Grumpy rants

by Nick

This was the headline that loomed out of the Metro on my morning commute today. (Note to non-UK readers: the Metro is a free newspaper handed out at tube and train stations every weekday morning).

Things have changed since the 1640s, and in 2011 there is not really a mass market for puritan pamphleteers any more, so I was pleased to see that the Metro had covered the forthcoming auction of a number of Prynne’s works at Bonhams on 22 November. No other newspapers bothered to report it.

I smiled at the reference to Prynne’s books, ‘the vast majority with long-winded titles’: as if Prynne was the only early modern writer to succumb to that particular vice… but the way in which the article describes Prynne did make me stifle a groan. Calling Prynne a moralist is a bit like saying that Ian Paisley isn’t that keen on Catholics: it’s not inaccurate, but it doesn’t really begin to capture the complexities of his political and religious beliefs.

Although Prynne harked back to an idealised vision of the Elizabethan church under Whitgift, his critique of the duels, drinking and masques of the 1630s was far more than the nostalgia of a grumpy old man. It was an urgent and intensely political critique of the damage Prynne thought was being done to the Church of England by Laud and anti-Calvinism. He stood up for the principles he argued for with some courage: in 1637, when Prynne’s cheeks were branded and the remains of his ears cropped, the executioner cut some of his cheek away by mistake and left part of his ear dangling.

The article also skips over Prynne’s role in the outbreak of civil war, fast-forwarding from the Personal Rule to the Restoration. It doesn’t mention the mixture of martyr and hero that he became for many of those disaffected with Charles I’s political and religious innovations, or his role in the trial of Laud. I found this interesting given the language the article deploys, consciously or sub-consciously, to describe Prynne: ‘grumpy’, ‘rants, ‘railed’. This vocabulary, or its early modern equivalents, is not a million miles away from that used by some of Prynne’s opponents: in particular, Peter Heylyn.

Heylyn first became involved with Prynne when compiling a scathing critique of Histriomatix for Prynne’s trial in 1634, and clashed with him in print on numerous occasions during the 1640s and 1650s. After the restoration, Heylyn set out to rehabilitate Laud, and in the process did a good job of doing down Prynne. This, combined with the stereotype of the Puritan killjoy and hypocrite, spreading division and sedition while preaching moral reform and unity, has cast a long shadow on popular views of Prynne (and on the Wikipedia entry about him, which I suspect may have been the source for some of the information in the article).

So two cheers for the Metro for covering Prynne and his books: but minus one for the comparison to Victor Meldrew. I don’t believe it…