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attitude to charms and popish rhymes can be illustrated by the 1610 edi-
tion of Camden™s Britain, which records the fact that the Irish use charms
but does not quote the charms themselves (pp. 143“7). But simply as a
64 Oral Culture and Catholicism
recorder, Aubrey was pre-empted by the controversialists. A number of
small collections of folkloric texts were created during the sixteenth and
early seventeenth centuries as part of various controversial initiatives, often
in pamphlet form. Some are explicitly anti-Catholic, others “ like con-
demnations of witchcraft “ exercises in anti-satanic rhetoric which often
co-opted anti-popery;40 the notes to this chapter give some examples.
Though Aubrey™s collection is far larger than any of these, the main distinc-
tion between an accumulation and a collection is not size, but manner of
assemblage: the former is an accidental aggregate of individual items, while
the latter is deliberately brought together to make an evidential point.
Aubrey™s motive was, overridingly, an anxiety to preserve vulnerable traces
of the past; but many other texts survive because they were presented for
condemnation.
Most of these small collections are preserved in polemical writing. But
others survive “ and many more must have been thrown away “ among
the papers of government of¬cials whose task it was to gauge levels of
Catholic survivalism and anti-Protestant reaction. Some folkloric texts are
undoubtedly more threatening than others on a political level. It is hardly
surprising that a government should be anxious to quell prophecies of its
downfall, or spells to bring that downfall about “ nor that, in sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century England, those prophecies and spells should so often
have emanated from Catholics.41 G. R. Elton has described how Thomas
Cromwell™s administration sought out and punished prophecies and spells
levelled against the government: ˜With a nation so volatile, at a time when
even the truth of events was demolishing concord and threatening all good
order, no government could afford to ignore the less rational attacks on the
general state of mind. It was necessary not only to put down disaffection,
but also to prevent the dissemination of false hopes and fears.™42
If bricolage is a manipulation of the impersonal elements of myth as
demanded by speci¬c occasion, then prophecies are almost pure bricolage.
Enacted by a cast of quasi-historical characters and allegorical designations,
they show an amalgam of learned, popular and heraldic references, and
borrow from both English and foreign mythologies. Now that awareness
is increasing of how written, printed and oral methods of transmission
cross-fertilised, and of how this affects evidence that has previously been
regarded as exclusively oral in nature, prophecies ¬t more centrally than
ever into both learned and folkloric traditions. But for several reasons, they
are a genre dependent on orality. When spoken rather than written, their
message was inseparable from the manner of personal delivery and could
be altered by topical improvisation. Even where they were written down,
Anti-popery and the supernatural 65
their enigmas would have placed the interpretive onus on the hearer, and
suggested different, even con¬‚icting possibilities. Often, too, prophecies
were voiced by the uneducated. But as far as reception went, they behaved
like many other texts geared towards oral dissemination, and found an
audience at all levels of the social hierarchy.
