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second source of truth rather than as a ¬nal appeal. This was an empow-
ering vision for some early modern thinkers, but a highly dubious one for
others. Hence, perhaps the most appropriate response this book can give to
Hall comes from the mouths of his immediate forebears, contemporaries
and successors, both Catholic and Protestant, as they consider the whole
question of church tradition. The brief survey of Reformation attitudes
to this topic given below is a way of setting Hall in context, since he was
intervening in an international debate, not writing speci¬cally about the
afterlife of the old religion in his own country. But because of the strong
connection between unof¬cial or suppressed religious practices and oral
culture, material from English sources does throw up some suggestive con-
nections between Catholics, oral tradition and questions of truth: nowhere
more so than among the Blackloists, a group of secular priests politically
dominant in 1650s and 1660s England, who held that the Catholic rule
of faith was to be identi¬ed with oral transmission of the Christian mes-
sage between generations.9 In response to questions like Hall™s, Catholics
typically stressed the uncertainty of the written word and the reliability of
tradition, and this was nowhere more strikingly set out than by the most
radical of the Blackloists, John Sergeant. His adaptation of the rule-of-faith
debate was tailor-made for the unique conditions prevailing in England,
and this book will conclude by discussing it.

t ra d ition , t h e rul e of fa i th an d t h e e ng li s h ch u rch
Though ideas of tradition and orality are so often linked, tradition in the
wider theological arena has implications far beyond oral instruction. First
and foremost in the early modern period, it related to any authoritative but
non-Scriptural material, particularly the Church Fathers, church councils,
liturgies and sacramental practice, though it could also be used as a way
of endorsing traditions surrounding particular saints or cults. In general,
Catholic theologians have always tended to accord greater importance to the
role of church tradition than their Reformed counterparts, partly because it
is so basic to notions of the visible church.10 For pre-Reformation Catholics
as for their Counter-Reformation successors, Christian tradition was
embodied in the church™s belief and practice. Texts such as 2 Thessalonians
2:15, ˜Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have
been taught, whether by word, or our epistle™, gave this idea biblical war-
rant, in a manner which itself illustrates the symbiotic relationship between
Scripture and tradition; most traditions could, after all, be argued back to
Conclusion 153
Scripture by interested parties. But how exactly to formulate the relation-
ship between Scripture and tradition, already a problematic issue in the
medieval church, was to emerge as one of the main points in dispute between
Catholics and reformers, with polemicists on both sides fostering an arti-
¬cially clear distinction between the two; and the controversial rhetoric of
the early Reformation sometimes suggests how much the Catholic church
“ like other venerable institutions since “ resented justifying its traditions
and management practices to upstarts demanding mission statements.11
This was as true in England as on the Continent. Edmund Bonner, as
reported by Alexander Alane, is reiterating a party line rather than engag-
ing with the Protestant argument when he states: ˜the tradicions and cer-
emonyes wherof the old ecclesiastical writers do make mencyon / were
received of the apostles and geven us of the fathers from hand to hand and
therfor thei may be laufully called the word of god unwritto[n]™.12 Alane is
particularly offended by this epitome, commenting that defenders of tradi-
tion ˜[i]magyne god to be lyke some ignorant poete which hath geven us a
patched and an unper¬ght worke™ (f. E5a). His metaphor, consciously blas-
phemous in comparing God to an imaginative writer, demonstrates typical
Protestant unease at the idea that tradition should ever be thought of as
supplementing written revelation from God; like so many of the other writ-
ers in this study, Alane demonstrates how close the relationship is between
the repudiation of church tradition and a fear of the human imagination.
