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Whether one looks at this kind of material or at oral communication in
general, an emphasis on the oral experience of early modern England is
hardly denominationally speci¬c in itself. Nevertheless, choosing a denom-
inational ¬lter is useful for a number of reasons: most of all because look-
ing at oral culture can tell us a good deal about what happens to a once
unchallenged religious body, after it has been driven underground. Because
of the dif¬culty of controlling or censoring oral discourse, records of it
are a natural place to ¬nd opinions running counter to the prevailing
orthodoxy “ perceived offensiveness is often the only reason why remarks
get recorded at all. Besides, there is a strong link between religious con-
servatism and illiteracy at this date, and oral discourse was the only means
which illiterates had of making their opinions felt.11
Records of conversations and of popular opinion testify to the potent
afterlife of the old religion in the historical memories of both Catholics and
non-Catholics, at all levels of society.12 These memories could be merely
factual, or “ especially among the unlearned “ numinous in a way that
could invite accusations of superstition. William Fulke, for instance, cites
a memory of medieval church-art called forth by sunbeams raying from
behind a cloud, ˜The common people cal it the desce[n]ding of the holy
ghost, or our Ladies Assumption, because these things are painted after
suche a sort™, which from someone of Fulke™s puritan sympathies is hardly
a neutral observation.13 The use of a present tense is striking in a pamphlet
of the 1560s: perhaps an acknowledgement that several church windows and
wall-paintings survived the early Tudor reformers, but also suggesting how
what remained would have been a constant reminder of what was gone.14
Medieval Catholicism also had a protracted afterlife in local legends with a
supernatural element: especially those surrounding the ruins of abbeys and
other religious houses, or commemorating a local saint.15
These memories could go beyond the speci¬c to a generalised nostalgia.
Surfacing obliquely in elite literary culture, most famously in the evocation
of ˜bare ruined choirs™ in Shakespeare™s Sonnet 73, this spirit ¬nds a more
direct expression in a widespread, stubborn, wistfully enhanced popular
4 Oral Culture and Catholicism
memory of more pleasant and charitable times.16 As always with nostalgia,
one does not need to have a ¬rst-hand memory of old times to regard
them as intrinsically happier; so, as Protestant polemicists like John Favour
suspected, this was an attitude which could be and was orally conveyed
between the generations.
Are not these words . . . in the mouthes of all the old superstitious people of this
land? And do not the yong learne of the old? When we prayed to our Lady, and
offred tapers on Candlemasse day, and heard Masse as we have done . . . then we had
plentie of all things, and were well, we felt no evill. But since we have left the religion
of our fathers . . . we have scarsnesse of all things. The old superstitious people of
Christ-Church in Hampshire, would say, that there came fewer Salmons up their
River, since the masse went downe: for they were wont to come up when they
heard the sacring Bell ring . . . the pretence is still, that the former way was the
Old way, and that Old way was the best way.17
A ballad of the 1590s, ˜A pleasant Dialogue between plaine Truth, and blind
Ignorance™, sets the scene by a ruined abbey. Truth asks Ignorance why he
˜keepe[s] such gazing / on this decaied place: / The which for superstition /
good Princes downe did race™, to which Ignorance “ a papist talking broad
Mummerset “ replies:
Ah, ah, che zmell th´e now man,
e
che well know what thou art:
A vellow of new learning,
che wis not worth a vart:
Vor when we had the old Law
a mery world was then:18
and every thing was plenty,
among all sorts of men . . .
Chill tell th´e what good vellow,
e
bevore the Vriers went hence,
A bushell of the best wheat
was zold for vort´ene pence:
e
And vorty Eggs a penny,
that were both good and new:
All this che say my selfe haue s´ene
e
19
and yet ich am no Jew.
