Report: Representing Popery in British History, c.1520-1900

The fourth workshop in our series, ‘Representing Popery in British History, c.1520-1900’ took place at Newcastle University 10-11 April 2019. 23 speakers from 5 different countries took part, and papers included topics as diverse as theatre, resistance theory, Hispanophobia, material culture, stigmata, laughter, and Antichrist. Discussion was vibrant and engaged with the core problem of the network: how do we write a history of ‘popery’? The subject is inherently representational. ‘Popery’ was not a definable thing with a consistent presence in British history, but was intrinsically malleable and dependent in many ways upon the definition of the person/group identifying it at a given political moment. As such, its representation is inseparable from its content. The problem for historians is that we may end up writing the history of a term – ‘popery’ – rather than a subject. Once we have identified that it is perennially changeable, what else do we say? How do we add coherence to a history of something so slippery? These were questions to which we returned throughout the two days of the workshop. The problem of anti-popery’s lack of consistency is a pressing one for this network. Some participants very sanguine about facing the challenge. They stressed that contingency is part and parcel of all ideologies, and is not specific to anti-popery. Others were more sceptical: for them the inconsistency of the subject across the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is so vast that there is perhaps nothing which holds anti-popery together as a subject at all beyond the word ‘popery’ itself. Discussions suggested that the issue of solvency was a determining factor in the core aims of this network: to establish what a history of anti-popery in British history might actually look like; and to outline the best way(s) forward in moving towards writing one. Many thanks to all participants for a highly stimulating two days.

Our first session was the roundtable ‘Working with Representations’. Here Susan Griffin, Adrian Streete, and David Manning outlined the methodological problems of studying representations of anti-popery in a range of source material – nineteenth-century fiction, seventeenth-century theatre, and early modern polemic, respectively. Susan Griffin introduced us to a central feature of anti-Catholic fiction in the nineteenth century: its gendered language. Tales of women variously tricked into, abducted, or imprisoned by life in a nunnery were commonplace in this period. They were a mainstay of canonical literature by Bronte, Hawthorne, and others, and a sub-genre of popular literature in their own right – the story of Maria Monk, for example, was a best-seller. Griffen outlined a series of key features for us to focus on in studying representation. We must acknowledge that anti-Catholic plot-lines were somewhat formulaic, but note that this was an opportunity for authors, not a limitation. Writers worked and re-worked an established genre and established plot lines. Readers were expected to recognize these anti-Catholic tropes, and author expectation of that recognition allowed for a degree of creativity in which the latter could play with the former’s expectations in order to create meaning. The point, then, is that it is not enough for scholars to simply create a taxonomy of anti-Catholic representations – stereotypes, iconography, plots, characters, and so on. We must consider how those elements were used in a given moment to inject them with (often surprising) meaning. And we need to consider why particular cultural narratives re-occurred at specific times. What historical forces were at work to make anti-Catholic texts – which represented the worst things imaginable as defined by this culture – relevant in the nineteenth century? Griffen explained that these texts were less about the Catholic ‘other’ – the manipulative priest, sexual exploitation, slavery – than they were contemporary anxieties about religion, masculinity, and femininity. ‘Popery’ as defined by a given author or authors was a series of binary negatives which re-affirmed cultural, political, and gendered positives. These fictions were in a sense didactic: they helped nineteenth century authors and audiences work through core issues and problems of their period.

The varied meanings to which anti-popery was put was also a prominent feature of Adrian Streete’s paper, which, in discussing seventeenth century theatre, treated materials two century earlier. Streete showed us that scholarship which focusses on the role of anti-Catholic theatre during the political crises of the Stuart reigns, although important, only gets us so far in assessing the true value of anti-popery to early modern audiences. Anti-popery could be a moderate language as much as it was an oppositional one. It was never out of fashion, and provided ways of thinking-through important political issues – Britain’s place in the European politics in general, and the Thirty Years’ War in particular, for example. Anti-popery was also representational in more subtle ways. It gave authenticity to certain scenes and settings, for example. Streete showed this to be the case with many of Shakespeare’s history plays – Catholic settings and stereotypical ‘popish’ character-traits conjured the past and a lost world in post-Reformation England. Above all else, Streete urged us to be sensitive to the varieties of anti-Catholicism. ‘Popery’ appeared in multiple ways – and was put to multiple ends – in the same play. It was in no sense of a monochrome ideology.

