Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mark Knights's "The Devil in Disguise"

Mark Knights is Professor of History at Warwick University. He has written two books about later Stuart political culture, including Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture, and has also written elsewhere about early modern ideas, print, and discourse.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Devil in Disguise: Deception, Delusion, and Fanaticism in the Early English Enlightenment, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book discusses a key dilemma: how far should toleration extend? The religious toleration that finally became law in 1689 in Britain after a century of turmoil and revolution posed real challenges: if men and women had freedom to find their own way to God did they also have freedom to find their way to the Devil and to reject scriptural morality? Indeed, toleration of religious diversity raised questions about how to preserve a sense of communal unity: if there was no longer uniformity of religion, would society disintegrate and sexual morals wither away? These questions – pertinent for many today as much as in the seventeenth century – were faced if not quite for the first time in the later seventeenth century then at least with great urgency. As I put it on p.99 ‘During the Restoration era and particularly after the Revolution of 1688-9 contemporaries seemed to be in a world in which old religious and biblical values were under threat or even scoffed at, in which a shared mental universe seemed to be in danger of fracturing or already to have been destroyed’. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century thus saw a major challenge to core religious and moral values from new ways of thinking that would later be identified as ‘Enlightenment’ ideas. Church of England Christianity was not only under attack from protestant radicals but also ‘from the forces of freethinking, deism, and atheism, which attacked the notion of religion as it had been traditionally understood and which seemed to be gaining considerable momentum in the wake of the Toleration Act and the freedom to print’. These forces loosened old moralities. Freedom of belief became, for some, synonymous with looseness of morals; liberty became licence.

I use one family – the Cowpers of Hertford – to illustrate these tensions:
Hostile to the established Church and open to a variety of different religious ideas, Sir William Cowper epitomized the stereotype of the freethinking Whig; his sons were less openly anticlerical but were certainly committed to freedom of worship. And there was an apparent correlation between their pursuit of religious and sexual freedom. Spencer was not the only son with a roving eye, for his brother also acquired a scandalous reputation as a bigamist. Certainly he had two illegitimate children, and carefully kept letters from them amongst his papers; and contemporaries thought that he advocated polygamy. Until restrained by the strengthening codes of polite behaviour (but also by their political responsibilities), the brothers seem to exemplify an unbridled and predatory masculinity. In this they emulated their father, who had a reputation as a lecher. Their apparently unbridled behaviour threatened to undermine the institution of marriage. Sir William ruled his wife with a ferocious temper, allowing her few liberties, and Sarah Cowper in turn viewed their marriage in terms of slavery—a word that had both political and social application. The Whigs insisted on political and religious liberty; but, from Sarah’s perspective, they denied her freedom. Whilst she shied away from seeing her husband’s behaviour as representative of the oppression of her gender as a whole there were others who did make that connection and exploited the discrepancy in Whig attitudes. Sarah’s diary reveals the strains within one marriage; but the institution as a whole seemed also to be struggling to contain wider social, religious, and political changes. [p.99]
The chapter explores these themes through the Cowper’s family archives before turning to the salacious account of the family published by the first woman to earn her keep through journalism, Delarivier Manley. Despite being a bigamist herself, she satirised William Cowper’s alleged defence of polygamy and what she saw as his hypocrisy; but her attack was politically motivated and she found herself under arrest as a result. The chapter, and the book as a whole, shows how bitter partisanship provoked assaults on the reputations of politicians, creating a degradation of discourse that would be recognisable today but also shaped a set of Enlightenment ideals – free speech, toleration, liberty and moderation– that we still prize.
Learn more about The Devil in Disguise at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue