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trial, where ambiguity could be seen as shading into falsehood; and all early
modern Englishmen, Catholics or not, would have identi¬ed a particularly
close relationship between the ordeals of Catholic priests and the occasions
on which it might, or might not, be acceptable to be economical with
the truth.58 The practice was particularly associated with Jesuits, though
the Catholic secular priest William Rushworth claims in his Dialogues that
Introduction 13
equivocation is incident to all writing. Though this might be read now as
reinforcing his argument that Scripture has limits “ as well as anticipat-
ing post-structuralist thought “ it would also have had distinct defensive
overtones at the time.59
The work of Rushworth and his followers, discussed in the conclusion
to this study, illustrates how questions of truth-telling, and reliability in
general, constantly spiralled back to questions of how message could be
affected by medium.60 But the sharp distinctions they make between oral
and written means of communication are only helpful up to a point. Practice
constantly complicated theory in an era characterised by energetic use of
oral, written and printed media, and distinctions between speech, script
and print were easy to collapse. Writing to the Pope in 1581, Robert Persons
includes both literary and non-literary forms of verbal attack in a complaint
about English Protestants: ˜Against us they publish the most threatening
proclamations, books, sermons, ballads, libels, lies and plays.™61 Metaphors
drawn from speech were easy to apply to books, and a valediction appended
to Alexander Cooke™s Worke, More Worke, and a Little More Worke for a
Masse-Priest epitomises this tight relationship between orality, print and
the propagation of Protestant doctrine.
Goe little booke, make speed, apply the season,
Propound thy Quaeres with undanted cheere:
Bid learned Priests and Cardinalls speake reason.
The vulgar dare not reade, but make them heare.62

But if polemicists like this writer routinely distinguished between learned
literates and the illiterate vulgar, present-day scholars would be wrong to
take these oppositions too literally. The notions of oral culture and written
do not imply a binary divide; nor do those of literacy and illiteracy, since
the population of early modern England contained within itself an incal-
culable number of possible gradations between these states.63 Everyone was
affected to some degree by writing and print, since uneducated England
was not pre-literate in the same sense as a tribe that has never been exposed
to either. Yet the abilities to write and read were far from universal, and rural
England, in particular, could still show many characteristics of pre-literate
cultures.64 These inspired what can often seem an a priori lack of sympathy
with the ignorant among educated commentators, whereby mental habits
associated with a pre-literate culture were automatically read as foolish or
superstitious.65 Walter Ong has asked ˜What was the hermeneutic situa-
tion in cultures that mingled an intensive textuality with a high residual
orality?™, and answered himself, in part, by quoting another scholar: ˜The
14 Oral Culture and Catholicism
most injurious consequence . . . [was] the notion that literacy is identical
with rationality.™66 The equation of literacy with progress is familiar to us:
European reformers would have put it differently, arguing ¬rst and foremost
that literacy gave one greater access to truth through the ability to read the
Scriptures. The supposed tendency of papists to discourage literacy meant
that, though the prejudice against illiterates was by no means restricted to
Protestants, it became deeply embedded in anti-Catholic polemic.67
The verse quoted above has a more sympathetic view of illiterates than
one often ¬nds, implying that they can recognise rational argument when
they hear it, but also that their illiteracy is not intrinsic to their condition.
Arguing that common people were irrational could arise from a conviction
that they were irredeemably stupid, but also a feeling that they had been
short-changed by those in power. The author™s exhortation in the last line
of his verse suggests the latter; it contains a double sneer at his religious
opponents, implying that the ˜vulgar™ have been cowed into illiteracy by
popish clerics who are not even interested in giving them oral instruction.
