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Discourse on Civility and Barbarity$

Timothy Fitzgerald

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195300093

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195300093.001.0001

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 English Historical Documents, 1485–1558

 English Historical Documents, 1485–1558

(p.165) 6 English Historical Documents, 1485–1558
Discourse on Civility and Barbarity

Timothy Fitzgerald (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter continues the close analysis of discourses on “religion” and related categories such as “politic order” and the “commonweal” and shows how in significant texts of the period there was nothing like a modern concept of the nonreligious secular, or some conceptual or social space from which an attitude of neutrality could be taken toward some putatively separate domain called “religion.” The commonweal or politic body, based on a holistic analogy with the well‐functioning human body, is embedded in a God‐given hierarchical cosmos that legitimated rank and degree long after the Reformation. The editor of these texts, C. H. Williams, is aware of the problem of using modern concepts such as “class” to represent the realities of the early modern period. Yet editorial needs of the twentieth century in effect compel him to classify these texts according to modern categories, thus creating a contradiction between what the texts imply and what we need them to mean.

Keywords:   politic body, commonweal, rank, degree, status, chain of being, society, canon law, civil law, lords spiritual, lords temporal

T. F. Mayer, in his introduction to a republication of Thomas Starkey's “A Dialogue between Pole and Lupset,” published originally around 1539 (Mayer, 1989), says that to understand the meaning of the dialogue and its topic, we have to understand

Starkey's humanist practice of inventing reality through language. He did this in the twin sense of constructing a vision of a self-sufficient England, a vision which Starkey intended would persuade his readers to bring this world into existence, and of preparing a manifesto of political reform. (Mayer, 1989:xiii)

The topic is the commonweal or commonwealth, and the implication is that Henry's break with Rome and the institution of the Anglican church-state had exacerbated tensions within the order of things and persons to a dangerous level. Rhetoric on the commonweal was designed to convince people that, even in the new context of post-Reformation England, there existed a God-ordained order of degree and deference that was threatened by dissent within the politic body.

According to Mayer, Starkey acted as an advisor to Thomas Cromwell, and therefore to the king, on various aspects of policy regarding the dissolution of the monasteries and how to deal with dissent. He had trained in rhetoric in Italy and France and was therefore aware of the latest in humanist learning. There was apparently a perceived need for various methods of persuasion that the new order which Henry was instigating was the morally correct one.

(p.166) On the other hand, the ideal of the commonweal is represented in the “Dialogue” as under attack from Dissent, greed, and selfishness generally, which to be persuasive must have been referring to an ideal that was already in some form widely disseminated. Starkey's ability to persuade, which was partly underwritten by an appeal to Aristotle, must surely have depended to some extent on an imaginative connection with what people already widely believed at the time. This seems especially true given that the commonweal is described as being in a state of dangerous decay and requires reinvigorating with moral purpose and submission to the God-ordained holistic order. Or was this the skill of rhetoric, that one conceals one's own inventiveness by speaking as though it is obvious what one means?

The evidence is that the hierarchical view of the world as a macrocosmic great chain of being reproduced microcosmically in the human gradations of degree and rank was well embedded in the discourse of the lawyer/theologians discussed in chapter 4 by Pagden and Parry. Thus, while the discourses on the commonweal were undoubtedly rhetorical acts of persuasion, they did not occur in a vacuum and seem to have been a dominant ideology in the minds of people, much in the way that the values of democracy and liberal capitalism are rhetorically generated and widely appropriated in our own day. And this leads me to question some of the historian's own use of language. For, as I have argued in earlier parts of this book, Anglo-American historians and anthropologists tend, more or less inevitably, to build their models of the past—or of non-European cultures—in terms of Anglophone categories. While many of the same scholars are methodologically sophisticated, and aware of the problems of translation and interpretation, nevertheless very basic and powerful organising categories, such as religion, the secular, politics, the state, or economics, get applied to cultures which did not think or act in those categories.

In the “Dialogue” in question, there is no usage of such categories which we moderns would think of as ‘normal’. In his introduction, Mayer says that Starkey was given “a lucrative benefice” in London to add to his collection of preferments. In the thought of the day, this would have made him a secular priest, or the Anglican equivalent, but not a religious. These were the most frequent usages of the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. Yet the editor, whose far greater knowledge and expertise I respect, makes the following statement: “Cromwell talked seriously with Starkey and no doubt asked his advice on religious affairs” (Mayer, 1989:viii). This could mean that Cromwell asked his advice on affairs of the monasteries, for these were the religious houses. But it is difficult to judge because Mayer uses the term ‘religious’ in other ways which confuse the issue. For example:

[Starkey] … sent Henry an uncompromising manifesto which … told the king how to deal with religious dissent, defended the religiously (p.167) conservative and moderate, and made several suggestions about how to disburse the proceeds of the dissolution of the monasteries. (Mayer, 1989:viii)

There are other examples of the use of the word ‘religious’ which also are difficult to decipher. One of Pole's clients “had escaped from England for religious reasons” (1989:xiv); and he refers to “Religious conservatives among the bishops” (xiv).

This lack of clarity about language is evident in Mayer's use of ‘political’ and ‘politic’ too. For some reason, the editor reverses the more usual expression of the time ‘the politic body’ and calls it the ‘body politic’, an expression which is still current (Mayer, 1989:xiii). By reversing these two words, ‘politic’ ceases to be an adjective and appears to become a noun. He says that Starkey's training in Italy and France equipped him “with the most novel political concepts” (1989:viii). The problem is that, if the actual contents of the “Dialogue between Pole and Lupset” are anything to go by, there was no concept of ‘political’ as distinct from ‘religious’ in the discourses of the day. One is therefore bound to ask about the historian's rhetorical purpose, conscious or unconscious, in framing his discussion of the text in these categories at all.

In this chapter, I analyse the construction by another modern historian of English society, Williams (1967), in the transition between the late medieval and early modern period, which includes the era of the Reformation. I am not a historian and do not have any original new historiography to add. My purpose is parasitic on the work of historians, and in that sense I approach it with respect for their specialist knowledge of a specific historical period and what their findings can teach me about the changing usages of categories in historical time. I marvel at the erudition of the authors and editors of the works that I analyse and am not motivated by a critical attitude towards their historiographical expertise itself, which would be inappropriate. My concern is methodological; I am interested in the way that modern categories such as ‘religion’ are reproduced in the organisation of our view of the past, such that they take on an appearance of permanence, as though essentially in the nature of things. The paradox is that historians, like anthropologists in the study of contemporary non-European cultures, are usually more aware than their critics of the dangers of projecting modern ways of thinking into those worlds that had different forms of thought and spoke a different language. Yet even in the texts of highly knowledgeable and methodologically sophisticated writers, such projections seem to be unavoidable.

It is presumably an occupational hazard for historians to describe and analyse a previous historical era with the categories of the contemporary one. Williams is aware of the problem when, in his general introduction, discussing “class distinctions” in late feudal and early modern society, he tells us it is important “to avoid the crude error of reading back all the implications of (p.168) nineteenth century ideology into a period inspired by very different ways of thought” (Williams, 1967:26).

Not much later in the narrative, Williams warns us against projecting our own notions of class and class war: “To read back into the period any such notions is to reveal a complete misunderstanding of the early Tudor period” (Williams, 1967:30). And on the next page, in discussing problems related to what has been called “the agrarian revolution” as an explanation for the rise in prices without a corresponding rise in wages, he says: “it might be suggested in passing that there is probably more risk than profit in applying terms which have gained currency in one situation to a set of circumstances in another where the similarities are probably very superficial” (31). Yet in his general introduction and in the introductions to each section of documents, Williams constantly uses modern categories which, if in existence then, had a significantly different logic of use, and sometimes were not really in use at all.