The riddling incognito of the prophecy makes it a kind of folk allegory,
and exploits allegory™s ability to convey de¬ance in disguise. But precisely
because allegories lend themselves to multiple interpretation, and because
the whole authority of the historical prophetic text depends on elements
authored earlier, the idea of a speci¬cally Catholic prophecy is hard to
sustain “ as it would be for any disaffected group that utilised historical
prophecy to justify itself. For the most part, one must speak of Catholic
interpretations and emphases rather than Catholic inventions.43 The clus-
ter of traditionalists executed in the 1530s for calling Henry VIII the mold-
warp ˜that turned all up™ were employing a metaphor wonderfully apt for
religio-political upheaval, but one already to be found within the Merlinic
prophetic tradition.44 Subversion, as Howard Dobin suggests in his recent
study of early modern English prophecy, was central to the conception of the
prophet, and drew on Old Testament exemplars as well as Merlinic: ˜these
would-be prophets are nothing less than have-been priests . . . Although
inspired and sanctioned by the same claim of divine legitimacy, the priestly
Catholic voice, simply by being evicted from the centre of power, becomes
the marginalised and criminalised voice of the prophet.™45 Long after the
Henrician Reformation, when Catholics had become well used to politi-
cal marginality, they continued to use prophecy as a rallying device;46 and
accordingly, prophecies continued to be impounded as evidence of trea-
sonous sympathies. Pursuivants searching for incriminating material after
the discovery of the Babington Plot found prophecies beginning ˜When
the cock in the north has buylded his neste . . .™ and ˜A serpent shall arrise
owt of the North ungraciouslye to conquer England™, among the papers of
Anthony Babington.47
More surprising, perhaps, is that spells and prophylactic rhymes could
be collected side-by-side with prophetic threats to the state. The report on
Babington™s treacherous library survives within the portion of the British
Library™s Lansdowne papers originally amassed by Lord Burghley, which
also contains folkloric texts of a popish nature. Endorsed ˜A Popish Charm
or Spil™ and unattributed to person, locality or occasion “ at least as the
records survive “ they stand as a general sign of civic disobedience and
spiritual darkness. Among them are a rhyme to say on seeing the new
moon, a rhymed prayer at night-time and the following ˜Friday spell™. The
66 Oral Culture and Catholicism
latter potentially reinforces a connection between popery and superstition
because of its reference to a Catholic pattern of fasting, and its emphasis on
repetition of formulaic prayer as a means of obtaining divine forgiveness.48
This daye is fridaye faste while we maye
While wee heare knyll / our lordes owne bell
our lorde in his Chappell stoode w[i]th his xij appostells soe good
There came a Saynte throughe ryghte robe
What is yt that shynes soe bryght / our lorde god almyghte
he was naled sore / farre and in goore
Throughe lyver throughe longe / throughe harte throughe tonge
Throughe the holye brayne panne / well is that man /
that frydaye spell can
he for to saye and his fellowes for to learne /
So manye tymes as youe saye this one frydaye before noone
So manye tymes shall your synnes be forgeven youe att domesdaye Amen49

Other collections of folkloric texts can survive because the dangers of
popular superstition were preached about, or inveighed against in an explic-
itly moral and religious context. In The Way to the True Church, John White
records a prophylactic rhyme.
I blesse me with God and the rood,
With his sweet ¬‚esh and precious blood:
With his Crosse and his Creed,
With his length and his breed,
From my toe to my crowne,
And all my body up and downe,
From my backe to my brest,
My ¬ve wits be my rest:
God let never ill come at ill,
But through Jesus owne will,
Sweet Jesus Lord, Amen.
(f. **8a)

It is hard not to think that the rhymes are being criticised as much as the
content, because of their indecorous jingling sound and the mindless repe-
tition they encourage “ which, in turn, betrays a hostility to the mnemonic
devices of popular verse.50
The generic commonplaces of prophylactic verse were common to most
pieces of this type “ rhymes, enumeration of body parts and diseases, embed-
ded Christian references and liturgical formulas “ and were simultaneously
mimicked and condemned in the reformers™ parodies from the beginning,
as in this snatch of dialogue from John Bale™s Three Laws of Nature:
Anti-popery and the supernatural 67
inf idelita s : Is not thy name Ydolatrye?
s od omis mu s: Yes, an wholsom woman verelye . . .
She can by sayenge her Ave Marye,
And by other charmes of sorcerye,
Ease men of toth ake by and bye,
Yea, and fatche the devyll from hell.
She can mylke the cowe and hunte the foxe,
And helpe men of the ague and poxe,
So they brynge moneye to the boxe,
Whan they to her make mone.
