Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

John Winthrop, Scoundrel and Cheat

This is a little study on inaccurate history and how it gets going.

Here's what I read this morning:

"Winthrop befriended the younger [Isaac] Johnson (29 years old at his death) in earlier days in England. . .  Winthrop on Isaac Johnson's death put in probate a sum of over £75,000. Isaac's brother Capt. James Johnson, on his arrival in 1635 was denied his title and right to Isaac's property. With the help of Dudley and others Winthrop kept this wealth in probate, and took fees, for over 30 years. Many documents where destroyed in a very mysterious manner. The documents were part of the "doomsday record" kept by the founders of Boston. Winthrop and others accuse Johnson's wife of adultery and placed her on gallows with the rope on neck, only to let her go. Capt. James Johnson's only crime was to allow his wife to have Bible studies in his home with Ann Hutchinson, "a good woman of the Christian faith" who along with the Lady Arbella came from Lincolnshire, England."
Now, the current take on John Winthrop was that he was a man of honor and so forth; he's even been dubbed a "Forgotten Founding Father" by his most recent biographer, Francis Bremer.  So this is rather shocking, to hear that he kept money away from its rightful recipient so the town could profit from probate fees, and that he threatened to kill off the heir's wife (which is I think insinuated above) to boot.  I'd never heard this story before.  Said biographer Bremer does not mention it.

I've spent some four hours this morning trying to track down the source of this story, armed with nothing but my trusty internet connection and whatever books I have on hand here at home.  What I've found is the same, identical, block of text copied and posted far and wide across the internet, especially on genealogy websites.  And by the way, if you're doing genealogy, beware.  Those sites are unbelievably error-ridden.

I think the original internet source of this story is a guide to touring Boston that Mobil put out.  But where they got this information, I still don't know.  A trip to Northwestern University should clear it up.  I hope.

But I'm pretty sure it's a crock.  I've found no other reference to a dispute over Johnson's will, or the probate issue, independent of the above blurb.  I found a Captain James Johnson, but he did not come over in 1635 and it's not clear if he was a relative of Isaac's or not.  If there is a second Capt'n Johnson, I've yet to locate him.  I've found no mention of a trial for adultery for James Johnson's wife Margery, though I have some more hunting to do on that yet.  Likewise, I've found no connection yet between Mistress Johnson and Hutchinson.

Concerning the "doomsday record:" This is cleared up in "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston"( readily available for download), which refers to Boston's "Book of Possessions" as "our Doomsday Book."  To students of English history, the reference is simple enough.  The Doomsday (or Domesday) Book was compiled shortly after William the Conquerer conquered England in 1066.  It is compilation of all property owned in England, and it was for tax purposes.  First the Normans invaded, then they taxed, but they had assess valuation first.  No wonder the English called this assessment, "The Doomsday Book."  (And a wonderful document it is for historians, for it provides a snapshot of 11th century England society and economy.)

So "our doomsday book" means the New England listing of all land held -- who had what, where.  This listing -- the "Book of Possessions" -- is reprinted in The Second Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, also available online.  It was not destroyed.   I'm not sure what documents the author above was referring to that were mysteriously destroyed, and if they were destroyed, what documents he was using for this story.  Capt. Johnson is mentioned in the Book of Possessions, but only as a property owner -- not as a litigant.

Now this took a morning for me to track even this much of it down.  I still don't know where these rather specific numbers came from.  The moral of the story is you can't just buy whatever you read on the internet, and blithely repost.

I'm completely impressed that you're still reading.  As a little reward for your patience, here's a guffaw  for you from a genealogy site.  It's a biography from of Isaac Johnson:

Born:  1589
Married: 1582 to Arabella Meaner
Died:  1630
Married:  1630 to Arbella Clinton

Another genealogist records his birth year as 1601 but then says on the same page that their child was born in 1575.  Didn't something like that happen on Dr. Who last season?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Writing Pains #3

In making window glass in the 17th century,
you'd get a "bull's eye" in your glass sheets,
which would be used for  your less prominent
windows.  Nicer windows were only slightly wavy.
Thanks to b3tarev3 for this photo.
Yesterday I went to a writers' group in Winnetka, about half an hour away.  The first hour was devoted to a presentation by an author on incorporating memory into stories, and the second a reading of a manuscript from one of the group's members.  And a fine manuscript it was!  I didn't go crawling out vowing to forsake my inferior writing, but it showed me that I have a long way to go yet.  Well, never mind; at least I'm voyaging, and I've not been at this for very long yet.

In the meantime, I'm making sure I've got Stuart England firmly in my own head before I take Anne across the ocean.  To that end I have learned this about nobleman's houses in the early 17th century:

Carpets went on tables as well as floors.  You'd cover the carpet with a tablecloth if the table was to be used for eating.

In the best rooms, walls were paneled.  Ceilings were often painted.

You would share a goblet or cup at a meal with the person you were seated next to.  After you drank, the cup was wiped out with a cloth and your companion drank.

Women as a whole experienced a lessening of status after Queen Elizabeth died.

Window glass is a very difficult subject to find out anything about.

