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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born