Williams divides the documents into six sections, and it must have been extremely difficult to know which texts to place in which subsection, and which categories to use for dividing up the subsections in the first place:

  • Part I: The Writing of History

  • Part II: The Land

  • Part III: Commonweal

  • A: The Structure of Society

  • B: The Theory of Commonweal

  • C: Leaders in Society

  • Part IV: Government and Administration

  • A: The Crown

  • B: The Secretariat

  • C: Chamber and Household

  • D: The King's Council

  • E: The Conciliar Courts

  • F: The Common Law

  • G: Parliament

  • H: Local Government

  • I: Theory of Government

  • Part V: Religion

  • A: The Eve of the Reformation

  • B: The King's Private Matter

  • C: The Breach with Rome

  • D: Confiscation of Church Wealth

  • E: Doctrine under Henry VIII

  • F: The English Bible

  • G: Heresy

  • (p.169)
  • H: The Church under Edward VI

  • I: The Church under Mary

  • Part VI: Daily Life in Town and Country

  • A: Life in the Country

  • B: Life in the Town

  • C: Industry and Industrial Conditions

  • D: Money

  • E: Poverty & the Poor Law

  • F: Bringing Up the Young

It can be noticed that Williams does not use the word ‘politics’ as a subsection, and this would presumably be because, like ‘class distinctions’ and ‘class war’, it would constitute a methodologically crude (to use his word) way of importing nineteenth-century nuances back into a period that did not think or act in such terms. Yet he does sometimes use it in his own introductions to the different subsections. ‘Politics’ as a noun was rare in the period, in fact I found no instance of it any of the documents which I read (a considerable number) in the whole volume (the adjective ‘politic’ was more common and had a different nuance from the modern noun). In his general introduction, the editor frequently refers to both religion and politics as though they are or were essentially different domains though with a problematic interface. His early assertion (and I don't suppose he intended this as a comprehensive definition) that “Politics is the struggle for power: it is also the means for getting things done” is vacuous. For one could argue that struggling for power is so endemic in the struggle for survival that using the word ‘politics’ to describe so many different potential contexts of power renders it descriptively and analytically useless. On the other hand, since in modern usage it is heavily overlaid with (though not exhausted by) nuances of instrumental rationality, bureaucracy, constitutions, political parties, class divisions, elections, representative government, and a concept of the nation-state as essentially ‘secular’ and separated from ‘religion’, there is a constant danger and temptation of inadvertently projecting these characteristics back into the documentary material. Indeed, this happens constantly, as I will show. The editor writes about “the political history of these years” (Williams, 1967:2); “the innovations in religion and politics” (1967:4); “from 1529 onwards Englishmen were at the mercy of rulers wholly committed to great adventures in religion and politics” (5); “kaleidoscopic changes in religion and politics” (5); “[d]uring Henry VII's reign the rehabilitation of the kingship was a major problem of politics” (18); and the examples can be multiplied.

Even in the editor's own words, the usages seem unsustainable. The nature of kingship and the state render this language of ‘religion and politics’ impossible. For the king, referred to by such epithets as “our most dread sovereign Lord,” “the king's royal majesty,” and quite frequently “our most sacred king,” is in 1534 both the head of state and also the head of the Church of England.

(p.170) Words such as ‘religion’, ‘religious’, ‘politic’, and ‘secular’ had different applications from the modern ones. In modern Anglophone usage, they have been rendered into distinct domains with different logics. Religion has retreated from its pervasive, encompassing reality in this earlier period, which is textually represented by Williams's selection of documents, and has become a relatively marginal, privatised domain, and this retreat has facilitated the emergence of a new civil domain that has been imagined as ‘nonreligion’ in terms of civil society, the state, secular knowledge, and the dominating rationality of self-interest and markets. We might today think of these modern practices and ideals as sacred or sacrosanct, and arguably the right to practice one's religion is a sacred principle today. But there is no concept of the nonreligious in these documents, and I suspect it would have been meaningless to contemporaries of the time.

This points to another difficulty in Williams's editorial usage. For example, part III is given over to documents that are concerned with the commonweal and is divided into three subsections:

  • Part III: Commonweal

  • A: The Structure of Society

  • B: The Theory of Commonweal

  • C: Leaders in Society

One can understand the difficulty for any modern scholar of doing any writing or thinking without using the term ‘society’. Yet there are a number of problems with equating the term society or “the structure of society”—an expression which the editor employs quite frequently—with commonweal. One problem, which has been discussed by the historian John Bossy (1985:170–71), is that ‘society’ and ‘societies’ are modern essentialisations, in some ways parallel to ‘religion’ and ‘religions’. The idea of ‘a society’ hardly existed before the seventeenth century, except in such a context as ‘on Christmas day I enjoyed the society of Mrs Brown’. It was a word of relationship, not a reified object which could be lined up alongside a number of other similar objects and compared. The idea of ‘the structure of society’ is perhaps dependent on, or provides the basis for, the nineteenth-century idea of ‘sociology’ or ‘social science’, which is itself understood by sociologists as a secular science in the sense of nonreligious and neutral towards religion (I have discussed this point in greater detail in chapter 3). But the idea that the commonweal of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could have been neutral towards religion is clearly wrong if the actual documents themselves are to be believed. The reified idea of society as a possible object, or as multiple possible objects, of study presupposes a separation from ‘religion’ which, I shall argue here, was hardly conceivable in the period that this volume covers.

There is therefore a problem in the editorial separation of commonweal from Religion. For practical purposes, some distinctions have to be made, but (p.171) one has to consider whether or not the practical pressures of finding a way of distributing texts within a book like this outweighs the methodological issues involved. For it seems to me that the texts chosen to exemplify discourses on the “Commonweal” in part III, and the texts chosen to exemplify “Religion” in part V, do not themselves substantively underwrite the separation. The actual contents of the texts in both sections support the idea that ‘Religion’ and ‘commonweal’ were, for the people who were writing these documents, virtually indistinguishable. There was, therefore, no viable notion of ‘a society’ distinct from ‘a religion’, any more than there was a church defined, say, by its concern with the ‘supernatural’ as distinct from a state defined by its concern with the things of ‘this world’. The internal distinctions and divisions of function of different institutions were not made in these terms. Whatever sympathy one has for the historian with the enormous task of bringing such texts to the reading public in some manageable form, the methodological point still stands.

The whole of part V is given over to “Religion.” This category may be useful for the editor, but it is misleading. We can see from the table of contents that the editor is following a largely modern idea of what constitutes religion, one aspect of which is the tacit equation of ‘church’ and ‘religion’, and the (unsuccessful) attempt to keep it separate from ‘politics’ or ‘the state’:

  • Part V: Religion

  • A: The Eve of the Reformation

  • B: The King's Private Matter

  • C: The Breach with Rome

  • D: Confiscation of Church Wealth

  • E: Doctrine under Henry VIII

  • F: The English Bible

  • G: Heresy

  • H: The Church under Edward VI

  • I: The Church under Mary

Analysis of the documents themselves indicates that the term Religion is used fairly infrequently. It is virtually synonymous with Christian Truth or piety and while this is the root of modern usage the sixteenth-century usages have a different logic from the modern one. For most English-speaking people throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and probably this is true for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth as well, ‘Religion’ meant Christian Truth, and since most English-language discourses on ‘religion’, as it is understood in English, were written by Protestants, Religion meant Protestant Truth as against Catholic and other superstitions. Religion permeated everything. It was usually contrasted not with ‘the secular’ (which also had a different usage), but with superstition. Superstition, however, was not the opposite of Religion in the sense that the secular is the opposite of religion in (p.172) today's usages. Superstition was error in ‘religion’, confusion in the matters of salvation and redemption, a state of being lost and damned. It was a state of irrationality and barbarity. It was even a case of not being human, as the Spanish discourses on the Amerindians often suggested.