And here's a sampling of questions that I have:

What happens to that fancy carpet on the table if you spill the wine?  I'm dubious about the carpet on the table during mealtimes thing; it sounds to me like an historian somewhere along the line got a little crazy with his conclusions.  Wouldn't you protect your expensive, irreplaceable carpet by removing it during the meal?  How easily would a stemmed goblet balance on all that fabric?  Still, if the tablecloth covering it were a fine wool, or silk, I suppose that would provide more protection than a cotton one.  Still.

If a married man was seated next to a single woman, would they share a cup?  Doesn't sound right.

Who was the head housekeeper?  Was it a chick or a dude?  What were the expected duties of a steward's wife?

How could you have a house without hallways?  Because they didn't; they had common rooms (like a parlor or a dining room), and then you'd enter private rooms directly from there.  The hallway less than a century away, I think, but  in 1630, except for a long "gallery" on one side or on  the back of the house, they didn't exist.  And it is most inconvenient for this writer to visualize what the top of the stairs looked like, and how you'd get to that room under the eaves on the far side of the house.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Being loved by your enemies: Roger Williams

I’ve often been struck by how much people seemed to like Roger Williams.  Williams, you will recall, was  the Puritan minister who was thrown out of New England for teaching unpalatable things concerning holiness and rights to land.  Even while ministers and authority figures in Massachusetts opposed him, some of those very opponents also continued to respect him.  The high point of that strand of the story came when The Suits arrived at Williams’ door to bundle him on to the next boat back to England.  But he was not there:  he had been warned by a friend and fled.  Years later, Williams revealed the name of that friend:  one of the biggest Suits of all, his opponent John Winthrop.  
How does someone retain the respect and friendship of one’s “enemies?”  I am not referring to mortal enemies, but those on the opposite side of the fence -- those across the aisle -- the yin to one’s yang.  Perhaps this snippet from an NPR book review sheds some light.  
The book in question is Paris:  A Love Story, by Kati Marton.  It’s an autobiography, covering Marton’s marriage to diplomat Richard Holbrooke.  I was struck by this story:
When Holbrooke fell ill, Marton received calls of concern from two leaders Holbrooke was often at odds with — President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan.
"I think they understood that he was throwing himself body and soul into the work," says Marton. "I was attending Mass with my friend Samantha Power, and Karzai's call came through, so I stepped outside. . . . I said to him, 'Mr. President, for Richard, Afghanistan is more than an assignment. He's absolutely passionate about your country and about your people, and committed to finding some kind of a solution to this.' And I thought I heard emotion when he said, 'We need him back here.'
"And that [was] followed a nanosecond later by a call from the President of Pakistan," Marton continues. "He said, 'Kati, I told him he was overdoing it. He was traveling to the most awful places and crawling inside those tents in refugee camps, and I told him, 'Richard, you're not as young as you think.' So it was a real human-to-human conversation. And whatever anybody says about President Zardari's weaknesses, for me, he was a human being.”
An honorable man can be recognized as such even by his opponents, and human affection can be refreshingly broad in its boundaries.  I think Winthrop recognized in Williams things that he himself valued -- spiritual passion, love for God and a commitment to live by the truth.  Even when he did not agree with what Williams called truth, he nevertheless recognized in him an honorable man.  It was enough to impel him to slip over to his house under the cover of night and say, “Roger, they’re coming for you.  You’ll have to run for it.  But remember, friend -- try not to overdo it."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Poetry for Dummies

Bad news, folks . . . writing poetry is more than rhyming emotion-laden words in meter.  Worse news:  17th-century poetry was a craft as much as an art, and I think I probably should learn a lot of the under-the-hood stuff if I’m going to understand Ole Annie, my poet buddy whose life I’m trying to recreate.

I’ve had some helps in this department -- a couple of books, good ones:  Puritan Poets and Poetics, and Sinful Self, Saintly Self:  the Puritan Experience of Poetry.  They have further directed me to a 16-the century book,The Art of English Poesie, which is a great window into the craft of poetry writing.  But . . . sigh.  Constructing a poem is like building a cathedral; it has rules and conventions and its own terminology as well.  And I should know something about all that so I can understand what the heck she was attempting when she sat down to write.  So I have to learn it.  Some of it.  Enough to get along; the poetic equivalent of “Ou est la salle de bain?” for the American in France.  Well, more than that, I guess.

And when I finish that, maybe I can go back to learning about 17th-century ships, a task I happily set aside last spring.  Humph.

I can’t even figure out what a “foot” is.  It’s a poetic term, and it’s related to syllables, but it’s not syllables.  Mr. Poesie Art didn’t make it clear, and I haven’t consulted Dr. Google yet.

But I am learning.  Learning, learning, learning, getting comfy inside Anne Bradstreet’s mental world, and painting it out again in a story that is now at about 30,000 words.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Writing Pains #2

Abigail's small round face, with its pretty cheeks, mild brow and petite nose, was all feminine softness.  But the tilt of her chin, the ease of her hands resting on the coverlet with knuckles lightly flexed spoke in low tones of her authority.

Pretty prose, eh?  Or maybe not.  I wrote that this morning, and at the moment I’m very fond of it.  But maybe in a week or a year I’ll hate it so much that I will have to take down this post and personally excise it from the memory of anyone who has read it.  Writing is so emotional.

