What was it that Samuel Johnson said about Laurence Sterne’s unusual novel? ‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’ I wonder whether the Doctor would have said the same had he lived long enough to reach the end of The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat, whose odd title is only explained on page 584, when we come across a quote from The Alchemist. Some of the chapter subtitles are no less zany: ‘Sex, Lies and Cheap Print’, ‘What Was So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’; some just pretentious: ‘Compliment as Meta-Critique’. Is this the way the history and culture of lost worlds will be recovered in the future? Conventional lines of demarcation between respectable academic disciplines breached, twisting dust-devils of ideas, a kind of historical News of the World? (All human life is here.)
Perhaps. Dryasdust has had his day and good riddance. Don’t be deceived by the slick subtitles, however. Peter Lake knows more than anyone else about the religious culture of the secondary and tertiary stages of the English Reformation. This is not only a book of dazzling brilliance and acute intelligence, it has many important things to say about the construction, deconstruction and swapping of religious identities; about the book trade at the cheaper end; about the Jacobean stage; about penal and capital procedures as propaganda and theatre; about what historians can and cannot do with language and rhetoric; and, fundamentally, about the containment or non-containment of social and moral tensions and contradictions.
Let us begin with Ben Jonson, the source of the title, whom Lake eventually gets to, rather like the dragon in Robert Graves’s poem. Jonson had the most turbulent, up and down existence of any of Britain’s greatest writers. It’s just possible that he was the son, born posthumously, of a radically alienated Puritan preacher, Robert Johnson, who died in a Westminster prison, denouncing the ecclesiastical establishment with a satirical rhetoric worthy of his son – if Ben was his son. This might, or might not, explain a lot, including Jonson’s ambivalent attitude towards Puritanism. Ben was himself in prison, three times, the first for killing a fellow actor in a duel, and on one occasion was given ‘lustie strong poison’ by his mother to take if, as appeared possible, he was to be hanged. He was charged with treasonable intent before the Privy Council, soon after the Gunpowder Plot. He changed his religion, twice. But he was sufficiently streetwise in the ways of the Court to make it, eventually, with James I, and in the ways of the street to write Bartholomew Fair (a chapter on this play, along with The Alchemist, and another on Measure for Measure, is the prize which awaits us inside all the wrappings, at the end of this pass-the-parcel of a book).
Like the play itself, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat is a study of Jacobean London, its high life and low life, its media crazes, its commercialism, its vanities, its fluid religiosities: in the alliterative p-words which for some reason fascinated the Jacobethan age, it is peopled with Papists, Puritans, players, printers, pamphlets, pimps, punks and pigs; profit, pride, pleasure and power.
It will be no surprise to anyone to learn that Bartholomew Fair is a play which has it in for Puritans, an attack carefully tailored, or so it would seem, to harmonise with the prejudicial views on that subject of James I, to whom the play was dedicated and before whom it was performed on 1 November 1614. But as other commentators have observed, Jonson seems to express a suppressed kinship with Puritanism in his disgusted portrayal of the excesses of London’s annual August carnival, epitomised in the character of the pig-woman Ursula – in the words of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), ‘belly, womb, gaping mouth, udder . . . the celebrant of the open orifice’. It is a commonplace among critics that, since ‘Bartholomew Fair’ is almost the same thing or place as the theatre (‘our whole life is like a Play’), Jonson’s scenario expresses his unease about the grosser tendencies of the art form from which he made his living. But the anal retentive ‘rabbi’ from Banbury, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the representative Puritan from the representative Puritan town, is just as fat, a secret glutton who ‘breaks his buttons and cracks seams at every saying he sobs out’ (compare Falstaff, according to Kristen Poole in Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton, 2000), and Busy is far more disgusting because, unlike the irresistible Ursula, he is fundamentally antisocial.
