November 17, 2009

Review: Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England 1500-1700

Tolerance and its history is a controversial and vast area. Professor Alexandra Walsham of Exeter University tackles this in her latest volume- Charitable Hatred- and brings together a large amount of evidence I was unaware of. What Professor Walsham does is show how subtle and difficult an issue early modern tolerance is- for a start it took many different forms, from the social tolerance that parishioners displayed towards each other to the legalised tolerance of the Proclamations of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James II and William III and the philosophical and theological tolerance of Levellers like William Walwyn or thinkers like John Locke. Tolerance had limits as well: Locke and Milton believed that Catholics could not be tolerated nor could Atheists. The first and so far as I know only person to suggest that Atheists could be good citizens was Pierre Bayle whose religious affiliations were uncertain to say the least. Toleration is a complex subject and intolerance and tolerance related on many different levels. The early modern state afterall was not organised with a simple structure; an order from the centre translated into actions in the locality but to some extent local magistrates and officials had the ability to obstruct, interpret and even ignore those orders.

It is in that climate that Professor Walsham establishes her book. Her book runs over two centuries and her approach is thematic rather than chronological. Obviously there are key events in the story of toleration- the reformation, the Edwardian reformation of the reformation,. the Marian counter reformation, the Elizabethan reformation, the Jacobean succession, the Caroline experiment, the English Civil War and the conflicts between Stuart Kings, Tories and Whigs which developed into the long constitutional crisis of the 1680s. What Walsham does is attempt to suggest that there were continuities down the centuries- and that there were cyclical movements in toleration which had an impact on society. She identifies moments like the Spanish match of 1621 or the 1670s when Catholics became more tolerated, and moments when toleration flowed leftwards such as the 1550s and 1640s. Toleration though could enduce popular rage which turned into riot and often destruction: so the 1620s might have been good in terms of leglislation for Catholics, but not so good for those injured when a chapel in Blackfriars collapsed- they were killed by a Protestant mob. Jurisdictions also overlapped and there were immunities: the embassies of European powers maintained Catholic chapels- though these too were attacked by Protestants- and in London and the ports there were stranger churches for Protestant refugees from the continent, created to allow them to practice their religion until they became anglican these became refuges for Dutch and French Calvinists.

Toleration had other dimensions too as had intolerance. Intolerance often took an Augustinian form- as Walsham shows arguments from scripture, particularly the cases of Achan and Phineas, were used to demonstrate God would turn his wrath upon those who tolerated unrighteousness. Intolerance rose at particular moments- the stabbing of John Hawkins by a mad puritan inspired repression of religious nonconformity in Elizabeth's reign, Guy Fawkes or the Popish Plot did the same for Catholics in the 17th Century. Anxiety could be pricked in popular terms by imagery- children in London in the 1650s were found reciting to a playmate whose parents were Catholic, 'Papist, Papist pray to the Pope/ Your neck in a halter, your heels in a rope'. Imagery was equally important: one image Walsham prints shows a Quaker woman being convinced by her inner light a devil to sexual infidelity. Anniversaries mattered to: Sir Humphrey Mildmay a Royalist kept at home during the civil war on Guy Fawkes day. Popular pressure, Walsham shows, often congregated around people who were unpopular anyway- so Alice Tailor of Bisham provoked her neighbour Agnes Miller to give evidence against her by calling her an old fool. Puritans gadding for sermons (moving round the country) or like Thomas Hudson of Aylsham spending three days singing psalms non-stop irritated their neighbours. It is those kind of local details that make Walsham's analysis work- bringing together the anxiety of moments with the hatred of people and a vague intolerance into a sometimes fiery combination.

There is much more here- but I think it is the interrelationship between governmental and popular action that is really where the heart of Walsham's argument about the complicated relationship of tolerance and intolerance lies. There is one last aspect which is worth acknowledging which is the problem of inclusivity: tolerance in the early modern period could mean different things- it could mean as Oliver Cromwell meant it tolerance for the community of the saints, it could also mean tolerance which accepted that everyone else was bound for hell. Contrast puritan ministers who refused to preach to the unredeemed with Archbishop Cranmer or the Catholic Bishop Bonner who might have burnt more, but also attempted to persuade more. Their hatred would have been described as charitable- for they cared for the individual soul rather than excluding it from the communion of the blessed. The last hope of practical intolerance was comprehension- the policy attempted by Charles II to bring all Protestants under the communion of the Church of England- there were even suggestions of a parallel structure of Presbyters and Bishops. This policy would have been universalist and included all Protestants in the British Isles but it would have been intolerant- exiling those outside the border of the universal church into legal apartheid.

