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Reviewed by:
  • Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution
  • Michael Mendle
Ann Hughes . Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xii + 482 pp. index. illus. bibl. $125. ISBN: 0–19–925192–4.

Ann Hughes concludes her study of Thomas Edwards's Gangraena, that massive syllabus of Independent and sectarian malfeasance, with a lament: Edwards wrote "lively, populist, dynamic, and seductive prose" in the service of a "bad cause" (442). One cannot imagine anyone nowadays describing Edwards's cause as "good," but Edwards was not, by the lights of his contemporaries or ours, a conspicuously "bad man." True, he had his opponents and those who were repelled for good reason by his single- and closedmindedness. Yet had he been right — or, better, to the extent that he had been right — in his fears of social and cultural collapse in the wake of apparent religious chaos, his determination to expose and harry the agents of societal dissolution would have been prescient and laudable. His intolerance tracked his fear, and to measure him rightly, we must attend to both.

Considerable historical imagination is needed, then, to reconstruct, rather than summarily to dismiss, the cultural matrix of Gangraena. It also takes enormous scholarly energy, for Gangraena was not so much about ecclesiological theories and academic wrangles as facts in the most literal sense of "things done" — what this Independent said outrageously in public, what that sectary did. All this matters. Gangraena has been used heavily by some historians (particularly those such as Christopher Hill) eager to show the efflorescence of radical religion, and who feel at once privileged and repelled to acquire the inquisitor's dossier. It has been dismissed by others, notably Colin Davis, who take the fulsome evidence of Presbyterian paranoia and hysteria as proof of the nonexistence of the radical activities themselves.

Ann Hughes is a person ideally suited to sort the business out. Immersing herself in the new critical world of print culture and reception- and reader-theory, she assiduously avoids the pitfalls of textual naiveté. She also engages the underlying genre with a chapter on "Gangraena as Heresiography," a much-needed [End Page 649] exercise as heresiographers, like generals, are always (re-)fighting past wars. But above all, Hughes is a no-nonsense scholar with fine research skills, a traditional historian's impatience with postmodern nihilism, and a track record (her Causes of the English Civil War) of thoughtful engagement with thematic issues.

What she finds in an enormous, sometimes minute examination of Gangraena's charges and revelations is that Edwards was at times sloppy and invariably skewed in his perspective, but, so far as she can tell, "he made nothing up" (435). Apart from the temperamental idiosyncrasies that must somehow sustain this sort of activity, Edwards's greatest error was to conflate Independents and sectaries, so that a New England authoritarian was scarcely to be distinguished from an antinomian. Precisely the same lack of discrimination had Edwards in equally high dudgeon over John Goodwin's one-time lapse of Sabbath-day bowls and Samuel Oates's seedy religious "sexploitation." Hughes, who trained as a local historian, also argues that Edwards's focus on the lurid and the metropolitan obscures in some cases the level of local, though less flashy, concurrence.

Hughes has clearly aspired to the multifaceted history currently in vogue — I cannot think of a perspective or approach she has omitted. Inevitably the yields from her efforts differ widely. Hughes gamely, and necessarily, engages print culture, but like other examples of this scholarly subgenre, the results are spotty: do we really need detailed discussion of Gangraena's paging peculiarities in the body of her text, and tediously obvious remarks about the effects of fonts and spacing or the use of "printed hands in the margin to emphasize particular points" (283)? As studies of print culture move from the heroic to the formulaic, whatever insight such observations had the first time has evaporated in the repetition. No doubt other readers of more theoretical bent will be put off by Hughes's doggedness in determining what "actually" occurred, but I found her work here extremely valuable, especially in allowing her to comment...


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