Although two centuries apart, both Griffen’s and Streete’s papers pointed to a common factor in how anti-popery worked on audiences: frisson. There was a thrill in anti-popery. In Streete’s material this rested on the somewhat illicit nature of the representations which Protestant audiences enjoyed. Catholic characters might be dressed in or be use items which had been outlawed as idolatrous, for example. They may appear in settings associated with an anti-Christian religion. Playwrights were well aware of the appeal and dangers of this. They toyed with the taboo aspects of representing popery. For early modern people, ‘popery’ was dangerous because it was hyper-sensuous, hyper-representational, and, as such, hyper-seductive. Representing it on the stage, therefore, was thrilling and dangerous. Much anti-theatrical polemic pointed to the inherent dangers of representation, or which popery and the stage were the main culprits. Once again, we see anti-Catholicism being used not as an end in itself, but to think through important issues of the day. In Griffen’s nineteenth century scenes of debauchery, seduction, and corruption, popery was presented as monstrous. This, she noted, was an attraction/repulsion dynamic. Popery was at once horrifying and appealing: it thrilled and terrified audiences in equal measure. Discussion noted that this attraction/repulsion element was common in polemic, poetry, and visual culture across the centuries which the network covers. That dynamic, it was suggested, might be both a point of consistency across the centuries, and a major source of anti-popery’s continued utility as both a rhetoric and ideology in British history.

The final paper in this roundtable – by David Manning – challenged us to think carefully about how we approach the topic of representation. Working through a series of late-seventeenth century polemics on rational religion, Manning noted that representation was inherent as a problem in the Catholic-Protestant exchanges of the period’s religious culture. It was, in essence, central to how truth could be defined and known, and to how the divine was to be experienced. The significance of this – Manning warned us – is that if we are to gauge the relationship between ‘representation’ and ‘popery’ accurately we must take contemporary understandings of the former term seriously. At present, the use of broadly secular approaches to studying the past in the academe – sociology, anthropology, linguistics – interprets source material in ways which would be foreign to those who produced it. Manning noted that contemporary Christian metaphysics of representation are vital to our understanding of popery, and stressed that those concerns were longstanding in British history. Discussion noted that they were prevalent from the sixteenth into the early-eighteenth century. It also noted that this emphasis on Christian metaphysics should cause us to be careful about how we approach anti-popery as a topic. Perhaps, it was suggested, we have over-played the political and cultural aspects of the topic (or, at least, underplayed the continuing religious ones). Taken together, these three papers – and the discussions which followed them – laid the groundwork for the entire workshop.

The next session – ‘Anti-popery and Memory’ – featured 4 papers treating a core theme which has emerged in the network’s previous workshops: the way in which anti-popery was situated in historical consciousness, how that process was different in the 4 nations, and the extent to which the ways in which anti-popery was remembered both informed continued iterations of anti-popery and was the source of those iterations’ on-going malleability. Was this, we asked, the key area to study if we wanted to unlock the tension between the continuous presence and inconsistent application of anti-popery in British history with which the workshop opened? Aidan Norrie’s paper certainly suggested so. He showed us how Elizabeth I was presented in anti-Catholic pamphlets during the Exclusion Crisis (1678-83). Elizabeth was tied to a triumphalist, providential depiction of England’s past to which the queen herself bore no relation. Norrie argued that anti-popery has re-invented Elizabeth as a ready-made typological device during the seventeenth century. She was re-imagined as an exemplar of ‘Protestantism’ as understood by whichever author/group used her memory. In this paper, we saw how anti-popish ideology bent history to serve its ends. It created an allusion of continuity between past and present to validate a given political action at a given political moment.