One of the habitual ways of thinking in the modern English language has been in terms of the separation of church and state and of religion from politics. I think we have to take seriously the idea that, when we talk about the dichotomous relationship, we are not talking about two preexisting domains defined by essentially different aims and characteristics that collided, each side struggling against the predominance of the other, and were now to be separated again. There is frequently an assumption that the words ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ each have a single continuous meaning historically, and that they are essentially different.

The problem is that the meaning of the terms changed and therefore it can be misleading to assume a simple and unproblematic continuity. The ‘religious’ was a status term referring to monastics. The ‘secular’ was most commonly used to refer to the secular priesthood, though there was a legitimate extension of the meaning to a more general reference to secular offices. Another way of making this distinction was between the spiritual and the temporal, as in lords spiritual (bishops) and lords temporal (landed gentry). However, in the understanding of the time, both the spiritual and the temporal as categories of people were subsumed in the higher unity of God and his redemptive purposes. Thus they were all members of Parliament, they were all members of the church, bishops helped to formulate state policy, and the king was God's vicar on earth. Furthermore, they largely belonged to the same degree of landed nobility.

A similar point can be made about the distinction between ecclesiastical courts and civil courts, or between canon law and civil law. These were important distinctions within their rightful context, but, as we will see from reading the documents, they were brought together and united at a higher level in the totality of Christendom.

Actually, ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ had to be constructed as distinct domains in the very process of separation. So ‘separation’ does not describe the historical reality, but only pretends to; the word implies that religion and politics have always been with us, but that we moderns are the first to understand this clearly, and what needs to be done with them. They need to be separated in language and thought because they are already separated in reality, but our ancestors did not understand that. They had not progressed as far as we have. They were still caught up in historical struggle, whereas we have finally emerged out of the jungle of confusion and can see the entire landscape. There is still a bit of thicket clearing to be done here and there, a few aimlessly wandering tribes who don't know how to organise themselves properly, a few lost souls that need Euro-American aid, but fundamentally the historical (p.173) madness is thinning out. But, instead, I would say that their ‘separation’ is rhetorical, and as such has been their genesis. In that sense, they are invented categories, not preexisting generic domains that have always existed in all languages.

It could perhaps be argued that church and state never have been completely separated in England, since the monarch is still the official head of both; yet it is also true that there are many ways in which religion and politics today have been defined that make them mutually exclusive and inhabiting distinct domains. If anybody were to say that “politics is her religion,” it would probably be taken metaphorically or ironically, because everyone knows that politics and religion don't mix. It is because they have been separated ideologically that the points at which they seem to get entangled can cause such commentary in the media and in the courts.

There is no doubt that church and state were merged in the figure of the sixteenth-century monarch, which is why I have tried consistently to use the term ‘church-state’. We can arrive at a sense of awe at the exercise of kingly power when we consider the statement put out by the cowed abbot and monks of Peterborough Monastery soon before the Dissolution in 1534. It is a remarkable statement, no doubt under pressure and threat, and it clarifies the absolute degree to which the king's power is acknowledged above everyone's, including the bishop of Rome and the archbishops of Canterbury and York:

[E]veryone of us, in his prayers and supplications to be made according to custom, will commend to God, and to the people in their prayers, first of all the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England, then Queen Anne and her off-spring, and then lastly the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, with the other orders of the clergy as shall seem fit. (Williams, 1967:777–78)

Thomas Cromwell's First Injunctions of 1536 (Williams, 1967:805–8), in which there is no mention of the word ‘religion’, make the same point as the abbot and monks had. Cromwell demands the obedience of those “having cure of souls” for

the abolishing and extirpation of the Bishop of Rome's pretensed and usurped power and jurisdiction within this realm, and for the establishment and confirmation of the king's authority and jurisdiction within the same … the King's power is within his dominion the highest power and potentate under God, to whom all men within the same dominion by God's commandments owe most loyalty and obedience, afore and above all other powers and potentates on earth. (1967:805–6)

The relation between the authority of the church and the authority of the state has been reformulated into an identification of “the Christian religion and (p.174) duty” with the power of the national state embodied in the king. It is to the king's “laws and decrees” that they swear absolute submission, not to the bishop of Rome.

In this sense, Williams is misleading when he says, “The most significant change comes about in 1534 when parliament decides that the king is not only head of the secular state but is also the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” (1967:19; my italics). Nobody can deny that church and state were distinguished in medieval thought in the analogous way that, in law, distinctions were made between ecclesiastical and civil courts, clergy and laity, and lords spiritual and lords temporal. However, neither the civil courts nor the lords temporal were ‘nonreligious’ or neutral towards religion in the modern sense. The state could not have been secular in the modern sense, which is arguably defined by its essential exclusion of religion. Whatever we may think about the secular, which is a complex term with many components, its bottom line is that it is nonreligious. How else could we claim to have a science of religions? Today, we are aware of their problematic relationship, a relationship that implies their separation as distinct domains. This is the reason that, for example, there is such protest when Anglican bishops are deemed to have ventured into politics; or when Muslim imams, who are thought of as ‘religious’ figures in English-speaking Western countries (though probably not in Arabic ones), are accused of orchestrating ‘political’ opposition to Anglo-American attempts to impose ‘democratic freedom’ on Arab states. But in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, bishops were lords spiritual and participated in the government of the commonweal, which was the realisation of God's order on earth. The pope was a prince and the king of England was Christ's vicar and head of the English church. To attempt to distinguish between sixteenth-century church and state in the categories of today violates the structure of language and meaning and threatens to confuse rather than clarify.

It is unsurprising that, in his general introduction, many of the editor's own references to ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ come in section VII, general introduction, “The Church” (Williams, 1967:35ff.). Here are some examples:

  • religious experience (35)

  • the religious situation on the eve of the Reformation (37)

  • the religious causes at issue (37)

  • the religious innovations (37)

  • religious changes (37)

  • problems of religious history in the early sixteenth century (38)

  • the statutes dealing with religion (38)

What do ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ mean in these examples? I infer that Williams is using the terms in a more general sense of the Reformation as a widespread movement of theological, liturgical, pastoral, and administrative reform. But his usages do not reflect the usages or the understanding of the (p.175) time. They reflect our idea that ‘religion’ is a special kind of generic thing defined by a special kind of psychological ‘experience’ more reminiscent of William James; or that ‘religions’ are ubiquitous things in the plural; or that ‘religious’ attributes are distinguishable from ‘political’ attributes. But in the sixteenth century and for long after, the “situation,” “causes,” “innovations,” “changes,” and “problems” that the editor qualifies as “religious” were not meaningfully so, for the predominant meaning of ‘religious’ was not a special psychology but an institutionalised status. Of course, if politics only means ‘power’ and ‘getting things done’, then one might say that these events were political. They were certainly to do with policy. Luther's goal was also to destroy the power of the pope who was also a prince, and one effect of this was to change the power and state administration of German principalities. But it introduces a misleading issue when we evoke a question about whether Luther's (or the pope's) aims were religious or political.

Williams rightly points out that the driving force, or at least one of the driving forces, for Henry was concern about the succession and the need for an heir. This was referred to as the “king's private matter,” which included both the problem of succession and the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. As such, it was a matter of both church and state simultaneously. Could this be one of the English Reformation's “religious causes at issue”? Or was this a ‘political’ matter?

In his introduction to the documents in part V, “Religion,” and referring especially to those in section B, which are selected for their concern with the king's matter, Williams comments that, if they seem at first sight “more relevant to the political history of the period than they do to the history of the Church, a closer study of their contents will soon modify such an impression” (1967:633). Presumably, Williams is saying that, if we closely study these documents, we will realise either that they are religious and political, or that they are even more religious than we might have suspected! Yet the editor also claims that “the breach with Rome was far less concerned with problems of religion than it was with questions of law and politics” (1967:44). This claim does not sit well with the previously quoted view. But I can't help thinking that it is a mistake to keep insisting on the distinction in these matters, even when the distinction is first set up and then found wanting. Yes, this is about both religion and politics, but fused together into a different totalizing discourse and therefore neither.

