Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From daglocks to deadlock: the married life of the Rev Butler

The clergyman John Butler met his future wife in sometime around 1651 in circumstances which he later described in ungallant detail:

‘she was her self no better but a mere Maid-Servant in the house of his Grand-mother in Law, who was then called Martha or Mat, and being sent out by her Mistress to wash Daglocks, or the befouled locks of the sheep’s tails, at a brook running by an open high-way side, at which time this Respondent out of tender love griev’d at her disparagement, gave a groat to a poor woman to wash in her stead, that she might be excused and she was so.’

Martha and John went on to have a long married life of over thirty years, and of the flotilla of little humans they launched on the world, a hardy or lucky five survived, two boys and three girls.

There was probably a background tension from the number of children and the Reverend Butler’s libido, but the marriage collapsed when he quarreled violently with his oldest son, who had become a Catholic. Both sons and their mother sided against the father. He spent time in debtor’s prison, unvisited by his estranged wife, and she declined to share his bed after his release, he says, for more than a year.

In his ill-advised account of all this, Butler says that he did not possess the gift of continency. After struggling to keep his marriage going, he went to live in Holland with a family maidservant, Mary Tomkins. She bore him one child when abroad, and when they returned to live in Hammersmith, several more. Then, for some reason, probably money, trouble descended on this resolved scene: Martha had him charged with fornication.

Waking up to his situation, discovering how readily charges of bigamy would stick to him, John then wrote and published The true case of John Butler, B.D., a minister of the true Church of England in answer to the libel of Martha his sometimes wife : treating of a marriage dissolved and made null by desertion and of a lawful concubinage in a case of necessity, wherein lawful marriage conveniently or possibly cannot be obtained (1697).

This deliciously injudicious pamphlet tells the truth as he saw it, oblivious to the possibility other people might see it otherwise. In page after page, John Butler plunges on, heated, intemperate, mean-spirited, incapable of placing himself in the mind of his readers. Time and again, the only reaction possible is a delighted disbelief at what he has just volunteered about himself, leading up to his jaw-droppingly self-righteous defence of concubinage, from biblical and historical precedents, and on (in his case) moral grounds.

No doubt he had some harsh treatment: even less doubt that he was impossible. Here he is on the marriage breakdown: “his mother thereupon deserted my bed, joining issue with this rebellious and schismatical son of her delight, to divorce her self most obstinately, maliciously, and absolutely from our marriage bed …God is my witness how unapt I always was to harbour an ill opinion of this woman my sometimes, (as I verily thought) loving wife. For though there was just suspicion of her overmuch familiarity with other men, and of her want of love to my self; because of a purloining knack she had of private selling my goods, over and above her allowance, and by keeping up a private purse; and by a coldness of affection”.

On his sons: “Are these children ill born Bastards? God knows! And if so, the fault is elsewhere, rather than with this Respondent. However they are plainly the Devils Brats, and none of God's Children according to the sense of the Apostle.”

His wife is a “malitious Desertrice”

On his own moral character: “this Respondent humbly conceives that his first marriage with the Complainant being by her default absolutely dissolved, and it being utterly unlawful for him to go in unto a whore, that necessity required him who could not contain, and conveniently could not marry with safety, to take another woman as he did, after the manner of the faithful, and Holy Abraham, for issue’s sake, and to marry her, as well as reasonably could be done.”

Here, a fiercely maintained distinction between his position, and that of a whoremonger, a distinction that wavers grammatically into an identity (just who is it producing that all important ‘holy seed’?): “The Whoremonger is such a wretch, who though allowed to Marry, or to keep his Concubine, that is a Woman proper to himself, provided he do not multiply Concubines, nor keep any woman unlawfully compassed unto any man’s wrong, or to that woman’s wrong, and useth her not merely for his lust, in wantonness, or uncleanness, but out of a pure desire of an holy seed by her. Yet not contented with that lawful liberty of God allowed, chooseth rather to spend the holy seed of mankind upon common women, who sell their bodies to the use of every comer: And thus exposeth his seed to be murdered in the body, as whores use to do by their conceptions

Here, he recalls something that he now realizes he may live to regret having said, and wades into an explanation which makes things delightfully worse:

“ 'Tis true indeed, that it was alleged, as if this Respondent should say, that he had another woman with child by him, at that time, for-which cause his wife the Complainant pretended to have relinquished him: And she alleges she can prove such words uttered by him. Unto which he answer's, that true it is he was in a great passion, because of his son turned Papist, and his wife violently siding with him, to excuse and justify him against this Respondent: And what words in the heat of passion were uttered by him, he does not perfectly remember.”