Sir Thomas More was a more sophisticated contemporary apologist for
the Catholic cause than Bonner, and keeping a sharply paradoxical eye on
his own deployment of proof-texts, he reminds the reader in his Dialogue
Concerning Heresies that Christianity was founded not on Scripture but the
verbal promises of Christ.13
A more comprehensive Catholic response to the sola scriptura argu-
ment was to come in the long term. At their most convincing, Counter-
Reformation ripostes come across as attentive to Protestant demands for
reliability and accountability, making a case for tradition as capable of both
qualities and stressing its normative bias. Opening up the argument to
broader questions of hermeneutics, they stress that Scriptural interpretation
is unavoidable, whether orally conveyed or not:14 an approach more conge-
nial to most twenty-¬rst-century commentators than the typical Protestant
gambit of dismissing all arguments which appeared to represent a dilution
of biblical authority. Serenus Cressy mocked the sola scriptura argument by
an anecdote illustrating the stupidity of those who expect the Scriptures to
comment explicitly on everything: ˜As for these men they seem not unlike
an honest Northern tenant of the late Earle of Cumberland . . . who when
154 Oral Culture and Catholicism
another his companion had in discourse imputed treason to some of the
said Lords Ancestours, replyed: I am sure that is false: for I have read all the
Bookes of histories both in the old and new Testament, and I de¬e any man
to shew me that ever any Clifford has been a Traytour.™15 A typical main-
stream Catholic idea of the relationship between Scripture and tradition
compared it to that between a law-book and a judge, with the Scripture
essential for salvation not ˜folded up in Characters; or letters, ¬gured with
inck, painted, or impressed on paper™, but ˜ingrafted, and preserved, in
conservatives that are more noble (viz. the heart of man, the mouth of
the Church, the lips of her Priests, the ¬ery tongues of her Apostles)™.16
Law-book and judge are equally necessary for keeping order, which is why
post-Reformation Catholicism in general, whatever its respect for tradition,
can hardly be described as downplaying Holy Scripture.
The Council of Trent has been described as moving from a ˜rough-and-
ready arrangement whereby Tradition . . . introduced a believer to the
doctrines of the faith, while Scripture was used at a later stage to test, to
amplify and to collate those doctrines™, by more carefully delimiting the
spheres of Scripture and tradition, arriving at a formulation which called
for the books of Holy Scripture to be venerated equally with divine and
apostolic traditions concerning faith and morals:17
The council clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in written books
and in unwritten traditions which were received by the apostles from the mouth
of Christ himself, or else have come down to us, handed on as it were from the
apostles themselves at the inspiration of the holy Spirit. Following the example of
the orthodox fathers, the council accepts and venerates with a like feeling of piety
and reverence all the books of both the old and the new Testament . . . as well as the
traditions concerning both faith and conduct, as either directly spoken by Christ
or dictated by the holy Spirit, which have been preserved in unbroken sequence
in the Catholic church.18
Here, the explicit veneration of Scripture responds to Protestant accusa-
tions that Catholics ignored the Bible when it suited them, and is just as
striking, in its way, as the endorsement of tradition; towards the end of
the seventeenth century, as discussed below, the Catholic scholar Richard
Simon was to ¬nd himself in trouble with his fellow Catholics not for
ignoring tradition, but “ if anything “ overemphasising it.19
Nor should one underestimate the place of tradition in Protestant
thought, since most major Protestant denominations at the time of the
Reformation would have endorsed patristic and conciliar witness up to a
point, and the principle of historical continuity in general. Though the idea
of tradition often did function as a catch-all for what Protestants disliked
Conclusion 155
about Catholicism, their use of the term is certainly not always pejorative.20
Nevertheless, suspicion of tradition was perhaps a more formative in¬‚uence
for them. Luther, for instance, declared that he saw Scripture as counting
for more than all church councils and fathers, while Calvin™s stress on a
hidden church worked against the idea that tradition could be endorsed
by collective witness. While Philip Melanchthon™s stress on the notion of
handing down doctrine and sacraments has broad af¬nities with Catholic
thought, he too condemned tradition as soon as it obscured the gospel.21
As Hans Frei has commented, the view that tradition was dangerously hard
to monitor and likely to engender departure from the Bible affected Protes-
tant conceptions of authority, and led to an intensi¬ed concentration on
Scriptural hermeneutics.22 For the Church of England, a key statement of
the limits of tradition came in Richard Hooker™s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical
Polity. In a chapter headed ˜The bene¬t of having divine laws written™, he
writes: ˜When the question therefore is, whether we be now to seek for any
revealed law of God otherwhere than only in the sacred scripture, whether
we do now stand bound in the sight of God to yield to traditions urged by
the Church of Rome the same obedience and reverence we do to his written
law, honouring equally and adoring both as Divine: our answer is, no.™23
Hooker continues, ˜What hazard the truth is in when it passeth through
the hands of report, how maimed and deformed it becometh; they are not,
they cannot possibly be ignorant™; the word ˜hazard™, also used by Hall,
testi¬es to the element of chance involved in any process of transmission,
but also to the sense of personal danger felt by Protestants when venturing
beyond Scripture.
