Saturday, August 05, 2006

Scandalous, Malignant Priests

[This one's primarily for my Renaissance peeps, although I regret that I can't provide you with any wacky woodcuts, like the fellas at Blogging the Renaissance.]

In the midst of my efforts to avoid my most pressing projects, the other day I spent several hours reading through a bunch of old research notes in the hopes that they might provide me with something juicy for an abstract that I'm trying to work up. Instead, I came across my notes on this pamphlet--one that was not then and is not now of any immediate use to me, but that I have to share, 'cause this shit's just too good to keep to myself.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: John White's First Century of Scandalous, Malignant Priests (London, 1643; Wing W1778).

Published in the midst of the Civil War, shortly after the Church of England was disestablished, the bishops excluded from the House of Lords, and a large number of clergymen turned out of their parishes, White's pamphlet defends Parliament's actions by identifying 100 ministers (the "century" of the work's title) who fully deserved to lose their positions.

Ho hum, you say? Anti-episcopal tracts are a dime a dozen in the 1640s? Not like this, they're not.

Here's the first paragraph of the work proper:
The Benefice of John Wilson, Vicar of Arlington in the County of Sussex, is sequested, for that he in most beastly manner, diverse times attempted to commit buggery with Nathaniel Browne[,] Samuel Andrewes and Robert Williams his Parishoners, and by perswasions and violence, laboured to draw them to that abominable sinne, that (as he shamed not to professe) they might make up his number eighteene; and hath professed, that he made choice to commit that act with man-kind rather than with women, to avoid the shame and danger that oft ensueth in begetting Bastards; and hath also attempted to commit Buggery with a Mare [. . .] and hath in his Sermons, much commended Images in Churches, as good for edification, and that men should pray with Beades, and hath openly said, that the Parliament were Rebells, and endeavoured to starve the King, and that whatsoever the King commands, wee are all bound to obey, whether it be good or evill; and hath openly affirmed, that Buggery is no sinne, and is a usuall frequenter of Ale-houses and a great drinker.
No wonder I took such detailed notes on this! I love the way that White starts out with the most attention-grabbing charge--sodomy--and then throws everything else in after: bestiality, fondness for religious images and the rosary, saying mean things about Parliament, sodomy again (just in case you let your attention wander!), and enjoying his tipple a bit too much.

Although many of the sequestered ministers that White disscusses aren't nearly as colorful--an awful lot seem to be accused of nothing more than Royalist sympathies, bad preaching, and hanging out at the ale-house more than is good for them--there are enough sexual trespasses and enough vicious gossip sprinkled throughout to make the pamphlet a fun read.

My favorite minister is the last one, the crazy misogynist of no. 100. Here are a couple of excerpts:
The Benefice of Ambrose Westrop, Vicar of the Parish Church of Much-Totham in the Countie of Essex, is sequestered, for that he doth commonly prophane the ordinance of preaching, by venting in the Pulpit, matters concerning the secrets of Women, to stir up his auditory to laughter; And hath taught in his Sermons, That a man that useth carnall copulation with his wife the night before the administration of the Sacrament of the Lords Supper, unlesse his wife require him so to doe, ought not to come to the Sacrament of the Lords Supper; and that a woman that hath Monethly sicknesse, ought not to come to the Sacrament; That a Woman is worse then a Sow, in two respects: First, Because a Sowes skinne is good to make a Cart-saddle, and her Bristles good for a Sowter. Secondly, Because a Sow will runne away if a man cry but Hoy, but a woman will not turne head, though beaten downe with a Leaver [. . .] and diverse modest women absenting from Church, because of such uncivil passages, he affirmed, That all that were then absent from Church were whores[.]
It soon becomes clear that at least part of the Rev. Westrop's public bitterness toward women is because--surprise!--no woman will have him:
[H]aving been a sutor to a Widdow whom he called Black Besse, who rejected him and married another, he observed in his Sermon out of one of the Psalmes; That David prayed to God, not to Saint or Angell, nor yet to black Besse, who was then in the Church before him.

[. . . .]

And being a sutor to one Mistris Ellen Pratt a Widdow, he did write upon a peece of paper these words, Bonny Nell, I love thee well, and did pin it on his cloake, and ware it up and downe a Market-Towne, which woman refusing him, he did for five or six weekes after, utter little or nothing else in the Pulpit, but invectives against Women; and being sutor to another woman, who failed to come to dinner upon invitation to his house, he immediately roade to her house, and desiring to speake with her, she coming to the doore, without speaking to her, he pulled off her head-geere and rode away with it.
I really think that that last part is my favorite: the petty and petulant way he goes to that woman's house, refuses to speak with her, tears off her headgear, and runs away.

What I like best about this pamphlet isn't so much what it says about popular discontent with the Church of England, although that's useful--these particular charges aren't necessarily true, but there's surely truth in the pamphlet's disgust with both individual ministers and the general fact that congregants had virtually no power to censure or remove clergymen who misbehaved or who were out of touch with the values of their community. Many people, certainly, felt this way, and I like the example that the work gives of individuals trying to protest in some way: the women who stopped going to church in response to the Rev. Westrop's misogynistic rants. ("What," I can hear my students saying, incredulously, "didn't their husbands make them go? Weren't women, like, totally oppressed back then?")

Rather, what I really love is the gossipy nature of the work, and the fact that what readers apparently found (or were expected to find) titillating then is still pretty much what we'd find titillating today. Can't you see these items appearing in a local newspaper or being gossiped about around town, if they were rumored about a minister or high school teacher today? ("I heard he had sex with EIGHTEEN teenaged boys! and he gave a sermon where he said that we have to do whatever the Supreme Court says, even if it's just an opinion, and not what's in the Constitution! And he's drunk all the time, too!")

Also, okay: it's also just pretty damn funny.


Unknown said...

Good lord, if I had a nickel for every time some scorned suitor ran off with my headgear...!

These are classic! I also love the bit in the first where he says that he chooses to sleep with men rather than women to avoid the embarrassment and danger of begetting bastards. He seems to be keeping his list of Catholic sins to a respectful minimum...

Leslie M-B said...


I work in a much later period, and on the U.S., but I always enjoyed finding obscure but funny documents in the archives. They really bring the figures to life.

The History Enthusiast said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The History Enthusiast said...

Those are some great quotes! I am an American history graduate student, so its been a while since I've gotten to read anything about European history! If you want, you can check out my blog at

Flavia said...

Thanks (and welcome!). I'm glad that some non-Early Modernists found this as funny as I did.

Out of Time said...

Thanks for the great post! I linked to it over on my blog, Out of Time ( In a nutshell, I nominated Westrop for my blog's "Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month" award...