Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part III: Puritans, Plums, and a Cereal Complainer…

Jonathan Willis

I don’t know about you, but I’m always delighted and intrigued when I’m unexpectedly reminded of the humanity we share with the inhabitants of early modern England. I’ve been reading through a large quantity of godly lives recently (spiritual diaries, memoirs, biographies, books of remembrance, etc.), and if I’m honest the content is often rather unedifying – by which I mean, far, far too edifying! It’s therefore quite pleasing when, amidst the intensely personal but also strangely generic soul-searching, you come across something which gives you a flavour of the individual. This happened while I was reading the diary of Samuel Ward. Ward finished his career as a moderate, establishment puritan figure and Master of the recently founded puritan college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. In the 1590s, however, whilst a student (later Fellow) at Emmanuel, Ward was ‘a vigorous and outspoken puritan’.[1]

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget?  'Wicked child!'

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget? ‘Wicked child!’

Outspoken or not, though, his diary reveals his ongoing struggles with sin, and particularly with food and drink. In June 1595, for example, he recorded ‘to much drinking after supper’ on the 21st, ‘going to drink wyne, and that in the Taverne, befor I called upon God’ on the 27th, and ‘immoderate’ eating of cheese at 3 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd (perhaps a snack to satisfy the hunger cravings brought on by drinking too much the night before?). Cheese was a recurrent weakness. He recorded ‘immoderate eating of walnuts and cheese after supper’ on October 3 1595, and ‘intemperate eating of cheese after supper’ on August 13 1596. Perhaps the catalyst for this binge was the fact that, the day before, Ward recorded in his diary ‘my anger att Mr. Newhouse att supper for sayng he had eaten all the bread’. As well as bread, cheese and wine, Ward also hankered after fruit: references to damsons, plums, pears and raisins pepper his diary.[2] On 8 August 1596 Ward noted that after observing ‘my longing after damsens … I made my vow not to eat in the orchard. Oh that I could so long after Godes graces…’

Lovely cheese...

Lovely cheese…

The puritan relationship with food was often a complex one: like sleep, food was a bodily necessity, but also a reminder of carnal appetites and a minefield in terms of potentially sinful behaviours.[3] It is perhaps not surprising that fasting was such an important aspect of puritan piety: an abstinent mortification of the flesh. For many people in Tudor England, however, fasting was a luxury which they literally couldn’t afford, as they weren’t able to buy food in the first place in order to be able to deliberately refrain from eating it. Enter ‘Robart Boushell’, my third eccentric letter-writer in what is becoming a series of eccentric letter-writers, a series which I’m starting to think might form the kernel of my next research project.

Plums, glorious plums!

Plums, glorious plums!

Bushel’s letter is dated 1596, the same year as Ward was longing after damsons and eating too much cheese. He identified himself as ‘one kept from all outward meanes’ and yet preserved as ‘the savgard of my life … my wife & vij christians’.[4] His complaint was simple: that ‘the price of corn & all other vetles’ was un-affordably high. The plight of the poor was such that ‘if it be not lokid in to in time god shall be so dissonored as he was not in the time of papistri the like’. In other words, for the government to permit food prices to reach such great heights was to the great dishonour of both God and the Queen: ‘for in the moultitud of the peepoll the quine is honered & in the dirth of the peepoll the quine is disshonered’.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

At the risk of treading on Brodie’s toes (he’s written a brilliant book on economic culture which you should definitely buy), what is fascinating is the direct link established by Bushel between food prices, the health of the individual, the health of the nation, and also the health of the reformation itself. ‘If the price of corne do not fall many canot live that would live’, Bushel wrote, and through hunger were brought to ‘great weaknes of body & soul’, because in their dire straits they began to ‘find falt with thee ghospell & the professors of the same’. Bushel was keen to empahsise that he himself wished nothing but prosperity to ‘good ministers of the worde of god & good profissers also which hatithe covitousness & loveth rightiousnes’, but also begged liberty to ‘speak without blam & dessplisur’ some more scurrilous speech ‘which hath passed the mouthes of sum in essex wher I dwell’.

