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.