But one should not assume, as this ballad does, that Catholic nostalgia and
Catholic practice necessarily went together. As Eamon Duffy comments,
˜nostalgic idealization of the Catholic past [became] as much the voice of
the church papist, and of some backward-looking parish Anglicans, as of
conscientiously recusant Catholics™.20 In addition, some educated hearers
Introduction 5
of this type of oral memory, like John Aubrey, would have recorded it
primarily for the evidence it yielded of a vanished past. But this in turn
illustrates the intimate relationship between England™s medieval past and
the antiquarian spirit, which drew so many outright Catholics, crypto-
Catholics and religious conservatives towards this kind of scholarship dur-
ing penal times, and so spectacularly informed England™s Catholic revival
in the nineteenth century.21 Ironically, pejorative records like Favour™s are
almost as ef¬cacious in preserving evidence of the old religion, and have
been plundered by later commentators for reasons which would have dis-
tressed the original collectors.22 The numerous scholars to cite the puritan
John Shaw™s 1644 examination of an old man who saw a late performance of
a Corpus Christi play in his youth, ˜there was a man on a tree and blood ran
down™, are less interested in Shaw™s complaint about religious ignorance in
Lancashire than in the incidental evidence he gives about the continuance
of medieval drama after the Reformation.23
Certainly, any survey of Catholicism™s afterlife in post-Reformation oral
culture must consider those literary genres which had a religious content,
depended on oral delivery to get their message across, and were disliked by
the Reformers. Drama, as Shaw™s quotation suggests, is one such. Despite
governmental hostility towards traditional popular religious drama from
the time of the Henrician Reformation, it took a surprisingly long time
to die out altogether “ the Corpus Christi play which ¬gures in the old
man™s reminiscence was last performed in 1603 “ and had a profound effect
on later secular drama.24 But drama was vulnerable because of its high-
pro¬le collective nature, because of the expenditure it entailed and because
public performances had to be regulated.25 Carols fared better, despite
falling foul of Protestantism because of their use of non-biblical legends
and their association with religious festivals at a time when emphasis was
shifting away from the liturgical year. It is obviously easier to sing a carol
than put on a play; besides, sacred songs were more religiously versatile than
theatrical performances which would have invited accusations of blasphemy
and idolatry from protestantised authorities. Some pre-Reformation carols
were capable of causing offence to Protestants, but survived nevertheless;
most could have been sung by anyone who did not have a puritan objection
to the genre.26 In the climate of the 1630s, given the backing of traditional
festive custom by Archbishop Laud and the Crown, carols could even have
been seen as conspicuously orthodox; and later, Royalist members of the
Church of England during the Interregnum developed considerable interest
in the genre as part of an attempt to keep beleaguered Christmas traditions
alive. New carols went on being composed after the Reformation, by both
6 Oral Culture and Catholicism
Catholics and Protestants; and other devotional verse related to the church™s
year, both Catholic- and Protestant-authored, could be co-opted into this
tradition.27 Thus, carols would often have ¬tted into mainstream culture
as easily as many other texts from a Catholic source; though, given the large
number of manuscript and print miscellanies with a Catholic provenance or
including identi¬ably Catholic material which preserve carols, they might
well have played a particularly prominent part in Catholic liturgical festivity
and general merrymaking.28
Whenever a nineteenth-century antiquarian collected an oral rendition
of a medieval carol containing Catholic matter, his text was not necessarily a
reliable guide to the carol™s original wording, but it did at least testify to the
fact of its journey.29 Carol-singing “ sometimes with help from printed or
written sources, sometimes perhaps independently of them “ was a means
of bearing medieval devotion through one of the most religiously alert and
combative phases in England™s history.30 Whereas physical survivals from
pre-Reformation England primarily depend on something being left alone,
oral survivals imply a conscious decision to transmit. The reasons for this
would have been various, ranging from an informed, polemicised desire
to keep the old ways alive, to situations where the religious content was
rendered unnoticeable by familiarity. Religious behaviour, even among the
well-informed, is not always perfectly integrated, and ostensibly Protes-
tant individuals might have transmitted doubtful carols for tradition™s sake.
