I don’t know about you, but I’m always delighted and intrigued when I’m unexpectedly reminded of the humanity we share with the inhabitants of early modern England. I’ve been reading through a large quantity of godly lives recently (spiritual diaries, memoirs, biographies, books of remembrance, etc.), and if I’m honest the content is often rather unedifying – by which I mean, far, far too edifying! It’s therefore quite pleasing when, amidst the intensely personal but also strangely generic soul-searching, you come across something which gives you a flavour of the individual. This happened while I was reading the diary of Samuel Ward. Ward finished his career as a moderate, establishment puritan figure and Master of the recently founded puritan college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. In the 1590s, however, whilst a student (later Fellow) at Emmanuel, Ward was ‘a vigorous and outspoken puritan’.
Outspoken or not, though, his diary reveals his ongoing struggles with sin, and particularly with food and drink. In June 1595, for example, he recorded ‘to much drinking after supper’ on the 21st, ‘going to drink wyne, and that in the Taverne, befor I called upon God’ on the 27th, and ‘immoderate’ eating of cheese at 3 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd (perhaps a snack to satisfy the hunger cravings brought on by drinking too much the night before?). Cheese was a recurrent weakness. He recorded ‘immoderate eating of walnuts and cheese after supper’ on October 3 1595, and ‘intemperate eating of cheese after supper’ on August 13 1596. Perhaps the catalyst for this binge was the fact that, the day before, Ward recorded in his diary ‘my anger att Mr. Newhouse att supper for sayng he had eaten all the bread’. As well as bread, cheese and wine, Ward also hankered after fruit: references to damsons, plums, pears and raisins pepper his diary. On 8 August 1596 Ward noted that after observing ‘my longing after damsens … I made my vow not to eat in the orchard. Oh that I could so long after Godes graces…’
The puritan relationship with food was often a complex one: like sleep, food was a bodily necessity, but also a reminder of carnal appetites and a minefield in terms of potentially sinful behaviours. It is perhaps not surprising that fasting was such an important aspect of puritan piety: an abstinent mortification of the flesh. For many people in Tudor England, however, fasting was a luxury which they literally couldn’t afford, as they weren’t able to buy food in the first place in order to be able to deliberately refrain from eating it. Enter ‘Robart Boushell’, my third eccentric letter-writer in what is becoming a series of eccentric letter-writers, a series which I’m starting to think might form the kernel of my next research project.
Bushel’s letter is dated 1596, the same year as Ward was longing after damsons and eating too much cheese. He identified himself as ‘one kept from all outward meanes’ and yet preserved as ‘the savgard of my life … my wife & vij christians’. His complaint was simple: that ‘the price of corn & all other vetles’ was un-affordably high. The plight of the poor was such that ‘if it be not lokid in to in time god shall be so dissonored as he was not in the time of papistri the like’. In other words, for the government to permit food prices to reach such great heights was to the great dishonour of both God and the Queen: ‘for in the moultitud of the peepoll the quine is honered & in the dirth of the peepoll the quine is disshonered’.
At the risk of treading on Brodie’s toes (he’s written a brilliant book on economic culture which you should definitely buy), what is fascinating is the direct link established by Bushel between food prices, the health of the individual, the health of the nation, and also the health of the reformation itself. ‘If the price of corne do not fall many canot live that would live’, Bushel wrote, and through hunger were brought to ‘great weaknes of body & soul’, because in their dire straits they began to ‘find falt with thee ghospell & the professors of the same’. Bushel was keen to empahsise that he himself wished nothing but prosperity to ‘good ministers of the worde of god & good profissers also which hatithe covitousness & loveth rightiousnes’, but also begged liberty to ‘speak without blam & dessplisur’ some more scurrilous speech ‘which hath passed the mouthes of sum in essex wher I dwell’.
As a historian of religious (rather than economic) culture, what interests me most about Robert Bushel’s letter is what it might have to say about the reformation, and religious identity. One could quite easily argue that a professed faith which could be displaced by the ominous rumblings of an empty stomach was very clearly more apparent than real. There is also no way of telling for sure whether Robert Bushel adopted the position of ‘godly complainer’ because it was how he genuinely felt, and what he actually believed, or simply because he judged that it would be the most effective rhetorical strategy. The threatening subtext – by starving us, you feed popery – cannot have been lost on the government, and was presumably the reason this letter was squirreled away by Cecil, with a host of other potentially subversive religious oddballs. But in Bushel’s use of such language, I would be inclined to see evidence of a layman who was at least sufficiently educated and informed to know which buttons it would be most effective to press. It was also (I think), at least in part, the existence of a discursive framework in which he and Cecil were both in a sense brothers in Christ (‘which is your head & yow his membere’), which enabled him to articulate his demands with such confidence.
 Margo Todd, ‘Ward, Samuel (1572–1643)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28705, accessed 6 Aug 2014]
 There is always a temptation to link spiritual battles over soft fruit with the influence of Augustine, and Margot Todd has done so in the case of Samuel Ward, but as Alec Ryrie has recently noted, sometimes people just innocently ate pears. See his Being Protestant in reformation Britain, p. 430.
 Ryrie has recently written both about sleeping and fasting: see his essay on ‘Sleeping, waking and dreaming in Protestant piety’ in Martin and Ryrie (eds), Private and domestic devotion in early modern Britain (passim); and Being Protestant, pp. 195-199.
 British Library, Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 18, f. 49.