. . . Summer 2002
By John Woodford
Linda Gregerson seems never to have met a contradiction that she liked; she abhors a dichotomy as strongly as nature a vacuum; show her a dualism and she'll unify it. Her power of synthesis is a big plus for a person who leads a two-fold life as an English professor specializing in 16th and 17th century England and an internationally acclaimed poet.
Take her view of the encounter in the mid-1600s between England's Gospel-spreading Protestant settlers in the Americas and the Algonquian Indians, part of the book she's working on, Commonwealth of the Word: Nation and Reformation in Early Modern England. The prevailing either/or assumption today is that one must endorse the "civilizing mission" of the settlers or condemn them for brutalizing an indigenous community.
"Of course a terrible history of brutality is attached to the way that a certain population of English worked out their own place in geopolitical history," Gregerson says. "And I'm not an apologist for that. But neither do I think a blanket condemnation of the settlers and missionaries much advances our historical understanding or our insight into contemporary struggles over collective identity. There are other, more open, questions to examine."
Questions like, how did the colonists understand the logic and logistics of conversion? What was the relation between their mission in North America and the turmoil of civil war back in England? How did the converted Algonquians adapt or alter the beliefs and ceremonies to which they were introduced?
Gregerson is examining the promotional pamphlets published in London around 1650 as part of the settlers' effort to obtain more support for the North American mission. "There's an over-the-top quality to the language in these pamphlets that caught my attention right away," she says. "Their very titles are highly metaphoric: The Day-breaking, if not the Sun-rising of the Gospel With the Indians in New England , for instance. The authors and publishers of these pamphlets were out to show that progress was being made. But conversion was a daunting proposition, both spiritually and politically problematic, and the pamphlets inevitably reveal this."
Catholic conversion in the New World had the advantage of visible signs-vestments, sacred objects, music, ritual. "The Protestant English had thrown these rituals out the window," Gregerson says. "They propagated their faith 'by the book.'" They were doing so, in North America, however, among people who had no written language. So men like John Eliot had to teach the Bible while learning Algonquian, developing an alphabet, and translating and publishing the scriptures on newly imported presses.
Eliot and other proselytizers were not only otherworldly, they were also pragmatic. "Eliot imported agricultural implements," Gregerson says. "He knew that farming was the only way the Algonquians could establish and protect a right to their lands under English law. Hunter-gatherers have for millenia been displaced by those who cultivate the land: It's the oldest demographic story in the book."
But here's the flip-side: Once the Indians were in settlements and had native clergy trained to "explicate the thorny moments" in the Gospels, they addressed questions to the English that Gregerson describes as "constituting a critique of Western civilization." Henry Whitfield transcribed some of those questions in his 1651 pamphlet, The Light Appearing More and More Towards the Perfect Day. Here are a few examples:
What meaneth that, We cannot
serve two masters?
J O H N S T U B B
S L O S E S A H A N D
Another seemingly divided soul Gregerson is attending to is the Protestant polemicist John Stubbs, who lost his right hand on the scaffold as punishment for writings that angered politicians in Queen Elizabeth I's court.
Stubbs raged in 1579 that the marital negotiations between Elizabeth and Francis, Duke of Alencon, the brother of the French king, could lead, if they married, to the pollution of the English language and of English morals and manliness. Stubbs's goal was to protect the freedom of inquiry and self-expression that he felt Protestantism should guarantee against a return of Catholic orthodoxy (an objective, Gregerson points out, that led him to ignore the considerable mingling of the French and English over the 500 years since the Norman Conquest).
This "contrary coupling," Stubbs wrote in The Gaping Gulf, would be "an immoral union, an uneven yoking of the clean ox to the unclean ass, a thing forbidden in the law" as laid down by St. Paul, a "more foul and more gross" union that would draw the wrath of God on England and leave the English "pressed down with the heavy loins of a worse people and beaten as with scorpions by a more vile nation."
Found guilty of "seditious writing," Stubbs forfeited his hand to the axe. Then he removed his hat with his left hand as he descended the gallows, cried, "God save the queen!" and returned bleeding to prison. And Stubbs loyally served his government for the remaining decade of his life. How could a person with such strong views, such "violent populism," as Gregerson puts it, take his punishment with such equanimity?
Gregerson's explanation is that this and similar episodes can show us today that English people like Stubbs did not experience the "ideological dissonance" that we tend to assume would be inevitable. Loyalties we imagine as contradictory today were differently configured in the 16th century. That's why it's simplistic for many scholars to lump Stubbs with the anti-monarchist camp, or to debate whether Shakespeare's history plays show him to be either for or against monarchy.
Gregerson's book will argue that it was nationalism that bridged the apparent split between monarchism and anti-monarchism in early modern English thought, that an emerging sense of nationhood embraced both monarchism and religion.
"The conventional view of social scientists," Gregerson says, "is to say that the plays, poems and prose texts I'm looking at can't be about nationalism, because nationalism is the child of secularism and couldn't arise before the 18th century. According to this view, what interests me could only be an older, simpler phenomenon, 'patriotism' without the structural imperatives of the nation state. But this view casts religion as extraneous to nationalism. When I looked at the texts, I realized that nationalism and religion were and are not separate. Nationalism is an opportunistic ideology - it adapts to its own purposes any number of conceptual and emotional structures we imagine to be at odds with it, including religion. Look at the world around us now."