Overall, the quatrain has a suggestively ambiguous take on oral transmis-
sion, suggesting both the importance which the reformers ascribed to it,
but also how it could be thought of as second-best to reading. Despite the
immense importance given by the reformers to the oral delivery and hearing
of sermons, and despite the fact that ˜entry into the Kingdom of Heaven
was not conditional on being able to read™, this is not the only occasion
on which one catches a Protestant happiest when endorsing print.68 The
need for oral transmission could imply illiteracy in an audience, which
was thought in turn to engender credulity and ignorance: defects which,
in England as elsewhere in Protestant Europe, were believed to be typical
of papists. Certainly both illiteracy and Catholicism did tend to remain
strong in outlying areas of England, areas which Christopher Hill famously
dubbed “ not altogether in quotation marks “ the ˜dark corners of the
land™;69 and given the tenacious afterlife of liturgical fragments in spells, it
may not have been entirely unfair to perceive a link between Catholicism
and superstitious beliefs.70
The verse identi¬es two potential audiences among Catholics, not merely
the ˜vulgar™ but ˜learned Priests and Cardinalls™. Prejudices against popish
oral tradition had a similarly wide social remit, criticising esoteric high
politics as well as the garbled distortions and fantasies of the uneducated.71
Among English Protestants from very early times, polemical connec-
tions between popery and oral tradition routinely linked tales of Robin
Goodfellow with papal arcana imperii: a sign of how attitudes towards
the uneducated could affect notions of authority further up the line. This
Introduction 15
should, perhaps, alert one to the fact that, on the question of orality, English
Catholic theory and practice could have an equally broad notion of audi-
ence. Some English Catholic theologians gave a demotic emphasis to the-
ories of oral tradition, drawing out the full implications of the idea that
salvation had to be available to illiterates and literates alike.72 The emphasis
that Protestantism placed on individual reading of the Bible seems, in at
least one documented case, to have resulted in a conversion to Catholicism:
the Jesuit annual letters for 1624 recount the tale of how an illiterate woman
became a Catholic after she understood a Protestant preacher to say that
people like her could not be saved.73 It could also lead Catholics to stress
how orthodoxy, common sense and sound debating skills could all be
found among illiterates: more than just a counter-gambit, this displays
considerable sensitivity to the fact that early modern England was a place
of limited educational opportunities. Peter Talbot™s A Treatise of the Nature
of Catholick Faith, and Heresie (1657) makes a special point of backing
the commonsensical, quick-witted Catholic illiterate against the Protestant
with only scholarship to recommend him:

If Protestancy be . . . contrary to reason, and common sense . . . what wonder is
it, that any illiterate Catholick should convince the most learned Ministers, and
pillars of Protestant Churches; unlesse it be supposed that we are deprived, or
at least, know not how to make use of our reason, and common sense? . . . I do
seriously averre, that every Countreyman, who hath wit, and judgement enough to
except, at the Assises, against an illegall, and false witnesse, hath learning enough
to convince in controversies of Religion, the most learned Protestant Minister.
