Saturday, September 18, 2010

Over ingenious Palingenius: John Jackson, 1611

I have been reading, belatedly considering my interests, Walter Stephens’ Demon Lovers. My only excuse is that the library had it shelved (actually rather acutely) with theology rather than in the 301’s with the witchcraft scholarship. Stephens’ long disquisition argues strongly that it was anxieties about the existence of any kind of spirit world that drove the demonologists. The witch became a vital research assistant, the expert witness to the existence of demons. The argument made by Stephens was epitomised in the opening sentences John Gaule’s Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft (1646): ‘He that will needs persuade himself that there are no witches, would fain be persuaded, that there is no Devill; and he that can already believe that there is no Devill, will ere long believe that there is no God. For there are the same grounds or motives both for the Atheist, and the Adiabolist.”

I was interested enough in Stephens’ book to buy a copy, and look at the reviews returned by the JSTOR database. These were properly admiring, but perhaps rather cautious. Supplying a sincere motive, a driving inner compulsion, for the demonologists is a long step towards a kind of rehabilitation of that ghastly set. But I suppose any major reassessment will have this effect.

I thought I’d try Stephens’ argument the other way round: did witchcraft, and its immediate, even carnal experience of the reality of demons, crop up automatically in treatises on the immortality of the soul? I landed on John Jackson’s The soule is immortall, or, Certaine discourses defending the immortalitie of the soule against the limmes of Sathan of 1611 as a trial text. Well, no, it didn’t: maybe it was just too desperate an argument, to argue that the anxious reader has an immortal soul on the basis that witches, after all, indubitably manage to sell their souls to devils who manifest in reliable and convincing ways.

But Jackson’s book offered its own interest. As the title reveals, it is actually an anthology of translations, lengthy (and sometimes overlapping) extracts from the best arguments Jackson can find for the soul’s immortality. We have ‘Matheus Dresserus’, ‘Athenagorus’, Xenocrates on the soul (a Socratic dialogue), ‘Guilermus Houppelandus ‘of the immortalitie of the soule’, and, most interestingly, Palingenius, from the Zodiacus vitae of 1543.

This is a large part of Jackson’s translation of Palingenius’s ‘Capricorn’. He uses, like Barnaby Goodge did before him, in his translation of the first six signs of the zodiac, a ballad metre of 8 and 6. It’s a very strange performance:

Because thou shalt believe
I will declare to thee,
By reason good, the state of soul,
Immortal for to be …

… Which thus I prove. If death do take
from us the soul away,
If that we have no other life,
but in this body here:
Then God may be accounted ill,
and shall unjust appear.
For thousands every day we see,
that flourish prosperously,
In riches, substance and renoun,
in reigns and empires high.
Yet idle lubbers, naught, unlearned,
that sin at liberty,
And run the race of all their life
in great prosperitie.
On th’other side we may behold,
the just oppressed to be:
With spiteful chance, a wretched life
and piteous poverty:
Thus either God unrighteous is,
that doth this thing permit:
Or after death, hath every man,
as he deserveth fit:
Or else he doth disdain the deeds,
of mortall men to know,
Besides, what gratious mind in God,
what goodness doth he show?
If this be all that he doth give,
a life so short and vain,
That swiftly runneth to an end,
and doth no time remain:
The half whereof is spent in sleep,
the rest in grief and toil?
And dangers great as fast doth fleet,
as rivers swift in soyle.
Therefore go to, O wretched men,
build gorgeous Churches high,
And let with costly offrings great,
your altars pestered lie.
Set up your joyful branch of bays,
your sacred doors about:
With pomps of proud procession pass,
let hymns be rattled out.
Spend frankincense, and let the nose
of God be stretched wide;
With pleasant smoke do this, and add
more honour much beside.
That he preserve your goodly life,
wherein doth you torment,
Sometime great cold, and sometime heat,
now plague, now famishment.
Now bloody war, now sickness great
or Chance to sorrow at:
Sometime the busy fly,
sometime the stinging gnat,
The chinch and flea; rejoice I say,
that here you lead your life,
With thousand painful labours great,
in travail, toil and strife.
And after, in a little space,
in pain you drop away:
And lumpish lie in loathsome Vault,
to Worms a grateful prey.
O worthy life, O goodly gift:
man in this world is bred,
Among the brutish Beasts and fools,
and knaves, his life is led,
Where Stormes and flakie Snows, and Ice,
and Durt, and Dust, and Night,
And harmful air, and clouds, and mists,
and winds. With hellish sight,
And grief and wayling raignes: where death
beside, doth work his feat.
Is this our goodly country here?
is this our happy seat,
For which we owe such service here,
unto the Gods above:
For which it seemeth meet with vows
the heavenly saints to move?
And if none other life we have,
then this of body vain:
So frail, and full of filthiness,
when death hath carcase slaine.
I see not why such Praises should,
of God resound in Air.
For why we should such honour give,
to him in Temples fair;
That hath us wretches framed here,
in this so wretched soyle:
That shall for evermore decay,
after so great a toil.
Wherefore least God should seem unjust
and full of cruelness,
Shall well deserving counted be,
we must of force confess,
That Death doth not destroy the Soule,
but that it always is,
None otherwise then Spirit in Air
or Saints in heavens bliss:
Both void of body, sleep, and meat.
And more, we must confess,
That after death, they live in pains,
or else in blessedness:
But let this reason thee suffice,
for if thou do it show
Unto the wicked kind, they laugh;
no light the blind doth know.
But thou, believe for evermore,
and know assuredly,
(For ground of saving health it is)
That Souls do never die.
Exempted from the Sisters power,
and fatal Destiny.