We know that Henry was not a supporter of Luther, and detested his theological and liturgical proposals. Henry wished to remain a Catholic in terms of liturgy and doctrine, except insofar as he would be forced to change these elements to bring about the necessary reforms to break the authority of the pope. Williams comments, “[H]is religious beliefs remained in essentials what they had been before political necessity forced him to reject the primacy of the Pope” (1967:57).

(p.176) There are a number of problems with this. For one thing, it is difficult to understand how a belief in Christendom could have remained essentially the same without allegiance to the pope. Surely, a rejection of the pope's authority changes everything. And which are the ‘religious’, as distinct from the ‘political’, elements of this? And why would Williams use ‘political’ when, talking about people who were “indifferent to the religious causes at issue,” he refers to “[t]heir indifference to religious changes coupled with the prevailing political idea that the duty of the subject to the Prince should be one of unquestioning obedience” (37). Is it the intended implication that obedience was political duty but not religious duty? It is difficult to derive any clear sense from this as to how the distinction actually works, if at all. Another historian, Kinney, comments that “obedience is always a holy act” (Kinney, 1975:47). Obedience of a servant to a master, of a wife to a husband, of a pupil to a teacher, of a subject to a prince, of lower degree to higher degree, were analogous to the obedience of a Christian to God. The whole social order was wrapped in divinity and teleologically determined by God's scheme of redemption.

Christian marriage, whether of princes or subjects, can be classified as ‘religious’ in modern terms because it is a rite of passage, takes place in a church, is blessed by a priest, and is a solemn oath taken before God. Yet, in the royal house, “the giving and taking in marriage was a powerful instrument of policy” (Williams, 1967:40). Henry VIII's father, Henry VII, had, on the death of his eldest son, Rupert, planned to marry his own daughter-in-law to stop the return of her dowry to Spain. Was this religion or politics? Henry VIII's own marriage to Catherine of Aragon “was a marriage for reasons of state if ever there was one”: “It would have been quite in keeping with these ideas if Henry looked upon it as part of his royal prerogative to set aside a childless marriage in order to assure the future of the dynasty” (1967:40).

Religion or politics? Henry had to challenge canon law and the pope's interpretation of it. He also had to formulate a theological argument which tacitly challenged the pope's power to give the dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his deceased brother. It seems obvious that we are not here dealing with a struggle between politicians and bishops, occupying separate domains of politics and religion. In today's terminology, the church was a political institution and Parliament was full of priests.

Then, was Thomas More's opposition to the king, or the widespread opposition to the English Bible, political or religious? The editor says that William Tyndale foretold “how great an influence it would have in the spreading of ideas critical of the contemporary church” (Williams, 1967:46). Among the reactions to its publication were public burnings and excommunications. Is such a response religious or political? More useful descriptive and analytical categories are badly needed to untangle this circular and confusing discourse.

It seems a kind of irony that, when we read the historical documents that have been selected by Williams to illustrate ‘religion’, we rarely actually find (p.177) either of the words ‘religion’ or ‘politics’. And this is equally true about the selection of documents placed in the section on commonweal, which Williams thinks is partly about “social structure.” That is not say that they do not appear, but that their usage is both scarcer and clearer than our own. When Religion is mentioned in its noun form, it refers usually in an uncomplicated way to revealed Christian Truth, for example, the return to such Truth through the reformation of the church. Thus Archbishop Cranmer, writing to Wolfgang Capito, refers to “the reformation of religion and the clergy” (1967:794). But this does not mean that religion was the business of the clergy and that politics was the business of politicians. There is surely a different nuance in such statements. After all, presumably, the reform to which he was referring was a reform either of the religious or the secular clergy, or perhaps of both.

‘The religious’ usually refers to the status of the monastics, and ‘politic’ tends to appear in the expression ‘the politic body’ which, as we have seen in the introduction to the commonweal, is not ‘politics’ in the modern sense of a distinct domain, secular or nonreligious, but in the sense of policy formed wisely for human salvation, godly living, and the solution of conflicts, especially between governments. Such policy was not formulated without reference to what we refer to as religious beliefs, because everything thought and done ought to be in the service of God. In the Ten Articles of 1536, which Williams says is one of the essential documents “in which declarations of faith were put forward” during Henry VIII's reign, honest policy means “decent and seemly order” in church and commonwealth, as in the following, where the document concerns

certain articles necessary to our salvation, as also touching certain other honest and commendable ceremonies, rites, and usages now of long time used and accustomed in our churches, for conservation of an honest policy and decent and seemly order. (Williams, 1967:795)

The uses of ‘religiously’ (adverb) and ‘politic’ (adjective) are not mutually exclusive in the way that our modern idea of a domain of politics is constructed on the exclusion of a domain of religion, the domain of religion in turn being constructed by the exclusion of politics.

The Ten Articles concern some essential observances, which have been commanded expressly by God, and other time-honoured customs, which are approved but not essential to salvation and must be interpreted in a correct Protestant way. The essential observances comprise “The Creeds,” “The Sacrament of Baptism,” “The Sacrament of Penance,” “The Sacrament of the Altar” (referring to the Eucharist), and “Justification.” Inessential but time-honoured customs are discussed under the headings “And First Images” (about idolatry), “Of Honouring Saints,” “Of Praying to Saints,” “Of Rites and Ceremonies,” and “Of Purgatory.” In none of these articles is there any mention of ‘religion’. The word simply doesn't appear. Nor does the word ‘politics’. But one could say that rites and ceremonies were a matter of policy.

(p.178) The first article concerning faith gives us a good idea what religion meant to the writer, even though the word does not appear. People who deny the “infallible word of God” in the three creeds (the apostles' Common Creed, the Nicaean, and the Athanasian) “cannot be the very members of Christ and his espouse the Church, but be very infidels and heretics, and members of the Devil” (Williams, 1967:796). The opposite of religion is not the secular or politics or the state, but infidelity and heresy, superstition and idolatry.

The word ‘spiritual’ is contained in an expression that is ritually repeated in slightly varied ways at the start of each article, along the lines that “the people are committed to the spiritual charge of the Bishops.” This is a common usage for ‘spiritual’. Another usage found in the section on penance is “I chastise and subdue my carnal body, and the affections of the same, and make them obedient unto the spirit” (Williams, 1967:800; my italics). A third example is found in “Justification,” where the writer is talking about “good works … not only outward and civil works, but also the inward spiritual motions and graces of the Holy Ghost” (801; my italics). A fourth example is in the article “Of Rites and Ceremonies”: “to put us in remembrance of those spiritual things that they do signify” (804; my italics).

There are two uses of ‘religiously’: in the article concerning faith in the statement “they [the people] ought and must most reverently and religiously observe” (Williams, 1967:797); and in the article concerning the Eucharist, where it says, “every man ought … religiously to try and search his own conscience before he shall receive the same” (801). It seems to me that this usage could be closest to the Latin religio, that when something is done religiously it is done with seriousness, solemnity, care, attention, reverence (as J. Z. Smith has also pointed out). In these cases, it is observing the sacraments and one's own conscience that should be done religiously.

In Cromwell's First Injunctions of 1536 (Williams, 1967:805–8), there is no mention of religion. He is concerned with the power and majesty of the king, which is expressed in such terms as “sovereign lord and king,” or “the authority of the king's majesty.” Like the Ten Articles, on which Cromwell comments in his Injunctions, he is putting forward a Protestant document. For example, he refers to the Ten Articles and the injunction to perform rites and pilgrimages as remembrances but not superstitions (e.g., not believing that they are magically efficacious). If “certain laudable ceremonies, rites and usages” are performed without superstition, then they are “meet and convenient to be kept and used for a decent and politic order” (1967:806). It seems clear that the idea of a ‘politic order’ is not the same as a modern ‘political order’.

