Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

(Palo Alto) I recommend Healey’s 2023 history of 17th-century England as an important and enjoyable work.

I grew up thinking about this topic, since my Dad was a scholar of English intellectual life in the 1600s and he regularly taught British political history.

In that century, England was on a path toward global power and influence and was already forming the colonial societies that later became the USA, the Irish Republic, and the Anglophone Caribbean. England also experienced the ferment of revolution, radical political and religious ideas, and the Scientific Revolution. Key interpretive questions, such as the causes of the Civil War and the originality of the early Enlightenment, have long been contested; and the rival interpretations of Whig liberals, Marxists, evangelical Christians, and others have implications for the present. The events of 1640-1690 cast long shadows, and I wanted to get one current interpretation of them.

Healey meets my criteria for good historical writing. First, he makes broad points but is not locked onto a few reductive theses. He tends to emphasize the cultural aspects of the Civil War, particularly the clash between radical puritanism and traditional forms of recreation and worship that the Puritans sought to ban. This explanation may compete with political or economic accounts, but Healey doesn’t exclude a range of evidence as he makes a case for what he calls a “culture war.”

I was left thinking that it was unfortunate that a culture war coincided with the effervescence of republican ideas, because the backlash to puritans’ religious reforms may have prevented them from building a durable republic with a broad base of support. However, perhaps 17th-century political radicalism needed religious inspiration.

Second, Healey chooses stories with vivid protagonists to make serious points. For example, his title comes from a science-fiction novella of the same name that Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1666. Cavendish is a fascinating character, and Healey relates her life for several pages. But he chooses his stories to illustrate general patterns, not to entertain with zany anecdotes or to present historical figures as strange and colorful (as popular historians often do).

Finally, Healey documents facts, quotes, interpretations, and stories by citing a large number of primary and secondary sources. Although he wears his learning lightly, I felt in safe hands, since he has obviously read widely and carefully. This period is very well documented, compared to earlier times, and Healey takes advantage of the evidence. (For example, weekly and daily publications devoted to political news originated during the year 1641 and then proliferated manically.)

I learned much from The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, but a few larger points stand out for me.

I was surprised by the scale and cruel destructiveness of the Civil War. I knew about the set-piece battles but not the massacres.

I see more clearly how the intense political debates of the 1650s morphed into the intellectual debates and innovations of the Restoration period–the English Revolution shifting into the Scientific Revolution once many thinkers became disillusioned with political conflict.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which England developed economically from 1600 to 1700–with slavery serving an essential role in the nation’s substantial growth and development.

Healey doesn’t dwell on the following point, but he provides support for it. I would describe England in 1600 as a country with a monarch but very little national government. The government could not field a standing army or collect taxes from a broad spectrum of the society; it didn’t even have a rough idea how many people, farms, and businesses lay within its borders. One reason for high rates of violence was a lack of capacity for social control. Each Stuart monarch struggled with parliaments because the only way to obtain enough revenue to project power was to persuade the big landowners and towns to provide it by consent, although sometimes a king would amass enough money to rule for a time without the legislature.

In contrast, the England of 1700 had a government with considerable capacity. As Healey notes, it occupied the former location of the royal palace at Whitehall, while the monarchs moved west to St. James and Kensington. The government had officers, employees, and statistics. This is the fundamental reason that the monarchy was now much less significant and on it way to irrelevance.

See also: civility as equality; introducing republicanism; the Dutch secret; the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model)

the progress of the king (note #4 from the Levine library)

Last week I wrote about my copy of the Rheims-Douai Bible, an English translation made by Catholics in 1582 and smuggled into Protestant England for Catholic laypeople to read. One of the translators, Edmund Campion, is now a saint, tortured to death for his secret work in England.

This Bible refutes the widespread myth that Catholics opposed translating and disseminating scripture. I think the myth sticks as a result of Protestant propaganda plus a desire to believe that religious bodies typically seek to control knowledge whereas technology (in this case, the printing press) liberates it.

I mentioned in passing that this Bible was printed in Douai, now a city in France, which then belonged to Philip II. I also inherited from my father a 1552 volume that describes some possessions of that monarch, who later became King of Spain, King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, officially the King of England and Ireland for a few years, Duke of Milan, Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, and the colonial ruler of the Americas from New Mexico to Peru. In my translation from the Spanish, it’s entitled The Most Happy Journey of the Highest and Most Powerful Prince, Don Philip, Son of the Emperor Charles V the Great, Through Spain and His Lands in Lower Germany, With a Description of All the Estates of Brabant and Flanders.