Thus, carolling presents a picture of continuity and widely acceptable sur-
vival, perhaps one of the points where the oral cultures of Catholics, con-
formists and even dissenters would have overlapped or blurred “ which
must surely have been helped by the fact that, though associated with reli-
gious festivals, it was an optional extra as far as liturgy went, and had strong
secular roots.31
To set against this, though, is the liturgical change that took place
when Latin was replaced by the vernacular in church services and other
set forms of prayer. Any assessment of how oral experience shifted when
England became a Protestant nation must give full weight to the very
differing responses that this change would have elicited.32 It could have
represented an impoverishment of spiritual experience at all social levels,
not only among those who understood Latin “ even if one should not
expect either Catholic or Protestant commentators at this date to endorse
what Rudolf Otto has called ˜the spell exercised by the only half intelligible
or wholly unintelligible language of devotion, and . . . the unquestionably
real enhancement of the awe of the worshipper which this produces™.33 As
the history of Bible translation proves, it would be mistaken to equate
Introduction 7
Catholicism with a blanket hostility towards the vernacular, either in
England or on the Continent; nevertheless, Catholics and religious conser-
vatives during the English Reformation repeatedly asserted that the vernac-
ular was irreverent and that translating sacred texts would invite heretical
readings from unquali¬ed interpreters.34 In this context, it may seem para-
doxical that the Latin Mass should ever have been a means of widening
access. But by keeping Latin alive as a spoken language outside school
and university contexts, post-Reformation Catholic liturgy would have
given those who had no other access to classical education an impression-
istic familiarity with Latin; and its usefulness would have gone beyond the
merely educative, since the shared experience of difference would have been
a means of reinforcing communal solidarity. Most of all, perhaps, it would
have been a comforting reminder of the wider church.35 A seventeenth-
century Catholic dialogue marshals a number of these arguments, con-
tending that even women and children understand ˜not only the substance
of the whole Mass, but the very words, as little children learne any language
by often hearing it™, and that the use of the vernacular isolates the English
church from mainland Christendom. Latin, it reminds us, is the ˜vulgar lan-
guage of the Church™, and by using it, Christians can be brought together
in the way that they were before the Tower of Babel, whereas the ˜learned™st
clerk of any other nation cannot serve the poorest Parish in England upon
a Sunday for want of a book of common prayer in his owne language™.36
Though the writer here is obviously giving an educated person™s view
of the changes, one should not necessarily assume that all uneducated
worshippers would have preferred a vernacular liturgy, especially when
the reforms ¬rst came in. The writer of a mid-sixteenth-century Catholic
lament, commenting on the liturgical changes, explicitly identi¬es himself
with the common voice in his lament that services in English only make
people hypocritical, and may be picking up on a real grass-roots feeling:
For our reverend father hath set forth an order,
Our service to be said in our seignours tongue;
As Solomon the sage set forth the scripture;
Our suffrages, and services, with many a sweet song,
With homilies, and godly books us among,
That no stiff, stubborn stomacks we should freyke [i.e. ˜humour™]:
But wretches nere worse to do poor men wrong;
But that I little John Nobody dare not speake.
For bribery was never so great, since born was our Lord,
And whoredom was never les hated, sith Christ harrowed hel,
And poor men are so sore punished commonly through the world,
8 Oral Culture and Catholicism
That it would grieve any one, that good is, to hear tel.
For al the homilies and good books, yet their hearts be so quel,
That if a man do amisse, with mischiefe they wil him wreake
[i.e. ˜pursue revengefully™];
The fashion of these new fellows it is so vile and fell:
But that I little John Nobody dare not speake.37
As the poem ends, the speaker chooses a solitary existence, with his where-
abouts known only to the other complainant. Using speech to lament
enforced silence, the piece is consciously paradoxical in its very existence,
and this is driven home by the multiple negations of the ending:
Thus in NO place, this NOBODY, in NO time I met,
Where NO man, ne NOUGHT was, nor NOTHING did appear;
Through the sound of a synagogue38 for sorrow I swett,
That Aeolus through the eccho did cause me to hear.
Then I drew me down into a dale, whereas the dumb deer
Did shiver for a shower; but I shunted from a freyke:
For I would no wight in the world wist who I were,
But little John Nobody, that dare not once speake.
If it does nothing else, the current book should give the lie to Little John
Nobody “ though his complaint, and even his name, remind us that the
association between Catholic literature and anonymity or pseudonymity is
a pronounced one, which has had its effect on mainstream recognition of
the material.39 Besides, saying that one is unable to speak becomes less para-
doxical if one reads the complaint as identifying impediments in commu-
nication, rather than the utter impossibility of communicating. Interpreted
in this way, the libel is prophetic in foretelling many such impediments for
the Catholic community during England™s Protestant ascendancy, and not
only among the uneducated.
Post-Reformation English Catholic priests, obliged to be citizens of
Europe during their education, did not always ¬nd this a straightforwardly
enabling experience, and perhaps it is not surprising that the most literary
among them were often the most conscious of de¬ciency in their mother
tongue. The prodigiously eloquent Edmund Campion, journeying back to
England after several years on the Continent, believed his English might
have become rusty and gave his companions a practice address. As it turned
out, he need not have worried “ an eyewitness reported that ˜so rapid was
the torrent of his words, that with impetuous violence [his speech] seemed
to over¬‚ow its barriers™.40 But Robert Southwell, who left England very
young, had to re-learn English almost from scratch in preparation for the
English mission, and wrote to the Rector of the English College in Rome
Introduction 9
just after his arrival in England stressing the enormous importance of train-
ing seminarians to preach in English.41 Even so, over a century later, some
missionaries were still not well enough equipped in their mother tongue.