Walsham also inquires into the attitudes of those persecuted and notes how toleration in the later seventeenth century accompanied confessionalisation: intermarriage between baptists and non-baptists early on was regular, but by 1668 Baptists were forbidden from marrying outside the church- a prohibition that as far as we can see 96% of Baptists in Sussex kept to right up until 1750, a proportion which slightly diminished afterwards. Intolerance created a number of behaviours- quietist Protestantisms like the Muggletonians and the Familists flourished because they hid their behaviour. The phenomenon of Church papists who conformed outwardly to the Anglican church but inwardly were Catholic worried Puritans. The Convectile Acts of the 1660s meant that any gathering above five outside a family unit was banned: some non-conformist ministers spent days circulating their parishes to avoid it. Understanding these routes to conformity means understanding that they were routes to communication: confessionalisation and multiculturalism were phenomena that emerged when it was no longer neccessary to conform. Indeed conformity may have itself led to intolerance losing its cache- far better to know your enemy and argue than to have him or her hide in the church.

Walsham's narrative has a couple of weaknesses. Stressing continuity is good because it reclaims the period's diversity from Whig narratives and what she does is layer traditional accounts of law and political theory with a social context. But there was a change as she acknowledges- by 1688 roughly more people were worried about atheism than they were about sectaries. The experience of civil war and of the incomplete reformation seems to have changed government attitudes. Politique ideas whether Bayle's or even Hobbes's were around in the late seventeenth century in a way they weren't in the early 16th. She is right to say that there were continuities but there was also a story here, a Whig narrative of Puritan and Parliamentary tolerance is obvioulsy inappropriate- afterall the most tolerant leglislative experiments drafted by Charles II and James II were what Parliaments strove against and she is right to say that many advocates for toleration (and James might be included in this) advocated it because they were weak. But there is a story and that story deserves telling- her work has complicated that story and possibly made it more about the limitations of government, the evolution of social structure (toleration was often justified through increasing trade) and the evolution of theology.

More than anything though what the book does is place at the heart of early modern belief, early modern experience. This works both ways: early modern people made mistakes- in the Gordon riots, a crowd passing over London was called to attack a house filled with Catholics, 'What are Catholics to us' they responded, 'We are only against Popery'. Locke and Jeremy Taylor were responding equally to their own experience of life in the period. Toleration also had odd effects- strengthening confessional divides and making the noise of anti-Catholicism and anti-Puritanism louder. Stressing your ideological differences allowed you in some sense to disassociate from the sin going on down the road. This is a provocative and interesting book- I have derived a lot from it both in terms of social and religious history and I think its one that should provoke thought about what we mean by toleration and how it structurally fitted within the early modern state. It is not enough after Walsham to write simply that toleration was a outgrowth of Protestant Parliamentarianism on a teleological line to Victorian England, the early modern world was complicated and tolerance and intolerance were part of that complication. Disintangling what they meant and we mean by the terms is the subject of a life's work: Alexandra Walsham's book is not a bad place to start from.


RonMossad said...

Tolerance breeds intolerance? How can this be?

Historically, the indecent minority has only been able to succeed due to the indifference of the decent majority. Understanding other cultures and peoples is a wonderful approach to life, but enabling intolerant cultures (that seek to restrict our own freedoms) is where we must draw the line.

Gracchi said...

Ron I understand your political point- I suppose my argument was more about a historical process. If they tie together it is in Walsham's argument that confessionalisation accompanies tolerance- that the roots of multiculturalism lie in 18th Century politique toleration. In that sense we may be witnessing a long process- you and many others diagnose that the process is based on faulty on assumptions- I am less interested in that and more interested in the ways that our society came upon that process, why we chose toleration and how that toleration and the previous intolerance worked.