This was a standard argument: that you have to believe that the soul is immortal, because without faith in an afterlife, ‘infinite evils should remain unpunished’, as ‘Houppelandus’ puts it (p. 71) in this anthology’s first big discourse.

But the argument in Palingenius continuously wavers towards the other possible conclusion, the Book of Job’s deduction of ‘Curse God and die’, or he even starts to sound like an ungainly 17th century Swinburne, piling up the woes that indicate that it isn’t so much that we must await God’s justice, but rather, that there simply is no God. What kind of God, after all, would create flies, gnats, chinches (bed-bugs) and fleas?

No wonder the Inquisition had problems with Palingenius (if this translation is at all accurate). The poem accumulates until a bitter and undermining irony can be suspected, a tale of a God who has either turned his back (are you really going to build a church to praise the author of all this goodly life, where your preservation will only be to reserve you for more suffering?), or is actively malign. The miseries of human existence are so manifold in this side of the exposition. The verses are trying to say that these miseries force you to believe that the soul has to be immortal, must face a reckoning. But the account of the misery of life concentrates for too long on things that have no possible human cause. Bad men can hardly face punishment in the next life for having created bed bugs. Is this all there is, the poem is asking, and briefly wavers into reference to plural Gods “Is this our happy seat, / For which we owe such service here, / unto the Gods above”. But then the writer apparently comes clean: “I see not why such Praises should, / of God resound in Air”, before the final assertion of the punishment in the hereafter argument. Palingenius belatedly returns to the evil doers, but only to say that they just laugh at arguments like this last frail hope.

The other major way of arguing the soul’s immortality was to cite the Bible: two of Jackson’s writers busy themselves with assembling the texts that mention rewards or punishments. But there’s still a tendency to flirt with disaster: ‘The Adversaries of this Truth, the dear dearelings of the Devil’ allege sundry places of the scriptures to disprove the immortalitie of the Soule”, says ‘Dresserus’ (p.131), and officiously goes on to gather together all the gloomiest bits of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, blithely aiming to answer them all, having also done the devil’s darling’s work for them.

A search on Palingenius returns lots of hits about (Sarah) Palin’s peculiar genius. But these are informative:

“Others there have been, that said or affirmed, that (souls) doe change their sexe or kind, and doe turn unto the infirmitie of Womans nature”, says one of Jackson’s writers rambling through views of the soul’s destination after the body’s death (pp. 31-2). Imagine having transmigrated into Sarah Palin!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Thomas Barton's 'Brief Relation' (revised version)

Mary Barton's poem about Charity

In 1661, William Barton was a man of 28 years, a butcher by trade, married and living in Shrewsbury. Brought up in a godly household, he could as a child recite whole Bible chapters and psalms. His brother affirms that he was charitable to the poor. This brother, Thomas Barton, is patently the author of A brief relation of several passages of the life and death of William Barton of Shrewsbury, in October, 1661 (1664), though the work is down on EEBO as anonymous. Thomas, writing the account, is named and directly addressed by his brother at one point (p12).  