Even if we were able to reserve ‘religion’ for matters strictly of liturgy, doctrine, and church administration, we would still be confused by the editor's use of language, for he says that doctrinal problems and questions of church discipline became matters for “legislation by parliament. Between 1530 (p.179) and 1547 they were political issues” (Williams, 1967:57). It was mainly bishops in Parliament and in convocation who took responsibility for them. Thus, at the time that the bishops were doing the parliamentary and legal work, Thomas Cromwell was made the king's vicar general in spiritual matters in 1535. The lack of fit between our categories and theirs, which at one level has been acknowledged by Williams, does not inhibit him from a largely uncontrolled usage and a consequent deterioration of meaning:

  • the main interest in English religion and politics is concerned with questions of faith and doctrine (60)

  • the religious changes under Edward VI (60)

  • Somerset's religious outlook (61)

  • Northumberland's religious ideas and his policy (61)

  • Henry's religious policy (61)

  • the whole of the religious history of England since 1529 (63)

We can only guess at what he means.

Part III: Commonweal. Section A: The Structure of Society

If Williams's section on the commonweal was based on its approximation to modern society and politics, and its definitive distinction from religion, we would expect to find a different domain of discourse. Of course, there is a sense in which discourses on the commonwealth have their own characteristic concerns, but this is not because they are about a different topic but because they are looking at Christian Truth from a slightly different perspective. One can hardly find the kind of ideological separation of the modern religion-politics dichotomy. Williams, a social historian, might be an anthropologist when he observes:

Thus while society in the early Tudor period must be presented as a complex of relationships inherited from the middle ages and therefore, to a large degree, stereo-typed by custom and tradition, it must not be forgotten that this pattern was being subjected to the modifying influence of change, in part the result of late medieval factors, in part the direct product of the political, religious and economic transformations which were the distinctive features of early 6th century conditions. (1967:223)

On the face of it, Williams's point might seem straightforward, but it isn't because none of the terminology in today's usage is the same. The term “economic transformations” may seem intuitively meaningful to us today and there is a widespread assumption that ‘economics’ is simply a universal fact of human life. But this, I suggest, is to make the same mistake as the one about (p.180) ‘class’, about which Williams himself warned his readers. Something similar can be said about his use of “political”; if it means ‘politic’ then it can refer to any practice; if it means ‘pertaining to the political domain’ then there was no concept of a political domain separated from a religious or an economic one. On the other hand, reverting to my argument in chapter 3, it might be possible to argue that there were practices that were relatively profane. One could set up a range of practices under a category like ‘exchange’. At one end, the king knighting a loyal subject would be a symbolic act whereby a kind of sacrality was conferred on someone in exchange for services. At the other end were largely profane monetary exchanges. These latter were not amoral or natural in the way that modern ideology would have us believe; such exchanges still had implications deriving from Christian morality, such as the restrictions on usury. But this would be a different kind of claim which would still need to be distinguished from the modern religion-secular distinction.

On the meaning of ‘religious’ dominant at the time, “religious … transformations” might have referred to transformations of religious houses, but it is not clear that Williams wants to say that. If he wants to refer to the transformation of the Roman Catholic into the Anglican church-state, then it seems apparent that in modern meanings it is neither religious nor political.

Williams says that land was of supreme importance “as a source not only of wealth, but also, what was more important in such a society, of power” (1967:224). If politics is equated with power and its transformations, and given that the religious houses were huge land owners, then in that sense they were also political, the controllers of land-based power. With the dissolution of the religious houses came the concentration of land and power in the state and the king, but also the emergence of a conception of Christian Religion defined by a doctrine of the sacraments that placed the king by analogy with God on earth and with the head of the national church. And if economics is here equivalent to ‘wealth’, then the major source of ‘economic’ transformation is the changing status of land.

The term ‘commonweal’ seems to define the confluence of everything we separate out as religion, on the one hand, and political economy, on the other. The editor refers to the idea of the commonweal as the early Tudor “anthropomorphic theory of society” (Williams, 1967:26). This discourse was a detailed analogy of society to the human body, with individuals being by analogy parts of the body, identified by their natures, qualities, and functions. Teleologically constituted, this idealised body was ultimately united and harmonious, provided each member fulfilled his or her own duties and functions regularly and correctly. Tyndale and most early Reformers accepted this metaphor. It was frequently referred to as ‘the politic body’ and, like other uses of ‘politic’ as an adjective implies fitting, well ordered, and God-given—though it can also have more negative connotations, in the sense of crafty or cunning. Divine purpose was realised through submission to one's status and duties in (p.181) the creation of a harmonious whole. The word ‘politic’ here is a long way from contemporary usages and needs to be kept separate. For ‘politics’ as a contemporary noun implies a domain separated off from another domain named ‘religion’. But this cannot make much sense when referring to an idea of a body of men (women and children had a problematic status in this body) made by and for Christ, in which bishops are in the government and the king is head of the church.

Duties which devolved on one as a result of one's place in the great body were referred to as one's ‘vocation’. A vocation was not a freely chosen career but God-ordained work of a kind suitable for one's station in life. A change of status was possible, however, for individuals with a special vocation and with the help and recognition of a high-ranking patron. There was a new section of aristocracy resented by the older nobility, and also a new middling order of bankers, merchants, industrialists—the rich men of the towns (Williams, 1967:32). The latter usually bought land and adopted the traditional lifestyle of the landed gentry, for they desired status in the dominant terms of the times; yet they may also have taken new business skills into landed estates and contributed to the gradual transition to capitalist forms of labour, organisation, and investment (1967:32). Williams points out:

Rural England was experiencing the beginnings of a breakdown of personal relationship of lord and man which had been the main feature of medieval organization; it was now being replaced by the less intimate relationship of landlord and tenant farmer, and farmer and hired labourer. (1967:27)

On the other hand, there was not much mobility for the vast number of people, and not enough to challenge the overall order of people and things. Anthropologists have shown how rituals, individual and collective, can construct symbolic universes, including the social order, and presumably medieval and early modern society were full of prescriptions on the demarcation of status, such as dress, carriage, use of language, to whom one could speak, where one could enter, precedence, wealth, and so on. Sumptuary laws covered many such matters, and heralds were “the arbiters of established titles of dignity” (Williams, 1967:28).

It is notable that the documents in this section never themselves refer to ‘society’ or ‘economics’, nor do they refer to ‘religion’. Instead, in the space reserved by the twentieth-century historian as “the structure of society,” the actual texts selected by Williams reveal a typical concern with (in the words typical of the age employed by the sixteenth-century authors, either quoted or glossed):

  • wearing costly apparel

  • the reversal of attainders

  • (p.182)
  • authority and power by his [the king's] letters patent

  • forfeiture of estates

  • a grant of arms

  • heraldic visitation and the bearing of arms in relation to noble estates

  • creation of peers

  • the estates and orders of their empire [this refers to monarchs and kings]

  • civil administration

  • nobility of estates and orders

  • family wills and origins

  • forfeiture of goods and chattels

  • my father was a yeoman [Latimer's first sermon preached before King Edward VI]

  • lease of the site of the late monastery

  • manumissions of bondmen and villains

  • stealing of wards to marry the children to

  • ungodly marrying

  • punishment of such as shall take away maidens that be inheritors

  • lands, tenements, and hereditaments or other great substances in goods and chattels moveable

  • buying and selling of maidens for advantageous marriage

One item selected by the editor for this group, The Fortress of the Faithful by T. Becon (Williams, 1967:268–71), is a satire concerning who is a true gentleman. The interest of this passage is that it defends the ideal of the commonweal on analogy with a body, an organic whole, functioning according to virtues practised by gentlemen and nobility in which the highest value is the common good:

Without the true gentlemen the commonweal can no more safely be than the body without eyes. For as the eyes are the principal comfort of an whole body, so likewise are the true gentlemen of the commonweal … . For their principal respect is not unto their own private lucre and singular commodity but their whole study is how they may profit the commonweal and do goods to many. (Williams, 1967:268)

This virtuous order is being undermined by unscrupulous “unnoble nobility” and those who glory in the title of gentleman

who think all nobility to consist in the abundance of worldly goods, in wearing of gold chains and costly apparel, in having fair houses and pleasant gardens … they poll, they pill, they wake, they rake, they sweat, they fret, they gripe, they nip, they face, they brase, they semble, they dissemble. (268)

They are the “very caterpillars of the commonweal.”

