Robert Southwell “The Burning Babe”

Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest, born in an English Catholic family and educated in France and Italy. At the age of 25 he returned to England to serve there as a missionary and chaplain to the recusant Catholic community. He was fully aware of the consequences and his writings indicate that he perceived what he did as pretty much a suicide mission. There was no question he was going to become a martyr sooner or later. He was caught six years later, imprisoned for three years and finally executed in the usual grisly manner in which traitors were treated – hanged, drawn and quartered. Per Wiki, some spectators did him the service of pulling his legs when he was hanged so as to hasten his death and spare him being disembowelled alive.

But before this untimely end, Southwell managed to write a lot, including this poem which is like a beautiful Elizabethan miniature. It is written in a long line, so-called fourteeners, which were popular in the English Renaissance, but not so much afterwards. In the middle of a cold winter night the shivering speaker has the vision of a child burning with a great fire. The child is crying copiously, but his tears seem to feed the fire. The child is, of course, newborn Jesus, and the fire is the emblem of his passion and love for humankind. Southwell builds the metaphor by comparing various elements of this image with the parts of the salvation story: the thorns are the fuel, his breast the furnace, and the metal are human souls which are going to be forged and then washed in Jesus blood, like hot iron is cooled in cold water. There is more than a whiff of Counter-Reformation style of worship in here, with the baroque imagery and all the emotional outpouring of fire, tears and blood.

The image also reminds me uncomfortably of the death of Anne Askew and other Protestant martyrs. Not wishing to diminish his cruel death, which he certainly in our 21st century terms didn’t deserve, I guess Southwell and his spiritual fellows wouldn’t be above meting out the same punishment to those who would contradict them. The comparison of human souls to metal being forged in a blacksmith’s furnace is significant here – it’s an aggressive procedure and you wouldn’t like it to be done to sentient beings.  Jesus suffered for our sins, Southwell was ready and did suffer for his beliefs and I guess he wouldn’t hesitate to make other people suffer in order to turn them from what he considered the false path back to the road to salvation


Richard Hooker “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”

Richard Hooker was a theologian and master of the Temple, which would mean in contemporary terms dean of a law school. His opus magnum is the result of the polemic with Puritans about the organization of the Anglican Church: the Puritans were for ditching the whole episcopal hierarchy, Hooker was against it. So he decided to explain to his opponents why they were wrong – in five volumes. Not being the one to be satisfied with small details, he starts with the creation of the world and the natural laws that govern it. There are two eternal laws, one which God imposed on himself and the other which he imposed on all creation. From the latter follow logically all the individual laws – the law of nature, the law of reason and so on. The law of nature should be divided into two categories – the law of nature as applied to things which have no volition (moon, sun) and the law of nature as applied to things which have agency.

Hooker interprets the creation as described in Genesis in the following way: God by saying “Let there be light” and so on shows that he is a voluntary agent and he at the same time institutes the law which should rule all the creation. Because what would happen to us without these laws? Here Hooker gives a terrifying but at the same time beautiful description of the apocalyptic landscape when the world goes “out of joint”.  But if God’s laws are perfect and protect us, why is then the world imperfect? (Hooker doesn’t give examples but I guess he refers to things like natural catastrophes and the fact that it is not 23 degrees Celsius all over the world always.) Phidias cannot carve a perfect sculpture from imperfect material, he says, neither the most skilled musician can play on the instrument which is out of tune. In theological terms, it is the original sin which tainted not only the human nature but the whole world.

“Book of Homilies”

In the 1540s Archbishop Cranmer was responsible for compiling a book of homilies for the use in churches. The original book consisted of twelve sermons, which were supposed to be read on constant rotation in all churches in England. If that was the case, church-going in Tudorian England must have been a rather monotonous experience. It also goes to show how controlling the state was in all aspects of life, being afraid of giving preachers free rein even in the choice of sermon topics. The book was revised several times, with new sermons added. The one excerpted here is “An Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” and was added in 1570, just after an uprising supporting Mary Stuart’s claim to the English throne had been quenched. Predictably, enough, the key point is that rebellion is wrong. In fact, it is the worst sin of all, because the rebels commit a sin not just again their monarch, but against everybody.  It also encompasses all the sins – and here the preacher goes through the Ten Commandments and seven cardinal sins.  So they break the first commandment by rebelling against their ruler, who is appointed by God, they break the second by swearing a lot, they break the third because they don’t go to church on Sunday, being busy rebelling – I guess you get the drift here.

