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!


Thomas said...

Yes--we can extend Walter Stephens' argument. He focuses on the earlier continental treatises in Latin, but the same motivation can be seen behind 16th and especially 17th century witchcraft treatises in English. Often prefaces and introductions celebrate the theological utility of proofs of witches and apparitions, but I don't think this was merely window dressing for the censors. AND, yes indeed, English treatises defending the immortality of the soul DO often include the argument from the existence of ghosts and witches, an appealingly empirical sort of material proof during that rising era of science.

In my doctoral dissertation (Out of Darkness, Light: The Theological Implications of (Dis)Belief in Witchcraft in Early Modern English Texts and Society) I labored--rather heavily, with too many embedded footnote essays and so on--to document the argument working from witchcraft treatises, anti-atheism treatises, as well as some plays and poems. I was well into my research when Stephens' book came out, which matched my own conclusions closely, although he was working from a different set of texts and in an earlier period.

Fun to see your interest in the subject, and that you are onto the same sorts of themes and readings. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Oh, actually it looks like the translation Jackson prints of selections from Palingenius's "Capricorn" (as well as from "Libra"?) is in fact Barnabe Googe's. In Early English Books Online you can see that the lines are copied verbatim from document images 296/7 to 299 of the 1565 publication of The Zodiake of Life. Thence Jackson takes passages from Libra, which I assume are also copied from Googe's translation, although I didn't check.

Jason said...

Searching for Palingenius led me here and he featured briefly on a post on my blog just now.

I'd love to get a full translation of him; I like his style...