Here he accounts for the episode with Mary in Holland:

“there was no such thing as living incontinently with any woman, much less with the said Mary Tomkins. And the said Mary Tomkins had no Bastard Child born there, neither can any such thing be proved, nor was there any fame of any such thing, or any repute of a Bastard Child born there. But true it is that the said Mary Tomkins living there in Delft in good Reputation was delivered of a Daughter who was Baptised, and Named Mary, born on the 26th Day of June 1688. about nine years since. And of this child, this Respondent does confess, he is (as he verily believes) the true Father. And he humbly conceives it is a lawful and a well born.”

For the joy of Butler’s account is his fiercely maintained conviction that what he did can be justified: he has precedents for it:

“And as for the said Mary Tomkins, this Respondent farther saith, That until utterly relinquished by his wife, and above one whole year after, she never had any child by him, nor was she with child by him: And after that time he was guilty of no other nor greater Fornication with her, than what our holy Father Abraham the Father of the faithful was guilty of, when purely for issue sake, and not of any lustful concupiscence, he went in to Hagar his Wives Maid, or unto Keturah his concubine in the life time of Sarah his Wife.

To biblical precedent, he adds remarkable piece of biblical exegesis: to the honorable state of marriage, you can add, at need, another ‘bed undefiled’

“And though every one Man, was to marry but one woman, who was to be Lady or Dame

of the Family, yet God did plainly allow of a lawful Concubinage, or additonal wives for the bed, for Issue sake; the Issue whereof are nowhere termed Bastards, either in old or new Testament; but upon all occasions in case of heirs male wanting by the proper wife, the son of Concubinage, became heirs …Among other things I propose a lawful Concubinage, as in some cases it may be required: And to this purpose it is written in the New-Testament, Heb. 13. 4. that Marriage is honourable in all, and the Bed undefiled: But Whoremongers and Adulterers God will Judge. Hence it follows without dispute, That Marriage in its self is an honourable state, and that the Bed undefiled is so too, and that in all things as in the case of marriage: But then upon inquiry, whether in this Text, by the Bed undefiled, is to be understood the self same thing with the Married Bed, or some other Bed plainly different and distinct therefrom, is a mater disputable still.”

“This learned and holy Author does in this place clearly treat of a Bed undefiled, as a Bed plainly different and distinct from the Marriage Bed, or of some Bed out of Marriage, that may be truly styled a lawful and undefiled Bed.” What can you say? The publishers must have been delighted: it didn’t take long for responses to emerge, first in the anonymous:

Concubinage and poligamy disprov'd, or, The divine institution of marriage betwixt one man, and one woman only, asserted in answer to a book, writ by John Butler, B.D. for which he was presented as follows : We the grand jury, sworn to enquire for the body of the city of London, on Wednesday, the first day of December, 1697, present one John Butler, for writing and publishing a wicked pamphlet : wherein he maintains concubinage to be lawful, and which may prove very destructive to divers families, if not timely suppress'd. , London : Printed for R. Baldwin ..., 1698.

The author dedicates the work to Butler himself, pointing out in a not-unkindly fashion: “Let me tell you that your Defence will be far from healing your reputation.”

After the dedication, the author pitches in, employing a manner at once starchy and arch: “Had a Pamphlet of this Nature been writ by an avowed Debauchee, or a Play-house Beau, it had been no surprise: But to have anything printed in Defence of Concubinage by a Batchelor of Divinity, and a minister of the Church of England, may Justly astonish us…”

The opening here reminds us where we are, contemporary with Collier’s attack on the mores of Restoration theatre. All the author has to do is make the connection between clergyman and rake: “You have been at a great deal of Pains, to write an Apology for the Modish Practice of keeping a Miss.” The author enjoys putting the plain facts, and common likelihoods: “(you) went into your Maids Bed, after having Lived Forty Years with a Wife.” “If he owns his Incontinency now when Aged, It’s probable he was more so Twenty Years ago.”

