About Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham, and is on twitter as @CREMS_Bham and @drjpwillis

Religious Persecution and Child Loss in Early Modern England

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Dr Robert W. Daniel of the University of Warwick. Robert is a Post-Doctorate Researcher and General Secretary of the International John Bunyan Society. Follow him at @BunyanSociety. In this post, he offers us insights into the petitions and diaries of women who lost their children as a direct result of religious persecution.

CONTENT WARNING: This post contains accounts of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Women who did not conform to the Established Church of seventeenth-century England – labelled ‘puritans’, ‘fanatics’, ‘nonconformists’, ‘plotters’, or ‘dissenters’, paid a heavy, if not the heaviest price, in their fight for religious equality. They resisted religious uniformity by courageously, often peacefully, contesting pecuniary laws prohibiting alternative forms of worship, unjust imprisonments and the distrainment of goods, and the law making weekly parish church services compulsory. In researching the history of this struggle, I was struck at how frequently these women, as mothers, suffered child loss as a direct result of State sponsored religious persecution. Through their diaries, petitions and pamphlets, women depicted the trauma of stillbirths, miscarriages and neo-natal deaths as one of the tragic consequences of their struggle for religious freedom during a period of intense religious intolerance.

In this blog post I want to examine some examples of maternal suffering that need to be re-incorporated into our reading of the history of English religious nonconformity. Doing so will reveal not only the horrific (and underexamined) effects of religious persecution during this period, but also the affective discourse and mediums in which a denominationally and politically diverse cross-section of women (Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Levellers) sought to make these known to a broader audience.

The homes of religious dissenters were constantly under siege. Men, women and children were routinely roused in the middle of the night, chivvied and dragged – at times quite literally – to be interrogated or thrown in prison. The result of such upheavals, if a woman was with child, could be miscarriage or a stillbirth. Elizabeth Eaton (fl. 1632–1641) was an active member of the Baptist Lathrop congregation in London who, along with several other women, was questioned by the High Commission court in the early 1630s.  In 1641 she wrote a petition to the House of Commons (see Figure 1). Elizabeth explained that she was now a widow having lost her husband, Samuel Eaton (d. 1639) (who was also a Baptist), by his ‘wrongful imprisonment’. On one of several occasions that Samuel was arrested, Elizabeth describes how one John Ragg, Archbishop William Laud’s pursuivant, ‘violently entered his [Samuel’s] house and … haled him to Newgate’. Elizabeth, ‘being then with child’, was ‘assaulted by Flamsteed, a pursuivant to Sir John Lamb’, which ‘caused her to miscarry’. She was not alone in reporting such violence. Other women of the Lathrop congregation said that their own miscarriages were a result of the rough treatment they had received when arrested.  Elizabeth’s petition clearly made an impression on the Commons. It was later included amongst papers relating to the trial of Archbishop Laud, as evidence of his excessive cruelty in prosecuting religious sectaries. 

Figure 1. ‘Petition of Elizabeth Eaton’, CSPD, 1641-1643, p. 518. Held in The National Archives, London.
Continue reading

Execution Ballads and the Popular Imagination in Seventeenth Century England

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Eleanor Hedger. Ellie is an M4C doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, and she has recently submitted her thesis, entitled ‘Soundscapes of Punishment in Early Modern England’, for examination. Find her on twitter @ellie_hedger.

It’s December 11, 1633. After hearing St. Sepulchre’s Church toll its ominous passing bell, you’ve made your way to Tyburn to witness the latest spectacle of public execution. This time, a woman found guilty of infanticide faces the scaffold. Hundreds of spectators have gathered in the surrounding streets and fields, with onlookers peering out of nearby windows or clambering onto rooftops. You jostle amongst the crowd in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but to no avail. As the victim makes her final speech you strain to hear her words, but her voice is drowned out by the noise of the crowd. Once the grisly spectacle has come to a close you make your way home, but the doleful sounds of a nearby ballad monger selling copies of a song about today’s execution catches your attention. Having seen or heard very little of her demise, you want to know more, so you hand over a penny to the ballad monger. You fold up your copy of the large, single-sheet song, slip it into your pocket and return home, ready to sing, read, and listen to it with friends and family later that day.

Martin Parker, No naturall Mother, but a Monster (London, 1633),EBBA 36049.

Execution ballads, such as the one illustrated above, were an extremely popular form of news media in early modern England. Taverns, marketplaces, homes, and even the execution space itself resounded with the singing of these macabre ditties, allowing the public to reflect upon and relive the brutal spectacle of execution through the medium of song. Whilst ballads were probably read out loud, they were, first and foremost, intended to be sung, and the majority of ballad sheets usually contain an inscription under the title indicating its tune. These popular and memorable melodies were used over and over again, garnering new thematic and emotional associations with each rendering. The reuse of familiar tunes for new texts—a technique known as ‘contrafactum’—raises important questions concerning the reception and experience of execution ballads: how did the cultural associations of a melody amplify or subvert the meaning of a ballad text? And to what extent did the melodies of these songs influence the perception of public executions in the popular imagination? In this post I explore some of these intriguing questions by tracing the evolution of a well-known ballad tune called ‘Welladay’.