Catholic and Protestant concepts of tradition were regularly opposed
at a polemical level.24 In the hands of some Protestant commentators,
this abstract concept received vivid satirical pictorialisation: the preface to
William L™Isle™s translation of Aelfric depicts the Catholic ˜hood-winked
with his implicite faith, as with a bumble on his head, [who] thinkes he goes
forth-right, when he windles in a mill: aske him how he beleeves, and he
will say as the church beleeves; aske him how the Church beleeves, and he
will say as he beleeves: and out of this compasse can he not goe . . .™.25 This
patently circular argument illustrates the suspicion that tradition might be
a way of keeping the unlearned in intellectual subjection, unable to reason
their way out of popery or to gain access to the Scriptures: a topic which,
not surprisingly, found its way into popular anti-Catholicism. In a woodcut
illustration to the ballad ˜A new-yeeres-gift forthe (sic) Pope™ (c.1625), God
is depicted with a pair of scales, proving the Bible to be more weighty
than ˜Masses and Dirges, with such superstitions, / Decrees and Decretals,
156 Oral Culture and Catholicism
with other Traditions, / The golden Legend with late new additions™.26
Conversely, the concept of tradition ¬gured in the libel which formed part
of the Catholic demonstration in Enborne church, discussed in chapter 3:
. . . many a miracle holie crosse hath wraught
all w[hi]ch by tradition to light Churche hath brought
Wherfore holie worshipp holie churche doth giue
& so will wee as long as we liue
thoughe thou saiest idolatry & vaine sup[er]stition
yet we know it is holie church tradition . . . 27

ora l d el ivery a n d t h e en g l i sh ch u rch
Catholic and Protestant self-de¬nition in this type of text has a kind of par-
odic relationship to the rule of faith or regula ¬dei, one of the names used
in the early church to describe outline statements of orthodox Christian
belief. Intended to serve as guides in scriptural exegesis, they comprised the
basic minimum of what one needed to know to be saved, though unlike
creeds, which came later, they varied in wording. Even after creeds came
into existence and catechisms became widely used, the rule of faith con-
tinued a useful notion for church educators, though in the debates on the
topic in post-Reformation England, it is seen less as a practical teaching
aid and more as a way of de¬ning the curriculum. Not surprisingly, it
became an embattled term as a result: so much so that de¬nitions of it are
inextricably bound up with the emergence of scepticism.28 Catholic com-
mentators could turn this trend to advantage, using it to maximise the role
of the church as providing a continuous revelation to override intellectual
doubts. Conversely, some Protestant writers went so far as to suppress all
the phrase™s connotations of church tradition, applying it instead only to
the Scriptures.29 At all times, it posed a challenge to zealous clerics of all
denominations: just how uneducated could you be and still call yourself a
Christian? Few Protestants would have denied that the rule of faith could
be instilled into an illiterate congregation by godly preachers, but the puri-
tan stress on direct access to the Bible could still imply that an illiterate
Christian “ or, at the very least, one without detailed command of God™s
word “ was an inadequate Christian.30 In a dialogue written by the puri-
tan George Gifford, the popish ˜Atheos™ cries ˜GOD forbidde that all those
shoulde bee awry which are not learned™, and the admirable ˜Zelotes™ asserts
in response that ˜man can not be lead by Gods spirite, and refuse to knowe
the Scriptures: . . . he teacheth onlie in his worde™.31 Thus, debates about
the place of orality in tradition were at their most heightened when they
Conclusion 157
touched on the rule of faith, since then they addressed the whole question
of how salvation could be achieved.
