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Religion, Culture and National Community in the 1670s
By Tony Claydon, Thomas N. Corns
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2011 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
Paradise postponed: the nationhood of nuns in the 1670s
In 1672 the English Carmelite convent in Antwerp celebrated the fifty year anniversary of the profession of Anne of St Bartholomew (Ann Downs: 1593–1674). The occasion also marked the period she had spent in exile from her national homeland. When she died two years later her obituary included a copy of 'the verses made up on the occasion of her jubely':
Full half a hunder'd years agoe
heavens husband man began to sow
in Carmells garden English seed
which doth the virgins dowry breed.
The first fair seed how it did grow
a nobler poets pen should show.
This seed most small in its own eye
to the world dead, did fructify
... solid tree not founded on sand
can thunder stormes and winds withstand
Its vertues branches still increase
stably shadowed ore with peace
even uncorrupt it seems to be
the Lord of Hoasts dwells in this tree.
Thô death quite round about did hew
of no decay this tree, it knew.
(SHC A1: 186; Hallett, 2007a: 64)
There was clearly a tradition of such verse writing at Antwerp and its associated Carmelite communities. The 1672 obituary of Aloysia Francisca of Jesus (Francis Morgan: 1634–72) notes she 'had a most sweet devout tallent in Poytre hauing left to us many Poyhims of the Blessed Virgen and the sacred Infant Jesus'; a few years later Teresa Maria of Jesus (Bridget Kempe: c.1635–76) is praised for her 'spirituall Poyhims wch according to our pious costume she was wont to make att Chrismase' (DC L13.7: fols 18r–19v). If such works do not necessarily exemplify the finest features of English literary style, they do suggest the imagery used by the nuns to describe their sense of exile and their relationship with their homeland.
The Antwerp Carmel had been established in 1619, one of several such foundations created to meet, and stimulate, the needs of successive generations of English Catholics migrating to the European continent during periods of persecution. This chapter will explore the nature of the nuns' rhetorical and practical engagement with ideas of nationhood, shaped by their personal experience of exile. It will consider how far they reflect Edward Said's observation of the exilic figure in general, who
exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half involvements and half detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or secret outcast on another. (Said, 1994: 49)
It may seem paradoxical to consider nuns in Said's terms to be 'secular critics', or to claim that they lived 'outside habitual order' in their highly regulated space and time. Yet certainly their position as insider outsiders, cloistered yet acutely aware of regional and transnational political affairs, afforded them a particular perspective on early modern cultural conditions. Their 'adept mimicry' operates on a number of personal and political levels, the significance of which is explored here.
We might perhaps expect the nuns' exilic writing to be nostalgic, even sentimental; maybe characterized by qualities of 'dis enchantment', that 'desire for the return of an earlier order'. Rather, the nuns frequently express extreme contentment in the present whilst seeking to inscribe a new nationalistic regime. Oddly perhaps, from an enclosed position of apparent fixity, they create a sense of shifting stasis, figuring from within their own 'wishful landscape' a future restoration that is both personal and religious: 'the Blochean "Not Yet" ... that reaches beyond the confines of historical reality' (Pohl, 2006: 21). They engineer an emphatic now in which personal pasts and community history combine with aspirational certainty. In this way the nuns mirrored the condition of several groups of the 1670s highlighted in this collection. They were excluded from full participation in their state or nation, but hoped all the time that this might change, given the ambiguous and highly fluid politics of the era. As we might expect, their responses to this situation were diverse and multilayered: but, along with many of their contemporaries, their attitudes were shaped by the tensions in a never quite complete alienation, an uncertainty that they would remain as exiled as they were.
The nuns pose spatial and temporal challenges. These are factors around which Tony Claydon presents his persuasive picture of 'Protestant internationalism'; 'simultaneous antipopery and engagement with the continent' (Claydon, 2007: 8, 5). Here I argue for a less surprising Catholic Europeanness, and an especial Carmelite spatial poetics that draws upon an English transnational heritage, to consider 'how English Catholics' experience of diaspora, combined with the necessity to reevangelize a nation from overseas, shaped their idea of nationhood' (Shell, 1999: 109). I also address gender specific responses to exile elided by Said.
As the jubilee poet of 1672 expresses it, these women 'in Carmells garden' are 'English seed / which doth the virgins dowry breed'; they shelter under a 'solid tree' whose 'vertues branches still increase'; 'uncorrupt' – images of undefiled endurance that are much repeated in the nuns' writing of this period.