Continue reading

Isaac Archer’s Sickly Preaching

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Dr Robert W. Daniel of the University of Warwick offers us insights into the diary of the Church of England clergyman Isaac Archer and his experiences of preaching whilst ill. Robert is a Post-Doctorate researcher and General Secretary of the International John Bunyan Society. Follow him at @BunyanSociety]

25 of September [1679] in the night I had an hott fitt of an ague…

28 [September]… [ague] not so bad; and on October 1 worse…

[13 October] Munday discovered it selfe a quartane, which continues stil…

1st [December?], for a fortnight, ’twas tedious [the ague], but I went to Isleham, and tooke physick, and then it shortned, and now I can bear it, only I am not able to preach… 

December 25. I ventured to preach, and so onwards

February 12 [1680]. I have the ague stil… I can officiate [in church]

March 10. I tooke a small journey, and came home wett, upon which my ague came that night… I ventured to preach twice for about a month, but gatt hurt, and my speech was difficult, and my breath shorter than ever I knew it… I agreed to preach only in afternoons…[1]

These are the entries that appear in a page of the diary of the Church of England clergyman Isaac Archer (b. 1641, d. 1700) when he was the resident vicar at Freckenham, Suffolk. His efforts to preach whilst suffering from a nine-month ‘ague’ (likely malaria) are astonishing in part because these attempts, whilst sporadic, were potentially fatal.[2] His sickly preaching exacerbated serious respiratory difficulties which must have been quite unsettling.In light of the recent CFP from the Ecclesiastical History Society on, ‘The Church in Sickness and in Health‘, I was struck by Archer’s experience of illness, and was left with some nagging questions. Did he often preach when ill? If so, what other ailments did he experience while officiating in church? Did he take any sick days? How did Archer rationalize risking his health to preach God’s Word? In this blog post I will attempt to answer some of these questions by examining the motivations and occasions of Archer’s sickly pulpit exertions. Doing so may tell us something surprising about the convictions of, and cost incurred by, England’s pulpiteers.

Continue reading

Mental Illness: An Early Modern Perspective

Jonathan Willis

This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October.  The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things.  Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and https3a2f2fblogs-images.forbes.com2fbernardmarr2ffiles2f20192f052fthe-incredible-ways-artificial-intelligence-is-now-used-in-mental-health-1200x720-1resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority.  The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse.  While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.

My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years.  By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy.  In this context I could not help but reflect upon the used-books-store-2concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind.  In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature.  In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.

Continue reading

Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.

cropped-cloth-header-final-2

3646409

The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]  Middling households had to work for their income, but they were operating at a higher level than their own subsistence, and so had money and time to invest in non-essential objects or practices, and they might be even wealthy enough to employ servants of their own. Jonathan Barry, who co-edited an important collection of essays on the middling sort in 1994, suggested that while attempts at precise quantification are neither possible nor helpful, the middling sort may have constituted between thirty and fifty per cent of early modern society at one time or another.

Continue reading

The Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

JacketAfter a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.

Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments.  In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.

Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it.  The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments.  The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.[1] Continue reading

The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

reputationAt first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people.  However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society.[1]  Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.

This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour.  Continue reading

The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along…

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The Ten Commandments were widely believed to be a comprehensive distillation of God’s will.  As such, every sin discussed in scripture could be located in at least one of the commandments – if God disapproved of it, the Decalogue must forbid it, somewhere.  However, there were some manifest sins in early modern England which were not discussed in the Bible.  As a perfect system of justice and morality, the Commandments also had to forbid these, meaning that the Decalogue effectively provided carte blanche for ministers and authors to condemn whatever they felt was sinful, and to do so with the weight of God’s law behind them.

39749-004-144cf988Nowhere was this aspect of ‘making it up as they went along’ more visible than in discussions of the Eighth Commandment – for while certain sins were pretty much universals of human nature (sins of violence and lust, for example) the realities of economic life in sixteenth century England were very different from those of the ancient Middle East. Continue reading

The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

sheepThe Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’, was one of the most commented upon in the whole Decalogue.  ‘Adultery’ was quickly expanded by Protestant authors to include all forms of ‘uncleanness’, in thought, word and deed, alone and with other humans and creatures, both in and outside of wedlock.  Fornication, buggery, masturbation and bestiality were some of the headline crimes, but authors also sought to proscribe all ‘occasions’ and ‘enticements’ to sins of the flesh, including mixed dancing, excess consumption of food and alcohol, as well as lewd pictures, cosmetics, alluring gestures and coquettish glances.  In contrast to such filthy living, the commandment enjoined chastity, both in and out of marriage: ‘immoderate use of the marital bed’ was as much a sin as pre- and extra-marital sex.

In this post, however, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Seventh Commandment which attracted a great deal of attention during the long sixteenth century – how crimes of the flesh ought to be punished.  Continue reading

The Sixth Commandment: Killing me softly…

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

One of the most striking aspects of the Commandments of the Reformed Decalogue was the sheer range of actions which they came to be seen to enjoin or prohibit.  However, this tendency to expand the commandments from the specific action forbidden (or exhorted) in the text to spiritual and temporal acts, in thought, word and deed, and to other similar types of offence, had impeccable biblical credentials.  Christ himself, in Matthew 5:21-22, had explained:

Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whoseoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

HellfireThe four short monosyllables of the Sixth Commandment – thou shalt not kill – were therefore stretched and twisted by expositors of the Decalogue into some quite astonishingly intricate patterns, which reflected the religious and moral climate of the day.  The godly vicar of Ryton, Francis Bunny, explained that the commandment forbade killing with hand, heart and tongue, ‘and all the things that tend to the hurt of any mans person’, including bereaving him, spoiling his goods and possessions, or omitting ‘such duties, as tend to the safety or good of other men’.[1]  This was a totalising portrait of how to live one’s life with the utmost care for the lives of others. Continue reading