(p.183) In this satirical reflection on the rise of a false nobility, which in modern parlance we might refer to as nouveau riche, or socially upwardly mobile, there is no sense of an economic sphere in the sense of a value-neutral, or even value-positive, enterprise culture, or the formation of a middle class. The dominant ideal which is being defended is the idea of a realm, a commonweal, analogous to an organic, hierarchical body in which men of different estates, degrees, and ranks, by living according to those virtues suitable to their stations, maintain and increase the realm, a true, God-given order that can be undermined by selfish pseudogentlemen who do not understand the realm of ends.

In this article, there are repeated references to “the commonweal,” “the realm,” “worldly goods,” “nobility,” “the renown, worship and honour of true gentlemen,” “the common people,” “virtue,” “godly gifts of the mind” (such as justice, mercy, liberality, kindness, gentleness, hospitality for the poor), “multitude of riches,” “the realm of England,” “the commons” (meaning also “the people”), “the rich men of this world,” “the king's majesty and his most honourable council,” “the rich worldlings,” and “despisers of God's holy ordinance.” This is what a twentieth-century historian labels “the structure of society.” The terms that most closely approximate to society are commonweal and realm; but we can also see that whereas ‘society’ is an abstract generic concept, these terms are more specific and particular, for they define not any society but this society with its specific conception of hierarchy, duty, and so on. And at this time, as Bossy has shown, when the term ‘society’ was used at all, it referred either to small organisations called societies, or more usually to more personal concrete sets of relationships, and had not yet become a generic abstraction—though it was soon to do so, or at least to appear to do so, as the work of Samuel Purchas discussed in chapter 7 suggests. Potential ambiguities in the dominant discourse of the times were to work loose like a rhetorical knot that begins to lose its grip in the context of the seventeenth century, especially the development of the North American colonial scene, but also in the context of colonial expansion and ambition more widely.

The editor's short discussion of A Supplication of the Poore Commons, 1546 (Williams, 1967:276–92) continues to employ a distinction between the religious and the social, as in “there can be detected some traces of the disappointment with the actual results of [the] social and religious changes of Henry VIII's reign” (Williams, 1967:276; it was the final year of Henry's life). He adds the interesting comment, “In the new order the monk has gone, but his place has been taken by the sturdy extortioner and the possessors.” If this essay constitutes a theory of the commonweal, which in turn is part of (or identical with?) the structure of society, then we should note that the God of the Bible, and the king as head of church and state, are the basic referents of this theory in the construction of the organic analogy. References to Religion as such are, as usual, very scarce. The text itself contains only one reference to “the Christian religion,” and there are two references to the “superstitious (p.184) religious,” referring specifically to the monks, nuns, friars, canons, and hermits. But there are no references to the secular, to society, to politics, or to economics.

The idea of the commonweal valorises what we might call hierarchy in the Dumontian explication of that term, but in terms of estate, degree, and vocation. It is a supplication to the king concerning “this your majesty's realm,” and the “miserable poverty” and the “wretched estate” of the king's subjects, the cause of the poverty being “the great and infinite number of valiant and sturdy beggars which had, by their subtle and crafty demeanour in begging, gotten into their hands more than the third part of the yearly revenues and possessions of this your highness' realm” (Williams, 1967:276). These sturdy beggars, the “monks, friars, canons, hermits and nuns” are “the superstitious religious”; he laments that even some “secular men” voted in Parliament for this law. Note that both ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ sit in Parliament with the right to vote. Parliament is not a ‘secular’ institution as distinct from the church as a ‘religious’ institution.

The king is addressed as “merciful father over this your natural country,” and the writer and his like as “your loving and obedient subjects.” Later he says, “Let us be unto your highness as the inferior members of the body to their head” (Williams, 1967:286). There is a deep sense of grievance, of having been cheated, by the thought that people, deluded by the holiness of ‘the religious’, might walk a hundred miles barefoot to offer them alms. But this problem has now been righted by the king.

The writer makes references to Pharisees, Jews, Ephesians, Saint Paul, Saint Mark, Saint Peter, and scripture generally to justify the belief that the king governs by the power and legitimacy of God, which in turn justifies obedience to the king (which is therefore virtually the same as obedience to God), and that it is a “devilish enterprise … to rebel against your highness, our most natural sovereign and liege lord” (Williams, 1967:276).

This is a Protestant tract, expressing hatred of “our forefathers' popish traditions,” and inveighs against “Pope, pardons, lighting of candles to images, knocking and kneeling to them, with running hither and thither on pilgrimage,” along with “purgatory horseleeches” and “beastly buggery” (Williams, 1967:276). Remember that these documents have been editorially selected for a section not on Religion but on “the structure of society.” The writer, Cooper, is defending the translation of the Bible into English against the claims of the remaining apologists for their own control of scripture and its interpretation. He contrasts the Reformation started by “our natural Prince” (277), the king, with their desire “for the maintenance of their popish traditions and purgatory patrimony.” These Catholics, the remnants of ‘the religious’, who are equivalent to sturdy beggars—have managed to get a law passed which would deprive people who spend less than £10 per year of the right to have an English Bible in their house. By analogy, he argues, with the word of God as the food of (p.185) the soul, servants in the king's household would not be allowed food unless they were “clothed in velvet with chains of gold about their necks” (278).

God is “our most merciful Father,” but so is Henry, and it is sometimes difficult to disentangle in this prose God from the king. I am not saying that at the level of official theology there is no distinction. It is carefully maintained. But in the popular imagination and in much usages of language, there appears to be a fusion. There is no doubt that the king is in some significant sense considered to be sacred.

Having been offered the scriptures in English, and the decree that an English Bible should be placed in every parish church to be freely and equally available to all “of what degree soever he were”—“degree” being the operative concept rather than class—the writer complains that this offer has been resisted: “there is no small number of churches that hath no Bible at all” (Williams, 1967:279). In other churches, where there is one, this “wicked generation” of priests “would pluck it either into quire or else into some pew where poor men durst not presume to come.” Here we get an indication of how salvation through the church has only ambivalently been an egalitarian soteriology, despite the claims of official theology that all are equal in the eyes of God, but is qualified by rank and wealth. The seating arrangements in the church symbolise this.

In the following quote, the writer is not himself confusing what is owed to God and what is owed to the king, but the modern reader might be forgiven for losing track of the distinction sometimes:

If we have therefore rejected this merciful proffer [of free access to the English Bible] of our most merciful Father when he used your highness as his instrument to publish and set forth his most living Word, wherein he declared the inestimable love that he bears towards us, in that he gave his only Son to be an acceptable sacrifice for our sins; and the unspeakable mercy which caused him to accept us as just, even for his Son's sake, without our works or deservings; let us now humbly fall down prostrate before his majesty with perfect repentance of this, the contempt of his merciful gift; most humbly beseeching him of his infinite goodness tenderly to behold the dolours of our hearts for that we neglect so merciful a proffer; and to forget our obstinacy therein, giving your highness such desire of our salvation that you will as favourably restore unto us the scripture in our English tongue as you did at the first translation hereof set it abroad. (Williams, 1967:279)

While reading this, I found it difficult to decide before whom “we” are prostrating and to whose infinite goodness we are supplicating. This passage refers throughout to God, “our most merciful Father,” generally until the switch to “your highness.” But earlier, the author had referred to the king as “a (p.186) merciful father of this your natural country,” and there is a clear analogy between the Father and the father, between “the Lord Jesu” (Williams, 1967:279) and “our gracious Prince,” here referring to the king rather than to Jesus the Prince of Peace. Furthermore, just as God gave his “commandments,” so also “his highness” gives his commandments (279).