The funny part of it is that the paragraph I wanted to write this morning wasn’t supposed to be about Abigail at all, but rather was supposed to make evident This Other Thing about a different character.  But I got caught up in another current -- the horses got the bits in their teeth and ran -- the lunatics got in control of the madhouse -- and I ended up with something very different.  That happens to me on a regular basis when I’m writing.  It feels rather like inspiration, though I suspect it is rooted in a lack of discipline or a lack of clear vision of where I’m going, in this paragraph, today.  It’s rather like taking a right turn, fully intending to end up on Main Street, and imagining you’re about to -- but ending up at the fair grounds instead. The fair grounds are all well and good, except you still have business to attend to on Main Street.

I’ve also had quite a time with certain characters not wanting to settle down and behave themselves.  One very important character has refused to be anything except a caricature, a cartoon of himself, floating obscenely above scenes like some sort of oversized flesh-colored balloon.  But today I caught him skulking around a corridor at the start of Chapter 2 -- why hadn’t I noticed his toes sticking out from behind that tapestry? -- and I dragged him out and cuffed him a time or two; and he settled down and actually behaved like an adult.

I think I’m starting to be irritated with that paragraph that I opened this post with.  “Feminine.”  Really, Joyce?  That’s the best you can do?  Back to the drawing board, but not today.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Real Men

This is a little off topic, but it's something that I've been wondering about a lot lately.    

Men.  What's up with them?  Since when was the ideal for male behavior strong, rugged, silent, etc?

Here's the deal:  we have this idea that historically, men are socially conditioned to be tough, to not express their inner fears and weaknesses, to squash the tears . . . etc.  So here is our narrative for male behavior over history:  "Once when the mastodons ruled the earth and humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups, men found that in order to hunt effectively and rule the clans at home, they had to be tough and authoritative.  They had to be 'real men.' They could not afford to give into their 'weaker' emotions, like grief.  Over the eons, they did not form close, intimate relationships with other men, preferring instead to form friendships around activities (such as hunting mastodons or fixing cars).  They certainly never told their guy friends how much they cared about them, except when inebriated ("I love ya, man.")    Then the 1970s happened and that all changed, except that it didn't because guys are still hard-wired to be strong, tough, silent, and fix cars.  The end."

OK, it's not perfect, you get the basic narrative.

The problem is that, as I tool along through the centuries as a historian, I keep finding evidence that that is not the case.  Whole generations of guys were very free about expressing their emotions to their guy friends, and we know because we have these intimate expressions of love and friendship to each other in their letters.

I know what you're thinking -- no, we're sure these are straight guys.  It was quite typical -- I think -- to express yourself rather rapturously about how you feel about  your closest guy friend to your closest guy friend.  Women did it too in their letters to their close female friends.

Or it was quite typical at certain times and or certain places and or certain social classes or or . . . you see, I'm hampered in two ways here:  1) it's not my area of specialty, so I don't really know, and 2) I don't think there's so much research being done on heterosexual male behavior over time.  Women's history, women's studies -- you bet.  Men's studies?  A few months I took a couple of hours googling around for some publications or university programs on the topic to get me going and get some questions answered and found zilch.  Women's studies, gender studies and LGBT was everywhere, but as far as looking specifically at norms for straight men in various times and places -- zilch.  "Men's studies."  Does that sound funny to you?  Should it?

I suppose this is all because we think that if you want to find out about male norms, look no further than history itself -- at least, the stuff we think of when we think of history, the wars, the parliaments, the leaders and their decisions -- because most of those players were men.  And I get that.  Certainly, you can learn about male behavior by looking there.

But this going narrative that we have -- that straight male history is public history, and female history is Other, seems very suspicious to me.  I think the truth is far richer because in my experience, it always is.  The real story that history reveals about any issue is always richer and more complicated than our perceptions concerning long-term effects of mastodon-hunting or what have you.

For instance:  Hillary Clinton.  There she is, a woman and Secretary of State, looking the Egyptian military in the eye and telling them to knock it off.  Is she doing that in an inherently "female" way?  Or is she doing that in a "male" way because she's operating in a context (Egypt) that demands male-style norms?  Or is this actually a "human" way?  Or are gender categories completely useless here because they're so conditioned by time and place and historical context?

Or:  are there consistent differences between matriarchal societies and patriarchal ones, all other things (size, complexity, development, etc) being equal?  That question might actually be answerable.

That's just a tip of the iceberg on this topic, so jump in if you have comments or questions,and especially if you can point me to a book on the topic.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Happened to Roger Williams?

Roger Williams has undergone quite a transformation over the centuries:  from a purist who was too pure to worship in Massachusetts (which is how his neighbors saw him) to a backslidden Christian centuries ahead of his time, embracing post-modern liberal thought (which is how many of us see him).  I suppose it’s an understandable error; anyone in the 17th century who respected Indian cultures and championed freedom of conscience must have rejected the stern certitude of puritanism, right?

“The Bloody Tenent”, Williams’ attack on
religious persecution.
Turns out Williams was a thorough-going puritan, even a quite conservative puritan.  I’m reading this book that rightly charts his intellectual sources to be Reformed theology -- the same theology that his persecutors were working off of.  But Williams interpreted certain biblical concepts (most notably, the implications of the incarnation) in different ways and so came to very different conclusions.  So while the likes of John Cotton said that the incarnation implied that God wished to build society infused with Christian values (and from there justified mandatory church attendance), Williams argued that the incarnation implied that the Church was only spiritual and had no business forcing itself on the unwilling individual.

