I have been reading, with bemused gratification, some of the writings of Richard Carpenter. What a discovery he is! There are, after all, not many 17th century Englishmen who could publish a book with an image incorporated into their frontispiece of the author being ordained priest by the Pope, but there it is in Carpenter. And the author of the ODNB life says that the other title page illustrated here includes an inset image of Carpenter engaged in a vomiting contest with the devil. (I have waded as far as I can bear in The anabaptist, washt and washt, and shrunk in the washing, or, A scolasticall discussion on the much-agitated controversie concerning infant baptism (1653), and can’t actually confirm that it is meant to be him, though the other writings overflow with images of purging, vomiting and excreting.)
So many of these mid 17th century men seem deranged, equipped with a learning that gave them no useful purchase upon their experience, rather running them into the confusion of having their convictions founded on ferociously argued interpretations of the Bible, which could so easily collide with contrary fanaticisms based on that same endlessly re-interpretable text. Carpenter swapped sides between Catholic and Protestant over and over again, alternating spells of vitriolic anti-Catholicism with acceptance of Rome and its teachings. He tries to represent his course as having some consistency (“I may have misplac’d and miscenter’d an Action, but in the substance I have been quadrate with Truth”, as he all too typically puts it), while shouting down opponents he had stood shoulder to shoulder with no great time beforehand. He readily associates his enemies with diabolic possession (both his Protestant independent antagonist Tombs, in the preface to The Anabaptist washt and washt, and the Jesuits in his autobiographical play, A new play call'd The Pragmatical Jesuit new-leven'd a comedy, while himself manifesting (at least in his writings) a delirium of pukings, contortions, revilings and glossolalic learning.
Reading him can be astonishing, and it’s all the more interesting because in what is possibly the one sympathetic moment in the writings (at least, as far as I have found), Carpenter gives a remarkable account of what happened to his mind. It’s in his play, where he represents himself as ‘Aristotle Junior’. Carpenter, then Catholic, had fallen out with the English Benedictines and Jesuits in Paris, and they threw him into the Bastille. The first of the paragraphs cited below describes what this did to his body, the second what happened to his mind:
“O Torment! The pangs of Death cannot be more grievous: and my pangs are notoriously more grievous to me than the pangs of Death, because mine are continual. The whole Fabrick of my body is so stifned and benum’d with cold, so bruis’d and sor’d with the hardnesse of the rocky ground, that I cannot use a limb without excessive pain, and shaking of the whole frame. They have detain’d me here in the Bastille the space of fifteen Weeks, without Bed, Covering, Cap, Wastcoate, Shirt, or other Linnen, (the French, my Executioners, rob’d me of all,) without Chair, Stoole, Table, Fire, Candle, Water, Knife, Spoone; without any succour for the necessities of nature, further than the floor of this close and dark Dungeon or Cave where I lye: and by a little peeping-hole I have discover’d a Sentinel continually standing with his Musket, to receive me, if I should appear in the least part of me. Dare these blessed-nam’d Benedictines ever professe, that they are flesh and blood?
O dear England! I have been so long watching and waking, that neither my fancy nor eyes perform faithfull service to my understanding. It seems to me, that I see strange things, Pigmies, Giants, strange Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Monsters. All extraordinary stories that I have read or heard of, shew themselves to me, besides portents and prodigies. I hear whatsoever my fancy delivers to be said. I dream that I sleep, sometimes bedded in Snow, sometimes in the Waters, in the Field sometimes, where I am pelted with hail.”
Suffering sensory deprivation, all Carpenter’s prior reading came back to him as hallucinations. This is the writer of his subsequent works, where you never know what will press next into his mind, and seem to it portentous and relevant: how angels teach one another, how to clean pearls by getting a dove to swallow and then void them, the problems of uprooting ‘devil’s bit’ (scabious), a magician who ate (Faustus-like) a cart full of hay, but then the cart, and the horses, how alchemists transform things, all about the cardinal’s parrot which could recite the Latin creed, how Cardinal Borromeo always and only read scripture when kneeling.
All these oddities occur in a context where not longer being a Catholic enables him to say more for the Catholics than he could say when he was one: ‘Rome, I honour thee in thy truths’, ‘Many millions of Papists are saved’ (and, he avers, this is ‘generally believed in England’). ‘I never was a Jesuit’, he interpolates anxiously – a man has to draw a line somewhere, after all.
Carpenter found himself in 1657 giving to the Learned Society of Astrologers their annual sermon. It’s the kind of divide-straddling position Carpenter would end up in (most clergymen opposed astrology). But his rhetoric betrays his radical instability: in a flourish taken from the Song of Songs, and carried away, Carpenter urges the ‘learned Children of Seth’: “Wound ye the heart of Christ day and night, with your excellent works”. Surely they must have heard that with some surprise and uneasiness? (‘Which side is he on?’, they might have whispered to one another).