Lake overflows with questions about Jonson’s anti-Puritanism. There is the question of invention. All authors invent, in the sense that Renaissance rhetoricians understood ‘invention’. But in writing about Bartholomew Fair before now, I have suggested that the stage Puritan virtually invented Puritanism in a more modern sense, creating a stereotype which had a long shelf-life, long enough to reach Samuel Butler’s Hudibras and Restoration revivals of the Jonson play, which Samuel Pepys found amusingly tiresome: ‘The business of abusing the Puritans begins to grow stale and of no use.’ Thomas Dekker has a character, an actor, who boasts: ‘I have so naturally played the Puritan that many took me to be one.’ Lake agrees that the stage Puritan did much to form perceptions of Puritanism, even self-perceptions. A Northamptonshire preacher delighted in telling his auditory that godly people like themselves were caricatured and castigated by the ungodly as ‘saints on Sundays, devils all the week after, Saint-seeming, Bible-bearing, hypocritical Puritans’.
Lake insists, however, that the Puritans were there before Jonson put them into his play, that the dramatist was more observer than inventor. His parody depended for its effect on the ‘frisson of recognition’, just like the kitchen-sink plays. He even suggests that Busy’s ejaculatory and repetitive discourse (‘Down with Dagon, down with Dagon!’) comes as close as we can get to the authentic argot of the London pulpits, closer than the sanitised and formalised texts of printed sermons. What could be better observed than ‘the perpetual spitting before and after a sober exhortation of six hours, whose better part was the hum-ha-hum’? Jonson used his ears as well as his other organs. ‘None of this would have stood the remotest chance of getting a laugh if the mode of discourse coming out of Busy’s mouth had not been instantly recognisable to the audience as the typical discourse of London Puritanism.’
There is a good story about the religious melancholic Mrs Joan Drake, who fell about when paid a professional visit by the famous divine John Dod because he reminded her of the character of Ananias in The Alchemist. Lake turns the story around. It was because Dod with his great beard and upturned eyes really existed that Jonson was able to put him into his play, even if disguised as a separatist deacon from the exiled church in Amsterdam. There is little point in discussing which came first, the fictional chicken or the real egg, and I have no quarrel with this, particularly since Lake is at pains to explain that he is not indulging in some crude exercise in literary realism, that a play is not the same thing as an archive. But I still hold that Jonson’s play is more constructive than reflective.
For it is what Jonson does with his stage Puritans that matters. Along with Leah Marcus in The Politics of Mirth (1986), Lake argues that the play engages with serious intent in the contemporary debate about the sociability of festivity, especially on the Sabbath, an area in which James I was himself about to intervene in the ‘Book of Sports’. The engagement is Bakhtinian: carnivalesque inversions of true order and true community paradoxically affirming those very values, whereas the morally blameless ‘good fellowship’ which Puritans commended was nothing of the sort, ‘Puritan society’ being a virtual oxymoron. This ‘speaks volumes for the intensity of Jonson’s loathing for Puritans’.
But this specific loathing was both concealed in a more general loathing, or revulsion, and carefully targeted. There are no Puritan ministers in either of Jonson’s anti-Puritan plays, only ‘marginal and marginalising stereotypes’, and the over-zealous justice Adam Overdo is not exactly a Puritan. Busy and Overdo sit together in the stocks, and that might appear to parody the famous alliance of ‘magistracy and ministry’, but no one could openly accuse Jonson of such a parodic parallel when it was not openly drawn.
By contrast, Angelo in Measure for Measure was the very model of a Puritan magistrate, a character drawn at the critical political moment of James’s accession, which was also a time of particular anxiety about the nature of marriage and the legality of sexual relations before marriage. The semi-divine Duke who contrives the harmonious dénouement of the play is a device to make James I ‘feel good about himself’, at the expense not only of misguided and hypocritical Puritan zeal but of more consensual moral values. Lake finds it surprising that more has not been made of this by the Shakespeareans: ‘It would . . . be hard to conceive of a more direct address made to current politico-religious circumstances; this, the audience is being told, is what would happen if power were to be entrusted to the godly.’