But Williams went further.  Once he got to Rhode Island, he formed (or helped to form) a Baptist church, which was more in line with his theology.  But he left that church as well.  Ultimately, he decided that no church currently in the world was a “true” church, and in fact that a "true" church in his time was not possible.  Reason?  The apostolic succession -- that is, the line of spiritually anointed leaders, from Christ to Peter and on down -- was broken in the Middle Ages.  Those whom Jesus had commissioned to be the church leaders and church planters had now vanished from the earth.  One could only wait until Christ returned to restart the apostolic succession before true churches would be possible again.

Huh.  Now I’ve heard wacky theology in my time, and I’ve found that the first question to ask is, what does the Wacky Theologian get out of it?  Does it justify something that s/he wants, like more power or more sex or what have you?  Or did something happen to that innovative thinker, something painful perhaps, and now a concept in her faith is difficult to live with, and so is discarded or reshaped so that it could be defanged?

What was it that made Williams reject organized religion (while remaining a thorough-going Calvinist), even when he could form his church to be anything he pleased?

How about his other beliefs?  What happened to Roger Williams that brought him to believe that Sunday worship was a sacrament meant only for true believing Christians, and that the presence of nonbelievers polluted it?  What pushed him toward the unheard-of opinion that Indians had rights to all the land in America?  Why was he willing to take a stand, to risk all and lose all, on those particular issues?

What happened to Roger Williams?  What events or series of events opened him up to considering his beliefs through such a different lens?  What opened his mind or wounded his heart, that made him bury his face in his hands, maybe, that day alone in the house, unable to handle the implications of  . . . and then his head came up, and he reached for his Bible . . . how did that verse read, exactly?  Could it mean -- that?

What happened to Roger Williams?

And was there a woman involved?

OK, sorry about that last one.  I’m sure that whatever happened to Williams was more than just love gone sour.  But we don’t know what happened to Roger Williams.  Yet surely there is a story there, and maybe a pretty interesting one, the story of this thing, this event, that  shoved his thinking in novel directions and kept it there for the rest of his life.

Perhaps some intrepid novelist will come around and offer a creative suggestion. I’ve got I, Roger Williams in the queue to read this summer -- I’ve no idea what that author’s take on Williams is.  I’m hoping that s/he will weave me a story that will showcase the many facets of Roger Williams and offer a plausible (and entertaining!) plot line for how he became who he was.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Roger Williams’ Banishment

No portrait of Williams exists. This hypothetical
sketch was done in 1936.  This is how I
imagine him.
It’s Roger-Williams-time at last:  the enigmatic puritan whose views on justice were hundreds of years ahead of his time, and who was banished for them; a man drunk on the vision of the glory of God, and who nearly destroyed the fledgling community in Massachusetts.

  I try to pursue my research for this story by letting Anne’s own experience guide the timeline -- so I  research various people and events as Anne would have encountered them.  I should have turned to Williams before this, actually -- he was at Sempringham in the spring of 1629 --  but my Inner Historian has been kicking up a fuss about turning him into a character in a novel (as opposed to the Complex Elusive Historical Figure that he was).  But the deed must be done.  So here goes.

The first stop in Williams’ transformation into a character in a book is of course historical studies.  I have three scholarly works on Williams.  Oddly, they are all slender volumes.  History books not known for being slender.  History books are usually thick, as historians always seem to have plenty to say about stuff that you never wondered about wondering about.  A “short” history work runs around 250 pages.  Typical length is around 400 pages.  None of the Williams’ books top 200 pages.

Part of this is lack of material:  we know very little about his growing-up years, not even the precise year he was born.  I suspect the other part is the complexity and foreign quality of his theology; for the newcomer to puritan New England, it’s just hard to make heads or tails of exactly what everyone was so upset about.  (This is true of the Anne Hutchinson affair as well.)

It’s even hard for us to figure out if was he a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.  Was his banishment from Massachusetts an injustice, or not?  The problem is that Williams was kind of a nut -- as visionaries and forward-thinkers often are -- and he is much easier to get along with from a distance of 400 years than he would be if he were in our own time, sitting on a local school board for instance.

Even history textbooks can’t decide if he was a good guy or a bad guy.  Here’s some samples from my shelf:

From Out of Many:  
     "Williams believed in religious tolerance and the separation of church and state” -- good guy!
     "He also preached that the colonists had no absolute right to Indian land but must bargain for it in good faith” -- good guy!
     "These were considered to be dangerous ideas” -- bad, dumb other Puritans . . . 
     "and in 1636 Williams was banished from the colony.  With a group of his followers, he purchased land from the Indians and founded the town of Providence.” -- good guy!

From Liberty, Equality, Power:  
     "Williams, who served briefly as Salem’s minister, was a Separatist  who refused to worship with anyone who did not explicity repudiate the Anglican Church.” Oooh, sounds pretty narrow  -- bad guy.
     "In 1636, after Williams challenged the king’s right as a Christian to grant Indian lands to anyone at all, the colony banished him.”  Um, the king’s right “as a Christian?"  What’s all that about?  (See, these poor undergrads get these hunks o’ history flung at them in some of these books -- you can tell there’s a lot to this story, and you get two sentences.)  But we’ll say good guy, because we like the Indians and we hate what happened to him.
    "He fled to Narragansett Bay with a few disciples and founded Providence.” -- anyone fleeing persecution has the sympathy of most Americans, so -- good guy.
     "He developed eloquent arguments for religious liberty and the complete separation of church and state.” -- good guy

America, a Narrative History: 
    “Williams' belief that a true church must include only those who had received God’s gift of grace led him eventually to the conclusion that no true church was possible, unless perhaps consisting of his wife and himself.” -- Aha.  Bad guy. Whack job.

