Why, therefore, should we be surprised that our ancestors should have displayed the same propensities, especially in the time of unprecedented freedom enjoyed by the press in the revolutionary period from 1640 to 1660?
Yet it appears to be the argument of Professor Jerome Friedman's book that this phenomenon requires explanation. The qualification 'appears to be' is needed because both in his preface and conclusion the author seems to be perfectly aware that the appetite for the miraculous and the apocalyptic is perennial.
'Many thoughtful individuals,' he writes, 'who find the notion of prophecy preposterous gravely ponder the image and symbolism of last night's dream, talented athletes wear the same jersey, socks, or shorts for an entire winning season. Even the lure of astrology remains: scholars dismiss William Lilly (immortalised in the brilliant fun poked at him in Congreve's Love for Love), but remember that Ronald Reagan made policy decisions helped by the advice of a Californian astrologer.'
Exactly. What then is the point of reciting, even in sceptical and derisive summary, the clotted drivel to be found in the thousands of tracts and pamphlets that poured from the press in these two decades? The monstrous births and strange apparitions, the capricious reversal of the laws of nature, the fearful punishments inflicted by heaven on witches and heretics - it is easy to raise a laugh by the grave and scholarly narration of such imbecilities. But a little of this goes a long way. Professor Friedman has ploughed through 300 examples, and for all his airy ironic manner is not going to let his readers off lightly.
'Scholars,' he tells us reprovingly, 'often prefer to study the writings of exciting, erudite, vocal minorities through whose eyes, scholars believe, an age as a whole can be understood. . . . Literate, urbane academics rarely appreciate the need to study the seemingly unchanging, often superstitious views of the less educated.' If they had, he argues, they might have recognised the profoundly conservative, overwhelmingly anti-ideological nature of public opinion in the period in question.
Well, perhaps. But it is not true that scholars have neglected this aspect of the matter. What about the numerous and masterly productions of Christopher Hill, which are saturated with knowledge of the popular press? One of his most brilliant and penetrating essays examines the outpourings of Arise Evans, a figure noticed by Professor Friedman, who simply refers us to the Dictionary of National Biography without any mention of this fascinating and suggestive study. Hill toys with the idea, as Orwell did in 'Boys' Weeklies', his celebrated essay in Horizon, that such saleable tosh might be subliminally impregnated with a rational and serious content. He admits his inability to prove it, but history is a matter of asking questions.
Professor Friedman's scholarship has its lapses. The historian from whom he takes his initial text is Professor Norman Hampson, not Hamson. The title and author of the earliest biography of Archbishop Laud are garbled to an extent that suggests unfamiliarity with the period. A landmark in European history, the battle of Pavia, is misdated by 10 years. Other examples could be cited. It seems strange that a university press should not have drawn the author's attention to them.