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

Richard Ollard
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:01

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.

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