Truth was, Boston in 1635 just wasn’t big enough to contain Roger Williams’ ideas, and Williams was temperamentally unable to work patiently to win people over to them.  The mighty tidal wave hit the immovable rock, with predictable results.  What most intrigues me about his story is, long after the shouting was over and he was gone, Williams maintained a friendly correspondence with one of his chief accusers, John Winthrop.  That fact alone, I think, says something about Williams’ appeal, even in his own time.  It makes me look forward to writing him.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kick a Puritan, Hard

Were you one of those precocious tots who awed their parents and grammar-school classmates by learning to spell, “antidisestablishment- arianism?”  But what does it mean, ha ha?  It means being opposed to cutting off tax monies to a state church -- un-state-churching it, in other words, or in the proper terminology, “disestablishing” it.  An “established” church is one that has a favored status with the state and receives financial support from it.

One of the first things that the government of Boston, Massachusetts did after its founding in 1630 was to establish a church, and they did that by providing that the minister’s salary would come out of tax monies.  “Theocracy asserted itself at once,” sniffed a 20th-century editor of the town’s chronicles.

Anyone smart enough to be in his job should know better.  This was not the establishment of a “theocracy.”  Most of our 13 colonies had state churches.   They did not invent the practice, either.  The Anglican Church back home was (and still is) an established church.  The four colonies that did not have state churches (Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Rhode Island) were bucking a centuries-old tide.  As it turned out, that tide turned out to be the tide of the future, so those four came out looking pretty good.

So why didn’t the above history expert realize this?  Maybe he just goofed up . . . or maybe it was that the Puritans present such a tempting target for all things unAmerican.  When the subject is the Puritans, then providing for the minister can only mean theocracy, the rule by a narrow ministerial class over and against the wishes of the people.

The Puritans get that a lot, and I think the reason for it (in America, anyhow) is the Salem witch trials.  That was such a horrendous event that the rest of New England history is read, backwards and forwards, in its light.

Yet most of New England legal and social practices were pretty much in line with their century, Salem witch trials excepted.  It was a violent era, and an unfree one, wherever you were.  Freedom of worship was unknown in all the colonies except rogue Rhode Island; even Pennsylvania required a belief in God amongst its colonists.  And the story is never as black-and-white as we’d like to make it; for instance, even as they established tax-based churches, Massachusetts also banned ministers from holding public office, because they themselves had had a very bad experience at the hands of politically empowered church officials back home.

New England law is another example.  How likely would it be for you to get a fair trial in New England, would you say?  I bet most Americans assume that New England law was pretty much just a parade of of ear croppings, public whippings, and burnings at the stake for any and every cause.  Not so.  This is a huge and interesting topic which, unfortunately, I don’t have space for here.  But consider the conclusion of legal historian William Nelson.  Dr. Nelson compared Massachusetts law with that of neighboring Virginia and found that while in Virginia the law definitively empowered the economic elite,  “[Massachusetts legal practices] prevented those wielding political, economic, or social power from pressing their advantage and exploiting those under their control to whatever limits the market would permit.”

Maybe the Puritans get such a bad shake because we need bad guys to make sense of our national story.  Salem tarred them as the Ultimate Bad Guys.  So heck, let’s blame them for everything about ourselves as a nation that we can’t bear.  And  it won’t even matter if they’re not to blame, because they aren’t even really around anymore!  We can hate them and nobody gets hurt!

So are you grieved by our racist past?  The Puritans held African slaves.  Appalled by the abuses suffered by the Native Americans?  The Puritans  exiled the one person who said they should pay the Indians for that land.  Embarrassed by Prohibition?  The Puritans railed against drunkenness.  Angered at how human sexuality has been regarded as something dirty and shameful?  The Puritans whipped fornicators and declared adultery a capital crime, punishable by death.  Upset by environmental degradation?  The Puritans brought dandelions and garlic mustard to America and happily trashed their surroundings.  Uneasy about the direction that religious fundamentalism might take in our own generation?  Baby, look at them fundies frothing and fulminating in Massachusetts Bay!  How handy it is that we have a ready-made Source of All Evil in the American Past.

Everything in that above paragraph is true, and yet there is more to the story (as always) in each instance.  It is also a story worth exploring.

 Winthrop’s Journals:  History of New England, 1630 - 1649, edited by Franklin Jameson (1908), pg. 52. Via google books.

Nelson, William E., The Common Law in Colonial America, Vol 1.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008, pg. 65.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sailing, Sailing O’er the Ocean Blue . . .

In any century, tall ships take one’s breath away.
I’m stuck learning stuff I really don’t want to have to learn (a sensation that my students are no doubt familiar with) now that Anne is leaving England via watercraft.  There’s a great lore around tall ships and a very picky vocabulary, and there’s nothing for it but to master at least the rudiments.  Sigh.

