How to irritate a puritan: an introductory reading list

by Nick

I was re-reading the London Root and Branch petition last week for a class and noticed for the first time, amongst the list of religious and constitutional grievances, a very specific issue:

8. The swarming of lascivious, idle, and unprofitable books and pamphlets, play-books and ballads; as namely, Ovid’s Fits of Love, The Parliament Of Women, which came out at the dissolving of the last Parliament; Barns’s Poems, Parker’s Ballads, in disgrace of religion, to the increase of all vice, and withdrawing of people from reading, studying, and hearing the word of God, and other good books.

The London petition was presented to the Commons on 11 December 1640, shortly after the opening of the Long Parliament by Alderman Isaac Pennington, a City MP, along with about 1,500 of his signatories. Around 15,000 people signed the petition itself. The petition had been brewing since the opening of Parliament: on 18 November 1640 the Scots commissioner Robert Baillie noted that:

The Toun of London, and a world of men, minds to prefent a petition, which I have feen, for the abolition of Biihops, Deanes, and all their aperteanances. It is thought good to delay it till the Parliament have pulled doun Can terburie and fome prime Biftiops, which they minde to doe fo foon as the King hes a little digefted the bitternefs of his Lieutenant’s cenfure. Hudge things are here in working: The mighty hand of God be about this great work!

Exactly how the petition was organised is something we will probably never know. It’s possible that organisation centred on the parish of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, led by John Goodwin. Goodwin had close links to Pennington, who was a parishioner. But the actual process through which signatures were gathered remains unknown.

Most of the petition criticised the religious constitutional policies of the 1630s. What was it about these particular books that merited their inclusion?

A pirated translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria by Thomas Heywood – which dated back to earlier in the century – was re-published in 1640. It’s almost certainly this that is the first objectionable book on the petitioners’ list. For a  particular type of puritan, the Ovidian hero, using theatres and the arena as his hunting ground for one night stands, would  have been unacceptable.

The Parliament of Women is an anonymous satirical pamphlet that is almost certainly by the poet John Taylor. It was entered into the Stationers’ Register on 18 June 1640 which suggests it was still fresh in the minds of those putting the petition together. It features characters like Bridgit Boldface, Mistress Tattlewell and Hannah Hit-Him-Home. Although these are recycled from earlier poems like A Juniper Lectures and The Womens Sharpe Revenge, the timing of this pamphlet just a month after the dissolution of the Short Parliament is interesting too.

Barns is a bit more of a mystery. It’s possible that it means Barnabe Barnes, a poet and playwright from the late Elizabethan period whose play The Divils Charter was about the life and death of Pope Alexander VI. However, I haven’t been able to find any of Barnes’s works that were reprinted during 1640.

Martin Parker was a prolific ballad writer whose career stretched from the 1620s into the 1640s. The content of his ballads was summed up by his fellow pamphleteer Henry Peacham:

‘For a peny you may have all the Newes in England, of Murders, Flouds, Witches, Fires, Tempests, and what not, in one of Martin Parkers Ballads’.

Whether it was his collected back catalogue that offended London puritans, or a particular ballad, is unclear. But it’s interesting that 1640 saw Parker produce a particularly proto-royalist ballad, An exact description of the manner how his majestie went to the parliament, the thirteenth day of April, to mark the opening of the Short Parliament.