Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Vanished Ship

This is the story of fate of the good ship, Arbella.  

The Arbella began her life as the Eagle.  She was a 400-ton ship, good sized  for that era, over twice as big as her much-more-famous predecessor, the Mayflower.  The Mayflower carted over 100 English settlers in 1620 who founded Plymouth, a modest-sized settlement.  The Arbella, sailing 10 years later, was the lead ship of a flotilla of 11, and began an influx of Puritans that continued for a decade and totaled around 10,000 individuals.

The later history of the Mayflower is documented.  But the Arbella disappears.  The last we hear of her -- as far as I can tell -- is in late August of 1630, some two months after she arrives in America.  She plays host to the August meeting of the "Court," the governing body of Massachusetts.  Then she simply drops off  the records.

Her namesake, Lady Arbella Johnson, died right about that time, in the wave of disease that took the lives of about two out of every seven that arrived that summer.  But her ship is simply never mentioned again.  Other ships who were part of the flotilla, some of them, are in the records -- they come and go, shuttle supplies back and forth.  Few if any of those are owned by the Massachusetts Bay Company.  But the Arbella was owned by the Company.  What did they do with her?

This calls for some imagination.  What can happen to a ship?

She can be wrecked on shoals.  She can burn, spectacularly.  I suppose she might be stolen, though I think that would be tricky, and then what would you do with a hot 400-ton ship?

I don't think any of these things happened.  There were several chroniclers of the early years in Massachusetts, and some of them had a taste for the spectacular.  They don't tell any dramatic story concerning the fate of the Arbella.  The people who freeze to death while boating that December -- everyone talks about.  The semi-respectable Englishman who turns pirate gets play.  The fellow with the three wives -- we hear about him.  None of them mention anything about the Arbella ablaze, or wrecked, or even damaged.

I think she was sold.  Dull, but most likely.

The first few months in Massachusetts were disastrous.  As a result, Company stock tumbled, investors pulled out, and potential colonists suddenly got cold feet.  The colonists needed money to buy food because farming in New England was trickier than they thought.  The Arbella was a Company asset, a valuable one, I suppose.

But even that should be mentioned in the Company records, right? Disposal of an asset like that?  Unless there was some controversy around it.  I have found that sometimes the Records don't mention certain things, certain controversies, because they didn't like to go on record that they disagreed.  Sometimes-Governor John Winthrop detailed many of those arguments in his diary, but we don't really know, of course, how much he left out.

Maybe sale of the Arbella was slightly under the table, but not interesting enough for Winthrop (or anybody) to note.

But the great ship burning spectacularly in the night, while Lady Arbella is drawing her last breath, is a much more compelling image, is it not?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Half a boat

. . . coming to an anchor about nine of the clock the same day, within a league of the shore, we hoised out the one halfe of our shallop and . . . [we] went ashore . . . 

Hang on a minute.  Half a shallop?  They got to shore in half a boat?
"They" are an early exploration crew of New England in 1602.  A shallop is a rowboat affair (though it would have sails, too) that you would use to get from your sailing ship to shore.  Otherwise your ship's large keel would hit sand and get stuck, and you'd still have to swim or wade to make it to land.  Shallops were also used to explore rivers and shallow waters near shore.

I was sure I'd read that wrong.  I may not know much, but I know you can't sail in half a boat.  I gave it a couple more go's -- it still seemed to say they got to shore in half a boat.  So I moved on.  It was one more mystery, one more disconnect between the centuries, one more copying error perhaps.

Then a few lines later:
. . . so returning (towards evening) to our shallop (for by that time, the other part was brought ashore and set together) . . . 

OK, so we have a cool piece of technology here.  A boat that not only divides in two, but both halves are seaworthy!  What did it look like?  How did it fasten together?

Come to find out, a shipbuilding firm in Maryland has made a working reproduction of one of these shallops and it looked like this:

See the seam?  On each side of that seam was a watertight wall, so the two halves were truly independent.  The keel -- the long board or log on the very bottom of the boat that has so much to do with a ship's internal integrity -- is actually in three parts, with a removable middle part that then went into place and kept the whole thing steady.  The purpose of dividing the shallop was for better, more space-efficient storage on board the ship. 