And every carrier, or husbandman, who hath so much wit, and judgement, as
not to believe an extravagant, and incredible history, or ballads, of some strange
feigned Monster, hath wit, and judgement enough to convince any Protestant
whosoever. (pp. 75“6)

To prove the point, Talbot includes a dialogue between a ˜Catholick
Clowne™ and a learned Protestant. The unlearned participant walks away
with all the honours, from his cheeky opening inquiry stressing the novelty
of the reformed faith, ˜What newes good Master Doctor of your English
Protestant Church?™ (p. 76), to the end, where the Protestant fails to make a
convincing case that his sense of Scripture is the sense that God intended.74
The exchange is lively, but not facetious, and Talbot intends it to be taken
seriously; it acts as a refreshing counterpoint to the suspicion of illiterates™
reasoning powers so often shown by clerics on both sides of the religious
divide, and ¬nds an echo in the scholarship of our own day that critiques
the invariable equation of literacy with progress.75
16 Oral Culture and Catholicism
But those Catholic writers and publicists who exploited orally trans-
missible media would often have done so not simply as a means of tar-
geting illiterates, but of reaching as wide an audience as possible. The
scope, ingenuity and success of their efforts, described in chapters 3 and 4,
entitles one to speak of a Catholic oral challenge, counterparting and com-
plementing the challenges thrown down by Catholics to Protestants in
printed media.76 The latter claim perhaps still needs justifying. Scholars
have rightly emphasised the dynamism of the reformers™ attitude to printed
and oral communication, but until recently have paid less attention to the
other side of the debate; indeed, they have sometimes believed the reformers
and assumed there was little to say on the topic of Catholics and print.77
Mary I™s reign in particular, despite the propagandist efforts of writers
like Miles Huggarde, has been seen as a time when Protestants gained
a decisive lead here.78 But if Mary™s reign appears mildly disappointing
from the propagandist point of view, that may, paradoxically, stem from
English Catholicism™s enormous residual strength at the time rather than
its weakness. Reversions to a popular status quo ante bellum may be inher-
ently unlikely to inspire propagandists; besides, as Christopher Haigh has
pointed out, English Catholics could hardly have guessed that Mary I would
only reign ¬ve years, and had some reason to assume that heresy had gone
for good.79 Certainly, once Protestantism appeared to have become perma-
nent in Elizabeth™s reign, Catholics were more than capable of mounting a
counter-attack in all kinds of media, including print, and of using print to
sustain the spiritual lives of those loyal to the old religion.80 Manuscript cir-
culation, vital to so many aspects of early modern English literary culture,
had especial importance within a community whose access to the press was
so constrained.81
Minority groups often give the historian particular cause to read gaps
as well as looking at the surviving evidence; and this is certainly true in
relation to Catholics and popular print, the area where crossovers with oral
culture are most marked.82 Ballads are occasionally to be found among the
products of secret presses or material printed on the Continent for distribu-
tion in England “ most importantly, the rhymed version of Allen™s ˜Articles™,
discussed below in chapter 3 “ while ballads from a Catholic source occa-
sionally ¬nd their way into texts published in the mainstream.83 But as far
as format goes, very little survives from post-Reformation English Catholic
print culture that is comparable to the broadside ballad: a gap which has,
for instance, led to Catholic material ¬guring hardly at all in Tessa Watt™s
study of broadside ballads between 1550 and 1640.84 Given the low sur-
vival rate for this kind of ephemeral publication, it is possible that Catholic
Introduction 17
broadside ballads existed at the time: the production and distribution of
Catholic ballads is a subject which begs more questions than this study
can answer, but the pedlars who hawked illicit Catholic books, pictures
and artefacts around the country could certainly have carried broadsides as
part of their stock.85 But printing for Catholics was illegal on the English
mainland and logistically complicated at all times, the occasion for a ballad
often ephemeral and the genre relatively low-ranking. Manuscript distri-
bution was bound to be a more obvious complement than print to oral
dissemination, and certainly, the Catholic ballads addressed in this study
most commonly survive in one of two ways: in manuscript copies of a sin-
gle item and within manuscript miscellanies, or printed side-by-side with
Protestant refutations.86
This is not the only reason for postulating a close relationship between
oral and manuscript means of transmission. At all times, early modern Eng-
land was an environment where orality cross-fertilised with both script and
print. Adam Fox, one of the recent generation of scholars whose work has
addressed the relationship between these three media, has said of England
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that ˜[it] was a society in which
the three media of speech, script, and print infused and interacted with
each other in myriad ways. Then, as now, a song or a story, an expression
or a piece of news, could migrate promiscuously between these three vehi-
cles of transmission as it circulated around the country, throughout society
and over time.™87 But different interest-groups would have made different
use of these three media, and oral communication and manuscript circu-
lation would have had extra importance to a religious body whose access
to the press was circumscribed.88 Sieving manuscript and printed mate-
rial, as all those interested in early modern orality are obliged to do, opens
a researcher™s eyes to how interdependent oral and written sources are “
as well as demonstrating how randomly the evidence of extemporised oral
exchange is preserved, and how strongly its preservation depends on records
made by the literate.

