Page 9, 8th March 2002

8th March 2002
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This study of 16thand 17th-century murder pamphlets is marred by trendy jargon, says John Trappes-Lomax

The Antichrist's Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Play ers in Post-Reformation England, by Peter Lake with Michael Questier, Yale University Press £30

There is much of value in this book, but the style of its more than 700 pages is likely to deter readers. The first page provides the first example: what is "a decently denuded and deHabermased notion of the public sphere"? Here is another: "Then, the three lemons of order, reform and puritan-style godliness were lining up nicely on the slot machine of Elizabethan ideological politics as a trumping discursive jackpot". Is there a prize for the worst metaphor of the year? And another: "such hard and fast distinctions between 'public' and the `private, the domestic and the economic. between, if you like, oeikos and oeconomeia, really do violence to the ways in which the original audience conceived of order and disorder". When something has been said twice in English, there will not be many who would like to hear it said a third time in Greek, and even they would probably prefer the Greek to be correct.

And another: "some of the most pointy-headed of contemporary pointy-headed clerical intellectuals". This adds nothing to "clerical intellectuals"; 12 words have been used to do the work of two. Academic publishers presented with material of this sort ought to have it translated into decent English; the expense of hiring an interpreter would easily be recovered in reduced printing costs and increased sales.

The author's route into his varied and extensive subject matter is by way of murder pamphlets dating from 1580 to 1640; these give an insight into the presuppositions of popular culture, because that was the culture of their intended purchasers.

Of course the pamphlets contain much that must be fictional, and in most cases murderers and victims were so obscure that we have no independent knowledge of them. There is one important exception: in 1605, Walter Calverley of Calverley, a wealthy Yorkshire landowner. murdered two of his three infant sons and was himself put to death; playwrights and pamphleteers tell us that he killed his wife as well, and that he killed his children to save them from destitution, because his gambling had swallowed up his wealth in debts and mortgages; this much Lake seems to accept as true.

The facts are otherwise. Mrs Calverley recovered from her wounds. Mr Calverley refused to plead to his indictment and was pressed to death. His motive for choosing so horrible an end must have been to avoid conviction and the consequent escheat of his real estate; he therefore had real estate to preserve. This is confirmed by the fact that Henry. his only surviving son, remained at Calverley: he became an ardent Royalist, and his estates were sequestrated; it cost him the enormous sum of £1.455 to recover them, which shows that he possessed several thousand acres. Henry's son was knighted by Charles H: his grandson was made a baronet in 1711. It is clear that the murderer died a very rich man, and that the motive given by the pamphlets is false; nor can they be relied on even for the details of the indictment, for Walter did not in fact murder his wife.

Therefore we do not have to believe what we read of another infanticide, Margaret Vincent; she was supposedly converted to Catholicism and therefore deemed it her duty to strangle her children and thus save them from her husband's Protestantism and its consequence of eternal damnation; the pamphlet tells us that she repented and made an edifying and Anglican death.

This introduces an important theme. The authorities wished the condemned to admit their guilt; on the gallows the genuinely guilty could be expected to do so, as there was nothing to be gained in this world by continued falsehood and much to be lost in the next. Catholics executed because of their religion continued to protest their innocence; as a result their hearers annoyed the authorities by being inclined to believe them. If he had no contemporary material, the author might usefully have alluded to a pamphlet of the Popish Plot, Lying allowable with Papists to deceive Protestants: in a Letter Written by a Minister of the Church of England, to satisfie a Friend who was much stagger'd at the reading the Speeches of the late Travtors, who at their Death, June 25, 1679, so confidently affirmed their Innocency. The title says it all.

The author shows how the presumptions of the pamphlets can be found both on the stage and in the sermons and publications of the various religious groupings. Thus, both Hamlet and Macbeth share many of the popular themes of the murder pamphlets, especially in the workings of avenging providence.

Likewise it is often suggested by their opponents that both Protestant Puritans and Catholic rigorists are in fact as sinful as everyone else; a similar theme can be found in the pamphlet about Enoch ap Evan, a Welsh Puritan who allegedly decapitated his mother and brother because they insisted on kneeling at communion.

However, it is impossible to summarise such rich and important material in a short review. This book will be essential for specialists; it should also be of great interest to the rest of us, but readers will need time and stamina to work through a volume which could have been much shorter without omitting anything of importance.

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