If there is a hiatus to their Englishness, they are fecund in foreign surrounds. The Antwerp community indeed appeared to prosper in the Spanish Netherlands, a region especially supportive of a foundation movement spurred by the post Tridentine evangelizing mission (see Guilday, 1914: 21; Walker, 2003: 8–42). Of course its fortunes fluctuated under political pressures during the long period from its foundation in 1619 until 1794 when the community returned to England. The women were subject to local and pan-European conditions, such as loss of harvests, the effects of climactic minima, of civil unrest in a volatile region, and interventions of Protestant authorities to prevent the flow of revenue, the ongoing effects of religious antagonism that had driven them from England in the first place. The Carmelite constitutions forbad dependence on local alms, which meant the nuns relied on recruitment from their homeland, inspired by family connection or by the reputation of the convent.
Despite temporary local difficulties, therefore, the Antwerp nuns succeeded in their expansive mission. In 1648, they set up a further community at nearby Lierre. In 1678 a separate English foundation was established at Hoogstraeten. These communities were part of a wider network of Carmels, not all of them English, established through the northern continent.
The Carmelite papers attest to a lively sense of nationhood, conceived in response to complex ideas of the foreign; after all, they were at home, the locals were alien. The nuns depict themselves as optimistically embattled in cloisters generally described as 'strikingly, even stridently, English in both orientation and composition' (Walker, 2003: 38). Carmelite Englishness is combined, however, with import ant aspects of continental Catholicism and a teleological philosophy drawn from specifically Teresian narratives that preceded and super seded the politics of the moment. There are elements in their writing which reflect and significantly nuance wider nationalistic concerns.
In considering the nuns' 'fructifying' self construction we immediately encounter issues of cause and effect. It is well recognized that 'Protestant hostility towards Catholicism functioned as a constitutive element in the emergence of nationalistic and imperial ideology' (Tumbleson, 1998: 11). It is perhaps less clear how far Catholic patriotic paradigms emerged from resistance to Protestant representation and how far they generated independent models. In claims to true fecundity, who originates the abject Other?
Oppositional logistics are complicated in a European Catholic context. It has been claimed that to be a nun in this period was to stage an 'overt rejection of English religion, law and society' (Walker, 2003: 2). For the Carmelites this is only partly true. They separate their idea of Englishness from state claims to religious hegemony, yet they continually perform a peculiar patriotism, claiming, in common with other reformers, to be part of an ab origine religion, women of the 'primitive' Teresian Order. Their claims are complicated by the Spanish antecedents of their Rule, and their connections in the Low Countries with other, equally unEnglish orders. They also related to ostensibly secular communities which had their own reasons for living abroad: in the Antwerp merchant community, however, 'While many were no doubt motivated by the needs of providing for themselves and their families, the political and religious outlooks of most of them clearly reflect those of the English Catholic community as a whole' (Arblaster, 2004: 98).
The Antwerp Carmel, created amidst a range of potentially cohering or contradictory conditions, was intended to be exclusively for English women. The founder's stipulation may suggest a patriotic intent to resist patriarchal prohibition. Yet if to be a nun was to be stridently unEnglish by discursive definition, to claim to be an English nun was a radical tautology with performative effect. The Carmelites (like other religious, but with specific expressiveness explored below) create, as well as describe, a partially English(ed) space; they do this in the face of an emphatic and repeated exclusion they reluctantly acknowledge.
Throughout the 1670s, though of course not only in that decade, English members of Catholic religious orders faced a series of royal proclamations excluding them from the land, or from certain areas of the kingdom. It is important to consider the nature of those commands and of surrounding anti-Catholic literature, in order to understand the nuns' responses to them.
Proclamations were couched in dualistic terms: 'Whereas Our Loyal Subjects' have 'presented to Us their Fears and Apprehensions of the Growth and Increase of the Popish Religion in these Our Dominions' began Charles II's Whitehall statement of 23 March 1671 (England and Wales [Charles II], 1670/71). It commands Jesuits, English, Irish and Scottish priests 'and all others who have taken Orders from the See of Rome' to 'Depart out of this Our Kingdom', an injunction repeated in subsequent years.
On 23 March 1673, JPs and Ministers of Justice were commanded to disclose details of priests in their custody, 'for the better discovery of all others who were Popish Recusants ... yet unknown to us' (England and Wales [Charles II], 1672/73), signifying at once a centralizing of hostility and a perpetuation of a rhetoric of secrecy that surrounds so much anti Catholic discourse. In 1678 there followed a renewed royal command to 'all persons being popish recusants, or so reputed, to depart from the cities of London and Westminster, and all other places within ten miles of the same' (England and Wales [Charles II], 1678).
