- Recusancy and Conformity in Early Modern England: Manuscript and Printed Sources in Translation
In 1567, an Italian merchant whose extensive trading network throughout England made him an ideal intelligencer sent an account to Rome on the condition of Catholics that he had seen in his travels throughout the country. At least two-thirds of the population remained true to "the authority of the Holy See and of our Sovereign Pontiff," he wrote, but they could not "show this openly in act on account of the severe edicts of her who reigns at present, which obliges them to the contrary" (p. 81). He portrays here the practice of occasional conformity, one to which this large percentage of the population had resorted in the face of the legal demand that they attend Protestant services or suffer the consequences of financial ruin, imprisonment, and—in some cases—execution. By physically attending the services of their parish church, they avoided these stringent penalties, but even as they did so, they remained spiritually committed to the Catholic faith. In other words, they dissimulated.
Church Papists, Alexandra Walsham's landmark work on church papism (Rochester, NY, 1993), opened up for scholars the complex landscape of casuistical argument within which the theological and political problems that faced Catholics after Queen Elizabeth I's accession and subsequent legislation for religious practice were debated and negotiated. Until this publication, the view had been somewhat obscured by confessional historiographical tradition and, dare we say it, seemingly unapproachable texts, pamphlets, and manuscripts. We now know, thanks to Walsham's careful reading and exegesis, and [End Page 803] later work by others such as Michael Questier and Stefania Tutino, the debates, arguments, and counterarguments that surrounded this complex theological dilemma.
The editors have succeeded admirably in gathering together representative key documents by Catholic polemicists that show the nature of the debate and how it developed throughout the reign up to, and just beyond, the accession of King James I. Some of these, including the report from the Italian merchant previously mentioned, are published here for the first time. It also is pleasing to note the inclusion of documents relating to the Scottish recusant dilemma of occasional conformity. This is a field of study that, although there presently appears to be a lack of primary sources, is ripe for research. Within a few years of the accession of James I, the criterion of Catholic orthodoxy had changed; it was no longer the issue of occasional conformity but the question of the oath of allegiance. We might perhaps look forward to a second volume of texts and documents relating to this debate.
The editors are to be congratulated for their meticulous transcription of this collection of documents in their original language with careful English translations and for providing in the introductory essay a lucid exposition of their background and context. Together with the excellent footnotes, bibliography, and indices, they provide an invaluable resource for scholars and students not only of post-Reformation Catholicism but also for everyone working on the history, literature, and theology of this period.