She can fatch agayne all that is lost,
And drawe drynke out of a rotten post,
Without the helpe of the holye Ghost:
In workynge she is alone.51
But popish words, like idols, could be thought to have an autonomous
malign power, which was why even the hostile reporting of popish rhymes
could be criticised. In the 1650s Thomas Larkham, the puritan vicar of Tavi-
stock, was accused of bringing in ˜many ridiculous rimes, and impertinent
stories in his Sermons, very unbe¬tting the seriousness which becomes one
that hath to deal in the name of God™.52 These include charms for toothache
and scalds (˜Out ¬re, in frost: / In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy
Ghost™),53 and a rhyme that might even have had an anti-Catholic prove-
nance, or have been altered to summarise aspects of the Catholic devotional
life which Protestants found objectionable:
I give my dole when I am dead,
I eat my maker in my bread,
I knock my brest at every post,
I pray to God, and heavenly host:
And doing this still day by day,
My venial sins shall wash away.
But if so, the anonymous writers of the complaint are unaware of it. They
admit that Larkham was not using the rhymes seriously, but their terms
reveal an uneasiness about the act of saying them at all: ˜True it is . . . he
reproved them when he reported them, but whither charming might not
be reproved without all this Gibble-gabble, let wise men judge.™54
Philip Stubbes described the idolatrous maypole with an obsessive detail
that has proved invaluable to later historians, and similarly, polemical
writers like White and Larkham™s critics have unwittingly preserved evi-
dence for future antiquarians.55 But the contemporary link between folk-
lore, antiquarianism and polemic was stronger still. It was no coincidence
that, although their relative emphases on past and present were different,
68 Oral Culture and Catholicism
antiquarians and polemical writers were both interested in popular leg-
ends and customs, and often reacted to them with a similar hostility. No
antiquarian in early modern England could have avoided engaging with
England™s Catholic past, and for many non-Catholic antiquarians, the shift
into anti-Catholic polemic was easy to make wherever an appropriate fact
was surrounded by commentary.
Writing in the 1570s, the antiquarian William Lambarde yields an exam-
ple of this. A Perambulation of Kent (1576) records a popularly transmitted
pious legend about Chetham, which Lambarde justi¬es preserving because
˜it is . . . pro¬table to the keping under of fained & superstitious religio[n],
to renewe to minde, the Priestly practises of olde time (which are declining
to oblivio[n])™ (p. 286).56 In the story, the church™s statue of the Virgin
comes alive and goes to the house of the parish clerk to complain about a
drowned corpse who has recently been buried in the churchyard, on the
grounds that he is a ˜sinfull person, whiche . . . offended her eye with his
gastly grinning™. The clerk accompanies her to the churchyard to dig up
the body, ˜but the goode Ladie (not wonted to walk) waxed wearie of the
labour, and therfore was inforced for very want of breath to sit downe in
a bushe by the way, and there to rest her: And this place (forsooth) as
also the whole track of their journey, (remaining ever after a greene pathe)
the Towne-dwellers were wont to shew™ (p. 287). As Lambarde goes on to
comment, the anecdote is tinctured “ or tainted “ by the hermeneutics of
faery lore. ˜For no doubte, if that age had ben as prudent in examining spir-
its, as it was prone to beleve illusions it should have found, that our Ladies
pathe was some such greene trace of grasse, as we daily behold in [th]e ¬elds,
proceeding in deed of a naturall cause, thoughe by olde wives, and supersti-
tious people, reckoned to be the dau[n]cing places of night Spirites, which
they call Fayries™ (p. 288).57 This illustrates, in microcosm, how unusual
local features could be explained as demonstrating either Christian or non-
Christian supernatural immanence “ which clearly helped the reformers™
case.