But William was also prone to being a ‘companion of vain persons, spending time with them in the Alehouse’. Even amongst them, he would ‘speak for God and his People’. But this residual public godliness was tied up with a propensity for vainglory and lying. He would pray ‘in his family, and sometimes in secret, though, as he after complained, very seldom’. William was clearly struggling to maintain a respectable front.  

William fell deeper into ‘evil courses’ – gaming and ‘company-keeping’. He kept trying to repent of his ways, but found he could never resist if a regular drinking companion asked him out. We get the intimate family details: his mother would quiz him on how much he had spent during one of these bouts – he would affirm that he had spent no more than two pence, but this was always a lie. In danger of arrest for debt, Barton held off any attempt to detain him by brandishing a knife, saying ‘Keep off me, you know not what I may do; do not come near me, lest I set you to sleep with your fathers’.   Despite this, an over-keen apprentice to an officer of the town said that he would take Barton ‘dead or alive’. One evening, Barton went out of his house, despite his wife’s plea that he stay in to avoid any more trouble. As he later put it, having heard her request, ‘I having a readiness to do contrary, out I went’. He said to her in leaving, ‘Dost thou think that I will be afraid to go about my business for fear of an Apprentice boy?’But the persistent officer’s apprentice tried to tackle Barton (who was ‘full of drink’) from behind as he stood in his mother’s shop. Barton struck behind him with his knife, wildly, and killed the youth who was trying to arrest him with a single blow.   He was dragged off to prison, so drunk that he was barely aware of his crime. There he fell asleep in the straw, and when he came to, thought that what they told him of the murder was invented to scare him, and frighten him into better ways.   Barton came with a jolt to conviction of sin: ‘mightily awakened with the apprehension of his guilt, and of God’s severity against Sin’. His early bible learning came back to assail him: he spent his time ‘multiplying scripture against himself’.    

The greater part of this narrative of Barton’s last days (both before his inevitable conviction and equally inevitable execution) deals with the murderer’s thoughts about his sin, and the state of his soul. ‘Many choice things … were spoke by him at several times, which I am not able to set down’, his brother apologises to the reader. But there’s plenty.  William Barton, murderer, was on semi-public display, in leg-irons, laid in straw in the gaol. If ‘children or others stood to gaze on him’, Barton would prevent the gaol keeper from sending them away: ‘Let them look on me, and see the fruits of sin’, he would say, and show them his gyres.   Barton is encouraged by the godly who come to see him to make ‘an ingenious confession’ (that will be OED sense II † 4, ‘Used by confusion for INGENUOUS or L. ingenuus … honest, candid, open, frank’) – ‘without any hiding or sparing of himself’.

Barton readily set about the task which his intellectual training had prepared him for so well. At times, he sounds like a provincial John Donne: ‘I dare not look behind me, for my works sink me into Hell, and I can see nothing before me but an angry God’. His drinking provides him with a symbol or analogy for having filled himself with sin: ‘I was as full of sin as I could hold’, or worse, ‘As full of sin as I could hold, till I was become all Sin.’ As he talks, he is unconsciously rehearsing elements of the final confessional speech he would make at the gallows: ‘I loved a little Ale better than God, and better than myself’.    Bible texts inform his limitless self-reproach: ‘I have been a Son of many reproofs, but I hardened my neck And how is God’s word made good upon me in this? He that being often reproved, and hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed’. (It is Proverbs 29, 1, as given in the King James Authorized Version.) A woman who was one of his former drinking companions visits him: he earnestly tells her to ‘Spend no more time as you spent it with me’.   

For some of his listeners, his ‘ingenious confession’ is all rather too much, and they try to argue him back to a sense of proportion: ‘Some of the company then by, said, ‘William, you were not so bad as you make your self now’. But William came up with a devastating reply: that the former goodness they kindly impute to him, as far as it went, only means that (in the way of goodness) ‘I did but enough to leave me inexcusable’.

William keenly, obsessively, analyses where his godliness failed. He recalls how he would formerly look forward to Sabbaths, and listen intently to the sermons he heard. But Mondays always saw him ‘turned into the world again’. Religion seemed to let him down. Even worse, six months before ‘this brake out’ (he means, his final spewing forth in murder of the sin with which he had been fully charged), he had turned to the Bible, and turned the pages, ‘I would turn it and turn it, and methoughts I would fain find some new thing; nothing would serve but something that was new; I could begin to read no where, but it was that which I knew before; I thought I knew it all already, and so I would lay it down and never read’. For a 17th century Englishman, this sounds a dire situation indeed: to be failed by God’s word. (One thing that is striking about this sad narrative is that Thomas does not mention any clergyman or elder coming to talk to his brother: the godly of the town seem to take on that role collectively.)  