c ath olics a n d popul a r cu lt u re: th e b on ds
of disem powerm ent
The term ˜orality™ has come to describe two things: the interface between
oral and literate which is inseparable from all communication in a literate
society, and the experience of societies or societal groups among whom
literacy is partial or non-existent. In the ¬eld of early modern cultural
studies, the second has been made more visible by the term ˜popular culture™,
18 Oral Culture and Catholicism
and certain bodies of evidence have been scrutinised for what they can yield
about the habits of the semi-literate. Thus, though oral culture and popular
culture are not identical concepts at all, interest in oral culture has been
stimulated by attempts to recover a notional popular voice.89 This has had
especially fruitful results in the ¬eld of popular culture and politics. Several
recent studies have analysed the workings of rumour, which Ethan Shagan
has called ˜a medium through which communities monitored their own
vital signs, canvassing beliefs and reactions and testing the boundaries of
the sayable™. While disparaged by members of the political elite, rumour
was vital to other groups who sought to be in¬‚uential, and Tim Harris and
others have alerted us to the link between orality and political intervention
among those excluded from the main channels of power.90 This suggests
how the history of communication and news-gathering is part of a broader
concern with the operations of in¬‚uence, which the recent fashion for
J¨ rgen Habermas™s work has encouraged. This development is a useful one
u
for scholars interested in groups who, like Catholics, had an access to the
public sphere which was problematic at best, and it illustrates how the quest
to recover the oral dimension of political interchange can open up broader
issues of marginalisation.91
Oral history, which Ronald Hutton has de¬ned as ˜personal experi-
ence, usually of the person making the statement, described directly to
a researcher in conversation™, is to be distinguished from the study of
oral transmission and oral tradition, with which a book on early mod-
ern England must necessarily be most concerned.92 Yet the areas overlap,
not least because oral history has traditionally functioned as a way of giving
platform-time to groups marginalised “ at least until recently “ by con-
ventional historical narrative.93 Catholics certainly fall into this category,
though certain provisos must be issued. Marginalisation of this kind often
occurs when a group is illiterate or has little access to education; and so, in
arguing that the study of orality has something to tell the scholar interested
in early modern English Catholics, one should point out that several mod-
els devised by oral historians are not fully applicable to this particular case.
Catholics were of all degrees, and were therefore to be found at all levels of
educational attainment; what uni¬ed them was not social homogeneity but
a denominational bond, and the quasi-feudal arrangements by which the
old faith was so commonly maintained would, if anything, have reinforced
traditional societal divisions.94 Thus, linking orality and marginalisation is
most helpful not as a comment on Catholics™ educational opportunities or
lack of them, but on their general disempowerment, drawing attention to
how things could be said or sung that could not easily be printed.
Introduction 19
Broadly speaking, though, looking at orality within post-Reformation
Catholic culture is bound to give more space than usual to the experience of
the uneducated, and the religious world of the Catholic illiterate concerned
to defend his faith. Some of the material treated in this book derives from
the unlettered “ though, as ever, it is dangerous to assume one is gaining
unproblematic access to the popular voice “ and much more of it is devised
to be accessible to them.95 At all times, one needs to gauge the relationship
between producer and audience, asking ¬rstly whether there is a social
divide between the two, and secondly how any difference in station affects
the writer™s or speaker™s mode of address.96 This is, perhaps, particularly
relevant to popular missionary material. Where evidence for the authorship
of this survives at all, it can be seen to emanate from the clerical hierarchy
and educated laymen “ just as one would expect “ and sometimes it is
dif¬cult to get an idea of how widespread such material really became, or
who actually read it.97 All the same, it is powerful evidence that opinion-
forming Catholics were anxious to target the lower orders, or at the very
least to appropriate a popular voice. Some of these texts ventriloquise the
common man, like ˜Little John Nobody™ above, while the authors of others
tried to cross the barrier erected by educational de¬ciency.