So, in 1665, Carpenter published an autobiographical play, in the manner of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso (with its gallant reminiscences of exiled cavaliers slashing the faces of Spanish prostitutes). Are there any more of these things, I wonder? Closet dramas deployed for autobiography, before autobiography itself came along?
It starts with great promise: an actor enters to speak the Prologue, bearing a urinal:
This I freely say,
The Poet’s Water 'tis that made the Play…
It ends with Lucifer, who has spent most of the play disguised as the ‘pragmatical Jesuit’, vomiting up and voiding a little Jesuit and a little monk: “Noise of straining” says the climatic stage direction. The uneven course it pursues in between sets off as quite like an allegorical play, but it runs increasingly into personal diatribes, and the naming of historically real people as his enemies and tormentors.
Cornelius Agrippa, the mage, opens the play, compelling Lucifer to “Discover here theatrically, the most deepbottom’d and profound contrivances, by which thou dost amuse, imperil, ensnare the world, and involve it in thy dragonish tayl.” At the end of the action, Lucifer fails to claim Agrippa’s soul, but rather inconsistently succumbs to an exorcism which purges him in the dramatic way I have just mentioned.
Carpenter puts his own awful experiences into the play, with a fervent word of warning:
“O ye Scholars of our most renowned Universities, set bounds to your feet, and limits to your Thoughts: I was my Fathers eldest Son, and Heir to a comfortable Estate of Houses and Lands; and I threw all behinde me, to be cheated, most religiously cheated by secular Priests, Jesuites, Monks, Friers…”
He depicts himself as drawn abroad by his early religious convictions, but finding only “the beggery of Spain, the buggery of Italy, Spain, and France”. As for the Catholic faith which drew him abroad, he compulsively picks holes in the miracles to which he is connivingly exposed. A purported feather from an archangel’s wing he confidently identifies as “a Feather from a West-Indian Bird”. An image that speaks to him (“Image. ‘Chrissime fili mi, Crede.’) he discovers to be hollow, this astuteness so impressing the Jesuit operator, that the total falsity of diabolic possessions is willingly laid bare to him (while the higher cause served by these contrivances still remains valid). Later, his particular bête noire is seen coaching two purported diabolics:
“Father Robert. Ye are both apt Scholars. But you, Boy, must learn to open your mouth wider, when the fit's upon you.
Boy. I open it as wide as I can, good Father.
Rob. Take this Apple, and extend your mouth to the wideness of the Apple: 'Tis of a fit bigness. And you, Woman, when you act the possest person, do not stare enough: your eyes must always be rounded into a larger Circle, but then especially. And if any be immodest towards you, you must not take notice of it, at such a time, but rather shew willingness, because the Devil, under whose power you are then conceiv'd to groan and lie gravell'd, is delighted with wantonness.”
Aristotle Junior’s (Carpenter’s) two years in the Bastille are recounted, in full detail: “In two years I had not the benefit of a fresh Shirt …Another French Prisoner wearied me oftentimes, with desiring me that he might use my body Sodomitically.” There follows his escape: he got himself released from the Bastille by seeming to come over to his captors’ way of seeing things, took flight to Dieppe, and just got away across the channel with some timely local assistance:
“I consented in the lip: Afterwards pleading that my Body was greatly disorder’d in respect of health, desir’d a few dayes wherein to physick it (I meant with a better Air;) and in that little Tract of Time wherein it was supposed I took Physick, hasted privately to Diep, a Port-Town in France …the Hugonots of Diep past me over the night following.”
With his dodgy past, Carpenter set out to recommend himself in England with large stories of the fearsome scope of Jesuit activities and resources: he asserts that they have transport, money, and safe houses:
“we of the English Society, have a Ship that trades betwixt London and Flanders; in the which we continually receive and return the best Goods at the best advantage: and we in these parts, receive ten thousand Pounds in ready coyn every year out of England.
Lucifer: In this Tropick of things, I have seated the Provincial of our Society here with his Council, in a Noble House near to London-Wall; whence they dispatch every day the most nimble-witted Members of our Society, into the Conventicles, and Army. When the people are pull'd up by the root from Religion, they must needs fall back upon ours.”
The threat to England, is (of course) urgent: the Jesuits are all here, and hard at work: “In all their Houses in those transmarine parts, there are none left but boyes and old Men; hither they are all come.”
That, despite all this, Anthony Wood reported that Carpenter died apparently reconciled to Rome seems all of a piece: “an impudent, fantastical man that changed his mind with his cloaths” and a “theological mountebank”.