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“Hudibras” and the Puritan Mindset


If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?

(Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664), p. 60; 2.1, ll. 839–40).

‘Marriages’, Lyly says, ‘are made in heauen, though consumated in earth’ (John Lyly, Euphues and his England, London, 1580, p. 129), and Eliot renders the French proverb, ‘Qui doibt pendre ne sera iamais noyé’, as ‘he thats borne to be hangd, shall neuer be drownde’ (John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French, London, 1593, pp. 126 and127). But what makes Butler add whipping to the list of things which are decided by fate rather than by choice? Laertius’ tale of Zeno and his slave (retold here by Gataker) doubtless plays a part; ‘as the knave told the stoik his Master, when he whipt him for filching, it was my destiny to filch; or, as his Master answered the knave again, and it is thy destiny to be whipt’ (Thomas Gataker, His Vindication of the Annotations by him, London, 1653, p. 106; the original story is in Diogenis Lærtii Vitæ Philosophorum, 7.23). Puritanism and judicial astrology – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the extent to which both belief systems hinged on a predetermined destiny – had more than a passing acquaintance, but Butler ‘did not attempt literally to reproduce the interregnum debate over astrology … nor has [he] … constructed an allegory of the quarrel between Gataker and [William] Lilly’ over the validity of astrology (Nicolas H. Nelson, ‘astrology, Hudibras, and the Puritans’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 37.3, 1976: 521–36; p. 532). Hudibras has resonances that seem closer to Pico della Mirandola than to either Zeno or contemporary events. Pico (who himself probably has Zeno somewhere in the back of his mind), after recounting a tale of sexual flagellation and relating it to events which occurred during the flagellant’s childhood, says that the purpose of the anecdote is

ut cognosceremus euidentia ipsa quantum illis affectibus ualeat
consuetudo: ne quasi causam habere terrenam nullam possint: cælum statim accusemus nam id quidem astrologus si audiat / damnatam dicet fuisse uenerem in hominis genitura: et aduersus fortasse: aut alio mõ minitantibus radiis Martis

[so that we may clearly know how strongly one’s behaviour influences one’s situation, lest, being unable to find an earthly cause, we at once blame the heavens. For, indeed, if an astrologer hears of this, he will say that the man was fated to sexual flagellation by birth, or by the ill effects of the rays of Mars.]

(Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, Disputationes
Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem (Bologna, 1496; edition used, Lyons, 1498?, sig. h5r)

Pico argues not only here but throughout this treatise that ‘one’s behaviour influences one’s situation’ (‘affectibus ualeat consuetudo’), that there are efficient causes of events other than astrology (or fate), and that, while one’s (pre-) disposition plays some part in the outcome of one’s life, one has also a degree of control and choice over the direction one’s life takes. Butler’s poem, too, is, in part, an attack on astrology; the astrologer Sidrophel, observing through his telescope the approach of hudibras and his squire, Ralpho, sends his assistant, Whatchum, to find out what brings them. Whatchum gets Hudibras’s story from Ralpho, and tells it to Sidrophel, who pretends he has learned it by the art of divination.

But it is in the sexual overtones of the whipping motif in Hudibras that
the poem seems most clearly to echo Pico. The widow Hudibras professes to love attempts to convince him it is his fate to be whipped, as proof of his love for her; ‘love is a boy by poets styl’d, / Then spare the rod, and spoill the child’. Hudibras at this stage is in prison, and his agreement to the widow’s demands resembles redemptive suffering, in that she procures his freedom once he promises to undergo a whipping. However, when the time comes to make good his promise, he equivocates, wondering ‘whether’t be a lesser Sin / to be forsworn then act the thing?’ Ralpho readily encourages him to break his word, saying

… is’t not enough w’are bruis’d, and kicked,
With sinful members of the wicked …
But we must claw our selves, with shameful,
And heathen stripes …?

(Hudibras. The Second Part, pp. 61 [2.1.ll.843–4]
and 72 [2.2, ll. 59–60 and 893–98])

Hudibras’s hypocrisy in breaking his word is reconstructed satirically as a saintly (that is, a ‘Presbyterian’) virtue, but the satirical intent does not undermine Ralpho’s basic point; the vagaries of fortune bring hardship enough, without seeking to ‘claw’ (that is, whip) one’s own body in ‘shameful’ and ‘heathen’ fashion.

Butler’s plot unravels in a number of ways. The third and final part did not appear until fourteen years later, whereupon it transpires that Hudibras goes to the widow and falsely claims to have received his beating. She does not believe him, and while they talk there is ‘a knocking, at the Gate’, and he is set upon by elves, who tell him, ‘Mortal; Thou art betraid to us / B’ our Friend, thy evil Genius’. In answer to the spirits’ questions, he reveals that he never loved the widow anyway and, in his hypocritical way, had only pretended to do so for her money:

Didst thou not love her then? Speak true.
No more (quoth he) than I love you.
How would’st th’ have us’d her, and her money?
First, turn’d her up, to Alimony;
And laid her Dowry out in Law,
To null her Jointure with a Flaw,
Which I before-hand had agreed
T’ have put, of purpose, in the Deed;
And bar her Widow’s-making-over
T’ a friend in Trust, or private Lover.