Ceri Law introduced us to the roles of anti-popery in the conversion narratives and experiences of those who abjured their Catholic faith during the sixteenth century. Those narratives might have a political application – they might be set-pieces our cause célèbres – or play vital roles in the life-writing of individuals. Law noted an ambivalence in the anti-popery at the heart of these narratives: converts stressed their rejection of a faith which they now saw as foolish, corrupt, and dangerous, but also had to stress the depths of their involvement in it in order to cast their narrative in an effective way. Was this, discussion asked, another version of the attraction/repulsion dynamic at work? For Law, this ambiguity has two applications for historians. First, it shows us how generic anti-Catholic tropes (the gospel dispelling human tradition, the seduction of the senses) were vital in articulating individual experience. We tend to think of anti-popery as a collective ideology or part and parcel of party conflict, but in Law’s scholarship we see what it meant to individuals and how malleable application of its tropes created specific meaning for them, too. This, Law argued, was how ideology was both normalised in society and humanised individuals. Second, the way in which those individuals spoke about their involvement in and rejection of the Catholic Church was indicative of a cultural ambivalence at the centre of sixteenth-century anti-Catholicism: Protestants might be simultaneously accepting of Catholics and/or a Catholic past and agitated towards ‘popery’.

The shifting significance of a Catholic past was also central to the discussion of the next paper, by Muirrean McCann, which dealt with materials 3 centuries later. McCann traced the changes in how Catholic priests educated in seminaries in Europe were viewed both by their fellow Catholics, and British Protestants, between 1793 and the mid-nineteenth century. Because the seminaries in which they were trained fell under the control of Napolean, these priests were suspected by the Catholic hierarchy and Protestants alike. Had they been trained to venerate French despotism? With the emergence of the debate about the British government’s funding of the Maynooth College in the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of a Catholic nationalism led by Daniel O-Connell, however, the European-trained priests were seen in a much more favourable light in the future generation. Priests emerging from Maynooth were now seen as quarrelsome and associate with the repeal movement by Protestant commentators, and the European-educated priests were presented, by way of contrast, as advocates of toleration. This shows us two things, McCann argued. First, anti-popery could be re-membered very quickly indeed – these changes occurred within living memory. Second, what we see here is the continuity of an anti-Catholic trope (the rebellious, untrustworthy priest) and discontinuity in its application. The relationship between those two things – continuity and discontinuity – is central to the longstanding power of anti-popery in British history. Several participants suggested that the oscillation between the two is inherent in intellectual and cultural traditions.

Ireland was also the subject of our next paper, by Annaleigh Margey. The subject here was memory of the 1641 rebellion of Gaelic and Old English Catholics against Protestant landholders and the state in the up to the British Civil Wars. The role of violence against Protestant civilians in this rebellion in memory is significant. For Protestants, 1641 is a seminal event in Irish history (we need only think of Orange marches). For Catholics, it has been disremembered. In mid-seventeenth century England, memory of Irish Catholic violence against Protestants was fixed by a series of lurid and sensationalist publications. That Catholic violence then conditioned in part how the Civil Wars were explained – anti-Catholicism helped a culture to cope with trauma – and was shaped by a longstanding belief in a perennial popish plot against Protestant churches and states. In outlining the role of these various representations in Irish historical consciousness, Margey introduced us to the 1641 Depositions Project, in which evidence from witnesses and victims of the rebellion was digitised in an attempt to use history to dispel myth and help the peace process move forward.  She showed us how anti-popery both shaped memory – 1641 had a powerful hold on protestant views of history – and was shaped by it – the witness statements in the depositions reflect stock anti-popish views, stereotypes, and tropes. The power of the dialectic between continuity and discontinuity was brought out clearly and powerfully in this paper and the discussion which followed.