In England, the rule-of-faith controversy reached its zenith in a period
stretching from the 1650s to the 1680s. One of the best-known Catholic
converts from this date, John Dryden, wrote about the topic twice: once
before his conversion and once after. Religio Laici (1682), Dryden™s versi¬ed
apologia for Anglicanism, contains a critique of Richard Simon: a Catholic
theologian controversial in his time, and without many immediate heirs,
who is now seen as pioneering modern-day biblical criticism.32 His work
on the Scriptures stressed the error inherent in the process of Scriptural
transmission, raising the kind of textual problems which, when explored
by more heterodox writers, were to inspire such radical shifts away from
organised religion during the Enlightenment. To distance himself from
the more radical thought of his time and counteract the implications of
his ¬ndings for a church already nervously aware of sceptical and deistic
trends among the European intelligentsia, Simon laid heavy stress on church
tradition as a guarantor of faith “ though in a post-Tridentine climate, even
this was not enough to save him from his co-religionists™ opprobrium, and
his books were banned in his native France.33 Dryden™s tactically brilliant
response to Simon™s thought is to argue that Simon cannot possibly mean
us to take this seriously, and that his real aim must be not to reinforce the
church, but to undermine both Scripture and tradition:34

For some who have his secret meaning guessed
Have found our author not too much a priest:
For fashion sake he seems to have recourse
To Pope and councils, and tradition™s force,
But he that old traditions could subdue
Could not but ¬nd the weakness of the new:
If scripture, though derived from heavenly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserved on earth,
If God™s own people (who of God before
Knew what we know, and had been promised more,
In fuller terms, of heaven™s assisting care,
And who did neither time, nor study spare
To keep this book untainted, unperplexed)
Let in gross errors to corrupt the text,
Omitted paragraphs, embroiled the sense,
With vain traditions stopped the gaping fence,
Which every common hand pulled up with ease,
What safety from such brushwood helps as these?
If written words from time are not secured,
158 Oral Culture and Catholicism
How can we think have oral sounds endured?
Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has failed,
Immortal lies on ages are entailed;
And that some such have been is proved too plain,
If we consider interest, church, and gain.
(252“75)35

However, The Hind and the Panther, written in 1687 after Dryden con-
verted to Catholicism, contains a no less eloquent argument in favour of
tradition. While the notion of tradition encompassed all non-scriptural
matter endorsed by the church, the two poems illustrate how notions of
oral transmission were never far from the debate. Dryden is, for instance,
either misunderstanding or taking a polemicist™s liberty when he attacks
Simon on the grounds that oral tradition is unstable; Simon™s conception
of tradition, like that of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in general, is
geared towards such written matter as the works of the Church Fathers and
conciliar decrees.36 Still, it was an ambiguity inherent in the topic, especially
in the standard phrase non scripta, used to describe ˜unwritten™ doctrines
and implying only that these were doctrines not originally written down
by their authors; both Catholic and Protestants commonly went one step
further, and equated these unwritten traditions with oral ones.37
Paradoxically, even while it was useful to Protestants to play up orality in
debunking Catholic notions of tradition, Catholic writers could use orality
to reinforce the claims of tradition as a guide. Writing as Protestant and
then as Catholic, Dryden illustrates this well; the following passage from
The Hind and the Panther is one of the many moments in the poem when
the Catholic Hind seems to be answering not only the Anglican Panther
but Dryden™s earlier self:

˜If not by scriptures, how can we be sure™,
Replied the Panther, ˜what tradition™s pure?™ . . .