Understandably, under this intense pressure from within, and from without, Barton’s mood swings wildly. He can assert that ‘my tongue shall sing aloud of his (God’s) Righteousness, though it should be upon a gallows’. When his links are knocked off, hurting him in the process, he affirms that ‘I will bear the indignation of the Lord’.     But shortly afterwards, his brother and sister find him yellow in the face, ‘his countenance as if he had not been the same man’, and he says: ‘All is gone now, I am in the dark’. But even then he soon he returns to his ‘former rapture of joy’.    

As he is taken to execution, he proclaims that ‘Sin is going to be executed’. Again, we have a moment when one of the godly community stands in for a minister (though the intervention proves not to have been well judged):‘A Friend going with him, cheared him up with the words of Dr Tayler of Hadley going to his martyrdom: ‘It is but one step to my Father’s House.’ But the martyr’s confidence is too much for the fragile Barton, who collapses again into ‘Ah! But I am not such a one’.   On the scaffold, Barton prays for the Holy Spirit to assist him in his final address to the onlookers (‘Now Lord help me to honour Thee’). He is represented as repeating many of his previous formulations: how he could never listen to counsel, how he hardened his neck, ‘I being often reproved hardened my neck’, and that shocking assertion about how he effectively ‘loved a little Ale better than God’.   He had pleaded innocent to the charge of wilful murder, and, on the gallows, he repeated his argument that he never meant to kill the officer’s apprentice. In a rather murky passage, he says that he forgives anyone present who ‘did plot or contrive that which is now come to pass, the casting away of my life’. (Barton can still see himself as in part a victim, despite all the self-accusations.)     In all this eloquence, both on the scaffold and previously in prison, with its mixture of bible locutions, there is almost a sense that Barton was reading his lines from the script his culture had ingrained in him.

Yet there is one moment that is totally unexpected in a 17th century man, as Barton in this vein of ‘ingenious confession’ suddenly voices this (p25): ‘I have been cruel to Horses, in making them do more then they were able; and cruel I have been to men’. That’s a Keith Thomas moment for you (I think of Man and the Natural World 1500-1700). It is the one mention of animals in the narrative, nothing else is said about this cruelty, but William Barton, for a moment, transcends his engrossing soul-drama, departs from talking about himself in the manner which the godly community expected of him (for in all the very penitent Barton says, there’s a faint continuity with his earlier performance of public piety). Here, he seems to purge himself of an unexpected crime, suggest a wider reflectiveness. It’s an impressive moment. 

Thomas Barton, writing this account, has throughout interspersed references to their sister Mary, who had died of illness in 1658, three years before William’s final disaster. Mary had been one of those who had regularly admonished her peccant brother. He was always on her mind: ‘she carried him upon her heart’, the narrative says. Mary was godly through and through, given to visiting church yards by night ‘the better to put myself into a dying condition’.   Then, as a final surprise to us, and ending the volume, ‘Here follow also some Verses, made by the same Mary Barton, in the praise of Charity’. It is a versification after 1 Corinthians 13. I have put the quatrains onto a single image, which heads this post.  It does not seem to me that Thomas Barton is adding this to even up the moral balance on his family, insinuating a saint to match the sinner: for William Barton struggles though from sin to an exemplary death. He is like Frank Thorney in ""The Witch of Edmonton. On the gallows, his one demur is when the officers presiding try to chivvy away the townsfolk who are giving William one last farewell, perhaps a final embrace. As William gets to the scaffold, ‘Chearfully looking upon the multitude, he said, ""All these are to see sin shamed. When the Officers bade them stand off from him, he said, ""O do not keep God’s people from me this little moment that I am to be in the World, they are my delight, and my comfort.’

