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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: March 2008

22 - Literature and religion

from 5 - The Civil War and Commonwealth era


The context

There was a war of words and images as well as a war of swords and muskets in mid seventeenth-century Britain, and it was a war fought with the same venom and the same determination. It was, to an even greater extent than the clash of arms, a war of religion or a series of wars of religion: the established Church of England was dismantled and the unity of the godly disintegrated. On the battlefield, the fighting followed existing good military practice, and the codes of honour were adhered to. There was no such restraint on the printed page: innovation, inventiveness, a spoliating invective was everywhere to be found. The heady cause of religious liberty was advanced with a freedom of form, syntax and vocabulary that startled, troubled and disturbed. This war of religion was waged across the period in a bewildering diversity of polemical strategies and forms in both prose and poetry.

On all sides, but perhaps especially on the Puritan side of the polemical exchanges, the religious writing in the period 1640–60 is a literary equivalent of the mid nineteenth-century opening up of the American West. It was frequently characterised by an exhilarating freedom, a high dependence on contingency, a rugged individualism, extraordinary improvisation and a central authority trying and largely failing to impose rules and inappropriate order. The most exhilarating (for us) and alarming (for many contemporaries) feature of this was the freedom that men and (more dramatically) women had to think unthinkable thoughts, to challenge those beliefs about the way the world was that previous generations had been incapable of thinking of questioning.

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