In July 1605, the London Company of Dyers not only upset the Privy Council through their writing and attempted presentation of a ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition, but also the King himself who was ‘much offended’ by their appearance before him at court. Whilst petitioning was an accepted and common practice in the early modern period, the petitioning of the Dyers’ Company in this instance generated a degree of concern amongst the Council, who promptly ordered Thomas Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, to investigate their petitioning activity.
The Dyers had petitioned the King and Council to express their discontent with a new patent of monopoly granted for the product of logwood. This was a type of dyeing wood which had been introduced into England in the sixteenth century, which produced black, grey, and red dyes. The use of it was prohibited as it was thought to produce defective colours, but licences were sometimes issued allowing limited imports of the commodity, as part of the Crown’s larger reliance on patents and grants as a much-needed source of revenue. In August 1604, a group of courtiers led by Sir Arthur Aston had been given such a grant, allowing them to import logwood and to make a new dyeing mixture from it. This was a cause of vexation to the Dyers’ Company; not only did they complain in their petition that this dyeing mixture was sold at an ‘intollerable’ price, but they also alleged that it was unfit for use and consequently ‘unprofitable to the comon Welthe.’
In many ways this case was not unique. Groups of artisans and traders often came together to protest against grants and monopolies which were seen as infringing on their trades and livelihoods. However, the response of the Council and the investigation that the Dyers’ petition provoked is certainly interesting. Why was this particular petitioning episode worthy of investigation?
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 resources 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 concordances 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.
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. 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.
After 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’.Continue reading →
At 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. 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 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.
Nowhere 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, ‘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 →
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.
The 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’. This was a totalising portrait of how to live one’s life with the utmost care for the lives of others. Continue reading →
The Fifth Commandment was the first precept in the Second Table of the Reformed Decalogue, heading the list of precepts which ordered man’s relationship with his fellow man. The Edwardian reformer and Bishop of Gloucester John Hooper, in his Declaration of the Ten Commandments of Almighty God, explained that in the Second Table ‘is prescribed how, and by what means, one man may live with another in peace and unity in this civil life, during the time of this mortal body upon the earth’. None of the great lawmakers of the classical world – Lycurgus, Plato, Cicero, Constantine, Justinian – individually or together had ‘prescribed so perfect and absolute a form of a politic wealth, as Almighty God hath done unto his people in this second table and six rules’. The Fifth Commandment provided for obedience to authority, the sixth provided for peace, the seventh for legitimate reproduction, the eighth for private property, and the ninth to facilitate the prosecution of transgressors. ‘These be the fountain’, Hooper explained, ‘of all politic laws’. Continue reading →
After the Second, it is probably the Fourth Commandment that has received the most attention by historians, because it outlines what became one of the key priorities of Protestant (and specifically Puritan) piety: the observation of the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment was also the longest in the Decalogue:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The Sabbath was a potentially controversial and complex notion for several reasons. As it had been instituted for the Jewish people in the Old Testament, the Saturday Sabbath was counted as part of the Ceremonial Law along with other ritual aspects of Judaism, such as the dietary requirements that forbade the eating of pork and shellfish. Christian doctrine held that this Ceremonial Law had been abrogated – superseded and therefore rendered obsolete – by the coming of Christ. Many aspects of Judaism were considered to foretell important features of Christianity, such as the welcoming of male infants into the Jewish faith and community through infant circumcision as a foreshadowing of the spiritual induction into the Christian community provided by the sacrament of baptism. Once Christ had come to earth and sacrificed himself, these weak glimmers of true religion were replaced by the blinding light of the gospel. Continue reading →