Philip, Cardinal Howard, told Bishop Burnet, on the latter™s visit to Rome
in 1685, that ˜They came over young and retained all the English that they
brought over with them, which was only the language of boys: But their
education being among strangers they had formed themselves so upon
that model that really they preached as Frenchmen or Italians in English
words™ “ a factor which could only have exacerbated the usual polemical
association of Catholicism with foreignness.42
Most of all, perhaps, the writer of ˜Little John Nobody™ pinpoints the
sense of oral inhibition which pervades post-Reformation English Catholic
discourse, both conversational and written, and which comes through in
occasional anecdotes. One such survives of Richard Cosen, a Colchester
keeper who was accused of having engaged in wild talk when cutting hay in
1562 with William Blackman. Praising the Duke of Guise, Cosen repeated
a rumour that the Queen had had a child and died of it, and drew from
Blackman an admission that he could hardly understand the changes over
the past ¬fteen years. Thinking over the conversation later, Blackman™s
conscience became troubled and he unburdened himself to an alderman.
Cosen was arrested and tried, and his statement makes it clear that he was
trying to elicit an admission of religious allegiance from Blackman. The
background to this altercation is hinted at by another of the witnesses,
Cosen™s maid Margaret Sander, in her testimony that Cosen and his wife
˜talke moche agenst the use of the Curche that nowe is apointed And that
they sytte singing together the old messe in myrthe by the fyresyde in the
house . . .™.43
Set against the original exchange between Cosen and Blackman, this
testimony vividly demonstrates the different conversational registers which
Catholics would have needed: tentative advances and retreats when trying
to draw out someone whose sympathies were unclear, unbuttoned talk
when relaxing in the company of one™s co-religionists. In the report of the
Cosens ˜singing together the old messe in myrthe™, a de¬antly polemicised
use of Catholic matter not polemical in itself, one can see one way that
the Catholic oral response to the English Reformation took shape. But
literary material bearing the marks of engagement with the reformers, and
designed for easy oral transmission, is perhaps a clearer sign than informal
conversations of the Catholic oral challenge: and the next section will
consider how, while denied of¬cial access to print and the pulpit, English
Catholics deliberately attempted in other ways to match and counteract
10 Oral Culture and Catholicism
the effect that Protestant evangelism had had on the oral world of early
modern England.

prote sta nt c ha l l eng es, c at h ol i c res pon se s: t h e
re form ation inf lue nce on o ral cu lt u re
Almost from the beginning, the message of the English Reformation was
addressed to a range of audiences: from the university-educated theologian
to the labourer who could neither write nor read.44 Inevitably, this affected
how religious controversy and doctrinal af¬rmation came to be delivered.
The oral medium of the sermon continued to be employed as a direct
means of transmitting doctrine to the laity; the ideal of preaching was often
used to signify the whole of the reformers™ mission, and preachers them-
selves were sophisticated and entertaining communicators whose sermons
stood up to comparison with plays.45 As Andrew Pettegree has recently
stressed, music was another important pedagogic tool for the Reformers
in both ecclesiastical and popular contexts.46 Most relevantly of all to the
current study, popular literary genres were also used to spread the new
message: ballads, liturgical parodies, or the rhymed taunt of an epigram.