˜topicke god s™ : idol atry an d t h e n atu ra l worl d
What the story also shows is something which recent historians, informed
by anthropology, have increasingly come to recognise. Daniel Woolf com-
ments how, in early modern rural England, ˜the sense of the past was focused
less on time than on space, less on dates than on locations. Almost every
rural community contained or abutted on a ¬eld, hill, river or ruin which it
associated with a saint or local hero or with a memorable event.™58 It would
Anti-popery and the supernatural 69
have been natural for this type of community to read onto their immediate
surroundings the theological topoi of Christian narrative and the moral
landscapes of man™s life.59 One can detect traces of this in the Lyke-Wake
Dirge, where the theologically de¬ned space of purgatory and the wholly
allegorical Brig-O™Dread are both arrived at by crossing Whinny-Muir, a
moor covered with whins or furze-bushes. This may well have been a spe-
ci¬c place name, but it carries a double metaphorical charge: banishment
from the centres of habitation, and a passage across thorns which, to inhab-
itants of moorland country, would have been an acutely felt metaphor for
penitence. The two tropes of thorn and bridge are con¬‚ated in the satir-
ical pamphlet Tarltons Newes out of Purgatorie (1590), where the speaker
describes the ˜hie way to Purgatory™: ˜after you have wandered a while, you
come to a bridge, framed all of Needle points and over that must you passe
bare footed, as the ¬rst penance for your formost offences™ (p. 4). As the
comments about St Patrick™s Purgatory in the introduction to this chapter
demonstrate, the idea of a transitional space between mortality and immor-
tality, or the known and the unknown worlds, could also lend itself more
variously to topographical mythologising.
Among features in a landscape, holy wells demonstrate particularly
clearly how educational differences could cut across denominational con-
siderations, since they were a type of site which invited reverence from tradi-
tionally minded common people of assorted religious allegiances, pragmatic
exploitation from the educated Catholic and contempt from the educated
Protestant.60 Describing the holy well of Wanswell in the early seventeenth
century, and utilising a mistaken but forgivable etymology, John Smyth of
Nibley commented that it was ˜Anciently called Woden well or Wodenswell,
from the Goddesse Woden the Idoll of our old Ancestors the paynim Sax-
ons . . . ffrom which goddesse and this her well, have byn by our forefathers
as tradition tells related so many miracles and strange cures there wrought,
that from the concurrence and con¬‚uence of all ages and sexes, meetinge
at this un-holy well, The proverbe arose, which yet continueth; That all
the maids in Wanswell, may dance in an egshel . . .™61 The well is a site of
misbehaviour, destroying social distinctions, undermining sexual segrega-
tion and promoting promiscuity. The proverb, too, is replete with double
entendre: because their community is hydrolatrous, chastity among the
young women of Wanswell is as fragile as an egg, and so there are no maids
in Wanswell.
Only literates were in the position of being able to analyse where oral and
literate mentalities clashed with each other, and by literates, the difference
was sometimes called idolatry. This passage is dominated by the assumption
70 Oral Culture and Catholicism
that the uneducated are naturally idolatrous “ here and usually elsewhere,
an assumption rather than a fully worked-out position. While the problems
with oral transmission were minutely analysed by Protestants as a reason for
distrusting the Catholics™ high doctrine of tradition, the feeling that habits
of mind characteristic of oral cultures were superstitious seldom received the
same expository treatment.62 This is not to say that analysis did not exist: in
Origines Sacrae (1662), Edward Stilling¬‚eet uses heathen cultures™ supposed
dependence on oral tradition as a stick to beat them with, an argument
shaped “ as Gerard Reedy remarks “ by Catholic“Protestant polemic.63
But on both social and denominational fronts, the debate suffered badly
from one-sidedness. Illiterates, after all, would probably not even have
known they were being criticised; and while the average post-Reformation
Catholic priest working in England would have tended to be pragmatic
about exploiting whatever instances of Catholic piety were near at hand,
Catholic writers on religion had other preoccupations than defending the
mental habits of the unlearned.64 Thus, the discussion about religion, the
landscape and the common people was largely one con¬ned to Protestants,
and tended to employ protestantised terms of abuse.