But this is not all of it, for there is an egalitarian thread of salvation after all. Cooper politely points out that even the “most dear sovereign … shall stand before the judgement seat of God” (Williams, 1967:284). This ambiguity between hierarchy and equality runs through Christian thought, and may itself be a significant source of later social theorising. But the possibility of confusion, if not between God and the king, then between God's laws and the king's laws, comes out in this extract:

[T]hey say your highness's laws are God's laws, and we are as much bound to observe them as the law of God given by Moses. Truth it is, most dear Lord, that we are bound by the commandment of God to obey your highness and all your laws set forth by your High Court of Parliament. (Williams, 1967:287)

Clearly, government by king and Parliament is encompassed by the commandment and thus legitimation of God in these sentences. But is this a theory of ‘society’? The subjects of wealth, rents, fines, leases, extortions, usury, benefices, land, food, are not in the slightest separated out into a separate domain called ‘economics’. This is not just a semantic point. It is surely about what is valued and given importance. Anthropologists might say that politics and economics are ‘embedded’ in primitive institutions (and they sometimes say that about religion, though Durkheim it seems to me has created an ambiguous understanding of ‘religion’). They might imply that evolution will make explicit what is now only implicit. I do not think this is the best model for understanding this. However difficult it might be to describe or explain the shift from the medieval concept of the world which Southern calls the “church-state,” through the early modern configuration of the English state church, through to the modern idea of separate religious and secular domains, we can at least see that the changes are fundamental and amount to a paradigm shift in which new categories emerge in new configurations and replace previous categories and configurations. This is a change of cosmology.

The commonweal as Christian Truth is expressed by William Tyndale in “The Parable of the Wicked Mammon” (reprinted in Williams, 1967:292–94.) Williams gives his own title for this piece as “Thoughts on Social Responsibilities from the Works of William Tyndale,” which seems suitably anaemic when compared with Tyndale's own language. That there was no separation of religion and society or politics in Tyndale's mind can be seen straightaway in the first sentence: “As pertaining to good works, understand that all works are (p.187) good that are done within the law of God, in faith, and with thanksgiving to God” (Williams, 1967:292).

Again, there is no mention of ‘religion’, ‘politics’, ‘economics’, or any of the other words so commonly used in the modern humanities. There are uses of “spirit” here which are different from the usual references to lords spiritual and temporal and deriving from the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost or Spirit. The world which Tyndale sees is, like the previous vision of Cooper, analogous to an organic body with hierarchically arranged functions. He is concerned with an understanding of good works defined by subservience to the status quo, or relative degrees, high or low:

God looketh first on thy heart … he looketh with what heart thou workest, and not what thou workest; how thou acceptest the degree that he hath put the[e] in, and not of what degree thou art, whether thou be an apostle or a shoemaker … . Now that thou ministerest in the kitchen, and art but a kitchen page, receivest all things of the hand of God; knowest that God hath put the[e] in that office; submittest thyself to his will; and servest thy master not as a man, but as Christ himself, with a pure heart. (Williams, 1967:293)

Masters also have duties to their servants: “nurture them as thy own sons with the Lord's nurture, that they may see in Christ a cause why they ought lovingly to obey” (294).

There is equality as well as hierarchy, but equality is not in this world but in the next, in the sight of God: “as great in his sight is a servant as a master” (Williams, 1967:294). One might argue that the millenarian movements and much of the agitation in seventeenth-century England were attempts to resolve this tension between a commonweal based on degree and estate and an egalitarian soteriology. This tension can still be found in late eighteenth-century Methodism (Thompson, 1963).1 It is surely arguable that salvation is as much a collective concern as an individual one.

The analogy of the relationship between fathers and sons to masters and servants is also applied to that between landlords and tenants. But all men are sons of God the Father. By use of analogical relationships or fictive kinship, the whole commonweal is bound to God, who is the highest degree as well as the summum bonum. We couldn't get a clearer idea of the fusion of religion and society at this level of ideology, and no mention of either. There is no clear reason that this document should be here rather than in the part about “Religion.”

The body analogy comes out clearly here:

Let kings and head officers … punish sin, and that with mercy, even with the same sorrow and grief of mind as they would cut off a finger (p.188) or a joint, leg or an arm, of their own body, if there were such disease in them, that either they must be cut off, or else all the body must perish. (Williams, 1967:293)

A little later, Tyndale writes, “remember that we are all members of one body” (293).

The analogy of the body is not with society but with the commonweal. And it demonstrates the subordination of every function, profession, trade, and occupation to the overriding value of the totality, the end of the commonweal being Christ himself:

Let every man of whatsoever craft or occupation he be of, whether brewer, baker, tailor, victualler, merchant, or husbandman, refer his craft and occupation unto the commonwealth, and serve his brethren as he would do Christ himself. (Williams, 1967:293)

What we have separated out and valorised as ‘economics’ is here a subordinate aspect of the commonweal. Referring to the various crafts and occupations: “Let him buy and sell truly … . And let your superfluities succour the poor, of which sort shall ever be some in all towns, and cities, and villages” (293).

Tyndale's theory is a form of preaching or exhortation to his fellow English Christians to act in accordance with the ideal of the commonweal. Presumably, there is an anxiety that the ideal is being undermined, perhaps by the emergence of a new group of land owners and ‘gentlemen’ who are too interested in profit. Perhaps there is a rise in the rates of usury. For one reason or another, there is a belief that it is in a state of decay.

The Nature of the Commonweal: Starkey's “Dialogue between Pole and Lupset”

The editor, C. H. Williams, tells us that this was written before 1539, though not printed until 1871. He refers to it as “the functional theory of society.” The commonweal is here usually referred to as the “politic body.” There is also an analogy between the relationship of soul to body, on the one hand, and “civil order” and “politic law” to the “politic body,” on the other hand. The “civil order” and “politic law,” administered by rulers and officers, is analogous to the soul of the individual man. As the soul keeps the body in good functioning order, so civil order and politic law properly administered keep the politic body properly functioning.

Starkey's thought seems closer to theory. Rather than being just a homily based on a popular metaphor, as Tyndale's largely seems, there is a greater degree of objectification, or reification perhaps, in Starkey. Pole develops the body analogy very explicitly and in the process “this politic body” does seem to (p.189) become reified in language, rather than merely being a metaphor. There is ambiguity here.

“Politic” here seems clearly to have the nuance of well ordered, appropriate, wise, orderly, and proper. It seems similar to what anthropologists have sometimes called “ ‘ritual order,” or what the anthropologist Maurice Bloch calls a “total ritual system” (Bloch, 1992:2); or perhaps ‘customary practices’ might correspond as well, except that there is the sense of a rhetorically constructed holistic system of representations bringing things together, rather than simply a relatively unconnected series of discrete customs and practices.