Sultana Projects reconstructed one of these for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007.  Here's what it looked like when they were still building it.  See the dividing wall?

Once reconstructed, this shallop was sailed all over Chesapeake Bay in 2007.  They even launched it in the traditional way:  in two parts.

So there you go:  boating in half a boat.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Roger Williams, Painful Saint

They called Roger Williams a "painful saint" in his happier days in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.   I bet when he heard that he blushed and said, "Aw, fellas, thanks."

For you see, this was a great compliment.

How do you reconstruct a world that has vanished, like that of 17th-century Massachusetts?  Its remnants are a little art (Non-Conformists were never big on art), some relics of their material culture (their pans and their hinges and a few lucky textiles), and thousands and thousands of words.  English words, and we know English.  We figure we can read what they wrote and by that path find our way into their world.

But language is an ebullient thing, a living thing, bursting its bounds and changing course as its speakers choose.  Definitions change.  The slight nuances of meaning that the speakers took for granted have to be teased out of their context by readers in this day.  We will never know how successful at understanding we are, or are not.  The only ones who could tell us are long gone.

But it's not just definitions that change.  Since the world that those words referred to has transformed and transformed again, the things that those words referred to have also changed.  Sure, a horse is still a horse.  But what about a concept like "democracy" in a world that placed no great value on participatory government, and little on individual choice itself?  How do we understand that?  We enshrine individual choice.  We can't get over how awesome it is.  Not being able to choose is "being forced," and "choosing for myself" is equal to finding truth.  (Good luck with understanding all that, future generations.)

The "painful" in "painful saint" does not refer to ouchy-ness.  It is closer to our "taking pains":  to do something well; diligence, attention to detail, keeping to the spirit as well as the letter.

And "saint" is the Protestant understanding of that biblical word:  a sincere, practicing Christian is by definition a saint.  It refers to the inner reality of that person, his soul, which Christ has made perfect even in this life.  The rest of his being, body and mind, is deeply flawed.  So he may make sincere mistakes.  At times he willfully chooses to do wrong.  But the dynamo in each true Christian's core is a perfected soul, and that should be evident in a person's life if it is actually there.

So a "painful saint" is an extra-sincere Christian, one who is extra-diligent in practicing her faith.

Part of the problem with the word "saint" is that in our time it always has a negative connotation on some level if it is used toward a living person.  If we say, "That woman is a saint!" then we mean she must be doing something really good, really worthwhile -- but there is still a lingering meaning that she is doing too much, working too hard, being too understanding -- possibly not being quite real -- possibly showing the rest of us up.

Non-Conformists called fellow believers "saints" the way we say "Christians," and every time I run into that usage in one of their letters or whatever, I recoil inside.  Woo-hoo to you, you're a saint . . . so I am not as far into that world as I could be.

A "painful saint" -- does that seem attractive?  Even now that you know what it means?  Would you want to be trapped on a stranded cruise ship with a painful saint?  A super zealous Christian?  How does a super zealous Christian behave?

What if that Christian was zealous in the Christian values of love and humbleness?  Invisible service, random acts of kindness, Mother Theresa -- that sort of thing?  What if love and kindness marked a painful saint?

Ah, but along with things like strict morality and orthodoxy?  But first, love and kindness?

Roger Williams was a genuine painful saint.  He was a superior character, I think -- an exceptional human being.  His character was shot through with love and kindness, even while he was being doctrinaire and inflexible, even as he let you know how wrong you were.  And if you can't figure how all that fits in one package, you've got it.  You are up against the central dilemma in history, all history.  We probably can't know just how it all fits together.

Oh, we can get a close enough idea, or at least we can put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to us.  People are people, after all; in all centuries, we understand why the lord falls in love with the bar maid.  But sainthood as a matter of course, as a fact in daily life, is another matter.  And for this writer, portraying Williams' painful sainthood is quite a challenge.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Obnoxious (adj.)

Go ahead, Anne, choose the words that
will screw up my big plans.

"I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits . . . "

Wonderful!  Can't you see Anne Bradstreet at her writing table, slyly taking revenge on her nitty neighbors who all think she should be cooking and canning rather than composing poetry?  It's perfect for us, too, four hundred years removed from Anne's world.  It gives us a heady dose of her spirit.  We get a glimpse of the subtle rebellion that is (apparently) simmering away under her staid garb of a magistrate's wife.