Bushel's 'humble suit and petition'...

Bushel’s ‘humble suit and petition’…

As a historian of religious (rather than economic) culture, what interests me most about Robert Bushel’s letter is what it might have to say about the reformation, and religious identity. One could quite easily argue that a professed faith which could be displaced by the ominous rumblings of an empty stomach was very clearly more apparent than real. There is also no way of telling for sure whether Robert Bushel adopted the position of ‘godly complainer’ because it was how he genuinely felt, and what he actually believed, or simply because he judged that it would be the most effective rhetorical strategy. The threatening subtext – by starving us, you feed popery – cannot have been lost on the government, and was presumably the reason this letter was squirreled away by Cecil, with a host of other potentially subversive religious oddballs. But in Bushel’s use of such language, I would be inclined to see evidence of a layman who was at least sufficiently educated and informed to know which buttons it would be most effective to press. It was also (I think), at least in part, the existence of a discursive framework in which he and Cecil were both in a sense brothers in Christ (‘which is your head & yow his membere’), which enabled him to articulate his demands with such confidence.

[1] Margo Todd, ‘Ward, Samuel (1572–1643)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28705, accessed 6 Aug 2014]

[2] There is always a temptation to link spiritual battles over soft fruit with the influence of Augustine, and Margot Todd has done so in the case of Samuel Ward, but as Alec Ryrie has recently noted, sometimes people just innocently ate pears. See his Being Protestant in reformation Britain, p. 430.

[3] Ryrie has recently written both about sleeping and fasting: see his essay on ‘Sleeping, waking and dreaming in Protestant piety’ in Martin and Ryrie (eds), Private and domestic devotion in early modern Britain (passim); and Being Protestant, pp. 195-199.

[4] British Library, Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 18, f. 49.


14 thoughts on “Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part III: Puritans, Plums, and a Cereal Complainer…

  1. Hello, thank you for this interesting and detailed blog post. I was wondering, since you seem to discourage the link with Augustine, whether this also applies to Plato as well? (I’m thinking, for example, of the passages in the Phaedo where Plato discusses the idea of the soul being ‘imprisoned’ within the body). Not being an expert on early modern history, I’m hard-pressed to answer this question myself 🙂

    • Hi Jessica – thank you for your comment, and sorry for the delayed reply, but I was in Paris over the weekend. Oh well – back to work, but first let me try to answer your really interesting question!

      In terms of fruit-stealing, I find Ryrie’s position fairly persuasive. Some accounts (Elizabeth Isham’s, for example) are heavily and explicitly influenced by Augustine and the experience of reading the Confessions, but I don’t think we can necessarily take that influence for granted in every case. Ryrie (Being Protestant, p. 31) puts it better: ‘the stolen-fruit motif may recur so frequently, not because these authors are emulating Augustine, but because they, Augustine, and almost every other child of the pre-modern period shared the experience of scrumping fruit’. So of course I accept that Augustine’s significance in the reformation more generally was immense, but this particular aspect of it should perhaps be scrutinised further in each individual case.

      In terms of Plato, I suppose I would say something similar. Clearly Platonism and neo-Platonism was hugely influential in the Reformation – work I’ve done previously on music has shown the importance to reformers of his writings about education and mode ethos, for example. The reformation preoccupation with the flesh/spirit dichotomy also clearly owes much to Plato; both directly, as well as through other sources like Paul (the letters to the Ephesians and Collossians where he talks about the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new), Augustine, etc. I’d have to do more work on Ward though, to try to work out whether he was reading Plato and was directly influenced by that idea, or whether it was something he may have picked up somewhere (or from somebody) else… It’s a really interesting issue though; and proof that when we talk to people outside of our own time-period and discipline, good things usually result!

      • Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I suppose your main point is not to deny the general influence on Puritanical thought of sources like Augustine’s Confessions and Plato; but rather to caution against assuming that this influence is present (and takes the same form) in specific Puritanical texts where relevant themes – like fruit-stealing – are raised. I agree with this approach.