So for instance, if Anne is leaning over the railing looking at the water -- what’s that railing called?  That’s not the gunwale, is it?  I think “gunwale” would apply to the upper lip of a smaller craft.  I asked Dr. Google, who helpfully supplied me with many diagrams of ships, the different parts labelled, but none had the name of the railing thing.

It’s hard to track down the details that I need to know.  For instance, how do you get on a ship, in the 17th century?  A gangway, Love Boat-style?  Or do the passengers have to mount some sort of ladder affair?  I decided it had to be a gangway, and with as little description as possible (the less to err) I put one in.  I spent a couple of hours yesterday trawling the internet trying to track down the answer to that question, and I’ve got a couple of book titles to check as well, if I feel highly inspired down the road to figure it out.

And what about the sleeping arrangements?  The replica of the Mayflower has bunks for its passengers, but if that was so, I sure hope they had seat belts for those things.  Can you imagine being in a bunk when a storm hit?  A storm at sea was like a roller coaster.  British sailors were killed by being thrown out of their bunks until the British Navy switched to hammocks around 1600.  These were the deep hammocks, so you’re in a sort of cocoon when you’re inside them.  Even if the ship is pitching, you’re still secure, since the hammock would sway with the motion and the occupant would remain balanced.

My puritans had to be in hammocks.  Hammocks were safer and cheaper than bunks.  One of the chief drawbacks would be that you’d sleep cold in a hammock, and it was cold out at sea.  (If you’ve ever camped in cold weather and foolishly slept on an air mattress -- you know what a hammock on the ocean would be like.)  But you’d have some sort of padding in the bottom of your hammock (probably a straw-filled mattress) to help with that.

I was pleased to learn that the Arbella, Anne’s ship, was a large ship, stately even, with a cargo hold twice the size of the Mayflower’s.  She had an eagle on her prow and three masts.  Most of the people were housed belowdecks, on a middle deck that was above the hold.  Likely Anne was not there, though.  Some makeshift cabins were constructed on the main deck for the ladies of high rank.  Surely one of those ladies was Arbella Fiennes Clinton Johnson, daughter and sister of earls and wife of one of the most prominent colonists -- and for whom the boat was named.  Arbella’s family owned Sempringham, the manor where Anne spent so many years of her girlhood.  I would imagine that a few ladies housed with Arbella to wait on her (they brought England with them, at least at first).  The logical choices for that role would be Anne and her mother. I think men and women slept separately on this trip -- even married couples -- though I’m not sure.

The problem with these cabins was that if the Arbella’s guns had to be fired -- and she was bristling with weapons -- the cabins would have to be taken down or else they would be in the way of the gun sights.  (So these were cannons on the main deck, I suppose).  And that did happen, in the early days of the voyage.  Some of the women’s stuff was tossed in the sea so it would not be ignited by any flaming arrows that the enemy might send over.  Maybe the gentlewomen might have been better off living belowdecks; at least they would not have lost some of their blankets into the English Channel.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Time For a Poetry Break

Happy Poetry Month, everybody!  I only just realized today, April 18, that that is indeed what it is.  I suppose that a historian writing about a poet should keep up on these things.  But it’s because I’m a historian, You See, and not a poet, that I nearly missed it.  That also must explain why I gave Women’s History Month (March) such loving attention here at Carping Tongues.

But let’s celebrate Poetry Month with a poem.  I don’t know much about poetry, but I recently found that poems are meant to be read aloud.  Last November I taught a class on Anne Bradstreet and I wanted to read some of her poetry to the class.  One poem was to a child who had died, and I had to practice it aloud several times to make sure I wasn’t going to get all choky over it in class, since dying-children poetry wrings my heart every time.

As I read it aloud, over and over, I discovered its craft.  Two verses, each seven lines, with a rhyme structure of ABABCCC, DEDECCC.  The choice to make the last three lines of each stanza rhyming – and to have the same rhyme for the last three lines of both verses – gave a repetition that, to me anyhow, spoke of grief.  It made me think of rocking in a rocking chair, back and forth endlessly, while the heart is aching.  You come down hard on that “ate” – fate, terminate, state, eradicate, date, fate.  “Fate” is the first and the last words in this series.  That can’t be chance, especially since the subject of the final stanza is WHY, GOD.

You try it:  read this aloud.  This poem is about the loss of Anne’s one-year-old granddaughter.  Take it slow, and see where the emphasis seems to fall as you speak it.

Farewell dear babe, my heart's too much content,
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,
Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then ta'en away unto eternity.
Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate,
Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state.

By nature trees do rot when they are grown,
And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,
And corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall.
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown to have so short a date,
Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate.

As I read the second stanza I found myself emphasizing the words of decay, pausing on rot, ripe, mown, and down.  She takes the entire stanza to set up the question – WHY, GOD -- and then answers it in a quick phrase.  What was in her heart?  Did the last line bring her any comfort, or was she speaking out of her anger or bewilderment? 

Celebrate Poetry Month -- read a poem OUT LOUD.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Quats

How many of you folks read poetry on a more-than-occasional basis?

When was the last time someone recommended a poet to you?

Likely we’d all be reading more of it if we lived in Anne Bradstreet’s time.  Metered lines were everywhere.  But they are now, too, in our pervasive modern music culture.  Yet our values as a culture run more to the  practical, the immediate, and the active, and our music shows it.  Poetry by itself is an acquired taste.

Or maybe I’m the odd one out in my lack of poetry reading.