Except . . .

Curse you, Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED is a multi-volume dictionary that contains -- not only (purportedly) every word in the language -- but how each word has been used over time.  So if (for instance) one wanted to find out what the word, "obnoxious" meant in the early seventeenth century, this would be one's first stop.  It's a wonderful tool for historical writers.

Except when it screws up my plans.

Definition 1; "Exposed to (actual or possible) harm; subject or liable to injury or evil of any kind."
Definition 1a:  "With to: Liable, subject, exposed, open . . . "

"Formerly the prevailing use," intones the OED, "now less frequent than 6."

Definition #6 (almost a column later) is our more familiar usage of the word:  "object of aversion or dislike; offensive, objectionable, odious . . . " Used as early as 1675, to be sure.  But philologically, a mistake:  a mixing-up of "obnoxious" with "noxious."

So if I bite the bullet and assume she was using the word as it was usually used in her time -- that makes it:
"I am wounded by each carping tongue"
"I am injured by each carping tongue"
"I am left open to criticism by each carping tongue"

Or some such.

Sure, still pretty good, still workable, still spirited but different than what I thought . . . and frankly (since the discovery is still in its first hour), a bummer.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Writing Pains #4

Well, I've been neglecting this blog shockingly, but for good reason:  I've been writing madly, doing little research for a change, learning to write, finding out where the walls are by walking into them, scratching my head, alternating between glory and shame . . . and it takes up time.

My ole buddy Clio, muse of history, whom I'm
keeping locked in a closet most days right now.
Looks like she's behind on her reading list, to
judge from all those books tossed around.  I
can relate.
I've been thinking about the old story of the nine muses lately as I learn about the writing process.  Time was when they said that creativity did not have its source inside of a person.  Rather, it came from the influence of a goddess, a muse.  Which muse you got at your shoulder depended on what kind of creative work you were doing.  If you were writing a song, then Euterpe might be humming to you; if you were creating a dance, Terpsichore might invisibly shadow you, showing you how to combine spirit and motion.  A writer may be listening to one of several muses, depending on the nature of the work.  And it's not just artists; scientists and and even historians get their own muses as well.

I think I see how this idea became popular, for often the creative process has a life of its own.  The writer sits down in front of the same laptop screen as yesterday, and -- magic occurs.  A character walks out of the shadows, fully formed and speaking.  It feels like magic, though surely it is some intersection -- some mere intersection -- between the conscious and subconscious minds.  But it feels like something outside of yourself, that you are recording rather than creating.  Very strange.

Anne Bradstreet's family entitled her work The Tenth Muse, meaning she herself, a new American master of poetry.  I wonder if that seemed ironic to Bradstreet, if it seemed to her that the Inspirer and the Inspired were being confused.  But on that day in 1650, when they yelled, "Surprise!" and laid her published book of poetry in her hands, she was in no position, or, I daresay mood, to complain.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Anne Hutchinson: Too Smart to Get Along?

I was at my kid's school this week for conferences, and as I was sitting in the hallway on my uncomfortable chair, waiting for the conference before mine to end, my attention was drawn to a butcher-paper display across the hall.  The students had apparently been asked to design a utopian societies, and they had made lists of the principles that would govern them.  Along with the predictable elements ("equality for all," "no murder", etc.), one group had put:  "Those who break these rules must leave."

Ha, I thought.  Do that and you'll end up on the wrong side of history.  The Puritans had a vision for the sort of society they wanted to create. We can't call it a utopia because the Puritans were much too realistic to believe in perfection in this world, but it was idealistic:  live out a simple, purified Christianity; to base church and society, as much as possible, on the New Testament.   If you want to live in Massachusetts Bay, that's the program.  If you don't like the program, there are other settlements in the New World that you are welcome to emigrate to.  And if you want to stay here but not be part of the program, and you kick up a fuss  -- "Those who break these rules must leave."

Four hundred years later, we're still not over the fact that Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

There is much we don't know about Anne Hutchinson.  The only actual words that we have of hers are those quoted by her enemies.  The largest amount we have is her testimony in court, where she stared down John Winthrop and bested him, two theological falls out of three.