Douay is presented on pp. 161-3. It is a “very good and well-favored [suerte] town of Gallic Flanders on the banks of the River Scarpe.” It is the site of a “good monastery” that has produced several saints. Its jurisdiction extends over many nearby villages. In mid-paragraph, the text then launches into a description of the visit by the young Philip with his father, Charles V, “who came to eat at Orchies [now in France], which was made very fresh and special with fruits and bouquets, strewn in the streets as a sign of welcome, and there the prince first ate before entering Douay. … Out of the town came the burgomasters, knights, and counselors, very well accompanied, and in the field beyond was a flag with [pisaros – ?] and drums, and there were three hundred soldiers very well ordered in colorful arms and clothing, yellow and white, and at the gate of the city the clergy processed …” — and so on for a couple more pages.

The aim is evidently propagandistic, which doesn’t imply that the authors were insincere. Perhaps they thought that Philip was a “most happy” prince of a happy empire. He did, however, face a massive uprising in his Low Country dominions.

This book was written three decades before the English Bible was printed in Douai/Rheims, but it gives a flavor of the times, which were still feudal and chivalric.

See also: A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Cover, Douay–Rheims Bible, 1582

A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Many people seem to believe that the medieval Church forbade translating the Bible into modern languages–in order to monopolize access to scripture–until a technological innovation (moveable type) and/or the Reformation liberated people to read the Bible in their own tongues.

This story is false: translations were regularly made during the Middle Ages. It also neglects a real obstacle to translating, which is the need to coin many new words and turns-of-phrase to render an ancient book into a new language–a task that often lags behind the emergence of the language itself.

I think it’s worth correcting this history because too many people are in the grip of technological determinism and don’t appreciate the cultural work involved in a task like translation.

I have inherited from my father a 1582 English Bible that was published in Rheims and Douai by exiled English Catholics, including St. Edmund Campion, who was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for his faith. They published this Bible to be smuggled into Protestant England for the secret and illegal use of Catholic recusants. (This is almost the opposite of the idea that Catholics were against translation.)

In the preface, the translators explicitly note that the Catholic Church had, “neither of old nor of late, ever wholly condemned all vulgar versions of Scripture, nor have at any time generally forbidden the faithful to read the same.” They promise to translate more accurately than the Protestants, who have worked out of “pride and disobedience.” They seek the “preservation of this divine worke from abuse and profanation” by rendering it better in English.

The title page says “cum privilegio.” Usually, the permission of the Church is designated with the phrases imprimatur and nihil obstat (“let it be printed” and “nothing stands in the way”). As far as I can tell–and I could easily be wrong about this–cum privilegio generally refers to the permission of a sovereign. France encompassed Rheims, and Douai was a Spanish Habsburg possession, so I wonder whether one of those governments authorized this Bible. Or does the phrase “cum privilegio” imply–falsely–that the book will be legal in Elizabeth’s realm?

For a flavor of the translation, consider Luke 2:8-10:

8 And there were in the same countrie shepheards watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocke.

And behold, an Angel of our Lord stood by them, and the brightnes of God did shine round about them; and they feared with a great feare.

10 And the Angel said to them: Feare not; for, behold, I evangelize to you great joy, that shal be to all the people…

The King James Version of this passage (1611) may be more familiar from Christmas celebrations:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In the KJV, the Angel “bring[s] good tidings.” The Catholic 1582 version renders this phrase as “evangelize.” Perhaps the Douay–Rheims translators noticed that when St. Jerome had translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he left the Greek word evangelizo in his Latin text. They may have decided that they should import this word into their English Bible as well, for maximum accuracy. (And the English verb “evangelize” was already available in 1582.) In contrast, the proto-Protestant John Wykliffe had translated the Greek verb as “preach to you.” He saw the Angel in Luke as a preacher. The KJV’s “I bring good tidings” is more poetic than either alternative, in my opinion; and it’s justifiable, since the Greek verb means to bear a good message.

Here is Tintoretto’s painting of the shepherds, completed the same year:

Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-1581)

See also: Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); innovation in technology and the humanitiestwenty-five thousand books to Bosnia.

Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library)

This post is one of a series about books that my father left to me and that now line my office shelves at Tufts. More on how that happened is here.

In a folio volume of almost 2,000 dense pages, informally known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Foxe describes the persecutions of true-believing Christians since Roman times. Most of the book is devoted to its own period, when the persecutors were Catholics. This narrative helped create a sense of Protestantism as distinct from Roman Catholicism, and of England as a Protestant nation. It influenced and supplied some illustrations for my book The Anachronist.

Foxe’s Booke was a massive undertaking. It required the vast collaborative labor of collecting the names and stories of tortured and executed Protestants from across Europe. Foxe published numerous editions as new names arrived, and many copies were sold.

I have the 1576 edition, a great block of Gothic text with numerous engravings, most of which depict Protestants being tried or killed by Catholics. Here, for example, is the image on p. 1468, which shows “The talk between M[r] Bradford, and two Spanish Friers.”

