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A Certain Measure of Perfection

 

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John Everard, no less

John Everard – one of the major translators of the seventeenth century and a sponge for all sorts of influences. Or was he a bit of a sham, relying on the work of others too much…?

 

The image itself is purported to be by Thomas Cross – better known for writing his theological treatises.

All this suggests that the influence of Everard was wide-ranging and profound. The British Museum has an isolated frontispiece with the same image. I have informed them of its identical nature to the British Library text.

 

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John Webster’s will

 

John Webster, also known as ‘Johannes Hyphastes’ through his own choice (1610/11 – 1682) studied chemical matters (possibly as part of some medical training) under the Hungarian alchemical goldsmith, Johannes Huniades (1576 – 1646), himself a.k.a. Bánfi-Hunyadi János. Huniades had been born in Nagybańya (modern Baia Mare, now some forty miles into Romania but historically Transylvania). It seems that around 1608 he became resident in England. M. Feingold – ‘The mathematician’s apprenticeship: science, universities and society in England, 1560 – 1640’ (Cambridge, 1984) indicates that Huniades had obviously encountered the German, Joachim Morsius in London by 1619.

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In 1633 it would appear that he was taken on by the English Court diplomat and philosopher, Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) to teach at Gresham College which was rapidly establishing itself as England’s nexus of alchemical, astrological and Hermetic studies. Digby himself moved in and out of Catholicism. Ironically, Cromwell was not entirely antagonistic towards him, perhaps partly on account of favouring freedom in religion but more probably rather seeing him as a ‘representative’ of English Catholicism, even sending him on an unsuccessful negotiation mission to Rome.

The sequencing here provides some difficulties. It is clear that Webster had undergone Huniades’ training in London by the time of taking up his post in Kildwick but calculating that date on the basis of comments in his own ‘Metallographia’, the training would appear to have been around 1635. Furthermore, there is the issue of whether Huniades was already teaching in London prior to being taken on by Digby. Digby seems to have left Gresham in 1635 but Huniades was certainly there until 1642. It is also possible that Webster was taught by him outside the formal structure of Gresham’s. Just as problematic is the fact that in 1633 Huniades evidently received an invitation to organise an academic group in Koloszvár (now Cluj-Napoca in Romania). It is not clear whether he took up the offer. Huniades also seems to have worked for John Dee’s son, Arthur (1579 – 1651), who had travelled around Europe with Dee as a child. This was in spite of Arthur Dee’s somewhat dubious reputation – the censors of the College of Physicians appear to have summoned him but the outcome of this case in unknown. Dee junior went from London to Manchester to Moscow before becoming physician to Charles I in 1637.

Webster took his post at Kildwick in 1634 but was not converted to some sort of ‘mystical religion’ until the following year. Clearly, this final element of the transformation (which was subsequently to mutate again in later years) awaited his contact with Craven. He was known to preach at Grindleton (gratis) as well as Kildwick and the settlement gets almost equal prominence in his will decades later.

By the end of his life Webster seems to have understood Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Italian and French. It would not surprise me if he had also had some knowledge of Hungarian.

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The Theologia Germanica, Brierley and the Grindletonians

During James I’s reign, an extraordinary text found its way into England. It had originally been written centuries earlier, probably by a monk in a monastery in the Frankfurt area. It was especially unusual in that it had been written in German (as opposed to Latin) and was ‘rediscovered’ by a Wittenberg theologian who took it instantly to heart: none other than Luther shortly before he rocked Rome’s world. As Luther tried to gain control of the wild notions that flowed so freely following the break with Rome and threatened to splinter the Reformation into a hundred and one irreconcilable factions, he quietly buried his influence from it. It was simply too radical and controversial a basis upon which to build any kind of new consensus.

Prior to Luther, the sparse number of extant copies would indicate that relatively few people had read the ‘Theologia Germanica’. But subsequently it began to circulate amongst those who were to become Luther’s harshest critics – Spirituals and certain obscure wings of Anabaptism – as well as amongst others on the Protestant fringe and even Catholic mystics (who might legitimately have claimed it to be their own). Over the remaining years of the sixteenth century several translations into Latin and other languages were made by eminent scholars.

The version that arrived in England was in Latin, the work of Sebastien Castellion. That was precious little use in England. True, Latin still operated as an effective medium amongst the educated and ecclesiastic. Across a wider spectrum of society, the English tradition from Wycliffe onward had encouraged reading and this was particularly the case amongst the ‘godly’ Puritans. But it was categorically reading in English. There was at that time no English translation of the text and, until recently, it was assumed that the first such translation had not been undertaken until sometime in the mid-1630s (or 1628 if Rufus Jones is to be believed) by the great English heretic-mystic, John Everard (who also appears in the London part of this novel). It now appears that Everard was actually beaten to it by a man who some suspect was a close friend and associate of his, Roger Brierley, possibly with the help of an assistant, Richard Tennant: a man from a very different background from Brierley but also from an isolated Northern settlement (Malham at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales) and seemingly also brought up within the confines of Northern Puritanism. As a result it is now possible at least tentatively to identify two translations of the Theologia as Everard’s and one as the ‘Breirley-Tennant’ version. This fact alone would make Brierley a character worthy of a good deal of new research.

However, a significant body of separate documentation confirms that over the period commencing in 1615 and lasting for several years, Brierley was known to be preaching some kind of radical, Non-Conformist Protestantism infused with a thoroughly atypical mysticism based around the ‘motion of the Spirit’. It might also be suggested that the gap between what his (much later) recorded sermons say and what his congregation seems to have understood in the fifty charges levelled against him by the High Commission of York in 1617 is evidence that he lost control of what he had started in Grindleton. However, the respect afforded to him by his congregation within those fifty accusations does imply that he was absolutely central to the ‘Grindletonian heterodoxy’, no matter how much he might have attempted to distance himself from it from that point onward and no matter how much he protested that he was just some ordinary, Northern godly curate. Evidently, he was not!

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that the real secret of the Reformation’s roots now rested not with some great academic Divine in one of the great university cities but rather with the grammar school-educated son of a farmer from Rochdale , a complete backwater prior to the Industrial Revolution.

This novel is inspired by this extraordinary man and by his own unique – and frequently, unfathomable – theology which briefly illuminated a small, dark corner of Northern England in the years before the Civil Wars and which almost certainly had a profound influence on some later Non-Conformist traditions such as the Quakers and doubtlessly upon other ‘sects’ which fared less well in terms of survival and adaptability, their names often lost to posterity.