But I’m writing about a seventeenth-century poet, a woman who sat at her rough kitchen table in the middle of the wilderness and wrote long epic works rich in classical and scientific allusion.  Sure, she wrote love poems too, but she spent years on her “quaternions” -- five poems of four sections each relating each topic of the poem (the four ages of man, for instance, or the four seasons) to four basic divisions in the universe (represented by hot, dry, cold, and moist).  And it’s ponderous stuff to my untrained ear:

When Spring had done, the Summer did begin,
With melted tauny face, and garments thin,
Resembling Fire, Choler, and Middle age,
As Spring did Air, Blood, Youth in's equipage.
Wiping the sweat from of her face that ran,
With hair all wet she puffing thus began;
Bright JuneJuly and August hot are mine,
In th' first Sol doth in crabbed Cancer shine.
                  (from Bradstreet’s Four Seasons)

You read the first three lines and skipped the rest, didn’t you?  If you take a trip through the quaternions, you’ll find thousands of lines of this -- academic, densely written, full of metaphors that sound strange on the ear.  But people liked this stuff, and read it for fun.

O good, O bad, O true, O traiterous eyes
What wonderments within your Balls there lyes,
Of all the Senses sight shall be the Queen;
Yet some may wish, O had mine eyes ne're seen.
Mine, likewise is the marrow, of the back,
Which runs through all the Spondles of the rack,
It is the substitute o'th royal brain,
All Nerves, except seven pair, to it retain.
                      (from Bradstreet’s Four Humours)

Well, maybe not for fun. This one is like a college lecture on human physiology (did you catch the part about seven nerves?) set to rhyme, and the lessons about the human experience that one might derive from that.  

I’ve picked up, sighed, and put down the quats many times so far, but as I go along in this project they make more sense to me.  I had a delightful experience yesterday.  After I taught a class I hit a Starbuck’s and sat there a spell with Anne’s volume.  At the beginning of her book are poems from her friends that were published alongside hers, there to praise her work and to reassure potential buyers to plunk down their money for it (like glowing quotes on back covers today, but all in rhyme).  One poem was by her brother-in-law.  It was as ponderous (to my ears) as the rest, but for the first time his affection for Anne shone through to me, and I even laughed out loud at something funny that he said that I finally got.  

We still snicker and call her “Spondle Girl” around my house, but I’m developing a taste for this long-dead style of poetry.  Maybe I’ll even -- like -- it someday.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

On The Dock

Replica of the Arbella, flagship of the Winthrop fleet.
Wouldn't you love to climb that rigging if you were
a kid stuck on this boat for weeks?
My writing goal was to get Anne Bradstreet to the dock by the end of April -- that is, to finish Part I, the set-in-England part of the story (in which we meet the characters and the groundwork for future themes and events are laid out) and to have her set out on the journey.  Yesterday -- the last day of MARCH, mind you -- I finished off Part I and am ready to fast-forward a year or so to where she and 1000 others are at the Isle of Wight, preparing to sail across the Atlantic.

I was going to skip the voyage because the thought of it bored me.  Yes, yes, seasickness, scary storms, bad water, hardship . . . ho hum.  But after talking to a literary consultant associate of mine (whom I am also married to by a happy coincidence), I'm getting engaged in telling some of those on-board stories.  I've been thinking about what it might have been like for the 8- to 14-year-old boys, stuck on this little tub of a ship for weeks and weeks.  What would you do if you were nine, on a ship and bored?  Climb on the rigging -- have a peeing contest off the back of the ship -- hang around the sailors and pick up some stories -- and generally drive everyone nuts.  Well, maybe not -- seventeenth-century boys were probably much better behaved than our boys, because discipline was much harsher.  But still, the olde saying is, "boys will be boys," and I love the peeing contest too much to leave it off.

There are too many interesting things about that voyage that are not generally known to skip it entirely.  The ladies cooked meals for their families right in their sleeping areas, for instance.  (Think about that one.)  Passengers had to pay fare for themselves and their goods, and the goods rate was by the TON.  (These folks were not packing all their worldly goods in a portmanteau; they brought their stuff.)  Whole families emigrated together -- parents, kids, aunts and uncles, brothers- and sisters-in-law -- sometimes even grandma and grandpa came.

Let's think about that last one for a minute.  Sailors commented on the number of "elderly" people -- in that age, in their 60s and maybe 70s -- who made the voyage.  Traveling to America would be the equivalent for us of traveling to the jungle and camping there while we built a house and developed a farm.  It seems that the best age to do that would be in one's teens or twenties.  But during the puritan migration, the average age was (as I recall, not bothering at this moment to drag out my notes) mid-30s, married with kids.  And then there's Granny.  Why does Granny go?  What's in it for her?  Sure, she'll miss her bunchkins if she stays, but is it really worth it for her to go and face the cold and discomfort in those first few months? Clearly, the answer was, "yes."  There was a wave forward, across the Atlantic, and it picked up a lot of people who seem to our eyes to be very unlikely immigrants.  Most Puritans stayed in England, but those who came brought community with them, and that is one of the reasons why their settlements were so successful.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Carping For Real

“The Alchemist” by Pieter Brueghel.  This is what the inside
my head looks like when I’m writing.
I am writing a lot at the moment, backing off of the research I’ve been at so happily for most of a year, and actually -- I almost hate to admit it -- writing a novel about Anne Bradstreet.  It is much safer to say that I am “researching the life of the poet.”  Writing a novel sounds vaguely tawdry.  And my Inner Historian agrees; she doesn’t appreciate sharing house space with my Inner Writer, and deeply resents the fact that I am currently taking more advice from my Inner Writer than from her.  She shouldn’t fret too much: I am committed to writing a historical novel that is heavy on the “historical” part.  I want to capture the spirit of a movement that at the moment (as far as I can tell) lives only in the better scholarly histories.