Shakespeare is not usually so direct, and Lake goes on to suggest how in this case (as in so many others) he subverts the message of what is after all a play, not a sermon, arguing that the theatre was ‘a discursive space within which contemporaries could allow different strands of contemporary argument and assumption to mix and miscegenate with relative freedom’, ‘a sort of playpen’.
Let us go back to the beginning. The contradictions and convergences noted in Ben Jonson were to be expected, not only as the product of Jonson’s kaleidoscopically complex moral, political and aesthetic concerns, but because of the nature of late Elizabethan culture, above all in the metropolis, which Lake and Questier explore in the first few hundred pages of the book. Let us simplify matters by explaining that it cannot have been the case that in that society some people (Puritans, or ‘the godly’) ‘gadded’ to sermons (in contemporary parlance) while others flocked to plays. People went to both. Had that not been the case, the preachers would not have wasted so much breath in telling their congregations that they should rather be seen dead than at the theatre.
At the beginning the focus is less on the theatre than on the slippery world of ‘popular’ print, where the generic frontiers between morality and salacity existed only to be transgressed. We start with the murder pamphlet, material so fascinating in a tabloid fashion as to be irresistible.
Presently, at the first blow, [the assailant] cut his left leg almost off and then making at his head, the other casting up his arm to defend it . . . he gave him two mortal wounds on the forepart thereof through the brainpan . . . Thus massacred he fell back into a puddle of water and, striving to recover himself, the splintered bone of his leg half cut through snapped in two and his heel doubled up to the calf of his leg.
So perished the innocent vicar of a Lincolnshire market town. I am not sure that the New Newgate Calendar, which was my surreptitious reading in the school library, was half so entertaining. To whet the appetite, 22 lurid title-pages of such pamphlets are employed as illustrations, although Lake, who knows what he knows and is not particularly interested in what he doesn’t, nowhere discusses the production and iconography of these gruesome images. The story of the murder of the London goldsmith John Brewen by his wife is illustrated with a picture of Mrs Brewen being burned alive in Smithfield (which is what happened to women who killed their husbands, a penalty last exacted in 1789). But the murderer is presented as a pious Protestant martyr, presumably because only woodcuts out of the Foxeian martyrological workshop were available to illustrate such a rare event.
Alexandra Walsham has already passed this way in her ground-breaking Providence in Early Modern England (1999) and other publications similarly focused on cheap print. Belief in divine providence as the explanatory motor of fortune and misfortune was not the preserve of the godly in their pulpits and pews. In cruder form it was deeply embedded in popular mentality and articulated in the early 17th-century equivalents of the Sun, not to say the Sunday Sport. The headline ‘World War Two Bomber Found on Moon’ would have been given a providential and perhaps millenarian Jacobean spin. It is an important product of these perceptions that they enable us to see what is wrong with the ‘revisionist’ account of the Protestantisation of England, which sees it as incomplete and imperfect, mission impossible. This version of the Reformation (associated especially with Christopher Haigh) rests on an unrealistically exalted notion of what constituted Protestantism: that it was equivalent to what Lake calls ‘perfect Protestantism’, or Puritanism.
Lake, who is alternately laudatory and critical in his handling of Walsham, takes the argument further. Murder pamphlets and the like prove to have been a ‘mixed genre, simultaneously both festive and admonitory, titillating and moralising’. In pamphlet after pamphlet the sequence of events is providential: sin comes before the crime, and the crime before exposure, often effected by providential means (such as wounds beginning to bleed again on the appearance of the murderer), and punishment is preceded by repentance. God and the Devil are prominent among the dramatis personae. Lake has all the time in the world to explore this theme, devoting (for example) many pages to the story and play Arden of Faversham, which proves to be all about those threats to the proper order of things (gender relations, sexual honour and patriarchy) posed by social ambition, social mobility and the ‘barefaced pursuit of economic advantage’.