  2. The letter from Robert Boushell is absolutely fascinating … to me at least. The idea that food shortages were ‘dishonourable’ to the government is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Dearth and especially starvation were often seen as policy failures, even if the weather was usually the primary cause. This can be seen occasionally in the 1640s and I’ve found a few references in the 1590s too. For example, a couple of seditious complaints under Elizabeth suggest that the poor were starving and would live better under the Spanish (in Sharpe’s chapter in Guy (ed.), The reign of Elizabeth I, 1995). But this seems to have been particularly common in the 1690s, when the various economic problems of the decade (including food shortages) were often blamed on the new Williamite regime. I’m going to have an article coming out in English Historical Review in 2015 on ‘The Politics of Economic Distress in the Aftermath of the Glorious Revolution’ that will talk about this.

    The religious element is particularly interesting. In the 1690s, it was often Catholic Jacobites and ‘high church’ non-jurors who complained about how bad things had become. The economy (and everything else) was – according to them – better under James II. So, perhaps there was a religious element here too, though it was implicit rather than explicit. However, as you probably know, during/after the Reformation, people often talked about the ‘good times’ before the ‘innovations’ in religion. Andy Wood has a chapter in his new book, The Memory of the People, that talks about some of this and has some great examples.

    Still, I think this is the first example I’ve come across that implies that food shortages might discredit Protestantism! I’ll definitely be noting it down for future reference (with due acknowledgement of course).

    • Thanks for this Brodie – it’s great to have that later seventeenth-century context, and I look forward to the EHR article! What it reminded me of a little was the phrasing of some of the documents that come out of the 1549 rebellions, and particularly Kett’s articles: that peculiar mix of evangelical rhetoric with some quite conservative socio-economic demands (although of course those articles were more about enclosure and rights to common land than grain prices). The fact that Bushel is from godly Essex is also interesting, although I must confess I’ve not done any legwork yet to see if I can track him down and find out precisely who he was. He’s clearly trying to do as much as he can to distance himself from seditious sentiments, whilst simultaneously attempting to convey them (and the implied threat of disorder) to the authorities. It’s quite an impressive achievement in terms of rhetorical gymnastics!

      • Like Jonathan, this reminded me of the mid-sixteenth century and the period when the Duke of Somerset was in control of the government during the minority of Edward VI. I always understood that Somerset didn’t strike the eastern rebels immediately because there was a belief that social and religious reformation should go together, and in particular they wanted to let people see that the ‘fruits’ of reform would be both spiritual and practical. Certainly a very long standing theme then.

        And if no one else is going to mention it… Robert ‘Bushel’ complaining about corn prices?

      • Yes, 1549 was another moment when this interesting mix of religious/political change and economic/social stress comes out clearly. Andy Wood, again, has some great analysis of this in his slightly earlier book: The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (2007).

      • Thanks for the references to Wood, Brodie – I’ve not read The Memory of the People yet, but his work on the 1549 rebellions is a staple of my teaching.

        Laura – Bushel: it’s perfect isn’t it! Could it be a pseudonym (John Barleycorn, anyone?)? Having already played with serial/cereal in the title, though, I felt it could be a pun too far for me – still I’m glad somebody else has picked up on it.

  3. Thank you for this. Just a detail, but I am wondering about your picture of “corn”. I am not sure exactly when maize, otherwise known as sweet corn or corn on the cob, arrived in England – sometime during the late sixteenth century, perhaps? I think, though, that for Robert Bushel (and other English people of that period) “valleys standing thick with corn” would have conjured up images of wheat, not maize?

    • Thank you John – I think ‘caught bang to rights’ is the appropriate term! I wrote this post on Word, and then assembled it very quickly one evening before finishing work for the day – when I was searching for images to use, I just googled ‘corn field’ without giving it any thought. You are of course completely right: the cereal at issue here would have been wheat, which would likely have been ground into flour to make bread; and not corn (maize). It’s a fair cop…

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