The next session was a roundtable on the subject of ‘Popish Protestants’. Here each speaker introduced us to the ways in which representations of popery were often removed from Catholics, or anything relating to Catholics, in early modern polemic. ‘Popery’ had a much wider application, and existed as a moral language which regulated and contested the boundaries between various groups of Protestants, and what was acceptably ‘godly’, at all periods after the Reformation. Anthony Milton noted that there were three broad categories in which this occurred. ‘Popery’ as a polemical strategy (in which one protestant called another ‘popish’ to dismiss them or to gain the upper hand in discussion); correspondences (in which similarities between the views of a given protestant on a given subject and Roman Catholicism were not understood to be accidental, but evidence of an actual relationship to popery); and, finally, direct identification (in which a given protestant was actually a papist in masquerade). Milton focussed on the vital roles which these anti-popish tropes in English intra-Protestant relations and the de-stabilisation of English politics between 1630 and 1660, Richard Allen considered how Quakers were variously presented as ‘popish’ throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hayley Ross examined how Scottish Presbyterians were presented as ‘Jesuitical’ in the late-seventeenth century, and Clare Loughlin outlined the multiplicity of ways in which anti-popery was used against various groups of Scottish protestants at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The discussion which followed Ross’s and Loughlin’s papers was helpful in moving us forward. To return to Griffen’s opening paper, we must do more than simply outline a taxonomy of anti-popery. On the topic of ‘popish Protestants’, it is easy to show at great length how Protestants hurled the label ‘popish’ at one another, how this was a product of shifting political loyalties and rivalries, and how the term ‘popery’ was highly malleable as a rhetorical construct. But what might we do beyond noting that? Loughlin and Ross showed us that ‘popish Protestants’ were more than simply a visible part of early modern culture – their representation shaped the political realities of that culture. They noted that the fragmentation of Scottish protestantism after 1688/9 (into Presbyterian and Episcopalian factions, broadly speaking) was shaped by how each side understood anti-popery. And noted that the relationship between the ideal of religious uniformity and the reality of religious plurality was thought-through and contested through anti-popish ideology and language. Representations of popery did not merely reflect the world for these Protestants: they shaped it by giving their reality meaning.

The second day of the workshop began with another engaging roundtable followed by extensive discussion. The theme ‘Popery & Reason’ has been under-explored in scholarship (with the exception of an excellent article by Clement Fatovic). We are accustomed to thinking of anti-popery as a rhetoric or ideology engaged in othering, and as such in seeing it as something through which positive attributes – Protestant, Nation, Masculine, Feminine – were defined in specific contexts. One area in which anti-popery’s role is under-heralded and under-studied is intellectual culture. Discussions within the network (and the following roundtable) focussed on how, and to what extent, anti-Catholicism was involved in shaping core ideas in British history. Examples mentioned included the state (perhaps defined against ‘Catholic’ tyranny), toleration (in part defined against ‘Catholic’ persecution), and reason (here conceived broadly to mean ‘rational’ and potentially involving priestcraft as anti-popery re-imagined, and Enlightenment conceptions of superstition being indebted to Reformation concepts of the same term). Discussion suggested that this is a topic ripe for future research.

