Between Impression and Expression: Christopher Hill

Expressing these class tentions, there was a tradition of plebeian anti-clericalism and irreligion.  To go no further back, the Lollards carried a popular version of John Wyclif’s heresies into the sixteenth century.  Lollard influence survived in a popular materialist skepticism which makes one feel appreciably nearer to the age of Voltaire than is normal in the 16th century.  A carpenter in 1491 rejected transubstantiation, baptism, confession, and said men would not be damed for sin; in 1512 a Wakefield man said ‘that if a calf were upon the altar, I would rather worship that than the holy sacrament.  The date was past that God determined him to be in form of bread.’  The clergy, an earlier Lollard had declared, were worse than Judas, who sold Christ for thirty pence, while priests sold masses for a halfpenny.  The commons, said another, ‘would never be until they had stricken off all the priests’ heads.’  There was a saying in the country, a north Yorkshireman pleaded in 1542, ‘that a man might lift up his heart and confess himself to God Almighty and needed not to be confessed at a priest’.  A shearman of Dewsbury elaborated on this point:  he would not confess is offenses with a woman to a priest, ‘for the priest would be as ready within two or three days after to use her as he’.  

Such men tended to be called Anabaptists or Familists by their enemies.  These names — familiar enough on the continent — were very loosely applied in England:  most of our evidence comes from hostile accounts in the church courts.  The essential doctrine of Anabaptism was that infants should not be baptized.  Acceptance of baptism — reception into the church — should be the voluntary act of an adult.  This clearly subverted the concept of a national church to which ever English man and woman belonged:  it envisaged instead the formation of voluntary congregations by those who believed themselves to be the elect.  An Anabaptist much logically object to the payment of tithes, the ten per cent of everyone’s earnings which, in theory at least, went to support the ministers of the state church.  Many Anabaptists refused to swear oaths, since they objected to a religious ceremony being used for secular judicial purposes; others rejected war and military service.  Still more were alleged to carry egalitarianism to the extent of denying a right to private property.  The name came to be used in a general pejorative sense to describe those who were believed to oppose the existing social and political order.

Familists, members of the Family of Love, can be defined a little more precisely.  They were followers of Henry Niclaes, born in Münster in 1502, who taught that heaven and hell were to be found in this world.  Niclaes was alleged to have been a collaborator of Thomas Münzer in insurrection at Amsterdam.  The Puritan divine John Knewstub said of him:  ‘H.N. turns religion upside down.  He buildeth heaven here on earth; he maketh God man and man God.’  Like Francis Bacon, Familists believed that men and women might recapture on earth the state of innocence which existed before the Fall:  their enemies said they claimed to attain the perfection of Christ.  They held their property in common, believed that all things come in nature, and that only the spirit of God within the believer can properly understand Scripture.  They turned the Bible into allegories, even the Fall of Man, complained William Perkins.  Familism was spread in England by Christopher Vittels, an itinerant joiner of Dutch origin.  In the 1750s English Familists were noted to be wayfaring traders, or ‘cowherds, clothiers and such-like mean people’.  They believed in principle that ministers should be itinerants, like the Apostles.  They were increasing daily by1759, numerous in the dicese of ELy in 1584, also in East Anglia and the north of England.  They were particularly difficult for the ecclesiastical authorities to root out because — like many Lollards before them — they were ready to recant when caught, but not to give up their opinions.  The Family of the Mount held even more subversive views.  They were alleged to reject prayer, to deny the resurrection of the body.  They questioned whether any heaven or hell existed apart from this life:  heaven was when men laugh and are merry, hell was sorrow, grief, and pain.

The opening words of Bishop Cooper’s Admonition to the People of England (1589) speak of ‘the loathsome contempt, hatred and disdain that the most part of men in these days bear towards the ministers of the church of God’.  He attributed such views especially to the common people, who ‘have conceived an heathenish contempt of religion and a disdainful loathing of the ministers thereof’.  ‘The ministers of the world,’ Archbishop Sandys confirmed, ‘are become contemptible in the eyes of the bases sort of people’.  In 1606 a man was presented to the church courts for saying that he would rather trust a thief than a priest, a lawyer or a Welshman.

‘If we maintain things that are established,’ complained Richard Hooker, ‘we have to strive with a number of heavy prejudices deeply rooted in the hearts of men, who think that herein we serve the time and seek the favor of the present state because thereby we either hold or seek preferment.’  Thomas Brightman in 1615 confirmed that hostility to the hierarchy ‘is now favored much of the people and multitude’.  We recall the oatmeal-maker who, on trial before the High Commission in April 1630, said that he would never take of his hat to bishops.  ‘But you will to Privy Councillors’, he was urged.  ‘Then as you are Privy Councillors,’ quoth he, ‘I put off my hat; but as you are the rags of the beast, lo!  I put it on again.’  Joan Hoby of Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire, said four years later that she ‘did not care a pin nor a fart for my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury, and she did hope that she should live long enough to see him hanged.’  (Laud was in fact executed eleven years later, but we do not know whether Joan Hoby was still alive then.)

(Christopher Hill, from The World Turned Upside Down:  Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.)

REPLY





%d bloggers like this: