seventeenth century is physical and has a sexual overtone: the writer includes an image of Anne with her arms clinging to Christ's body. The writer himself compares Anne's suffering in her final illness subtly to that of Christ's temptation in the desert- she like him suffers for 40 days before she acheives redemption and death. The tone of the pamphlet is about piety and puritan piety at that (the latter observation is the more uncertain one) and it drives the reader forwards to her or his own salvation.

Religion for Anne and for the writer thus was scripturally focussed and inwardly motivated. Anne attended Church services of course- but no minister is mentioned in the body of the text as providing her with sustenance. It is scripture and the teachings of her own conscience which confirm Anne's religious nature. We tend to think of puritanism though as an exclusive creed- exclusive of merriment on the one hand and superstition on the other. Such an understanding, in Anne Bovver's case is clearly wrong: she did not assail her brother for dancing but seemed willing to attend an occasion where it was on the agenda. Neither did she reject the influence of dreams. The key part of her religion was her relationship with God- conceived through the idea of Christ physically carrying her up to heaven- and her relationship with scripture. Like Oliver Cromwell, Anne evidently knew the Bible well enough through repeated readings to be able to cite it without a text- in her sleep! Despite the bad poetry, this pamphlet gives us a pretty good idea of what popular piety in the seventeenth century might have looked like- the picture is complicated but it is also interesting.


James Hamilton said...

Try that verse in a Brummy accent like mine: you'll find it works perfectly. Which is only to be expected, because, of course, the Birmingham accent is the only pure survivor of the spoken English of the time.

Other poets who spoke in rich, Birmingham tones also work better in that accent. "Grantchester" by Rupert Brooke, for instance, or Hugh Macdiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle," a poem that's just so full of the exile's mourning and nostalgia for Edgbaston and Selly Oak.

edmund said...

You sure she was a "puritan" in the sense of people who wanted a further reformation or was she pehrpas just a non Laudian COf e type-possibloy with similar views theologically to many who fought for the king?

Gracchi said...

Good point maybe I should have used puritan sensibility rather than establishing her as a puritan- but the signs are there of a puritan disposition. I don't think that all hte puritans fought for Parliamnet either- puritanism is a outlook that could be thin as here or thicker say with various other thinkers. Or at least the way I see it.