 But if the thing isn’t fun, and readable, and a worthwhile story -- it will never be read.  And that will mean, I now see, that sometimes the historical record will have to be monkeyed with.  EVER SO SLIGHTLY!  For instance, I just wrote a scene with a character in it who was from real life, and who did indeed visit Sempringham Manor, but who I know darn well was already dead in 1629, the year that this is taking place.  He’s a minor character but an important one; and as he is both minor and important, he’s worth violating the historical canon for.  But I couldn’t resist having him say to Anne, in response to her “how have you been:"

“Some say I should be in my grave, but I appear one more time at Sempringham.”

I am experiencing once again the alchemy of writing.  Alchemy is science plus magic; that seems to be what creates my story.  Things happen that I don’t anticipate to make the whole greater than the parts.  For instance, I wanted to write about two old men in particular (both of them real people from the past), because I liked them and because they both had something slightly unusual and winsome about them that I wanted to capture.  I don’t think I started with a Grand Plan for either of them, and if they ended up on the cutting room floor, so what.  But now that I have them down, I see that they might both be Wise Men.  They both have important things to say about the Puritan experiment, things that go past Puritanism and into other more foundational realms.  But as a writer one can’t be heavy-handed with that sort of thing or else no one will buy it.  Maybe I will find a way for them to say what they want to say that is not overpowering but is still deep enough to offer the shading I desire, to make this a three-dimensional story.

When I started with these two old men -- who knew they’d be so smart?  Not me -- and I’m the Author!  That’s the alchemy of  writing, and it is ever a wonder to me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Why Can’t You Be Like the Virgin Mary?"

Just a quick note on my current research on Ms. Bradstreet. I’m still reading and notating “Domesticall Duties,” the 17th-century marriage and family manual. It is very helpful for understanding just how marriage relationships worked. I’ve finished the lengthly “instructions for wives” section and am going through the almost-as-long “instructions for husbands" section.

I learned today that one common gripe that women had was that their husbands would get cheap on them during pregnancy and childbirth, even to the extremity of not wanting to provide a nice room for them to give birth in. [In the seventeenth century and through most of history, women gave birth at home or perhaps a midwife’s home; they did not go to the hospital.] And here’s the ultimate retort to the wife who wants to give birth in the cosy room at the midwife’s place rather than in her own drafty chamber: “Cannot my wife be brought to bed in a room without a chimney as well as the virgin Mary? Why should my wife need more things than she did?”

Now just how does a mother-to-be compete with the Virgin Mary?

Pastor Gouge rightly calls this an “inhumane and more than barbarous unkindness[.]” He has lots of cheerful things to say about both men’s and women’s attitudes and actions. Once I finish notating this tome (I’m on page 167 of 400 pages), I’ll talk more about how the opposing genders were supposed to get along with each other in that day, and how they actually did.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How I Drove to England

Somewhere in a quiet corner of England is St. Andrew’s church, standing as it has for a millennium or so. It's all that's left of the village of Sempringham where once upon a time an upper-class girl named Anne Dudley dipped into an Earl's library and began her love affair with books.

There was a manor house here once and it's driven me crazy, trying to find information on it. I just want to know: what did Anne see when she looked out a window? How many people could the Sempringham manor house accommodate? And concerning that cozy image that all of us interested in Anne Bradstreet have conjured up at one time or another -- young Anne curled up with a book in the Earl’s library -- was that library on the first floor or the second floor? Was it magnificent in its proportions, or small and cheerful? And so on.

I think its probable that the manor’s actual layout has slipped out of knowledge, unless a local
Lincolnshire history society comes through for me. So I settled on the easiest of the above questions to answer: what did Anne see when she looked out of a window? This area is described alternatively as flat, fenny, hilly and wooded by various sources. Perhaps I needed to go to England and see. Hmmm. As good an excuse as any. But that money issue . . .

Then I consulted a calendar and discovered it’s the 21st century. I hopped on to Google Map’s street view started driving all over Lincolnshire. Yes, folks, I drove almost to the
North Sea, all from the comfort of the big green chair in my living room. AND I drove on the correct side of the road, notwithstanding any local traffic regulations.

Now ain’t that a pretty town, above? That’s Billingsborough, between Pointon and Boston. I drove there last weekend. Note the dividing line is an annoying white instead of the correct yellow.

It took several tries to find the road that leads to the church (thank you, Google Map People, for driving down there), but I did at last.

And the answer to my question, “What did Anne see when she looked out of the window in 1628?"

She saw Iowa.

Unpave that road and take out the telephone poles -- and you’ve got it. Mostly flat, with some swells of land. Maybe there were some larger stands of trees and a few more sheep four hundred years ago, but it was mostly agricultural then -- and it’s mostly agricultural now. It looks like Iowa. So much for the romance of the past.