“The Book of Common Prayer”

The Book of Common Prayer, written largely by Thomas Cranmer, was introduced to replace the Latin liturgy. Cranmer in subsequent revisions moved away from the translation/adaptation of the Roman rite, creating a more Protestant form of worship. The excerpt in the NAEL  is from the marriage service. I don’t think I have much to say about it as the formula is so generally known, if not from actual experience, then from the countless Hollywood movies, where of course it is much simplified (and there is always somebody to shout “I do!” when the minister asks whether somebody knows about the impediments to this marriage).

So what are the key differences between the proper BCP ceremony and the movie one? Of course it’s longer: it begins with a speech from the minister about how marriage is an honourable estate that is not about to be entered lightly, or just for sex, but for procreation, mutual love and support as well as, well, legitimate sex. Then comes the section about asking about the impediments. When there are none, the minister asks both spouses whether they want to marry each other. When they both confirm, he asks about who gives this woman away. Then both exchange marriage vows and then the husband (only he!) puts on the ring on his wife’s hand with the accompanying formula. Obviously the whole formula is as patriarchal as hell (ooops, it’s not a good turn of phrase) – the woman’s lines include “to obey” and “to serve and obey” both in the answer to the minister’s question and in the vow, and she is the one who is handed over from her father or other male relative to her husband, and only she finally gets a ring on her finger, which in this situation does look like a more humanitarian version of cattle branding. But to be fair, there is a lot about mutual love and support, and at the end the minister quotes the example of Isaac and Rebecca who should be the paragon of the marital love for the married couple. And it just occurred to me that Isaac is one of the few biblical patriarchs who was not a polygamist. Probably the only one, bar Adam, who really didn’t have much choice.

John Foxe “Acts and Monuments”

John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, a.k.a. The Book of Martyrs is an immense volume filled with stories of the martyrs persecuted for their faith, starting from the Roman times through the persecution of Wycliffites and the stories f the people executed during the last years of Henry’s reign and during the reign of Mary I. The books had four editions in Foxe’s lifetime and countless more after his death, including the cheap chapbook editions, sometimes reduced not nothing more than a few grisly woodcuts with captions underneath. This, combined with the fact that Acts and Monuments were by the decree of Elizabeth I to be placed in every church so that everyone could read them, ensured that the memory of Protestant martyrdom and the fear of Catholicism were deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

This very short excerpt describes the death of Anne Askew. She had to be carried on a chair to Smithfield. When she was tied to the stake, she was handed the king’s pardon on the condition she recanted, but she refused to even look at the letter. Then Nicholas Shaxton, the bishop of Salisbury who was imprisoned on the same charges as she, delivered a sermon which was going to make her recant, but she remained staunch. Thus “being compassed with flames of fire… she slept in the Lord”. The description rather downplays the gruesome circumstances of Anne’s death. I’ve read somewhere else that the executioner tied a bag of gunpowder to her neck, which was then a popular way of shortening the sufferings of the convict. I hope it’s true. Anyway, the emphasis is here rather on the sufferings caused by the tortures, while the death itself is more of a joyous event, “a blessed sacrifice” transporting Anne straight to heaven.

Anne Askew “The first examination of Anne Askew”

Anne Askew was a Protestant woman martyr, killed in the times of Henry VIII. In the last decade of his reign Henry started to back-pedal on the Reformation in England – Cromwell and several of his Protestant supporters lost their heads and Henry had a law passed called “An Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions” (the name itself doesn’t leave too much place for doubt). The Act consisted of six articles which essentially reiterated all the points of the Catholic doctrine that were under the strongest attack from the reformers. The funniest is that one of the articles says that the celibate religious life is a good thing and I wonder, where you could practise this kind of life when all the monasteries in England were practically taken apart by Henry and his cronies? The only effect of this law was that the poor Cranmer had to send his wife back to Germany.

