Nadine Lewycky and Adam Morton (eds.), Getting Along? Religious Identities and Confessional Relations in Early Modern England – Essays in Honour of Professor W. J. Sheils, Ashgate, Farnham, 2012. £65.00, ISBN: 9781409400899 (hardback), pp. xii + 250.
Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, Aix-Marseille UNiversité, LERMA (EA 853)
With this collection, editors Adam Morton and Nadine Lewycky pay tribute to Professor W. J Sheils, building upon his later work to offer a nuanced picture of the complex relationships at play across confessional boundaries in English society. The focus of the collection is clearly upon the lived experience of everyday sociability rather than more dogmatic divides. The essays ask whether the long-studied concept of religious toleration may be advantageously replaced with that of ‘neighbourliness’ or conviviality to understand more clearly the spirit of daily dealings amongst post-Reformation English men and women.
The first two chapters of the volume highlight instances of inter-confessional sociability, showing how people found means to ‘get on’ and ‘get along’ despite theological or legal impediments. In the first chapter, Alexandra Walsham shows that the gradual acceptance of religious pluralism in Protestant England transformed the way in which neighbours ‘got along’. As the Elizabethan service redefined the significance of the Eucharist, those who refused to communicate cut themselves off from both the national Church and parish life. Yet, Walsham shows, there emerged a mental distinction between religion and other forms of communal experience, in which inter-confessional sociability outside the Church flourished.
In the second chapter, Peter Marshall shows how even those recusants who welcomed the stigma of excommunication from the Protestant Church dreaded the consequences of that exclusion on the issue of burial. He highlights the great variety of expedients to ensure a burial in consecrated ground, ranging from last-minute recantations or clandestine night-time ceremonies to tacit agreement by the parish authorities or even Episcopal licenses. It appears that, despite ecclesiastical and secular law, English Catholics regularly found a place in English grave yards. Marshall argues that burial choices and the sharing of churchyards illustrate larger trends in the negotiation of confessional divides and in the construction of religious identities.
The next three chapters offer case-studies of people who did not ‘get on’. Robert Swanson’s analysis of disputes about chapels reveals weaknesses in the parochial unit even before the Protestant Reformation. This chapter offers valuable insights into the tensions which affected pre-Reformation parishes, but because of its focus on the 1540s, it sits oddly within a collection meant to highlight the impact of the Reformation upon communities. Swanson’s conclusion that the abundance of evidence left by such disputes must not lead historians to conclude that discord was endemic between parishioners and their chaplains calls for further development which would take into account the later period and show how parishes and chaplaincies were affected by the Reformation.
In chapter four, Emma Watson dwells upon the tensions which pitted secular plaintiffs against members of the clergy in the ecclesiastical courts of York during the Elizabethan era. Spanning the 1560s and 1570s, this study attempts to revive the 1980s historiographical debate which opposed A. G. Dickens’s argument that ecclesiastical courts testified to a growing English anti-clericalism to C. Haigh’s revisionist stance. Watson’s micro-study backs Haigh’s conclusions that court cases often sprang from personal and social grievances.
Chapter five offers one last example of inter-confessional disputes, through the study of two verse libels written in the early seventeenth century against the official in the Church Courts of Northampton. Andrew Cambers explores the case made by the anti-puritan lawyer John Lambe against the libels. After a clear – if somewhat lengthy- exposition of the case, the author dwells upon the circulation, reproduction and readership of the libels, before concluding that this case ‘betrays any notions of puritans and their enemies getting along in the early seventeenth century’ (131). This statement appears somewhat bold in the light of the evidence yielded by one single case-study. Moreover, it ignores Emma Watson’s earlier essay, in which she showed that complaints against clerics were not always religiously motivated but often stemmed from a broad range of grievances.
In chapter six, Rosamund Oates offers a fascinating study of the histories published both in England and abroad, by Protestants such as Fox and Catholics such as Verstegan and Persons. She shows how in times of change, these authors sought to give their communities a history to call their own, accounts which justified their beliefs and institutions as true to God’s will. Such histories were therefore highly polemical, but Oates argues that they also were far more than that, since they combined to shape believers’ interpretations about God, Church and country in the Elizabethan era.
Peter Lake’s contribution in chapter seven provides a more literary analysis, focusing upon a play (Sir John Oldcastle, pt 1) penned by Michael Drayton, Richard Hathaway, Anthony Munday and Robert Wilson. The author argues that the play put ‘the politics of conscience on the public stage’, as it echoed the tensions between ecclesiastical and state power. Its message was suited to both Catholic loyalists and moderate Puritans who wished to retain their religious freedom of conscience whilst demonstrating their allegiance to the crown. Whilst thought-provoking and evidently valuable, this contribution seems marginal to the volume’s thematic focus and appears nearly as a stand-alone piece.
The last three chapters leave the borders of the realm to study inter-confessional relationships abroad (mostly in France). In chapter eight, Katy Gibbons offers insights into the negotiation of religious identity in the Elizabethan era. She shows that the experience of exile was multi-faceted and that it changed with circumstances; some people were conformists at home but openly Catholic abroad, thus flouting both the Elizabethan law and the prescriptions of Catholic clerics in order better to ‘get along’ with their neighbours. The chapter paints the picture of a fluid religious identity which resists attempts to be reduced to a monolithic entity.
In chapter nine, Stuart Carroll and Andrew Hopper document the case of John Harwood, a Quaker working on the mission in France. The minutes of his interrogation as he was captive in the Bastille in 1657 reveal much about the organisation of such Quaker preachers but also about the French fascination for the so-called trembleurs and their beliefs. One important contribution of this chapter is the printing, for the first time, of these minutes in an appendix. The authors show that Harwood’s own papers described with horror the Catholic practices he witnessed in France, but that upon his return to England, he fell out with the major figures of his movement, and was out of favour with many Friends such as George Fox himself. ‘Getting on’, it seemed, was complicated even within small unorthodox communities with a common purpose.
In the last chapter, Simon Johnson studies the life of much-vilified Thomas White (alias Blacklow), a secular priest. This chapter offers a clear account of the troubles of the Catholic mission in England, and of its divisions over the issue of hierarchy and the Appellants’ dispute. The author shows how White’s dedication to securing toleration for Catholics in England even if it entailed the sacrificing of ‘Jesuits and any papal temporal power’ (220) ultimately saw him rejected by both the parties he was attempting to conciliate. This chapter echoes that by Katy Gibbons and together, they contribute to a better understanding of the Catholic exile communities as part and parcel of the history of Catholicism after the Reformation.
In their effort to honour the work of their mentor, W. J. Sheils, the editors of this Festschrift have managed to bring together insightful essays which all, in their manner, contribute towards the answering of the question about ‘getting along’ and ‘getting on’ across confessional divides in early modern England. They show that although conviviality existed and compromise was often necessary, the blurring of boundaries cannot be generalised since there remained many eras in which religious identity was too sensitive an issue to allow much ecumenical spirit.