Early modern moralists were quick to condemn alehouses as ‘nests of Satan’, or as ‘the Devil’s church’ – places where impiety and irreligion were rife. The reality, as I will be demonstrating in my book, was that alehouse-haunting and godliness were not necessarily incompatible features of early modern life.
Whilst many ministers perceived themselves as locked in a ‘Battle for the Sabbath’, competing with the local alehouse to put bums-on-seats (or rather bums on pews and ale-benches) during Sunday services, the majority of parishioners seem to have found no great problem – or contradiction – in using their Sundays to congregate both at church and at the local drinking hole. Two diaries from relatively devout Christians—the Yorkshire yeoman Adam Eyre, written in the 1640s, and the Lancashire mercer Roger Lowe, written in the 1660s—both detail routine behaviour of stopping off for drinks either on the way to, or the way back from, a sermon or service. When faced with the seemingly existential choice between church and pub, the most common response was… both.
In fact, religion was a common topic of conversation around the ale-bench, and it is a couple of particularly striking examples of such exchanges that I want to share here, and invite your thoughts on.
The first took place on a December morning in 1656, in a Nottingham alehouse. William Bradshaw, a felt-maker, was discoursing with his companions about food and drink, when the conversation turned to what scripture had to say on the issue. Bradshaw said that ‘there was a saying in scripture that our Saviour fed 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, which was as arrant a lie as ever was spoken’.
Jumping forward to 1681, and to the Somerset parish of East Pennard, near Glastonbury, the vicar of the parish, Mr Alisbury, was drinking in an alehouse with Joshua Swetnam, a local farmer. Their discussion came on to the subject of the Old and New Testaments, whereupon Alisbury offered his view that ‘they were not good but were both false and that there was not a good book but the common prayer book’.
We have two expressions here of unorthodox religious belief – but how unorthodox were they? Was Bradshaw’s denial of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand an instance of truculent plebeian cynicism, demonstrating a healthy dose of mistrust of authoritative discourses? Or was this felt-maker ‘pushing the envelope’ of Protestant theology, taking the official Protestant distrust of the possibility of contemporary miracles to its extreme, and denying the possibility of any of Christ’s miracles? And what about the vicar Alisbury’s rubbishing of both the Old and New Testaments? Was he just a confused drunkard (he did have a reputation for imbibing) who failed to see the contradictions in his statement, or was he simply a ‘hotter sort’ of ‘Prayer Book Protestant’ who exalted the book above even the Bible itself? Would his view have been shared by some of his parishioners, or were these the ramblings of a lone voice?
I’d love to hear from religious historians here – do these views chime with any of the broader trends in religious debates in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, or are these isolated outbursts of unorthodoxy whose origins will remain obscure?
There is a broader question about popular religion at stake here I think – what we might call, after Ginzburg’s famous ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, the Menocchio question – do discoveries such as these help historians of popular culture to tap into hidden veins of belief held by ordinary people, or do they represent the unrepresentative, and lead us up the garden path?