Blood-letting or cold baths are recommended as a more Christian way for Butler to deal with the importunities of the rebel flesh. After all, “too much Venery consumes a Mans Bones and Flesh”. It will “in time enfeeble the whole Nation”.

The argument switches to polygamy, and the question of whether men can start to monopolise women. Centuries ahead of Lawrence Stone, the author turns to the ‘General Bill for the Year 1697’ (I think, births and deaths in London): “wherein we find 8062 males baptized, and but 7767 Females, so that the Majority on the side of the Males, is 255, to which we shall add 293 Women dead in Childbed, which is a Distemper Women are only obnoxious to, and being Natural and Constant, will go far towards a Balance for the Numbers of Men slain now and then by War … If Concubinage should be allow’d, it follows of Necessity that all Men could not be supplied.”

Butler must have seen that the game was up, but he nevertheless blustered back into print with Explanatory notes upon a mendacious libel called Concubinage and poligamy disproved; written by a nameless author, in answer to a book writ by J.B. as being a scurrilous libel, as not fit to be styled an answer. As may appear, by a catalogue of notorious and villainous lies, and Billingsgate raileries, and dunghil language, to be shewed therein. By J.B. B.D. , London : printed for the author (1698).

I think Butler is already spooked, but he produces what he asserts is a ‘centiloquy’ of lies from the anonymous author: he didn’t advocate polygamy, anything the author says that resembled what his ex-wife had said was just ‘old lies new-vamped’. Unable to attack the author (the last lines of the EEBO text seem to be blacked out, and butler did seem to be shaping up for an imputation that the writer was ‘epicene’), Butler rather acutely attacks the publisher, Baldwin, for producing smut like the ‘Secret History’ of Charles II’s court, and the General History of Whoring:


But to have semi-pornographers firmly telling you to repent and make your peace with God could not have been comfortable.

A Mr Turner followed up in his work A discourse on fornication shewing the greatness of that sin, and examining the excuses pleaded for it, from the examples of antient times : to which is added an appendix concerning concubinage : as also a remark on Mr. Butler's explication of Hebr. xiii, 4 in his late book on that subject / by J. Turner ... , London : Printed for John Wyat ..., 1698.

“there is one Argument I have lately met with, that indeed did at first surprise me, because it came, as I suppose from a Graduate in Divinity, and pretended the Authority of an Apostle, no less than St. Paul or St Barnabas, to Vindicate the lawfulness of such a Practise. But a little Reflection serves to discover that a disorderly Man of any Profession may easily pervert the meaning of Holy Scripture to excuse or extenuate the Guilt of his own Ill-Manners. And this I think is his Case. He would excuse his Adultery under the soft Name of Concubinage.”

Both authors have, of course, the more natural exposition of the Bible passage Butler had so capriciously wrenched to his own purpose: “The purport of the Text then as I take it is this. Marriage is honourable, and the Consummation of it without Uncleanness. The rest of all that fulsome Pamphlet may easily be answered from the foregoing Discourse.”

If Butler married in 1651, by 1698, he must have been 70 or older. I do not know what happened to him, I should imagine that, amidst much sniggering and pretended outrage, he was forced to recant and do penance, it’s also hard to believe that he could have clung on to any remaining shreds of his identity as cleric. He’s a fine example of that unwariness about putting your own case in print that marks this still relatively new print culture. Butler should have thought about Job in his afflictions, and reflected that a writer of a book can become his own adversary: ‘Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! … Oh that one would hear me! behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book.’

[I couldn’t think what to illustrate with, so my image is a contemporary bit of pastoralism, Adriaen van der Werff’s ‘Shepherd and Shepherdess’(1689). Paintings of shepherdesses, unsurprisingly, tend to treat desire rather than ‘daglocks’ (‘Locks of wool clotted with dirt about the hinder parts of a sheep’, says the OED.]

1 comment:

Gaenor Burchett-Vass said...

What a ghastly oik.