Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part V

The story of Micah Rood (recently a movie, I just learned) is of an apple tree which bore fruit that had red globules in it – the belief was that the tree had changed from bearing normal white-fleshed fruit to blood-tainted as an announcement that Micah had murdered a peddlar and buried him there around 1700. Nature herself would accuse. Nature herself would demonstrate. The story is not from Appalachia, or Virginia, but Franklin, CT.

Hawthorne, even while trying to distance himself from his Puritan roots, expresses his dark romanticism in terms of nature’s own judgment on the evils of men.

But why a book of Nature? Why not a drama, a song, or recipe of Nature?

First, the Bible was far and away the most widely circulated book, more than we can easily imagine now. The Puritan framing was that man had been held in ignorance, but now had the book and could know God. Not a book, but the book. That alone would suggest to him that if God were communicating, a book would be His most natural form. Nature did not speak, nature printed. The Protestants in general, but Puritans in particular, had rejected God speaking through tradition, through visual art, through drama or spectacle. They had quite officially in the Westminster Catechism rejected dreams and visions as reliable. Sacrament and liturgy could no longer be considered as efficacious, as they were the province of C of E or even (gasp) Rome. (This break was never complete, but compare Puritan writings to Anglican and you will find far less reference to sacrament.) They smashed idols, they eliminated many festivals, they forbade drama.

Their view of music was more mixed. The English Puritans were skilled, boisterous and lusty in song, but without instruments and training this soon evaporated in the new world. For well over a century, New England worship music was a tedious lining out of the psalms, punctuated by a few good tunes left over from earlier days.

We might speculate that devotion to Scripture, and to the one remaining avenue of observing the natural world for signs and seals gave these especial intensity, like pressured water forced through smaller opening, but this is projecting our 20th C view somewhat – a bit of mindreading. It may be true, but we had best go cautiously.

Of course for my purposes I would love to tell you why – that it is cultural descent from Germanic and Nordic origins – but this is even less certain. We first know that this dual intensity was, only more speculatively why.

Two short bits, both admittedly a reach but perhaps evidence, before I move on to the more solid points: The N-Town cycle of mystery plays, the only version available in East Anglia for centuries, was more strictly biblical than the York, Chester, and Wakefield cycles, which included such extra-biblical expansions as The Harrowing of Hell, and the Acts of Pilate. Even that didn’t save the N-Town cycle in the end. The Puritans forbade that also.

In the ages of trial by ordeal, the ordeals chosen in Eastern England and NW Europe were the most “natural:” water itself, not water boiling or water frigid; fire itself, and not heated iron. The idea that nature itself would express God’s judgment automatically, rather than the idea that God would use an artificial test to express His judgment, was stronger in those places.

On to more solid stuff. CS Lewis (of course) in his 1954 English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama notes a change of character in magic as practiced in the Middle Ages as opposed to the Renaissance:
Only an obstinate prejudice about this period could blind us to a certain change which comes over the merely literary texts as we pass from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. In medieval story there is, in one sense, plenty of “magic”. Merlin does this or that “by his subtilty”, Bercilak resumes his severed head. But all these passages have unmistakably the note of “faerie” about them. But in Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman, and Shakespeare the subject is treated quite differently. “He to his studie goes”; books are opened, terrible words pronounced, souls imperilled. The medieval author seems to write for a public to whom magic, like knight-errantry, is part of the furniture of romance: the Elizabethan, for a public who feel that it might be going on in the next street. [...] Neglect of this point has produced strange readings of The Tempest which is in reality [...] Shakespeare’s play on magia as Macbeth is his play on goeteia

The Puritan did not look to Nature for prophecy but for a report card. There was no reading of entrails, no divinations or omens of the future, but an attempt to understand God’s present judgment. The other magics, which came out of the south of Europe and beyond, especially after the Crusades, were not adopted by the common folk, but the elites.* The Puritans hated their books of Grimoire, their hermeticism, their necromancies and astrologies. Yet they tolerated easily the presence of cunning folk and Anglo-Saxon leechbooks with spells of natural medicine. Scrying, despite its sound, does not seem to be an Anglo-Saxon word but a late borrowing used by occultists to sound like uh, Auld Wysdom, or some other such fancy. It was condemned by English Puritans at first notice. Scrutiny was natural and encouraged, as it looked after the powers God had put in play in the world; scrying was a ceremonial, ritual magic and forbidden.

The growth of Unitarianism, the seeming opposite of Calvinist Puritan devotion to the words of Scripture, seems a much shorter route if one traces from the other book, the Book of Nature. God expresses Himself through Nature to Nature is God’s Expression of Himself is not such a far stretch. In the congregational polity of New England, where no hierarchy dictated doctrine, the individual opinion had some real weight. One ultimately did not have to please the preachers and elders in the next county or even the next town. One only had to make good with one’s own congregation, one’s neighbors. The supposedly stultifying, iron social control of Puritanism, after a little self-sorting, turns out to provide enormous freedom.

The move from Nature is God’s Expression of Himself to Nature is God may be an enormous one theoretically, but in practice it can be little more than two sides of the same coin. A NewEnglander who had a habit of mind passed down from grandmothers and teachers to listen earnestly for the voice of God in Nature would soon need few words.

*This is nearly always the case in every place and time. The plain man wants to know enough about the world to get by; the educated want to know more than their fellows to gain advantage. It is the latter who bring in the occult, the strange knowledges from far places. They have different temptations.

1 comment:

karrde said...

Well done.

I don't think I can add to the discussion, for once.