The Jesuit Displaid – a print dating from the height of the Popish Plot scare, circa 1680-82 – is a very curious image. Most obviously, it is curious in appearance. This is a composite image: the figure of the Jesuit is made from lots of items loosely cobbled together to ‘display’ his perfidy. These things are united by the Jesuits’ supposed stock-in-trade: deceit peddled to secure destruction. This was a common stereotype. Since the late-sixteenth century, the Jesuits had been presented in anti-Catholic literature as the cream of the pope’s malevolent servants, agents of Antichrist bent on murdering kings, securing pan-European Catholic alliances against Protestant states, and implementing massacre in order to win ground and souls for Rome. They were a fifth column which articulated a more general fear about Catholics, that they might walk amongst ‘us’ (i.e. good Protestants) unseen, and infiltrate the highest levels of society (court and church) in order to wreck their corruption.
In this image, the Jesuit is revealed – a common theme in anti-Catholicism, tied to the Book of Revelation and the exposure of Antichrist, which masked itself as an ‘angel of light’ – for all to see. He is first and foremost a shape-shifter (‘everything to all’, as the accompanying mocking verses put it) who uses disguise to pass himself off as ordinary in order to gain access to the corridors of power. Here, he might be a cook, groom, or gardener (all of whose tools form part of his attire). The Jesuits’ vices are also revealed. Some of these are generic: the horns above his head refer to this ‘wandring father’s’ lusty, pernicious sexuality, which makes a mockery of his claims to celibacy and was a common slur against Catholic priests and the religious in general; the keys refer to his ability to unlock doors (spiritual and literal) to gain confidences; the purse at his neck is that of Judas; and his wicker hat exposes his weak faith, which is as ‘unsound as Basket aheld as [a] hat’ against the rain. Others are particular to English history: the ear-ring is Guy Fawkes’ lantern (used to illuminate his preparations of the gunpowder underneath parliament); and the print refers to key figures in the ‘Popish Plot’ conspiracy fabricated by Titus Oates. Taken together, audiences are presented with an image of perfidy writ large. It is not a complicated message.
But it does have a complicated tone, the second point of curiosity here. What was actually going on? Reader/viewers are instructed to ‘survey the monster, [and] all his frippery’. In those two terms – ‘monster’ and ‘frippery’ – we have a tension. Audiences are meant to fear the Jesuit, but also be amused by him. How are we to understand this? What motivated people to buy prints like this and, presumably, to display them on the walls of public and domestic spaces? Was there, perhaps, something fun in the experience of horror? It seems that anti-Catholicism was often a captivating blend of attraction and repulsion.
But here, there is something else at work, too. We have an object clearly marketed by its publisher (Arthur Tooke) for a quick profit. This was manufactured and sold in response to the political crisis of the day – the Popish Plot (in which Titus Oates, William Bedloe, and other perjurers told the British public that there was a European-wide, Jesuit-led plot to murder Charles II, burn London, massacre Protestants, and return the realm to the Roman faith) and the Succession Crisis which followed it (in which the Whig part, under than mantle of safeguarding Protestantism in light of this ‘plot’, attempted to exclude the Catholic, Duke of York [later James VII and II] from the throne and secure constitutional reforms which weakened monarchy in favour of parliament). The image is a tiny part of the mass of print which took politics ‘out of doors’ to the public as Whigs and Tories battled to speak for the nation. But how do we characterise it. ‘Propaganda’ is surely too strong. The print has Whig sympathies and contributes to the general anti-Catholic fear of the moment which was a motor of the political crisis, but there is no evidence that it was orchestrated by a political party. ‘Polemic’ is also not quite right, either: there does not really seem to be a polemical point here, more a tapestry of clichés.
There is, then, something not quite serious and not quite frivolous about this image. I do not mean to suggest that it is not ‘political’, but merely to say that in calling it such we need to re-consider what politics – and, indeed, ‘anti-Catholic’ – actually mean. If both of those things can be embodied in something this ephemeral, a commercial cash in on the moment which re-packaged generations old clichés for a quick buck, then surely this increases our sense of the power of prejudice, rather than diminishes it. Here anti-Catholicism was the reason that this object existed at all, and the reason it was purchased, the reason it was displayed, and, most curiously (and terrifyingly) of all, the reason that those who made it, bought it, and displayed it also surely enjoyed it.
In recognising that, we get somewhere near to the hotch-potch of emotions which drives intolerance.