JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here's something you don't know about me: I am deeply, deeply interested in 17th century Puritanism. My history concentration in college was the English Civil War; in grad school; New England Puritanism. My thesis in Law School was on the influence of the English Commonwealth's theologians on the Massachusetts colony's attempts at creating a Mosaic civil law. (Have I made your eyes roll into the back of your head yet?)
I find England and America in the 17th century endlessly fascinating, but the period is almost unexplored in popular fiction. Which is why I got so excited when I heard about Dr. Sam Thomas. Late of Wittenberg University and UA Huntsville, Sam jumped off the tenure track to teach at University School in Ohio. He's also (lucky for me!) taken to crime fiction with The Midwife's Tale, which our own Rhys Bowen enthusiastically blurbed. Here's the cover copy for The Midwife's Tale:
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
What most interests me about the turbulent 17th century? The many parallels with our own 21st century culture. Today, Sam is going to tell us one of the ways the past informs the present.
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the nation came together, united in support of the victims and their families. And then, at varying speeds, partisans in America’s culture wars returned to the ramparts intent on linking the killings to larger social ills. Those on the left took a practical approach, pointing to the woeful state of our mental health system and decrying the free and easy access to assault weapons. Some (though by no means all) on the political right have offered a different narrative, passing over the weapons the killer used in favor of the culture in which he lived. Charles Krauthammer went some distance down this road, and the NRA criticized “blood-soaked slasher films” and “vicious, violent video games with names like…Grand Theft Auto.”
While few observers can profess genuine surprise at these developments it is worth noting that the politicization of murder is no new thing. In the seventeenth century, England found itself in the midst of its own culture wars, as the nation split along religious lines between Puritans on one hand, and more moderate believers on the other. But whatever a faction’s religious leanings, when the blood started to flow each tried to turn it to their advantage. By looking back at these early modern conflicts, I would argue that we can gain a new perspective on our own society’s reaction to such a tragedy.
One Sunday in 1668, an apprentice named Thomas Savage slipped out of his master’s house and, instead of going to church, went to a brothel. When his money ran out so too did the fun, so one of the prostitutes urged him to rob his master and return. Thomas took this advice, but was discovered by a fellow servant who reprimanded him for his sinful life. He responded by beating her to death.
After his execution, a group of Puritan ministers published a book about Savage’s crime, and it is in their retelling that politics were injected into the story. According to the authors, Savage represented England’s depravity: he was a drunkard, a whoremonger, a thief, and a murderer. What is more, he killed his victim when she pointed out his sin and urged him to repent. From the Puritan perspective, this was how the world worked: They warned sinners of their impending doom, and the sinners responded with violence rather than thanks.
A few decades earlier, however, it was Puritanism’s enemies who spun a gruesome murder to their advantage after a young man named Enoch ap Evan murdered his brother and mother with an axe. While it is likely that Enoch was insane, this was not the explanation favored by Peter Studley, a virulent anti-Puritan.
According to Studley, Enoch represented the logical outcome of Puritanism. He was a religious fanatic who saw himself as one of God’s Elect, singled out for salvation no matter how sinful his life. In Studley’s telling, Enoch killed his family in a dispute over whether communion should be taken while kneeling, which Puritans viewed as a form of idolatry. As evidence of Enoch’s Puritanism, Studley cited his habit of walking for miles in search of Puritan preachers, and his over-heated dedication to religion. While Thomas Savage killed because he was not religious enough, Enoch killed because Puritan religion had filled him with pride.
What ties these cases together is that whether they are writing in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first, these culture warriors describe the world as they would like to see it. The Puritans who wrote about Thomas Savage imagined an England free from sin and dedicated to the Lord, while Studley envisioned an England united in belief as it had been before the rise of Puritanism.
In the same way, when those on the left look at Sandy Hook, they hope it will serve as a catalyst for better health care and tighter regulations on guns. The NRA, in contrast, imagines an America with fewer guns in video games, but many more in its elementary schools.
I suppose it is up to us to choose which vision of the future we wish to pursue.
Note: This interpretation of Enoch ap Evan’s case is drawn from Peter Lake, “Puritanism, Arminianism, and a Shropshire-Murder,” Midland History, Volume 15 (1990), pp. 37-64. The interpretation of Savage’s case is my own.
Something you've always wanted to know about Puritans? Or maybe you want to weigh in on your own favorite historical period - and its fiction? Join us on the back blog. One lucky commentor will get a copy of The Midwife's Tale!
You can find out more about Sam Thomas and read an excerpt from The Midwife's Tale at his website. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter as @SamThomasBooks, and delve into all things historical fiction at his blog, A Bloody Good Read.