This could have varying literary effects. Publishing his religious verses at
the end of the seventeenth century, the Catholic writer John Parlor wrote:

I . . . make an Apology for these plain Verses, which I dedicate unto the Poor,
who indeed stand most in need of Instructions, which must be given to them in
an humble and low stile, be¬tting their capacities. Wherefore, I hope, no pious
person will carp at them, which are beneath a Poets censure: since I pretend not
to Poetry in them: but only have put such Instructions, as I think needful to the
Poor People, in Meeter, ¬tted for tunes . . .98

Other authors, though, wrote in genres associated with popular dissemina-
tion but in a manner which displays considerable allusive complexity, even
elegance. One should not assume that their work would have gone over the
heads of the illiterate “ or, indeed, that illiterates were incapable of invent-
ing or appreciating rich metaphor and narrative surprise. Scholars working
on the early modern period and beyond are used to examining how the
categories of orality and literacy diverge and interweave, but are perhaps less
conscious of the interface between orality and literariness than those who
work on material of an earlier date, or on non-European cultures.99 Hence,
this study aims to demonstrate how material that tends to fall outside the
literary scholar™s purview can be read for reasons other than factual con-
tent, curiosity value and political correctness; often enough, it is well able to
20 Oral Culture and Catholicism
stand up to close reading, and yields a surprising level of complexity on suc-
cessive encounters. The unambitious metre of ballads can initially prevent
one™s noticing their sophistication in other respects; anecdotes frequently
yield formal satisfactions; ¬ctional tropes can derive from oral culture and
be grafted back into it; and looking at popular culture can at all times yield
unexpected insights into canonical writing.
As Christopher Haigh has pointed out, historians working on early mod-
ern Catholicism have always tended to concentrate on gentry and priests:
˜we badly need more work on Catholicism among the lower orders™.100
More literary-critical work is needed too on material from the world of
popular culture, which more often than not falls outside the literary canon.
One way to do both jobs at once is perhaps to look, as this study does,
at the world of ballad, anecdote, reminiscence, inscription, rhymed prayer
and onomastic which had the potential to in¬‚uence the self-de¬nition of
so many Catholics, and must have been particularly important for those
of low degree. This material, though very various indeed, can all be classi-
¬ed under the heading of popular mnemonic. Less resolvable into theory
than the scholar™s art of memory or pedagogical methods of increasing ef¬-
ciency, popular mnemonic nevertheless had a practical effectiveness, and
each chapter in this book describes one of its social operations. But oral
culture is an almost limitless topic, and this is not a survey. Some of the
areas which this book does not attempt to cover, or mentions only in pass-
ing, have been given detailed treatment elsewhere: proverbs, drama, music,
disputations between Catholics and Protestants, and how Catholic priests
exploited the theatre of the prison, courtroom and scaffold.101 The relation-
ship of orality to prayer and devotional practice, and the Catholic sermon
in post-Reformation England, are two obvious gaps, less well covered in
secondary literature;102 post-Reformation Catholics™ missionary sensitivity
to minority languages across Britain and Ireland is another.103 While the
essays which comprise this book are primarily about English Catholicism,
they include some examples from Scotland, Wales and Ireland: partly for
comparative purposes, partly for simple embellishment, but also to point
up how each region ought to receive separate study in the future.
One surprising methodological feature may need explanation. In so far
as one can be speci¬c when dealing with material which is often dif¬cult to
date, and where dating matters less than with some subjects, the chronolog-
ical span of this study mostly runs from Elizabethan to late Stuart England.
But these chronological limits have sometimes been stretched, for reasons
speci¬c to individual subjects. For instance, as discussed in Chapter 1, sac-
rilege narratives hinted that the impropriators of monastic goods would
Introduction 21
see their families die out, thereby ensuring that gossip and genealogical
scrutiny would continue for several generations after the original offence.
