Proving it

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Proving it

The struggles surrounding the restoration of the monarchy in England were not a static backdrop for the emergence of new genres. In a deep sense, the struggle was for a redefinition of history. On the surface return to the historically recognized lineage of kings represented a return to continuity, where Cromwell’s commonwealth was seen as merely an interregnum— a gap in history. However, while Charles II had historical “truth” on his side, the public perceptions of his desires were not altruistic. As Hume observed, the reign of Charles II was a lapse in puritanical progress toward social perfection. Rochester’s A Satyr on Charles II from 1674 puts it bluntly:

Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other.
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport. (10-15)

The conflict between historically constituted truth and virtue was tense. After the theaters reopened, restoration dramatists like Behn pushed the boundaries of polite expression. Gradual deregulation of the press beginning with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1681 bolstered the burgeoning publishing industry. Though it did not eradicate the monopoly of the Stationer’s Company, established by Queen Mary in 1557, it did contribute to a looser atmosphere for publishing works critical of the government or the church. The licentiousness and religious tolerance of Charles II was in some ways just what England needed. The restored monarchy was more limited in its power, and both Parliament and Charles II regulated liberty. In 1742, Hume reflected:

The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated to its defence. As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

The historical rights of succession were challenged as never before. Charles II dissolved Parliament in 1679 when the ascension of James II was threatened. James exacerbated the dissention between royalists and the dissenters, by promoting Catholics to prominent positions of power. The entire structure of religious, historical, and political power was in flux. Residue of the patronage system makes it difficult to discern the true position of the writers like Behn. After the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, Behn praised the loyalty of Judge Jeffries who presided over the trial of the “Bloody Assizes,” and tortured, killed, or exiled the protestant rebels. Her dependence on some patronage, however slight, may have colored her writing more than any Catholic sympathies.

It was not until the Glorious Revolution deposing James II that placed William III and Mary II on the throne that the balance of power tipped in the direction of Parliament and the Protestants once again. The Bill of Rights enacted during their reign placed even more limits on the exercise of Royal power. During the reign of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, the two-party system firmly became established and the first English copyright law was enacted, moving more power into the public sphere. The Statute of Anne in 1709, protected writers for the first time in English history, establishing their rights to texts for a period of fourteen years. Authorship for the first time carried legal authority. The Stuart reign across the seventeenth century was filled with revolutions in domestic policy. The succession of German Georges that followed in the House of Hanover took a largely hands-off approach to the press and to domestic affairs.

Historical consciousness was on the rise throughout the eighteenth century. The loss and subsequent rediscovery of classical texts at the onset of the early modern period made observations like Behn’s demarcation of “Ancient and Modern Writers” commonplace. The appeal to history becomes much more than the assertion of a royal line. The authorized translation of the Bible into English by the first Stuart monarch, James I, destabilized religious authority because the public was able to offer its own interpretations of scriptural authority. The restored Stuart monarchy of Charles II chartered Royal Society Of London For The Promotion Of Natural Knowledge in 1662. The pursuit of natural knowledge was later subsumed into the label of natural history. While the Royal Society is generally thought of as the landmark birth of modern science, science was inescapably linked with theology— the aim was to find the hand of God in nature, to stabilize theology through new, technological means. Quickly, it moved to promote its findings through one of the earliest examples of a magazine— Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society founded in 1665. Religion and science in the seventeenth century are inseparable, and new authority was to be found in nature— natural history.

The burden of proof rests firmly in history. But it is a redefined history, where “truth” depends on evidence, and the rules of evidence become deeply defined by the rise of a popular, capitalist press much more than any chartered royal society. The “true history” is transformed into the novel, where emotional appeal fosters new dialogues during the emergence of empiricism. The line between fact and fiction is blurry, and the devices of fiction accentuate assertions of new kinds of truth.

3 Comments

Whoo! I've tried and failed many times to sum up the Restoration's not-strictly-political-or-religious revolution so well!

From your instigation, I note: The new liberty arose from the combination of danger and confusion -- not only were there overt and irresolvable (and ground-clearing) tensions between the financial Protestant power of Parliament and the nostalgic whatever power of the throne, but the King's own intrigues were contradictory and indecipherable enough to clear its own nomansland. And with legalized liberties, the pressure, as hoped, came off: careers were longer but the works were less intense.

(Should John Ashcroft be reading your weblog, I'll add that I prefer legalized liberties and long careers.)

Jeff, remember to factor in the impact of probability theory developing at Port-Royal. Before probability was theorized, the whole notion of "evidence" was different: if a trustworthy person said something, it was probably true (however counterintuitive). And who is more trustworthy than a king or a bishop? After Port-Royal there's a language available for saying, "Of course the apostles say that Jesus walked on water; but is it more llikely that he did so, or that someone was lying or exaggerating?" (say, David Hume for instance).

I would greatly appreciate it if anyone might be able to answer a somewhat silly question for my class and me. Does anyone know what the original dues were for the Royal Society for the Pursuit of Natural Knowledge? It is a strange question, but it would make my professor person very happy to know and might even garner me an extra point or two. The Lord knows I need any help I can get.