BOOK REVIEW / Bible bashers in alehouses: 'The English Bible and the 17th Century Revolution' - Christopher Hill: Allen Lane, 25 pounds

TO SAY that Christopher Hill is a prodigy of learning is to admit a doubt as to anyone, apart from himself, being qualified to review this book. Every student of the 17th century in England knows that his familiarity with the pamphlet literature of that pamphlet-driven age is unrivalled. They know too, from his more recent publications, that his rapport with Milton and with Bunyan amounts to a special relationship. A finished writer himself, he responds to literary genius as well as to the historical context in which it finds expression. He knows, none better, how completely the Bible dominated the mentality of Englishmen in the first half of the 17th century: Charles I and Archbishop Laud no less than Presbyterian bigots like Prynne, large-minded men like Cromwell or the forerunners of socialism who are so lovingly lingered over in this book were equally ready to appeal to it. He also knows his Bible. If Tyndale had encountered him in the Senior Common Room at Balliol there would have been no room for unflattering comparisons with ploughmen.

The diffusion of Biblical knowledge in this country as compared with the rest of Europe was the heroic achievement of that translator of genius. The Geneva Bible, on which, especially in its explanatory notes, this book is most valuable, was pretty well neat Tyndale. And the Authorised Version is substantially his work. The author summarises briefly and skilfully the development of English vernacular literature in general and imagines, where he cannot substantiate, the underground river of popular tradition flowing through alehouses that played such an improbable part in his portraiture of Milton.

The essential difficulty of the theme set out in the title is that the Bible is not one book but many. Without much trouble, texts can be found to support almost any proposition or point of view, however horrifying or however sublime. There were, of course, people in that age who saw this clearly - Hobbes, most obviously, and Selden, whose dictum 'Scrutamini scripturas - search the scriptures - These two words have undone the world' strikes a note that the author would find discordant. He sets out to examine the question 'whether the Bible might not be the equivalent for the English Revolution of Rousseau for the French Revolution and Marx for the Russian: a source of intellectual stimulus, new ideas critical of existing institutions. But the Bible produced no agreed new political philosophy'. Unsurprisingly, one would have thought. One might as well try hijacking a history of geology in support of free love or the hunt saboteurs. The author none the less recognises the value of this conflict and contradiction in Holy Writ as promoting a critical approach both to its text and to its ideas and thus leading to the Royal Society, the Enlightenment and, one assumes, the sun rising over the Lenin hills.

The book, loosely constructed in the form of a collection of learned essays, is packed with the reading and reflection of a remarkable scholar. Its texture is too closely woven for the general reader. Rather, it is the kind of compilation known as a flori-

legium, the culling of favourite texts lovingly annotated, that the medieval schoolmen delighted in. The author moves with ease and speed through a host of preachers and pamphleteers no one else has heard of, except for the generously acknowledged academics who have written their PhD theses on them. It is sometimes heavy going. But there are delicious flashes of wit and a generosity of spirit towards anyone who can plausibly be held to have inclined towards left-wing opinions, that is to say towards practically everyone in the book.

Where a known Royalist appears some caution is necessary. For example, while Milton's dating of his translation of the Psalms is minutely specified, Clarendon's extended commentary on them is, we are told, 'dated 1647; but internal evidence makes it clear that it contains much post-1660 insight'.

Not only internal evidence. The author tells us that he began the work on 26 December 1647, when he was a refugee in Jersey, resumed it at Psalm 9 in Madrid as Charles II's emigre ambassador in February 1650, broke off at Psalm 70 on his return to Antwerp in 1651 and took it up again in his second exile in December 1668. The imputation of disingenuousness seems unjust.

Again, we are repeatedly told that Robert Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln, was a Calvinist and, by implication, a time-server. It may be so. But it seems odd that he should have been Charles I's favourite preacher: 'I carry my ears to hear other preachers, but I carry my conscience to hear Mr Sanderson and to act accordingly.' And odder still that at the Restoration he should have been given so large a share in the production of the Prayer Book of 1662. John Aubrey who sat under him as a freshman tells us, 'He had no great memorie, I am certaine not a sure one . . . he was out in the Lord's Prayer. He alwayes read his sermons and lectures. Had his memorie been greater his judgement had been lesse: they are like two well-buckets.'

If Aubrey is right in this interesting axiom the implication for the present work is clear enough. But whatever may be thought of the author's judgement, the range of learning and force of mind can only raise a cheer.

The publishers are much to be congratulated on producing at so reasonable a price so substantial a work of learning with footnotes - often half a dozen of them - set on the page. And the absence of misprints is almost eerie.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all