Anne Askew was a daughter of a middle-rank nobleman who was married off to a neighbour in lieu of her deceased sister. At some point (I don’t think we know exactly when) she became Protestant and was chucked out by her husband. She doesn’t seem to care very much about it or about leaving her two children behind (although I’m not sure whether they were still alive), as at this point she was already consumed with one real love of her life – that of the reformed religion. She returned to her maiden name and she may have attempted to seek annulment, but she considered herself an unmarried woman in the eyes of God, because who would worry about being formally married to a heretic? She ended up in London as a some sort of itinerant preacher, housed and supported by a series of rich friends who liked her teachings. Finally she got arrested and brought to the examination. At some point she managed to write or dictate the account of her examination, which was then smuggled out of England and printed in the Continent separately as well as a part of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (about which I am going to write in my next post).

Anne goes point by point through her various examinations, first the one conducted officially by Christopher Dare, then the one by a priest sent to hear her confession and an archdeacon. They ask her mostly about her views on the Eucharist – is it really Christ’s body? what happens when it is administered by a sinful priest? does a mouse nibbling on a crumble of the Host also eat God’s body? Anne parries all these questions in a quite admirable way. She tries to say as little as possible without compromising her beliefs and she is often quite cheeky with her investigators. When Dare asks her whether she believes the Eucharist is really Christ’s body, she answers his question with a question “Why was St Stephen stoned?” Dare is flummoxed and says he can’t say, not because he really doesn’t know (I think) but the answer is too uncomfortable – he was martyred by the authorities for expressing his religious views openly. “Then I won’t answer your idle questions either”, is Askew’s triumphant rejoinder.

Her femininity is both a drawback and an asset. She fights back against the accusation that she usurps the authority to preach, which was given by St Paul only to men, saying that as long as she does not do it “from the pulpit”, she does not transgress against it. But when again she answers the priest’s question with another question and he says “that’s not the way you answer questions in schools” (i.e. according to the rules of the scholastic theological debate) and Askew says “oh, I’m just a poor woman, I know nothing of schools”. She also sometimes just smiles without saying anything. She quotes the Bible at her investigators, and when pressed for interpretation, she says she is not going to throw pearls before swine. She is quite amazing, especially considering that she is so freaking young – she was only 25 when she died.

John Calvin “The Institution of Christian Religion”

I must admit that after having read the excerpts in the 16th century translation by Thomas Norton (not a relative – I think) I went and found a 19th c. translation online. Calvin’s text is a rather intricate theological discussion and, all the “whereases’ and “whereofs” don’t help. Norton is said to follow very closely Calvin’s Latin text and that might be a part of the problem.

The fragments are from Book 3 chapter 21. Calvin’s argument goes like this: the surest proof for predestination is that not all the people have heard the Word of God, and even among those who have heard it, not all accept it (of course he means his own interpretation of the Word of God), which goes to show that they are predestined to be damned. Many people find this doctrine difficult to believe, but that is just because they are among the reprobate (i.e. destined for hell). If you can’t accept this doctrine, you are a reprobate, if you can, you are among the elect, argues Calvin, whose logic here becomes IMHO a bit circular. Those who believe in the predestination, are among the elect and therefore as happy as the sheep of the Good Shepherd; those who don’t, are in continual pain and trembling.

There are two wrong approaches to predestination: one is to be too curious and that is wrong because man’s puny intellect cannot penetrate the wisdom of the just God. (Because predestination comes from the just God, it cannot be unjust; if you think determining before your birth whether you are going to be saved is unjust, it is only because you are a reprobate etc.) But it is also wrong to turn your back on the whole doctrine and not to think about it altogether: we have the Scripture to study and meditate upon the doctrine as far as we are able. The pious life is the true sign of being among the elect, and the sinful life is the sign of being among the reprobate. Thus saith Calvin, as far as I was able to decipher his point.