Throughout Starkey's “Dialogue,” we find expressions in the mouths of Pole and Lupset such as “all civility and politic rule” (301), “politic state” (297), and “commonalty” (297). Pole talks about “the true commonweal” (296). When Pole talks about “civil order” and “politic law,” I take it that “order” and “law” are nouns and “civil” and “politic” are adjectives. ‘Civil’ does not seem easily distinguishable from ‘politic’ in the sense of the health, peace, happiness, and well-being of the people. Both civil and politic have that sense of being well adjusted, appropriate, and in conformity with traditional practice. They refer to what I have called the disciplines of civility. There is also the expression “the order of nature” (297) within which the analogy with the body anchors the politic state. Talking of this politic body:

[T]his body hath his parts, which resemble also the body of man, of which the most general to our purpose be these: the heart, head, hands and feet. The heart thereof is the king, prince, ruler of the state … whethersoever it be one of or many, according to the governance of the commonalty and politic state. For some be governed by a prince alone, some by a council of certain wise men, and some by the whole people together … like as all wit, reason and sense, feeling, life, and all other natural power, springeth out of the heart, so from the princes and rulers of the state cometh all laws, order and policy, all justice, virtue and honesty, to the rest of this politic body. (Starkey, quoted in Williams, 1967:297)

It is worth pausing here to reflect that there is a greater sense of relativity, comparison, and objectification than in the extracts from Tyndale. Different forms of government are compared. This suggests something closer to comparative political theory as we might understand it. Both Starkey and Pole lived and studied in Padua, were well read in classical and contemporary political theory, and were advisors to Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell (see Zeeveld, 1948:111–27). On the other hand, you cannot claim that, because Starkey was a Renaissance humanist and intellectual who had studied in Padua, that therefore this concept was merely an abstraction peculiar to an intellectual class of theorists—for the model permeated the sixteenth-century thinking of the ruling elites. Also, it is difficult to see, given the analogy of the body and the (p.190) function of the head, how the whole people together could rule. If he had in mind some kind of democracy, the metaphor of the body would collapse because the point of the metaphor is not equality but inequality and functional hierarchy. Theologically, it could be held that equality only exists after death when the soul stands before God to be judged.

“To the head, with the eyes, ears, and other senses therein, resembled may be right well the under officers by princes appointed, forasmuch as they should ever observe and diligently wait for the weal of the rest of this body” (Williams, 1967:297). Here, the analogy evokes the ‘weal’ of the body, meaning its well-being, with the head subordinate to the heart. The hands and feet are also necessary to the politic functioning of the body: “To the hands are resembled both craftsmen and warriors … to the feet, the ploughmen and tillers”; “the strength of these parts altogether is of necessity required, without the which the health of the whole cannot long be maintained” (297).

The metaphor of bodily well-being implies the possibility of disease, and the metaphor is extended to explain the cause of such disease in the politic, or should one say impolitic, body. Disease can occur when

the parts of this body agree not together: the head agreeth not to the feet, nor feet to the hands; no one part agreeth to other; the temporalty grudgeth against the spiritualty, the commons against the nobles, and subjects against their rulers … . The parts of the body be not knit together as it were with spirit and life. (Williams, 1967:299)

The distinction here between the “spiritualty” and the “temporalty” is that between the lords spiritual and lords temporal, which we have already encountered as a basic way of classifying the bishops and the other lords, who all sit in Parliament and participate in law making. As already noted, this is not like the modern separation of church and state at all, nor is it the separation of religion and politics. On the contrary, the analogy reproduces the fusion of religion and politics in the politic body or commonweal.2 Pole says, “this is so manifest it needeth no proof.” This may be described by the expert as either “dialectic” or “persuasive” rhetoric, and it can also be suggested that it was persuasive because the analogy would have appeared ‘natural’ to readers. Presumably, markets and motivations of enlightened self-interest seem as persuasively natural to our own intelligentsia today.

The “offices” of, for example, ploughmen and labourers (who are the feet) or artificers and craftsmen (who are the hands) are also “duties.” What we call status is a degree, an office, and a duty. What we would separate out as ‘economics’ or economic theory is here thought of as a moral issue stemming from the harmonious or inharmonious working of the politic body or commonweal. Scarcity, want, and high prices, he argues, are caused by lack of productivity, itself due to vices such as idleness and gluttony: (p.191)

[T]hose many and great waste grounds here in our country, the great lack of victual and the scarceness thereof, and dearth of all things worked by man's hand, do not only show the great negligence of the rest of our people, but … doth argue and declare manifest lack of diligence … . If our artificers applied themselves to labour as diligently as they do in other countries [he mentions France, Italy, and Spain] we should not have things … so scarce and so dear. (Starkey, quoted in Williams, 1967:299–300)

Another problem with the commonweal is the growth of privacy and the consequent reduction of public commitment. For example, increasingly, “every man privately in his own house hath his master to instruct his children in letters,” which undermines that “common discipline and public exercise” that is necessary for a commonweal. And this instruction should be “not only in virtue and learning, but also in the feats of war” (Starkey in Williams, 1967:301).

Since the closing of the monasteries, it was now necessary according to Pole to open new institutions for such instruction for “the nobility,” and such institutions should have some similar qualities to the old monasteries. For just as “the exercise of a monastical life among religious men … hath done much good to the virtuous living of Christian minds,” so similarly the new institutions for the nobility; “even life as these monks and religious men there living together exercise a certain monastical discipline and life, so the nobles, being brought up together, should learn there the discipline of the commonweal” (Starkey in Williams, 1967:301). This common training of the nobility in institutions with some similarity to the old monastic institutions would make youthful nobility “true lords and masters” and “the people would be glad to be governed by them” (301). The use of “religious men” refers fairly clearly to the regulars: the monks and friars.

Lupset agrees with this part of Pole's argument, that the health of the commonweal is undermined by those who “highly esteem their own private pleasure and weal” (Starkey, quoted in Williams, 1967:302). It has to be said, though, that Pole seems to be arguing that the wealth of the whole depends on the wealth of individuals, and that if one wants to understand the commonweal it is necessary to “first find out that thing which is the wealth of every particular part” (302). Lupset notes this ambiguity, pointing out that if, as Pole seems to be arguing, the commonweal depends on the particular weal of each person, then this might encourage individuals to think first of their own private well-being, on the assumption that the common weal will follow.

Pole's answer is a fudge—if “everyman” were not “blinded with the love of themselves” but healed themselves, or were healed and corrected “by politic persons,” they would grow in their love of the commonweal. The phrase (p.192) “politic persons” certainly doesn't mean politicians in the modern sense. It could be interpreted to refer to an ideal category of persons who have a sense of, and can advise on and direct, politic behaviour, that is, behaviour that is directed towards the good of all (e.g., the politic body): “like as overmuch regard of particular weal destroyeth the common, so convenient and mean regard thereof maintaineth and setteth forward the same” (Starkey, quoted in Williams, 1967:302).

To what extent would it be legitimate to see the early stirrings of modern individualism in this concern of Pole's? I would guess very little. The problem of selfishness was a moral problem within Christianity which had no necessary link with the modern ideology of individualism. Arguably, it was not until the influence of Calvinism, when the linkage of spiritual and economic salvation had become more strongly established, that it is possible to detect the emergence of a powerful discourse on the individual. Such a discourse presupposes the contingent confluence of a number of other factors, including the wider context of colonialism; the Enlightenment in Scotland, France, and America; and the development of a language of human rights. These in turn required a new concept of the separation of ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ or the ‘nonreligious’ state, which had not yet been formulated.


(1.)  Thompson provides rich insights into the ambivalent role of Methodism in particular (see especially ch. 11, “The Transforming Power of the Cross,” 385–440) in both promoting a ‘religion’ identified with equality in the next world and thus legitimating the status quo in this, and yet also swinging into a this-worldly, radical, often millenarian struggle for rights which bordered on the revolutionary and which was much influenced by Jacobinism and by writers as diverse as Tom Paine and William Blake.

(2.)  It also suggests a different concept of the relation between soul and body. As with church and state, religion and politics, the soul and the body are fused together. We do not have here a Cartesian dualism, a dualism which the doctrine of bodily resurrection logically denies.