(Hudibras. The Third and Last Part, London, 1678,
pp. 61,  67 and 69; 3.1., ll. 1054, 1162–3 and 1185–94)

Hudibras cannot, after all, escape a beating, but it is with a ‘cudgel’ (Ibid., p. 60 ; 3.2, l. 1148), not a whip, the whole episode has an aura of unreality, and – if his beating has any relationship at all to some kind of moral or spiritual dimension – his suffering is not redemptive but punitive, undergone not for the sake of his love (he is, it appears, incapable of love, whether of God or of his fellow creatures), but for his hypocritical and mercenary wiles.

Hudibras sums up, through satirical allegory, the puritan predicament; one’s earthly lot is to suffer, but to seek out suffering – or to engage to suffer by contract – is to enter into the forbidden territory occupied by medieval pacts of alliance with the devil on the one hand and masochistic submission on the other (Cf, Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967, p. 20), while suffering as punishment for one’s sins is merely a foretaste of the eternal damnation to come, and legitimate contexts for expiatory suffering – the only kind that counts – are elusive and unpredictable. Like so much of the literature of the early modern period, Butler’s poem locates in ‘the masochistic dimension of a political imaginary based on an ideal of sacrifice’ (Melissa Sanchez, Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 240). His satirical exposé of Presbyterian hypocrisy – like all good satire – touches on a raw nerve and forces a reappraisal of the values of the society it comments on. Behind the inglorious Hudibras stands the puritan Englishman, conditioned to a ‘view of repentance as a life-long mortification of the flesh, so that the Spirit of God may gradually obtain dominion … which is the real foundation of the Calvinistic ethics with its asceticism’ (Arthur Dakin, Calvinism. With Special Reference to Calvin’s ‘Institutes’, London: Duckworth, 1940, p. 70), but deprived of the contexts for ascetic suffering expressed and espoused in the Latinate culture of the Catholic South. When Ralpho colludes in Hudibras’s attempts to justify his breach of promise to the widow, he bases his argument on an excoriation of penitential mortification, exhorting him not to do as

mongrel Christians of our times,
That expiate less with greater crimes,
And call the foul abomination,
Contrition and mortification.

(Hudibras. The Second Part,  p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98)

The conflicted sinner of Protestant discourse, whose only hope of redemption is to suffer in accordance with God’s will, is exposed in Butler’s satire to temptation on two fronts. On one front, the ideals of heroic and holy suffering are corrupted by their parodic replication in misguided romantic suffering, undergone, not out of transcendent love, but for a lesser, mundane love. On the other front, the moral authority of those who suffer for their faith in accordance with God’s will is usurped by presumptuous attempts to pre-empt God’s will by seeking suffering out and engaging in it through active intent. Both are essentially features of southern/Latin/Catholic discourse. When the widow, urging Hudibras to undergo a whipping for her sake, asks ‘Why may not Whipping … / With comely movement, and by Art, / Raise Passion in a Ladies heart?’ (Ibid., p. 61, ll. 852–4) she spins her web of persuasion – at least partly – from the threads of southern European romance:

Did not the Great La Mancha do so
For the Infanta Del Taboso?
Did not the’Illustrius Bassa make
Himself a Slave for Misse’s sake?
… Was not Young Florio sent (to cool
His flame for Biancafiore) to School,
Where Pedant made his Pathick Bum
For her sake suffer Martyrdom?

(Ibid. 63–4, ll.  875–84)

The references are to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of the Valorous and VVittie Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote of the Mancha, part 1, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1612), and The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mançha, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1620); Madeleine de Scudéry, Ibrahim: or The Illustrious Bassa, trans. from the French by Henry Cogan (London, 1652); and Giovanni Boccaccio, A Pleasaunt Disport of Diuers Noble Personages: Written in Italian by M. Iohn Bocace Florentine and Poet Laureat: in his Boke vvhich is Entituled Philocopo, trans. from the Italian [by Humphrey
Gifford or Henry Grantham] (London, 1567).

Suffering – specifically being whipped or beaten – for the sake of a woman and the ‘foul abomination’ of expiating ‘less with greater crimes’ (which it is hard to interpret as anything other than the equation of  religious and sexual masochism) are presented in Hudibras as features of a southern/Latin/Catholic culture which defines northern/Germanic/Protestant culture in terms of difference.

The dichotomy of southern/Latin/Catholic and northern/Germanic/Protestant attitudes towards suffering is one of the central themes of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2013). Buy this book from the publisher or on Amazon, or request your library to stock this book.

(Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, Part 1, “The Suffering Self”, Chapter 1, “Constructs of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England”.)