I think there's no question that part of the outrage around her was that she was a woman; that a woman was doing the things she was doing.  It's not that women were held to a higher moral standard in this place and time; it was rather the sense, that to sin as much as she did, she had to be very boldfaced about it, and put herself and her views forward aggressively -- and this was a problem in a culture that valued submission in its women.  It was bad enough when a man adopted a view that was deemed heretical and tried to push it on the whole colony, as did Roger Williams.  But it was worse when a woman did, since she was supposed to be submissive and under the leadership of men.  She was supposed to accept male direction.  So if a man in leadership advocates heresy -- that's bad.  But for a woman to do it -- she's not only advocating heresy, she's also stepping out of her submissive role and behaving in a forbidden way by promoting it.  That's double bad.

It is clear she was an intelligent woman who was able to keep her head and defend herself when she was surrounded by her enemies.  She was also a leader in the community; she held midweek meetings in her home to discuss the sermon, and these had a wide following.

So:  did she get in trouble because she was a smart cookie?  And, did she get in trouble for being a female leader?

It was not her intelligence that got her in trouble.  Massachusetts Bay had any number of intelligent, educated women in its ranks.  Let's take the example closest at hand:  my good buddy Anne Bradstreet.  Bradstreet wrote long, complex, scholarly poetry, and did the Male Hierarchy shut her down?  Nope; a group of them conspired behind her back to copy her poems and send them off to England to be published.  That conspiracy included ministers and a former governor.  It's clear from the laudatory verses that they wrote as a preface to her book that they were proud of her, and part of the source of that pride was that she had excelled where few women had.

Seventeenth-century English people (puritan and otherwise) would say that this sort of intelligence in a woman was unusual, as they believed that women's minds in general were weaker than men's.  Quick intelligence might be a special danger to a woman, though, as it might tempt her to pride, or tempt her to step out of her God-given place in life to take on a man's role.  This was one of the charges laid to Hutchinson.

But it was not because she was intelligent that she got in trouble; it was because she set herself up as an arbiter of the spiritual condition of the colony's members.

Next time, we'll take on the issue of the role that the exercise of her leadership skills had in her banishment.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Anne Hutchinson: Our First Miss America

Go, girl!
"Therrrre she iiiiiis, Miss America . . . "

If any woman gained that title, it would be Anne Hutchinson, the woman who was put on trial for heresy, and whose clever and spirited defense of herself (alone, in front of and surrounded by the Puritan male hierarchy) has gone down in the annals of history as a landmark for both freedom of religion and women's rights.  Look at her!  Chin up, straight back, standing up to those who were trying to shut her down!  And ooooh, those looks on the faces of her accusers -- anger, outrage.  And don't you think there's a suggestion of complacency and arrogance too, especially in the posture of the fellow with the cane?  Her accusers are all in shadow, mere sketches; we don't need their names or their stories to understand this picture.  And frankly, the story works better as a story if we don't have their names or their tales.

Still, I've wondered at times . . . can I say this?  I've wondered if Anne Hutchinson was really so much above reproach.  We tend to read her story as the simple tale of a clever defiant woman who was thrown out of Massachusetts Bay because -- she was so clever.  And she was defiant.  And of course, because that cleverness and defiance came in a female package.  We see her as an early feminist, who had the misfortune of being born in a place and time that could not bear a strong, independent spirit in a woman. So out she went.

Well, as usual, there's more to the story than that.  Tell you what, I'll tell a bit of it, and you can decide if we've got the correct read on Mrs. Hutchinson.

Anne Hutchinson was part of a religious movement that has gone down in history with the awkward name of  antinomianism.  Antinomianism was a reaction against the legalistic tendency in Puritanism.  If we were divide religious experience and practice into two parts -- one being righteous living and good works, and the other being deeply felt spiritual feelings and spiritual experience -- then the Puritans were the first and the antinomians were the second.  Not that spirit was absent in Puritanism, or morality absent in antinomianism.  Both had some of both.  But if we think of religion as a spectrum, with good works and lots of rules on one side, and spiritual experience on the other, then Puritans were clumped on one end, and antinomians on the other.