A 1673 text of a performance in 'the palaceyard at Westminster' (not accidentally the seat of power from which the religious were barred), featured 'a converted fryar ... A defiance to the Church of Rome'. He publicly burned his beads, crucifixes 'and other papist knacks, in detestation of their ridiculous idolatries' (The Converted Fryar, 1673).
Ritualistic excision was combined with continued publication associating Catholicism with unpatriotic endeavour. In 1673 Popery absolutely destructive to monarch ... recalled 'invasions by strangers and rebellions at home'; 'mischiefs of all sorts rais'd and fomented by that Triple crown'd Priest, who stiles himself ... Defender of [the Church] from Wolves, and other Beasts of prey'. It claims that Catholic orders are amassing 'a Million of men ... (an Invincible Army)' to accomplish 'Warlike Enterprise'. The writer exhorts readers to become 'Loyal Subjects', to pray for the health of the king (pp. 1, 123, 124). The two crowns are thus placed in righteous opposition – a divisive stratagem familiar from warmongering in the twenty first century as well the early modern period, each with its own hawks.
Here in England (which affords no Wolves but those in Sheeps Cloathing) [the Papist] appears a pretty Innocent Beast; but the Inquisition proves a Lyon Rampant; he is not inspired with the Blessed gentle Dove, but carries the Talons of a Devouring Vulture.
So wrote the author of another 1673 piece (The Character of a Papist); the papist 'a thing like a Man, but more unhappy than a Beast' is the enemy within, it is 'impossible for him at once to serve God and honour his King' (pp. 5, 1, 6).
Similar rhetoric was employed in a 1675 text containing 'A journey into the country', couched as a conversation in the agrarian heart of the nation between a Protestant and a Catholic. The publisher's preface claims it 'seems to be wrote about the time, when (by Proclamation) Papists were not to reside within ten Miles of London'. It begins with the 'Papist' asking the 'Physician' (each characterized by those titles, one suggesting health and rationality) how far he is travelling. The Physician replies 'I know the place I am going, but not how far 'tis thither'. The Papist on the other hand knows how far he's going but, because of prohibitions, not the destination.
Phy: I believe, Sir, your head is full of Proclamations ...
Pap: I can bear the Proclamation patiently, and be obedient to the Kings Command as well as any Subject he has.
Phy: Say you so?
(Creamer, 1675: 1)
Some satirical texts purport to come from Catholic sources. These include a treatise by Ferrante Pallavicino 'who was afterwards publickly beheaded at Avignon ... published by a lover of the Church of England'. It describes 'our Saviour divorced from the Church of Rome His Spouse: provoked by her lewd and adulterous behaviour in the world' (Pallavicino, 1679). Whilst the nuns in their roles as sponsa Christi deploy a language of chaste obedience, they do so in the face of long familiar diatribes against schemes 'the Babilonish whore hath used to intoxicate the kingdoms of the earth with the wine of her fornication' (Carpenter, 1647).
In 1674, 'a letter from the Pope' was published in London. Exploiting representational stereotypes, it is couched in marvellously parodic terms, addressing Catholics 'whom now thy English Den of Hereticks despise'. It signs off 'Thus hoping and expecting to hear the downfall of Hereticks, I am your tender (though by Hugenots despised) Father, Clement IX' (pp. 1, 6).
Meanwhile, the nuns themselves shaped alternative nationalistic discourses in various genres. The letters written by the Carmelite Prioress at Lierre during this period frame her political engagement less polemically. She too prayed for the success of her nation, in terms denied to her by the authors of anti|Catholic tracts.
Between 1673 and 1678 Margaret of Jesus (Margaret Mostyn: 1625–79) wrote to Philip Brebain, a Jesuit in Antwerp who clearly handled some financial affairs for the Lierre convent. Her letters express a sense of the nuns' vulnerability when revenue was interrupted during the Anglo Dutch Wars (1652–4; 1664–7; 1672–4) between England and the United Provinces (Dutch Republic) over issues of maritime expansion. The situation in and around Antwerp, previously a relatively secure haven for Catholics, was unsettled by renewed ructions that had for so long affected the northern continent. As the Spanish withdrew forces from the Low Countries, 'a power vacuum arose in one of the most strategically crucial zones of Europe'; discussions between France and the Dutch Republic suggested a possible partition of the Spanish Netherlands, as a result of which Antwerp, like Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen, might pass to the Republic (Israel, 1995: 378, 766–74).
Excerpted from Religion, Culture and National Community in the 1670s by Tony Claydon, Thomas N. Corns. Copyright © 2011 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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