30 September 2011


Darren Oldridge. The Devil in Tudor and Stuart England. The History Press, 2011

In this book, a revised edition of his The Devil in Early Modern England, Darren Oldridge is principally concerned with image of the devil in the imagination of the harder-line 'hottest' Protestant reformers or 'Puritans' in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The devil in the pre-existing folk Catholicism seems to have been a sort of amoral trickster figure, with perhaps more than a hint of Loki still clinging about him, and one in which he was regularly portrayed as being bested by cunning humans. As such he was often presented as an almost pathetic figure of fun.

Oldridge shows how, under the influence of the darkly introspective new reformed religion, surely one of the most cheerless religions ever invented, making even the Taliban look liberal in comparison, he becomes a much more menacing figure. This new reformed religion saw human beings as totally depraved and in no way capable of earning salvation, which could only be a free gift of grace, and as such totally under the control of the devil as the prince of this world. Whereas before people had seen themselves as part of a whole community, part of as Oldridge puts, an army in the company of Mary and all the Saints, they were now seen as isolated atomised individuals, alone facing the whiles of the devil.

In the folk religion the devil was only a threat to the truly wicked, those who behaved themselves, and acted fairly and good neighbourly were more or less safe. By abandoning the idea of salvation through good works, the new religion exposed everyone, including the Godly themselves to his threats. Though Oldridge does not make this connection, I can't help thinking that one of the motivations of the abandonment of good works, was to liberate themselves from the restraints and conventions of the old communal culture and embark of careers of individualistic self advancement and competition.

The devil in this new order manifested in various ways, one way was in the form of wrong thoughts. The godly's own doubts, fears, temptations could all be ascribed to the actions of the devil, rather than themselves, as could the often explosive outbursts of raw negative emotion caused by the stresses of this pressure cooker environment.

He could also be encountered in what we would today think of as anomalous personal experiences, spectres, strange animals, the birth of deformed babies, tempests and thunderstorms, altered states of consciousness, night terrors and the like.

Oldridge shows how the new puritans turned back to much of the old folk imagery of the domestic devil during the witchcraft persecutions, such as those of Matthew Hopkins, with their evocations of imps and like petty supernaturals. Some of course resisted this and pointed out that it didn't make much sense to envisage the 'prince of this world' quietly lapping up bowls of milk or feeding on a supernumerary teat like some pussy cat.

The puritans saw the devil everywhere because they saw themselves as a people under siege, where all (including the monarch and the church hierarchy) were against them, just about everyone around them was imagined to be under the thrall of the devil

Though Oldridge shows that much of this died out in the Restoration, more than traces remained in some forms of Methodism, and intellectuals like Baxter and Glanville fought a rearguard action against the new scepticism. Indeed it is not really dead and survives in some straggly mutated forms. Thus while the 17th century visionary Helen Fairfax has a vision of Christ in glory which her family persuade her is in fact a satanic delusion, modern day abduction hunters such as David Jacobs and the late Budd Hopkins pressure people (often women, another link to this period), to accept that their visionary or spiritual experiences are really due to the machinations of the demonic Grays disguised as beings of light. -- Peter Rogerson

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