That was the spirit of the times.  A small, energized minority in England felt strongly that religious reform must happen in England, or all would be lost.  But they disagreed with each other.  Puritanism was the largest segment of these reformers, saying that the Church of England was lost in its formality and  pomp, and that England was morally going down the tubes. They advocated a form of Christianity that was simple and rigorous and based on the teachings of the Bible.  As they grew in numbers,  the antinomian movement emerged as a critique of Puritanism.  They advocated a more experiential Christianity, where spiritual experience guided just what was believed.  So we might say that Puritans focused their spiritual life on the mind, and the antinomians, the heart or the feelings.

And shouldn't religious practice have both?  Yes, yes.  But this is 17th-century England -- we don't get both.  This is how the conflict played out in that time and place.

Antinomians rather hid out at times among Puritans, and a fair flock of them came over in the Puritan migration to New England in the 1630s.  (Not just one woman, ahem.)

Anne Hutchinson arrived in Massachusetts in 1633, three years after the first group arrived (which included my good buddy, Anne Bradstreet).  She was following her minister, John Cotton, for whom she had a great deal of respect.  She arrived with eleven or so of her children, and oh, yes, her husband, too.  Mr. Hutchinson doesn't come into the story much . . . a meek and mild man, he must have been.

The new frontier society that they arrived in had yet to adhere, and its survival as a community was not yet certain.  A couple years after Hutchinson arrived, the colony was rocked by conflict when Salem minister Roger Williams accused the Massachusetts churches of being heretic, and said either they had to completely renounce all other English churches -- or else.  He was expelled from the colony in 1636.  (I've blogged on Williams; check those posts out if you want the full story on him.)

That year or the year following, John Cotton (now minister of Boston Church) sparked something of a revival in his preaching on free grace.  "Free grace" means that it isn't following the rules or living a good life that gets you into Heaven; it is the free grace and acceptance of God.  This liberating doctrine is at the heart of Christianity, and everyone in Boston starts feeling better for kneeling before a loving, accepting God rather than a score-keeping God.  So nobody's mad at each other yet.  Given that law and spirit are both part of orthodox Christianity, this sort of back-and-forth in a church's life is common enough.  Sometimes the focus is more on the rules end of things -- sometimes more on the heart-feeling end.

Here's where the antinomians started taking it too far.  They said that living a good life has nothing at all to do with Christianity.  To parody their position so that you get the point -- if you're a serial murderer and drown kittens every day before breakfast, you might still be one of the chosen of God, and if you died right after you murdered someone and drowned their kitten -- you'd go straight to the arms of Jesus.  Lifestyle on earth has NOTHING to do with your spiritual condition or eternal destination.

OK, they didn't actually go quite that far.  When she was on trial, I don't think Hutchinson ever gave a straight answer to the question of, could a person who is evil in his behavior and completely unrepentant actually be saved and be one of the righteous ones of God.  But she (and others) did affirm that you can't tell who is saved by their behavior at all.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that, while good works don't save, you should be able to see evidence of the indwelling spirit in a person by their good life.  The antinomians said nothin' doin'.  Salvation is not evidenced by a good life.

So, O Massachusetts, your ministers may all be reprobate.  You can't tell who's in or who's out by their good lives.  Your governor, too, and your government officials, might all be sons of the Devil.

And this sort of thing mattered in this community.  Massachusetts was founded for the purpose of living out Christianity in community.  But you can't live out Christianity in community if you can't even tell who is truly a Christian.  The antinomian conflict struck at the heart of the Puritan experiment.  Antinomians obliquely claimed that you can't have an experiment in a Christian state since you have no way of knowing who is actually regenerated by God and truly saved.

Except some people can tell who is saved.  Some can discern it spiritually, said Hutchinson.  Certain people can tell.  Hutchinson put herself in that group, as among those who have this special spiritual gift. Aha.

Several trials then went down.  John Cotton went on trial, was acquitted and stayed in the colony.  The governor of the colony, Henry Vane, went on trial, and was expelled.  Hutchinson went on trial, and out she went.  Almost 80 people were expelled from Massachusetts over this affair.

Feeling grateful for the First Amendment?  Me, too.  But let's keep our 17th-century hats on.  No First Amendment; no standards for religious freedom, yet; and a colony founded for a religious purpose, of a given religious stripe.

So was Hutchinson's gender of no matter at all in this whole affair?  No, it mattered; it made her "crime" all the greater.  More on that next time.