These had a strong presence within popular print culture, and invited oral
dissemination “ sometimes, as in the case of ballads, by a conjunction of
illustrations, words and music.47 Maximising evangelical effectiveness in a
world shaped by the advent of print, the ubiquity of oral methods of com-
munication, and remaining widespread illiteracy, they would have been
used to provoke or enhance the millions of spoken arguments by which the
Reformation was established, or resisted, within the population in general:
arguments which, inside and outside the schools, must themselves have
had their trajectories determined to some degree by patterns of disputation
already embedded in European oral culture.48
Few ideological battles have foregrounded linguistic concerns so much
as the Reformation, or been fought in such a rhetorically self-conscious
manner; as Brian Cummings has recently pointed out, the points at issue
between Catholic and Protestant demanded constant awareness to gram-
matical minutiae and linguistic nuance. The amount of attention paid at
this period to the terms of debate had literary knock-on effects, engender-
ing raptly attentive animadversion and utterly serious wordplay.49 Lengthy,
ritualistic and imaginatively charged dissociation was undertaken not only
from the rhetoric of opponents, but from individual elements of their
vocabulary. This is as noticeable in verse as in prose; in particular, verse
is better ¬tted than prose to exploit iteration, and display a number of
Introduction 11
possible verbal associations in a succinct manner. One Catholic poem uses
its refrain to criticise the doctrine of justi¬cation by faith alone, with almost
palpable quotation marks around its ¬rst three words, ˜Alone and onely in a
wrong scole, / have brought to error many a foole.™ The verses link the idea
of the undivided Trinity with the foolhardiness of supposing that faith and
works can be separated. As used in this poem, the terms ˜only™ and ˜alone™
become personi¬ed, both in the service of the writer™s opponents and as
interlocutors in their own right:
Manye under god, & yett god alone
workethe godds pleasure, as godds wyll ys
so onlie or a lone can make no reson
Wy man as a minister may doo that or this
Onlie and a lone have beyne so abused
to dissevere faythe & charitie a sonder
as charitie in Justi¬cation clerelye refused
hathe made religion talke & worldlye wonder
Yett some saye onlie and not alone
mans fayth dothe worke his Justi¬cation
w[ith] charitie p[re]sent & myche they mone
men can not co[n]ceyve there fonde conclusion50

The notion that language speaks its user would have come as no surprise
to a Reformation polemicist. A sense that religious language has a quasi-
autonomous power runs through poems like these, and posed the question
of how far it was legitimate to handle enemy propaganda. Even using the
terms of the reformers could be interpreted as a concession to their doctrine;
a notebook of this date contains the injunction:
Let us keepe our forefathers words and we shal easily keep our old and true faith
that we had of the ¬rste Christians. Let them say, Amendement, abstinence,
the Lordes Supper, the Com[m]union table, Elders, ministers, Superintendant,
Congregatio[n], so be it, praise ye the Lord, morning praier, Evening prayer, and
the reste as they will: Let us avoide these novelties of words . . . and keepe the
old termes Penance, Fasting, Priest, Church, Bishop, Masse, Mattines, Evensong,
the B. Sacrement, Alter, Oblation, Host, Sacri¬ce, Alleluia, Amen, Lent, Palme
Sunday, Christmas, and the very wordes wil . . . condemne the new apostatates
(sic) new f[a]ith and phrases.51

Differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine were often epito-
mised by word-choice, usually on the part of translators: Tyndale™s choice
of ˜elder™ rather than ˜priest™ to translate ˜presb…terov™ is a well-known
example.52 Thus, denominational differences in vocabulary had the effect
12 Oral Culture and Catholicism
not only of endorsing a supposedly preferable meaning, but of distancing
oneself from the other side. As the above quotation shows, this alertness
would have carried over from specialised theological discourse into every-
day life. While some of the listed words and phrases are more charged than
others, all are potentially signals of allegiance. Its author is unusually
extreme in advocating a complete refusal to employ the other side™s termino-
logy, a view which would render polemic nearly impossible if taken literally.
Yet this throws into relief the usual concessions which any polemicist,
Catholic or Protestant, was obliged to make. To condemn something one
needs to evoke it, and where Reformation writers evince squeamishness
about voicing one™s opponent, this re¬‚ects a wider anxiety about the poten-
tial entrapments of spontaneous everyday speech.
Nevertheless, oral debates took place between Catholics and Protestants
at every level from ecclesiastical conference to brawl, with some occasions
being preserved in contemporary partisan accounts such as Daniel Featley™s
The Romish Fisher Caught and Held in his Owne Net (1624).53 While par-
ticipants on both sides would have aimed to attract converts, disputations
must sometimes have had the opposite effect of bringing about disaffection;
certainly, the Catholic and Protestant disputants of this period often seem
caught up in a linguistic round-game as interminable as that ¬gured by
Samuel Fisher, where the words SO and NO, typeset in two concentric
circles, chase each other endlessly.54 Michael Questier has remarked upon
this stalemate, stressing the importance of outside factors in converts™ deci-
sions to go over.55 But the deadlock could be broken in certain situations,
such as trials or executions, which would have stimulated sympathy for
the underdog at their most inequitable. Future confessors and martyrs had
unparalleled opportunities to win souls by an impressive performance in
the dock or on the scaffold; even when “ tortured, imprisoned and deprived
of books “ they were not as effective as their opponents, they would have
scored a moral victory in the eyes of sympathetic observers.56 Yet though
trials of Catholics could bring about parrhesia, the act of speaking out
frankly, they were also occasions when questions of casuistry and equiv-
ocation were to the fore.57 Equivocation, the practice of using words in
more than one sense, was a protective rhetorical device for those under

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