A sophisticated and re¬‚exive discussion of the topic, which problema-
tises the usual association between idolatry and the vulgar, can be found
in A Treatise Containing the Originall of Unbeliefe (1625) by the High
Churchman Thomas Jackson. Here, the author laments man™s inherent
propensity towards idolatry: ˜The multiplicitie of Topicke gods amongst
the heathen could hardly have been hatcht without a conjunction of the . . .
imbecillity of mans understanding, or confused apprehensions of time, and
place, as cogenitors of effects begotten in them, and of such affections or
dispositions as the holy Ghost deciphers in Balaam™ (p. 160).65 This refers
to the episode in the Book of Numbers where Balaak and Balaam curse the
Israelites. When this proves to be in vain, Balaak superstitiously fears that
the place itself has had an ill effect on the outcome: ˜Come, I pray thee,
I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that
thou mayest curse me them from thence.™66
Here the enemies of the Israelites are to be read as unregenerate souls, but
not necessarily popish, heathen or uneducated.67 Though Jackson renders
unusually explicit the doubts which surface in other writers about the
wisdom of allowing the uneducated to interpret nature, he is aware of
very similar dangers lying in wait for those who cultivate an uncritical
appreciation of verse written by pagans: an awareness that sometimes cuts
across his Christian humanism and at other times draws on its inherent
contradictions, echoing Plato™s own wariness of poetry. Especially striking
Anti-popery and the supernatural 71
for the literary scholar is a further statement of his: ˜That the seminaries of
Poetrie should be the chiefe nurses of Idolatry, argues how apt the one is to
bring forth the other; or rather how both lay like twinnes in the wombe of
the same unpuri¬ed affection, usually begotten by one spirit. Woods and
fountaines, as every Schoole-boy knoweth, were held chiefe mansions of the
Muses . . . to attentive and composed thoughts, they inspire a secret seede
or fertilitie of invention, especially sacred™ (pp. 190“1). Poetry is the blood
relation of idolatry; loci amoeni inspire both the educated and the vulgar,
and may corrupt anyone whose imagination has never been corrected.68
Jackson™s description of how evil spirits operate in places of natural beauty
demonises the tutelary deities of classical mythology:

And because superstition can hardly sprout, but from the degenerate and corrupt
seeds of devotion, wicked spirits did haunt these places most, which they perceived
¬ttest for devout affections. As sight of such groves and fountaines . . . would
nourish affection: so the affection naturally desirous to enlarge it selfe, would,
with the helpe of these Spirits sleights and instigations, incite the superstitious to
make their groves more retired, and sightly . . . the eye would easily seduce the
heart to fasten his affections to the place, wherein they appeared, as more sacred
than any other . . . groves were as the banquetting houses of false gods . . . (p. 192)

Though Jackson is a ¬rm believer in the instructive powers of nature, he
is anxious to warn his audience that nature may teach wrongly as well as
rightly “ in part, precisely because it elicits such powerful feelings. Quoting
Seneca™s Epistle 41 on how religious emotion may be elicited by groves and
overhanging rocks, Jackson comments on how this passage suggests a ˜maine
head or source of heathenish Idolatrie, which well cleansed might adde
fertilitie to Christian devotion™ (p. 191). On several counts, this admission
is striking. Conventional scienti¬c scholarship of the date when Jackson
was writing described nature as God™s book, and so does Jackson; yet,
as he acknowledges, it is a book which idolatrous interpreters have the
power to misread. Jackson™s call for purgation evokes the contemporary
debate between puritans and conformists about whether objects tainted
with superstition can ever recover devotional usefulness, and his assertion
that they can be cleansed places him squarely in the conformist camp.
More af¬rmatively, Jackson comments that ˜the frequency of Sermons
seemes most necessary in Citties and great Townes, that their Inhabitants,
who . . . see for the most part but the workes of men, may daily heare God
speaking unto them: whereas such as are conversant in the ¬elds and woods,
continually contemplate the workes of God™ (p. 196). But here again, the
onus is on the interpreter not to make God™s revelation an occasion of
72 Oral Culture and Catholicism
idolatry: a slant which characterises Jackson™s discussions both of natural
sites like woods and groves, and of individual species. When considering
plants, he asserts that their more striking quiddities are another possible
source of idolatry, because they command an unusual degree of attention.