Thomas Barton’s Brief Relation is a revealing work, of great integrity. He manages to keep his own feelings out of the account; there’s a great dignity in which he swerves from any account of the hanging itself to this appended tribute to his dead sister. I do not think it’s a silent reproach: William did not lack charity in his last days, and in general accepted his punishment. The godly of Shrewsbury seem to have accommodated him as a drunk, and forgiven him as a penitent about to face God. William could not accept himself as no-good son, his faith was too ingrained. In that part of his life, faith assailed him. But, as murderer, faith came to his rescue, sustained him till his death, as he accepted himself as thoroughly penitent.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The shining Button

To the church at Alton Priors, in Wiltshire. I tend to find that a deconsecrated church like this, cleared of the necessary human clutter for a congregation of service books, chairs, kneelers, notices, elderly harmoniums and the rest, a church pared back to the almost bare building, feels more contemplative and (if one were so minded) prayerful.

A trapdoor in the nave can be opened to reveal a large sarsen stone, apparently deliberately broken off at one end. This is a very old place of worship; the yew tree in the churchyard outside, divided by age into two splayed arboreal brackets, is supposed to be 1,700 years old itself.

This brass memorial plate by the altar is set above the tomb chest of William Button. He is depicted rising from the tomb, which, in the plate, bears on its lid these six lines of verse:

This was but one though taking roome for three
Religion, wisdome, hospitalitie.
But since heaven gate to enter by is straight
His fleashes burden here he left to wait
Till the last trump blowe open the wide gate
To give it entrance to the soule it’s mate.

The edge of the tomb reads ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’ I Cor. 15, and along the left edge, ‘It is sown a natural body’. Beneath this, his family coat of arms.

The angel top central is blowing the last trump through a trumpet which is also a key. This is labelled ‘The key of David’ [Revelations 3, 7]. A precatory roll emerges from the trumpet’s mouth, which reads ‘It is raised a spirituall Body 1. Cor. 15’ [verse 44], the second part of the verse with which the left tomb edge is labelled.

On the palm leaf he bears: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (again, 1 Corinthians, verse 54)

Top left, a grid-like design (probably meant to suggest a heavenly gate swinging wide open) with three suns and three phases of the moon is labelled ‘This is the gate [ ] the Lord’, and the corresponding section on the top right, ‘The righteous shall enter in at it’ (Psalm 118, verse 20).

Button is resurrecting with a full head of hair and a vigorous body, not as a 64 year old. He is probably meant to be 33. I especially like his glorified and radiant foot. Around his tomb, others are also rising from the grave, two very Blakean figures of men to the right, and another man, and a woman veiled by her loose hair, to the lower left.

The genealogical bit is on the front side of the tomb, which with its contracted forms expanded, reads:
“William Button Esq dying Anno domini MDLXXX (1590), Aet[atis suae] LXIIII (64) left by his wife Mary daughter to Sir William Kellwey Knight VI sons Ambrose Knight. William, who married Jane daughter to John Lambe of Coulston: John, Francis, Edward & Henry. II daughters. Dorothie married to John Drake of Mount Drake in the Countie of Devon Esq & Cecilie married to Sir John Mewys of Kingston in the Isle of Wight Knight.
Erected by Sir William Button knight Grand child to the first William and Sonne and heire to the latter, in pious memorie.”

There’s an ODNB life of the middle William, who purchased a Jacobean baronetage in 1621, and died in 1655. The writer of this life has the first Sir William Button dying in 1599, which I can’t explain. The third William Button, the grandchild who erected this tomb, was the subject of a funeral sermon in 1660, An antidote against immoderate sorrow for the death of our friends: taken from an assured hope of our resurrection to life and glory. Delivered in a sermon preached in the parish-church of North-Wraxall in Wiltshire, the 12th. of Aprill 1660. at the funeral of Sr William Button Baronet. By Francis Bayly his houshold chaplain. Either his chaplain could lie without shame, or he was a genuinely pious man as described. The monument to his grandfather must date to some time before he succeeded his father as baronet, though I am puzzled by the protocol here. But his father was a man who became an MP solely to stave off arrest for debt, so hardly likely to have been erecting elaborate monuments.

This funerary artefact is just like the title page of an early 17th century book: artistically unsophisticated, a visual object just about swamped by text, the power of the divine word; crowded with its simple meaning. The averted face of the resurrected subject seems an oddity of the handling (perhaps no one had any notion of how the first Sir William Button had looked decades before). Yet there’s something grand too: Sir William has his back on the world: his tomb opens, and the gate of heaven swings simultaneously wide. His transition will be as swift as, say, that of the soul in Donne, which ‘Dispatches in a minute all the way / Twixt heaven, and earth’.