Saturday, October 31, 2009

A misprint in a lost book

Thomas Webbe, Parson and Ranter, is fairly well known, with his own brief ODNB entry and having featured in Christopher Hill’s World Upside Down. I have been looking at the book by one of his antagonists, Edward Stokes’ The Wiltshire Rant (sic), 1653.

Webbe’s uneven career went through several phases of wild unconformity in thought and action, interspersed with spells when, for very understandable reasons, he chose to repent and conform. He was one of those people prosecuted under the May 1650 act which had made adultery a felony punishable by death. The jury, like sensible folk, had found him not guilty despite convincing testimony against him. From time to time, Webbe had to appear to have renounced his sins; but he went back to them as soon as he safely could.

The same resilience would have been manifest (I think) in his lost work, The Masse of Malice, where he seems to have chosen attack - without any scruple as to honesty - as the best way to defend himself. Edward Stokes was the local J.P., who had heard and believed one of Webbe’s repentances, but became his target in The Masse of Malice. Muddying the waters as much as possible, Webbe invented for Stokes a scatological blasphemy. This is Stokes’ report of what Webbe alleged in print, which was that:

“Finding a bottle he [Stokes] filled it with his Urine and set it by his Filth. He used the gesture of kneeling. And expressed himself in this abominable and blasphemous language to me, [Webbe] That I should kneel down and partake the Communion. Saith he, pointing to his dung, Here is the body of Christ. Pointing to his urine, saith he, Here is the bloud of Christ.”

Stokes could hardly let this go unchallenged. His account of Webbe’s talk and behaviour is fascinating for what it tells us about the ‘ranters’, and as a self-defence it is quite convincing. As Stokes points out, in his role as parson, Webbe (if he were as he claims to be, an innocent man reviled in a ‘mass of malice’) should not have let such blasphemy go unreported:

“The Libidinous Parson saith himself, That he made no words of the businesse till now, concealing it till now from all people, wherefore if M. Stokes were guilty, must not the Parson be as far forth guilty as himself; Is a man of his Coat and Calling to conceal a blasphemy of that nature, without check to the blasphemer or complaint to the Magistrate for two years together?”

But one thing particularly cheers Stokes – the intervention of the hand of God in the printing house, which subverted Webbe’s lies:

“Yet M. Stokes is beholding to the Christian moel-Parson, not for creating a most cursed and detestable blasphemy and fastening it upon him, but for weakning his own evidence, giving himself the lye, and clearing the accused, for so he doth in the 20th line of the aforesaid 55. pag. in these words, Blasphemy that I never heard in my life. If he had said That he had never heard the like in his life, or never heard before, it might have been otherwise understood: But to conclude, after he hath filled up with most accursed circumstance a self-invented blasphemy, he clearly acquits the accused, and saith, blasphemy that I never heard in my life. Lord how good thou art? this is thy hand and thy doing! Thou hast made the Author of the Masse of malice to acquit the innocent, in the middest of his fierce and foul Charge, To thy name be all the glory.”

I think that ‘moel-Parson’ is an antedating of the OED’s ‘moil’ n. 1: so it means a tainted, besmeared parson. It’s a regional usage.

Webbe did cause a stir in Wiltshire. He’s mentioned in this webpage for Langley Burrell:

After remarrying locally when he took up the living (Webbe, whose qualifications were his own invention, got the preferment by promising to take no tithes), Webbe rewarded his patron, Henry White, by starting an adulterous affair with the patron’s wife, Mistress Mary White, ‘the little gentlewoman’, as Stokes calls her. When they were charged with ‘the felonious committing of the horrible and crying sin of adultery’ together, Mistress White got her husband to stand surety for her lover, rather than him go to jail. Webbe had been persuasive enough for the evidently not-that-injured husband allow Webbe to move into the disrupted marital home. Meanwhile, Webbe had arranged the seduction of his own wife, also Mary, artfully caught by him at the compromising moment, to allay her jealous protests at his own affair.

More sensationally still, Webbe took John Organ as his ‘man-wife’:

“Wherefore note that Webbs most principall favourite, and greatest choicest associate in the whole Country; for one of his own Sex, was one J O. a comely young man, and a man of a seeming sober behaviour, even as Webbe himself, of whom a stranger cannot but say, or at least think, that butter would not melt in his mouth (as we use to say) yet here you will perceive, as the Proverb is, The still Sow eats all the draught. This man with his Cob-webb seeming sobriety, and unclean inside, is taken by Tho. Webbe, as men use to take their wives, For better for worse: So I say, this man is honoured with the title of Webbs wife, for so he cals him, My wife O; and O owns Webb for a husband; and now where ever they come, 'tis my wife O, and my husband Webb. True it is, Webb is become a great lover of Musick, which to prophane hearts is an in-let to lust: but whether ever he plaied any hellish tune with his Organ or Church musick yea or no, is not yet discovered…”

Stokes, who tells all this, attempts from time to time a wavering irony and uneasy humour: the jokes on the names ‘Webbe’ and ‘Organ’ are typical. He is restrained here: he seems capable of thinking that ‘ranters’ might just pretend love for their (male) ‘fellow creature’ as part of their general effrontery.

Webbe’s lasting sexual affair was with Mary White. It all began jovially enough, with arguments from nature:

“this Deponent did then and oftentimes since bear the said M. Webb say, That he did live above Ordinances, and that it was lawfull for him to lye with any woman. And at one time above the rest, the said M. Webb, Mistress White, this Deponent, and divers others sitting in the Gate-house of the dwelling-house of the said Mistress White (there being tame Pidgeons in the Court) the said M. Webb observing a great Cock Pidgeon to tread divers of the Hen Pidgeons there, said unto those that were there present, that it was lawfull for every man and woman, and that they ought to take that liberty and freedom one with the other, as those Pidgeons did, although they were not married the one to the other.”

But the affair led to serious quarrels, with Mary White sometimes willing to proceed and testify against Webbe (perhaps after he gave her the French pox), at other times wearing him when they were finally imprisoned together, when Webbe, the man beaten at his own game:

“was exceedingly wearied and tired out with Mistress Whites company in Goal, that she by her flatteries and frowns still indeavoured to keep him in his evil and unclean courses with her, whose provocations and temptations gave him no rest; and therefore he humbly desires to be removed into any other prison out of her company, where he might be at rest.”

Webbe finally “earnestly desired M. Stokes his assistance to work a separation between him and Mistress White, in putting of them to severall Goales.”

My image of Ranters enjoying the company of the 'fellow creature' is from The Ranters Declaration, 1650.

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