When Lake with his collaborator Michael Questier (a team recently described by a witty Jesuit as ‘the Batman and Robin of Elizabethan and Jacobean religious studies’) extended their reading to the contemporary accounts of Catholic traitors/martyrs, in prison and on the scaffold (and it is here that ‘Robin’, an authority on conversions in and out of Catholicism, makes his contribution, a brilliant little book within the book), they found that these narratives of repentance, conversion and the good death were, like the murder pamphlets, set in providential parameters.
They were also inherently theatrical, and indeed were grist to the mill of contemporary drama. If sensational stories, verging on the pornographic, could be appropriated for a moral-Puritan purpose, they could also be reappropriated as scarcely legitimate entertainment. Titillation and morality are found to coexist in all kinds of text, the governing principle inversion, the world understood in terms of the binary opposition of order and disorder: Bakhtin’s world. To understand the culture of Jacobean London we need to plan an itinerary which will involve a few somersaults, taking us from Paul’s Cross and other pulpits to Grub Street, and on to Blackfriars and the South Bank, with dangerous diversions to Tyburn and ‘West Smithfield within the rails and Dutch lane end . . . by the taverns in Smithfield and cook shops in Pye corner and Clothfair’, ‘harbours’ for whores and cutpurses: which is roughly the strategy of this book, a Habermasian map of the Jacobean public sphere and its dubious and dangerous margins.
The pulpits and the pamphleteers and players were in competition for the same audience, both claiming to be schools of virtue. The theatre was instructive as well as entertaining, sermons entertaining as well as instructive. But they were not singing from the same songsheet. After all, Paul’s Cross sermons did not feature painted adultresses and Oriental tyrants indulging in steamy sex – topics freely explored on the stage. So Lake must deal with the open warfare between Puritanism and popular culture, and especially the theatre, with due attention to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse and Philip Stubbes’s Anatomy of Abuses. But this involves deciding what we should mean by Puritanism, which leads to the mirror topic of anti-Puritanism, a cultural backlash of the 1590s which was unleashed by the scandalously funny Marprelate Tracts, the backcloth to Jonson’s anti-Puritan comedies. Was Stubbes a Puritan or a literary hack – or both? To which world did he belong, and is that a sensible question? Perhaps Stubbes was not a Puritan, but he talked Puritan. This is to enter into a discussion which has been going on for rather too long already, and which has reached a stage of advanced sophistication. It is at this point that the eyes of the reader who has been lured into the book by all that blood, guts and sex, but who has not been present in the seminar rooms where these arcane matters are debated, may begin to glaze over. I’m afraid that there were moments when mine did, in spite or because of the fact that, as Lake notes in a generous acknowledgment, we have shared those seminars for the last twenty-five years.
It will seem odd, as odd as Lake’s title, to end with the suggestion that this very long book could, with profit, have been longer. Like a Peter Ackroyd of the 17th century, Lake is always writing about London, whatever else the subject may be. London was where the printing presses were, and London generated much of their copy. It was where the prisons were, the show trials and executions, the most famous preachers, the first permanent theatres. ‘London’ was a metaphor for the destabilising sins of the kingdom, for an inverted order whose name was money and the lust for it, ‘the enabling condition that allowed all these forms of activity and text to emerge and flourish in the first place’. Lake admits that he thought for a time that he was writing a book about London, and almost put London into the title. But partly because there are things about 17th-century London which he claims not to know, partly precisely because London was a part which stood proxy for the whole, he thought better of it.
In that case it is perhaps a pity that he has not tapped the rich resources of the many volumes already published in the Records of Early English Drama, which reveal the no less Bakhtinian provincial world of the rural parish and country town, with perhaps a less confused and ambivalent, more direct confrontation of the festive and the censorious as ways of keeping order. Where do we find the expression ‘perfect Protestants’ which Lake uses repeatedly as a synonym for Puritans, borrowing, I think, from one of my essays?In a Shrewsbury chronicle printed in the REED volumes for Shropshire, and, to my knowledge, nowhere else. There is no better example of the festive and coercive responses to an unstable and disorderly community, torn in two or three by competing economic interests, alternately preached over and played over, with its fair share of skulduggery and even murder, than late Elizabethan Shrewsbury.