Cromwellballs

Sotheby’s has got various royal proclamations and Parliamentary acts and ordinances from the mid-seventeenth century up for auction this Tuesday. The lots include:

The Daily Mail picked up the story on Saturday. While it’s nice to see early modern book history in the news, it’s a bit depressing to pick out the cliches in the way the article is framed.

First there is the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell as a killjoy sourpuss:

One thing is certain – Oliver Cromwell was hardly known for his sense of humour.

Anti-puritan stereotypes of the early seventeenth century seem to be so well-built as to be indestructible, to judge by how frequently they still appear today. Ben Jonson would be proud that Zeal-of-the-land Busy has cheated death for nearly four hundred years. In fact while many aspects of Cromwell’s life and career defy settled interpretation, one thing about which we can be certain is that he did have a sense of humour. This was a man who had snowball fights with his servants; who, growing bored of a meeting, hurled a cushion at Edmund Ludlow then fled the room; who was supposed to have flicked ink at Henry Marten after signing the king’s death warrant. Patrick Little’s excellent article in Cromwelliana (sadly not online) on this topic deserves a wider audience.

Then there is the reference to:

Tempestuous times facing ordinary Englishmen as their leaders tussled for power.

The phrasing here is I’m sure simply unthinking, but the political and religious battles of the 1640s and 1650s penetrated far deeper into society than just the ruling classes. Power struggles at Whitehall and set piece battles at Marston Moor and Naseby were reflected in parishes across England: and they involved Englishwomen as well as Englishmen.

Finally there is the slightly anachronistic reference to the various texts as posters nailed to trees. This conjures up pictures of Billy the Kid-style wanted posters, and perhaps some did end up on trees, but I suspect most proclamations, acts and ordinances reached their widest audience by being read aloud: in churches and at sermons, at assizes and market days, within communities and army regiments. Those that were pasted up must have been fixed in prominent places – maybe a tree if it was a prominent landmark in a parish, but more likely at the front of a church, town gates, or near taverns or market crosses. Kevin Sharpe’s Image Wars is particularly good on the use both Charles and Parliament made of published proclamations and ordinances.

I should suppress my curmudgeonly tendencies at this point and give the Daily Mail credit for running a story where no other newspaper has – and which, to judge by their website’s comments, does seem to have attracted lots of interest. But I would love to see some coverage of early modern books from mainstream news organisations which foregrounds the texts and their readers, rather than simply their authors. Their absence from stories like this does seem surprising, given that the news industry is so bound up with both.

(No 3 in an occasional series. Previously: 1, 2)

3 Responses to “Cromwellballs”

  1. Also predictable but annoying that they make Cromwell a metonym for all parliamentarians, republicans and puritans. He wasn’t solely responsible for any ordinances before 1653 and probably had nothing at all to do with the 1642 one for closing theatres. It went through the Commons on 31 August, when Cromwell was in Cambridge.

    And the article is a bit hypocritical considering that the Mail is notoriously intolerant and has its own very grim vision of how Britain should be!

  2. Monty Python, the incontravertible authority on the life of Cromwell (and generally considered more objective than the Daily Mail), reported Cromwell giggling, belying his reputation for grumpiness.

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