˜How but by following her™, replied the dame,
˜To whom derived from sire to son they came;
Where every age does on another move,
And trusts no farther than the next above;
Where all the rounds like Jacob™s ladder rise,
The lowest hid in earth, the topmost in the skies?™38

When the Panther retorts that ˜Succeeding times such dreadful gaps have
made / ™Tis dangerous climbing™ (225“6) the Hind goes on the offensive:
˜You must evince tradition to be forged, / Produce plain proofs, unblem-
ished authors use, / As ancient as those ages they accuse™ (233“5).
Conclusion 159
This passage is not simply reversing the arguments advanced in Religio
Laici. In the passage from this poem quoted above, Dryden certainly stresses
the possible knock-on effects of one orally transmitted mistake, ˜Which thus
transmitted, if one mouth has failed, / Immortal lies on ages are entailed™;39
but the Hind™s picture of church tradition as a series of short transmissions
between generations is one which is not counteracted or even addressed,
perhaps because its stress on collective authority would weaken the point
being made. In employing it in his later poem, Dryden is bringing the
question of oral transmission into the foreground, drawing especially on
the work of some seventeenth-century English Catholic theologians whose
thought on the topic of oral tradition had taken a distinctive turn.40
To explain why it was distinctive, one needs ¬rst to sketch in the back-
ground from which it diverged. Catholics would all have agreed that the
church was the sum total of orthodox Christian believers and acted as a
means of conveying tradition, which was in turn essential to the rule of
faith; but in practice, formulations varied widely about which elements
of the church were actively responsible for the preservation of the faith.
Most writers were concerned with the inter-relationship of three elements
in particular: the ordained ministry, the writings of orthodox theologians,
especially the Church Fathers, and the decrees of church councils.41 Ideas
of the rule of faith brought lay people and the uneducated into the pic-
ture, since it was a shorthand means of saying that even those of mod-
est formal education could be good Christians, and that oral means of
transmission were catechetically effective. Conversely, it could be used as a
defence against humanist and Protestant claims that church tradition was
esoteric.42 As Serenus Cressy argued, oral or practical traditions were ˜obvi-
ous to all me[n]s eyes, and sou[n]d aloud in all me[n]™s eares shining in
the publique visible practise and profession of the Church™;43 and as John
Sergeant proved, the idea could have even more demotic implications.
Sergeant was one of the Blackloists, a group of English secular priests
and laymen who engaged in radical political and philosophical experimen-
tation in the middle and latter decades of the seventeenth century, and
dominated the Chapter of the English Secular Clergy during the 1650s
and early 1660s.44 Nicknamed after the pseudonym ˜Blacklo™ used by their
dominant ¬gure, Thomas White, the Blackloists also included William
Rushworth, whose work on the rule of faith stimulated Sergeant™s own.