˜Some whether halfe-Christians or meere Pagans, ranked by the auncient
in the bed-rolle of heretickes, have held the Marigold, and like ¬‚owers,
not uncapable of divine honour, by reason of their live-sympathie with
the Sunne . . . So easily are mindes, apt to admire things strange and
uncouth, drawne through curiositie of observation, unto superstitious and
idololatricall performances™ (pp. 198“9).69
This is an unusual take on a commonplace doctrine which, as noted
above, Jackson himself would have accepted. Most considerations of natural
history in the 1620s, and for some time subsequently, stressed how nature
revealed God by means of similitude.70 Levinus Lemnius™s An Herbal for
the Bible, translated into English by Thomas Newton in 1587, gives a typical
account:
[The prophets] use so manie Similitudes, & make so many Comparisons of things
fetched out of the verie secrets and bowels of Nature; as namely from beasts, fouls,
wormes, creeping and swimming creatures, Herbes, Trees, the Elements . . . and
likewise from the humours in a mans bodie . . . wherewith they learnedly beauti¬e
their matter, and (as it were) bravely garnish and deck out their termes, words, and
sentences with tropes and ¬gurative Phrases, Metaphors, Translations, Parables,
Comparisons, Collations, Examples, Schemes, and other ornaments of speech,
giving therby unto their matter a certaine kind of livelie gesture . . . stirring up
thereby mens drowsie minds . . . to the consideration and acknowledgement of
the truth . . . (pp. 6“7)71
Given the widespread acceptance of this idea, and how often the didactic
meanings of images in Renaissance discourse depend on a knowledge of
natural lore, Jackson™s strictures can seem startling in their acute conscious-
ness of the spiritual dangers which such comparisons might pose. Cruci¬xes
and marigolds could both be seen as dangerous because the imaginatively
undisciplined observer might commit idolatry by confusing signi¬er with
signi¬ed, and carrying admiration too far “ but though cruci¬xes could
be con¬scated from churches, nothing could be done about the English
meadow.
This Protestantised caution could extend to the names of plants. Jack
Goody has argued that a suspicion of ¬‚owers, especially of those that
have no other purpose than ornamentation, is characteristic of Protes-
tantised cultures;72 but one does not need to assent to all the details of
his argument to recognise that, in Europe, ¬‚owers have often been the
inspiration for Catholic-inspired imaginative nomenclature. To this day
Anti-popery and the supernatural 73
English ¬‚ower names, although anonymously authored and communally
transmitted, are remarkably imaginative, foregrounding startling religious
metaphor of which a baroque poet could have been proud. Writing in the
1950s, Geoffrey Grigson collected over seventy names for the bird™s foot
trefoil, including such christianised ones as Devil™s Claws, God Almighty™s
Thumb and Finger, Lady™s Cushion, Lady™s Fingers and Lady™s Slipper.73
Sometimes, as here, these names derive their religious conceits from the
physical shape of a ¬‚ower, or they can embody a dedication.74 Nicholas
Culpeper sarcastically commented of St John™s wort, ˜It may be if you meet
with a Papist . . . he wil tel you St. John made it over to him by a Letter
of atturney.™75 Seasonal by nature, ¬‚owers with religiously inspired names
became fantastic accessories to the Catholic liturgical year, and by virtue
of their names acted “ depending on one™s viewpoint “ as re¬‚ections of
sacrality or instances of idolatry.
Keith Thomas has maintained that, by objecting to some plant names
and the symbolic use of plants in general, reformers tried to cut the asso-
ciational links between popular botany and religion.76 It is a statement
that can bear quali¬cation, partly because consciousnesses took some time
to be raised: throughout this period herbals are characterised more by the
neutral accumulation of plant lore than a Protestant-inspired winnowing
of it, and the impeccably Protestant Milton was happy, in the imaginative
context of Comus, to exploit the demonifugal associations of haemony, or
St John™s wort.77 Nevertheless, it is against this background that one must

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