To discuss these narratives effectively, one needs to stride centuries “ one
example among many of how memories of pre-Reformation Catholicism
survived and resonated. Oral culture is stubbornly preservative, and when
re¬‚ecting on the workings of historical memory, one cannot be too fas-
tidious about terminal dates.104 Post-Reformation English Catholics were
anxious that the old faith should not be forgotten, and the most spectacu-
larly diachronic moments of this study are the greatest testimony to their
success “ after all, though many of England™s post-Reformation Catholic
martyrs were only canonised in the twentieth century, this was the culmi-
nation of a cult which began at their executions and had never been allowed
to lapse.105
Since this study was ¬rst conceived, an interest in the interface of col-
lective or cultural memory with historical trauma has become common-
place in literature and history departments.106 As Elizabeth Jelin has put it,
˜memory and forgetting, commemoration and recollections become cru-
cial when linked to traumatic political events or to situations of repression
and annihilation, or when profound social catastrophes and collective suf-
fering are involved™.107 The impossibility of forgetting the medieval past,
and the horrors of remembering it, permeate post-Reformation English
culture both inside and outside Catholic circles, sometimes welling up in
literary contexts which, on the face of it, might seem far removed: it is no
coincidence that, as editors of Hamlet regularly point out, the madness of
the traumatised Ophelia embodies itself in snatches of Catholic material,
evoking lost worlds of pilgrimage and purgatory: ˜How should I your true
love know / From another one? / By his cockle hat and staff / And his
sandal shoon™, ˜God a™ mercy on his soul. And of all Christians™ souls, God
buy you.™108 Trying to give early modern English Catholic culture popular
relevance by labouring a comparison with Holocaust studies would be a
particularly tasteless academic pastime, but neither should one neglect any
insights forged by studying the traumatic events of the twentieth century,
or be afraid to read them back onto previous eras. One such is the move
away from seeing an aggregate of personal, emotionally charged memories
as somehow less authoritative than of¬cial history “ especially pertinent to
a topic such as this, where protestantised historical narrative has dominated
the ¬eld for so long, and where so much Catholic counter-evidence comes
down to us in a relentlessly emotional form. Oral history is an obvious,
frequently employed way to recover cultural memory, and even if this lat-
ter term post-dates early modern English commentators, the concept itself
22 Oral Culture and Catholicism
is certainly being evoked by the rhetorical tactics of Catholic writers like
Edward Francis Eyston:
Number I pray the dayes of the yeer, over run the Parishes of your native soil,
England, and you will believe what I say to be true. What is Michaelmas, Christmas,
Candlemass, Ashwednesday, Palm-Sunday, Corpus Christ day, All Souls day, &c.
But words expressing the dread Sacri¬ces and divine Ceremonies of the Cath[olic]
Roman Faith? what Town or City can you enter but instantly you discover the track
of this Religion? when the old wals of Churches and Monasteries, the defaced ruines
of Altars, images, and crosses do cry with a loud voice, that the Romain Catholique
faith of Christ Jesus did tread this way? behold the words and deeds of the Christian
world: behold the Characters of our Cath[olic] belief printed on the frontispiece
of all times and places.109
Though this prosopopoeia beautifully illustrates how lieux de m´moire
e
inspire oral remembrance, stones do not really cry out; Eyston™s audience
would have known that this was a literary injunction to actual communal
effort, a call to use their day-to-day experience of language and landscape
as a means of remembering the terrible past, of keeping faith and even
of evangelising.110 One is not surprised to ¬nd this passage followed by
a prayer for sectarians to be converted, or to ¬nd this followed in turn
by a rhyme: ˜Brave English soul that (by thy Will / and Satans wiles) art
drown™d / In sordid pleasures turn, embrace / that Faith that is most sound™

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