Our speakers – Adam Richter, Kristof Smeyers, and Karie Schultz – showed the varied roles which anti-popery had in intellectual culture across several centuries of British history. Richter introduced us to his work on the intersection between science and religion at the formation of the Royal Society. Here he outlined the relationship between anti-Catholicism and science during the mid-late-seventeenth century. Richter showed us how anti-Catholic attitudes shaped the ways in which individual members of the Royal Society reacted to the ideas (generally non-religious ideas) of thinkers from Catholic countries, like Descartes, and to practices, like the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, associated with the papacy (accepting it would be a tacit admission of papal supremacy in England, some authors claimed). Anti-Catholicism, then, shaped what was permitted as ‘reasonable’ in the period: it had applications far beyond the wholly religious. Richter broadened these specific cases out in to a wider discussion about how religious belief might affect scientific decisions. Kristof Smeyers moved discussion forward to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with specific reference to discussion of apparent cases of stigmata. He showed us that traditional anti-popish tropes – Catholicism as ‘foreign’ or ‘Irish’, and credulous – were at work in Protestant reactions to this phenomena. But he also showed that the ideology worked in more nuanced ways to shape the debate on living miracles in this period. Anti-popery here was an important rhetoric used by those who believed in those miracles to present that belief as ‘reasonable’ against ‘popish’ credulity. The idea of attraction/repulsion was again picked up here. As was the inherent continuity/discontinuity in the tradition of anti-popery. Next, Karie Schultz move discussions to universities in seventeenth-century Scotland. She showed that Catholic humanist ideas were vital in shaping political thought among Protestants during the turmoil of the mid-century wars. They were particularly significant in justifying resistance to the monarchy. Focussing on the work of Samuel Rutherford, Schultz showed how medieval anti-papal conciliarism found new life in anti-monarchical works of intellectual thought. Moreover, the ambivalence inherent in anti-popery which we saw in other papers was at work here, too: Rutherford cited Catholic authors, but also defended himself from charges of ‘popery’ in his re-imagining of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the service of resistance theory.

Discussion of these papers forced us to consider the boundaries of anti-popery – is simply using the work of Catholic authors enough to suggest that anti-popery was a ‘qualified intolerance’? Or should we work from the assumptions that a) anti-popery was malleable and b) that early modern people – regardless of how anti-Catholic they were – were capable of identifying aspects of the past, and of contemporary Catholic culture, which were useful to them? These questions aside, it is clear that the role of anti-popery in intellectual culture is an important one. That it is understudied is perhaps a reflection of the Cambridge School of intellectual history’s neglect of religious history.

Our next panel – ‘Art & Material Culture’ – focussed on source material which historians also used to neglect, but which are becoming an increasingly regular (if not quite routine) avenue of their research: plays and material objects. Alexandra Walsham presented a paper which outlined just how extensive – and varied – the material culture of early modern Protestantism was, and noted that this tells us how present anti-Catholicism was in the home. In a paper which discussed toys, plates, pots, jugs, tiles, playing cards, and a host of other items embellished with anti-Catholic imagery, Walsham unpicked the ludic aspects of this material. In protestant polemic from the Reformation on, Catholicism was presented as a childish faith, a series of games, trash, and trifles, which distracted from the ‘proper’ business of belief. In these ludic objects that polemic representation was given life. ‘Popery’ was something which might be played with – in card games like ‘Pope Joan’ – or trivialised and laughed at. What might we do with this? Walsham – in an echo of Griffen’s opening paper – suggested that these representations of monstrosity were oddly didactic. They were meant to be educational, and were how anti-Catholicism was learnt in the domestic sphere. Play and inculcation were linked. Here, we see representations of popery at work in fomenting and sustaining traditions of memory – ideology embodied in objects.

Thomas Freeman’s paper on Elkanah Settle’s 1680 play, The Female Prelate (about Pope Joan) also highlighted the role of imagery – in this instance, imagery from John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ – in shaping popular attitudes through memory. In a close-reading of the text, Freeman showed us how Settle expected his audience to be able to recognise allusions to key anti-Catholic images from Foxe on the stage. This was partly to add value as entertainment – Settle was a man who understood currents of popular thought (shown by his routine shifts of political allegiance) and had his finger on the pulse of opinion. But it also tells us important things about anti-popery over the centuries. For Freeman, discontinuity must be grounded in the study of the topic. He noted that despite the re-use of old images, we are not studying a tradition here. Grasping when and why anti-popery changed is essential to any history of it. Failure to foreground this risks injecting coherence where there was none. Discontinuity, he argued, was anti-popery’s core strength as a rhetoric. He demonstrated this by showing how different medieval Popes might be used by Protestant polemicists according to which aspect of ‘popery’ they wished to ridicule at a given moment (tyranny, sorcery, miracles, or immorality). Foregrounding the internal inconsistencies of anti-popery, he argued, is a necessary and vital part of the network’s task.