John Bradford (1510–1555) was a Protestant clergyman who was burned by the government of Mary Tudor. The image shows him in his cell in the Tower of London, being interrogated by Spaniards. Queen Mary–“Bloody Mary” to Protestants–had married King Phillip II of Spain and brought England back into the Roman Church. However, by the time Foxe published an edition of his Booke in England, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was “our gracious Lady now reigning,” and Spain was the hated enemy. This is an image of foreign treachery as well as Roman Catholic intolerance.

I thought of it last spring when I saw a painting in the Carthusian monastery of Granada, Spain. Painted in the early 1600s, it shows Thomas Cromwell condemning four Catholic clergy to death for their faith. He is likely sitting in an imagined Tower of London. That is where John Bradford met the Spanish friars under Queen Mary and where Cromwell had his own head chopped off (meriting a heroic account in Foxe’s book).

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Historia de los mártires de Inglaterra. Tres priores y un monje de Santa Brígida juzgados por C[r]onwel, Granada, Spain, via

This painting hangs in the refectory, where the monks would dine, as part of a series entitled “The History of the Martyrs of England” by Juan Sánchez Cotán. Its didactic purpose was to remind the Spanish friars of Granada that Protestant Englishmen were their persecutors and foes.

The two images have some iconographic and stylistic similarities, although the “Gaoler” in the English print looks Mannerist (with his elongated body), and the Spanish painting is baroque.

Most of the specific stories that both sides collected were probably true. Each side interpreted the persecutions of their own co-religionists as clear evidence that their enemy was cruel. There is perhaps a lesson here about selection bias …

See also Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); twenty-five thousand books to Bosnia; and my father’s books are going to James Madison’s desk at Montpelier.

Frontispiece of Coryat's Crudities, London 1611

Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library)

For reasons that Angela Nelson describes in this article, my office at Tufts contains about 2,000 books printed before 1800 that my late father collected. Recently, I brought a ladder to campus so that I can see what’s on the upper shelves. I’m planning to pull down a book or two at a time and blog occasionally about what I find.

For instance, I found a 1611 edition of Coryat’s Crudities. It is in characteristically poor condition, split into two parts along its spine, with its cover loose. As a result, its market value is just about zero. However, the split reveals some considerably older, Gothic printed text that was used to repair it.

A previous owner has hand-written a kind of index on five blank pages at the front. I am not certain, but I think this owner was the Obadiah Cookson who signed his name on the title page in 1754. If that’s true, it’s fascinating, because the Obadiah Cookson known to Google lived nearby in the Massachusetts Colony. My Dad bought most of his books in London, so possibly this one has made three Atlantic crossings.

As for the book: Thomas Coryat or Coryate was an eccentric, a courtier who seems to have been more laughed at than laughed with–most popular as a butt of jokes. In 1608, during a period of peace, he traveled in Continental Europe and published his Crudities as an anthology of notes, letters, anecdotes, and poems that he ostensibly collected along the way. It was the first work in English to tell the story of William Tell and the first to describe the implement that we call a fork:

The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies at their meales use a little Forks when they cut their meat. … so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meale, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers from which all at the table doe cut, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the lawes of good manners, insomuch that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in wordes.

Coryat adds that he still uses a fork in England, and a friend has nicknamed him “Furcifer”–fork-bearer.

The first pages of the book are headed, “Certain opening and drawing dystiches [two-line poems] to be applyed as mollifying Cataplasmes [poultices] to the Tumours, Carnosities, or difficult Pimples full of matter appearing in the Author’s front …”

In other words, if the author’s main text offends, you can apply his rhyming couplets for relief. For example:

Our Author in France rode on horse without stirrup
And in Italie bathed himself in their syrrop. 

These lyric gems are all attributed–falsely–to B[en] Jonson, who is also credited with an introductory poem in honor of Coryat. A different “charitable friend” purportedly wrote the character-sketch that comes next in the volume. This text describes the “famous … Traveler and Gentleman Author of these … Crudities” thus:

He is an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating. He was set a-going for Venice the fourteenth of May Anno 1608 and returned home (of himself) the third of October following.

We’re told that he absolutely loves to travel:

The mere superscription of a letter from Zurich sets him up like a top: Basil or Heidelberg makes him spin. And at seeing the word Frankford, or Venice, though but on the title of a Booke, he is readie to break doublet, cracke elbowes, and overflowe the roome with his murmure. Hee is a mad Greeke, no lesse then a merry, and will buy his Egges, his Puddings, his Ginger-bread, yea, cobble his shoes in the Atticke dialect …

This fellow seems to have been a sort of Yorick, or a Jacobean Edward Lear, or a bit like Anthony Bourdain in his enthusiasm for travel and food and his self-deprecating humor. I think I would have liked him, although at times he may have talked too much about himself.

See also: a seventeenth-century Englishman inside the Great Pyramid