Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Jonathan Willis, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Jonathan uses some rather intriguing letters found amongst the Elizabethan State Papers to raise some crucial questions about the relationship between eccentric individuals and the wider culture they belong to – what we might term the ‘Menocchio question’ .
A few years ago, I stumbled across an interesting letter in the Elizabethan State Papers. I would say that it was ‘by accident’, but it wasn’t really, as I was actively looking for references to the Ten Commandments, as part of the monograph I’m currently writing on the reformation of the Decalogue. Still, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find what the calendar compliers described as ‘two letters to the Queen from Robert Banister, a great quoter of Scripture, yet mighty vehement against some Puritans who plagued him’, and which the caption on the letter itself (dated 1578) records as ‘two letters to Queen Elizabeth by Robert Banister a Religious mad-man, who seems to have concedid great indignation against the Puritans his prosecutors’. Banister’s letters were written in black ink, but otherwise seem to fit the modern definition of a letter written by a card-carrying member of the green-ink brigade, which one website defines as:
a particular kind of letter writer, who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation, or who believes that a numerical calculation based on the name of the Prime Minister shows he’s an agent of the devil, or who is sure that invisible rays are being beamed into his house by his next-door neighbour to cause him injury, or who puts forward a thesis which, if adopted, will lead inevitably to world peace.
Banister’s letters contained a request for the queen to grant him permission to publish a treatise designed to clear his name from puritan accusations that he was a member of the secretive radical sect, the Family of Love. Banister may in fact have been a familist – his letters are ambiguous. He refers scathingly to ‘the phamily of lewde love’, and claims that never to have been ‘acoynted with any of that sect’, but he also described the puritans as a ‘vile, & most faulse family’, and spoke repeatedly of ‘gods love’. What is clear though is that, familist or no, Banister was a rare Elizabethan antinomian – that is, somebody who rejected the authority of the moral law, or Ten Commandments. His attack on his puritan persecutors was based on the fact that they were pharasaical legalists, ‘English Jues … that spie moses motes in every eye’. Attempts to trace Banister in all the usual locations – parish registers, ODNB, ESTC, CCED, lists of university alumni, etc. – have so far proved fruitless. (If any reader has come across him in another context, I’d be very happy to hear about it!). Still, in a way Banister’s anonymity opens up as many possibilities as it closes down. It seems to suggest that, other than his extraordinary views, expressed in these startling letters, he was an ‘ordinary’ person. Continue reading