The final panel of the workshop – ‘Spain, Empire, and Antichrist’ – developed the importance of discontinuity. Here three core elements of anti-popery – its relationship with universal monarchy, its ties to Hispanophobia, and the ever-present fear of Antichrist – were shown to be highly contingent on context for their significance. They were not evidence of an unchanging tradition of intolerance or a monolithic ideology: they were, rather, a series of tropes and motifs given meaning in a specific moment by the way in which they were used by those who deployed them. In an analysis of English anti-Catholic pamphlets produced in the 1580s, Sara Bradley showed us that two of those elements – Antichrist and Hispanophobia – had few points of contact. Antichrist, she suggested, had little to do with the Black Legend. In a discussion of anti-Catholicism and European politics in the early Stuart period, Emma Turnbull showed us how the locus of anti-Catholicism – Spain or the Papacy – was highly flexible. Authors alternated between an anti-Catholicism which was anti-papal or anti-Spanish with alarming speed depending on the shifting political context or perceived needs of the audience for which they were writing. Turnbull argued that the ‘Black Legend’ of Spanish cruelty did not imprison early modern thought. Authors who desired the Stuarts to adopt a pro-Spanish foreign policy could think through it as context required, while still adopting a resolutely anti-Catholic position. She showed us how continuity and contingency necessarily worked together to keep anti-Catholicism relevant and accord it power in political culture: rapid changes in the political climate of Europe between 1618 and 1648 demanded that anti-popery changed with equal rapidity.   

That changeability was equally present in papers by Jeremy Fradkin and Alan Ford. Fradkin showed us how anti-popery helped to shaped Protestant ideas about empire and the treatment of indigenous peoples in the seventeenth century. Jews and South American natives persecuted by Catholics in the past and the present had points of contact with the godly – both were victims of Antichrist’s cruelty. Thinking along these lines helped to shape intellectual culture during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Representations of Jews, ‘Indians’, and Catholics also played vital roles in how various groups of English Protestants positioned themselves in the English state. Like Turnbull, Fradkin outlined one aspect of anti-Catholic discourse and showed how an apparent continuity of tropes and images belied a discontinuity in application. It was in this marriage of continuity and discontinuity that the ‘meaning’ of anti-popery was constructed in a given context. In a heroic display of learning, Alan Ford traced the varied and evolving definitions of Irish Protestant views of Rome as Antichrist from 1590 to the 1960s. All in twenty minutes! Here we had a theme implicit in most of the papers over the previous two days – Antichrist as the key to anti-Catholic representation in displaying deceit, corruption, and seduction – outlined with clarity and precision. Continuity and discontinuity were again paramount. Presenting Rome as the Church of Antichrist was shown to be vital to Irish Protestants across these centuries, but often for very different reasons. In the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century, the Book of Revelation helped Protestant polemicists plot the history of the early church in Ireland into a narrative of corruption by Antichrist: these historians argued that Christianity had been planted in Ireland separately from Rome, but the involvement of the papacy in Irish affairs led to the steady corruption of the faith in Ireland over the course of the intervening centuries up to the Reformation. Following the 1641 rebellion, the imagery of Roman Antichrist helped to explain the trauma of violence which Protestants suffered at Catholic hands by placing it into a scheme perennial popish plots. In the nineteenth century, the urgency of battling Antichrist helped to spur the evangelical revival in the wake of O’Connell’s Catholic political campaign. And in the 1960s, Ian Paisley and his followers used Roman Antichrist to undercut calls for ecumenicism – the latter, like all liberalism, was presented as a conspiracy to weaken Ireland’s Protestant heritage.

Showing us how a set of images could be used in such contrasting ways in ever-changing contexts, Ford’s paper showed us how interlinked the core themes of the workshop are. ‘Popery’ was inherently representational. And its representation was inherently flexible.  The network’s challenge is to write a history of anti-popery which captures the power of that flexibility as the defining factor of anti-popery’s presence and utility in 4 centuries of British history, but to do so in a way which is more than a mere taxonomy of tropes, motifs, images, and stereotypes.