Tuesday, 24 September 2019

The Mayflower Pilgrims

The Mayflower Pilgrims

Important anniversaries are important because they are important. They remind us of major events in our history. But they are also important because they provide an opportunity for re-evaluation, perhaps because fresh evidence has come to light or scholarly debate has thrown up new questions or suggested different perspectives. My take on the epic voyage of 1620 offers a new viewpoint by deliberately avoiding the `birth of a nation` approach. Instead of considering `how we (specifically the USA) got from there to here`, I have asked the question, `how they got to there from where they were before`. Let me explain. The traditional approach to the Mayflower story sets it in the context of the founding of Plymouth Colony and the subsequent growth of a great modern nation. This can lead to a romanticised telling of the story in which the `pilgrims` appear as heroes and heroines, representatives of national identity. While not for a moment doubting the courage and religious fervour of the Christian nucleus of the Mayflower's complement, I suggest that they did not caste themselves in a heroic mould. They were, and knew themselves to be, fallible, largely disoriented people with mixed motives. Their minds were focussed more on what they were leaving behind, what they were trying to escape from, than on the new society they planned to establish. The Mayflower Pilgrims is an exploration of their history, rather than an account of their position in our history. That is why my narrative ends with their departure from England.

My thesis is that when we see this mini-migration as one of very many in an age of religious and political ferment we shall better understand both the pilgrims and their world. That world was changing very literally as 'new' lands were being discovered and exploited by Europeans and, therefore, new questions were being asked about Christians' responsibility  for the planet and its peoples. Amidst this heart-searching of thinking men and women of the late Renaissance old certainties were re-examined, old beliefs questioned. Western Christianity was the main victim of this process. It fragmented. Protestants divided themselves from Rome - and then went on to divide themselves from each other. Armed with vernacular Bibles and freed from the dictates of an authoritarian priesthood, believers were able to adopt their own versions of the faith - and they did. This posed a political threat in countries (like England) where Church and State had always been bound together with hoops of steel. As a result Europe fell into the oxymoronic 'wars of religion' during which followers of the God of love maligned each other, excommunicated each other and slaughtered each other. At the outer edge of English Christianity were to be found a rainbow-hued assortment of radical fellowships, each with their own take on 'the faith once given to the saints' and their own authoritarian expositors of 'truth' (As Milton later pointed out 'new presbyter is but old priest writ large')

It was among these self-identifying 'separatists' that the 'pilgrims. were to be found - restless souls trying, by defining ever more narrowly the lexis and praxis of Christianity, to discover a purer, more perfect church life. Their quest for a haven led them to establish holy nuclei, first in their own country, then in Amsterdam, then in Leyden, then, for a few, even in Newfoundland, or in any place where their chosen devout regimen would not be corrupted by 'false' Christians who did not agree with them to the letter. These restless little communities were easy prey for the colonizing companies seeking, for commercial purposes, settlers prepared to go to the New World to exploit its (undoubted) mineral and vegetable resources.

When the story of these religious pioneers is placed under the spotlight of research what becomes visible is a complex picture with brilliant and inspiring pinpoints of courage and conviction set amidst (and in some places concealed by) many shades of grey. Any honest investigation reveals a narrative of soaring aspiration, self-sacrificial commitment, unavoidable compromise and sordid self-seeking. In other words a very human story.

Thursday, 21 March 2019


What will historians be writing about our current political chaos in a hundred years’ time? Where might Brexit feature in a list of the worst years in British history? These are questions historians should be very wary about trying to answer. Our job concerns the past. We are not social commentators or soothsayers. Or are we? Surely, if the past has nothing to say to the present, there is no point in recording it. Historians become redundant. With all this in mind it is with a fitting humility that I make the following comments.

 Back in 2008 I suggested that the worst anni horribili were those in which ‘dislocated societies’ were ‘cut off from their past and fearful of their future’. That certainly applied to three out of my top five – 1536 (when the nation was riven by religious and political conflict), 1812 (when, according to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, ‘insurrectionary fury has rarely been more widespread in English history‘), and 1937, a year of hunger marches, Fascist and Communist agitators using popular prejudice for their own ends and millions demonstrating their lack of trust in politicians by refusing to vote in the general election. I see no reason to renege on that analysis.

 Wars, plagues, famine, and other ‘external’ calamities do have some redeeming qualities. They produce remarkable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. They reinforce national solidarity. They inspire people to roll up their sleeves and tackle with shared hope the work of recovery. But when a population is riven by division; when anger and hatred stalk the land; when civilised discourse becomes impossible; when confidence in the nation’s leaders has broken down; where can people look for hope of a better future? The legacy of 1536 was a century or more of politico-religious upheaval and the execution of a king. The fallout from 1812 included the Peterloo Massacre (1819) and the socio-economic deprivation about which Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew were still writing a generation later. And 1937? Well, it took a World War and a near-invasion to shake Britain out of its internal woes and direct its energies towards building a united future.

 How far should we go in regarding such warnings as portents to be applied to our current situation? We are too close to it to know. Crystal balls are not part of the historian’s standard equipment and, therefore, I refrain from making predictions. This alone can I say, based on my study of past crises: specific issues (eg. Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Luddite Riots, the Jarrow Crusade) were only catalysts. They ignited already existing flammable social materials. Whether, when, if and how Britain leaves the EU has become an irrelevance. The damage is done. The argument has sparked a conflagration that will be with us for years. That is what historians will be writing about a century hence.