The Blackloists™ interpretation of the rule, central to their theoretical dis-
tinctiveness, made a fundamental distinction between believers in God™s
word as delivered orally and as set down on paper, and was most in¬‚uen-
tially set out in Rushworth™s Dialogues (1st edn 1640), which seems to have
160 Oral Culture and Catholicism
been a joint production by Rushworth and Thomas White.45 For their
time, the Blackloists have a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into
the position of the unlearned, which in turn accounts for the importance
they attach to tradition. In the Dialogues, for instance, a scholarly and
an ordinary, common-sensical way of reading Scripture are distinguished,
and the latter is identi¬ed as suf¬cient to explain the Catholic faith. Like
tradition, it is seen as conveying its sense not just to scholars but to the
wider church, and in the words of George Tavard, ˜cannot be imposed by a
minority on a majority™.46 Sergeant goes even further than Rushworth and
White along the demotic road, and sympathetic readers of his Sure-Footing
in Christianity (1665) would have found themselves admitting that tradi-
tion could be seen not as a supplement of Scripture or partner of it, but a
guide which, for the average believer, was surer than Scripture by far.47 As
John Tillotson pointed out when writing an Anglican response, Sergeant™s
preference for tradition over Scripture goes well beyond the Council of
Trent™s demand that they be held in ˜equal pious affection and reverence™.48
The emphasis, while striking, is by no means unprecedented among
Catholics. Writing in the early years of the Reformation, the theologian
Richard Smith declared that oral traditions were ˜delyvered and taught the
churche by mouth, and by the lyvely voices of the teachers, which is a
stronger instrument to teach both the fayth and good manners also, than is
the wryters hand™.49 Besides, the Blackloists would have argued that, since
orally delivered material was acknowledged by all denominations to have
preceded the written Scriptures, they were only acting in accordance with
a pattern set by the earliest Christians:50
the Apostles and their Successors went not with Books in their hands to preach and
deliver Christ™s Doctrin, but Words in their mouths; and . . . Primitive Antiquity
learn™t their Faith by another Method a long time before many of those Books
were universally spread amongst the vulgar, much less the Catalogue collected and
acknowledg™d . . . (p. 40)

Sure-Footing in Christianity, from which this quotation is taken, was the
most consciously scienti¬c attempt by any of the group to employ the
rule of faith as a systematic means of authorising oral tradition. Evident
throughout the book is the Blackloists™ tactic of endorsing the spoken word
by setting out the reasons why one should radically suspect the written.
While Sergeant is not arguing for a purely oral tradition, he maintains that
Scripture is hard to interpret unless one is a scholar, and that the meaning
of the Bible is damagingly hard to pin down: ˜as for the Certainty of the
Scripture™s Signi¬cativeness, . . . nothing is more evident than that this is
Conclusion 161
quite lost to all in the Uncertainty of the Letter™ (p. 38).51 The possibility
that its meaning might have been obscured by misinterpretation and scribal
error can act as a weapon for deists.52 Moreover, the canon of Scripture is
itself acknowledged to be a matter of tradition.53 Thus far, the Blackloists™
dissociation from mainstream Catholic commentary on the topic should
not be overemphasised: the practices of the ¬rst apostles, the obscurity of
Scripture and the need to establish a scriptural canon were standard ways
of justifying the role of the hierarchy, and Sergeant is at pains to stress how
he means no disrespect to the Catholic church in saying that Scripture was
never designed to convey the rule of faith. But his comments anticipate the
higher-pro¬le controversy on textual dif¬culties which Simon and others
were to undertake in the 1670s and 1680s, and which Dryden addressed in
Religio Laici; like Simon, the Blackloists found themselves in trouble with
their co-religionists for arguments which were intended to consolidate the
church™s position rather than undermine it.
Setting out why oral tradition was to be preferred to Scripture as a rule
of faith, Sergeant™s conception of orality encompasses both words and acts.
His description of tradition uses a pre-existent formula, ˜oral or practical™,
to stress the indivisibility of the two. Tradition is ˜a Delivery down from
hand to hand (by words, and a constant course of frequent and visible
Actions conformable to those Words) of the Sence and Faith of Forefathers™
(p. 41).54 The Christian learns just as children learn, from a combination
of sense-impressions and deliberate education. Thus, so far from being
lost in antiquity, tradition can be seen as an ˜immediate Delivery™ (p. 43),
a continuous series of exchanges over very short chronological periods, as
endorsed by Dryden in The Hind and the Panther. Taking a more polemical
stance, Sergeant points out how Protestants hardly seem to realise that they
bene¬t from tradition themselves, in so far as they adhere to the Christian
faith because of their own upbringing: ˜So hard it is to beat down Nature
by Designe, or not to follow Tradition in practice, though at the same

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