Jason McElligott. Royalism, Print and Censorship in Revolutionary England. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007. x + 274 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-323-9.
Reviewed by Michael Mendle
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
Royalist Scribblers and their Hunters
“This,” begins Jason McElligott, “is a study of a remarkable set of royalist newsbooks produced in London during the late 1640s” (p. 1). On one level, it is true enough: McElligott’s primary evidentiary base for this book is a group of newsbooks stretching from 1647 to 1650, but mostly from 1648 to the fall of 1649, and the existing external documentation about these pamphlets and their producers.
But McElligott’s project is considerably more ambitious. The book’s title proclaims the bigger agenda: first, it is an argument about the nature of later 1640s royalism, and second and mostly separately, an essay into the practice of press control in the period under consideration. These have great interest, and are argued with vigor and boldness. Oddly, though, one is left at the end with a curiously flat view of the royalist newsbooks, the ostensible p. 1 agenda.
McElligott’s definition of royalism suits his purposes. A “royalist” is “someone who, by thought or deed, identified himself or herself as a supporter of the king’s cause and was accepted as such by other individuals who so defined themselves” (p. 6). This is broader than an activist definition (viz., a royalist was one who fought for the king’s cause), and avoids straw-man taxonomies separating “constitutional” and “moderate” royalists from the infinitesimal band of lay absolutists. But the definition is also designed to exclude those, like some Levellers, whose royalism was suspect as a tactic, a gesture, or momentary aberration. Some of my work, indeed, is adverted as an example of the latter failing. From McElligott’s definitional perspective, so it should be; equally, though, deeper and perhaps more “cultural” definitions of royalist sympathies are possible (like that, for example, raised in disgust by Milton in The Readie and Easie Way (1660)) and, unsurprisingly, they lead to different outcomes. There is another, larger difficulty with his perspective. While correctly stressing the “fluid and dynamic” nature of allegiance (p. 94), and against it “the one constant theme” (p. 82) of law and order, McElligott gives inadequate weight to the coextensiveness of “royalism” and anti-puritanism/Prayer Book protestantism. Many fought as much or more for the church’s cause as for the king’s, and for them, Charles was first of all a churchman, in every sense except the narrowly sacerdotal. Even the oft-remarked smuttiness of several royalist journalists, especially John Crouch, was not merely (as McElligott sees it) an attack on Puritan hypocrisy; it was also a gesture of cultural solidarity with those likely to run afoul of the mistakenly scrupulous, who were at their most obnoxious when they were most sincere.
Probably the chapters on censorship will attract most attention. One, “The Theory and Practice of Censorship,” offers an excellent review of the positions taken in a contentious debate within and among disciplines--largely between those, like McElligott, who find censorship a significant cultural reality and those who argue that systematic censorship was beyond the resources and even the pretentions of the early modern state. Although there are historians as well as littérateurs among those who minimize the effects of censorship, McElligott’s bêtes noires in the debate are literary/cultural critics who, in his view, over-textualize a problematic with no shortage of “real” components of harassment, suffering, imprisonment. These students, he says, have created a “terrible intellectual muddle” (p. 186) even as McElligott acknowledges they and others have exploded the existence of “an all-pervasive, draconian censorship” (p. 209). McElligott’s own alternative, outlined in “A New Model of Press Censorship,” certainly has its advantages in adopting a more situational perspective, and one that recognizes the place of selective enforcement. But problems remain: to say interregnum authorities thought it was “counter-productive to punish some books and pamphlets” (p. 216) is to give the censorship model a loophole large enough to drive a carriage through. Moreover, to say that it was sometimes brutal is not a response to the argument that censorship was ineffective. As McElligott often resorts to analogies and comparisons, one may be offered here: running down offending pamphlets and their scribblers, and production/distribution networks is rather like the “war on drugs.” In both cases, productions facilities can be destroyed, seizures made in considerable quantity, and people caught and punished in great numbers. As a result, there can be local and short-term shortages of product. Yet in the larger view, all this interdiction may scarcely make a dent in the trade. For that, one might rather look to changes in appetites and in consumption patterns.
The narrowest, but to some readers the most important, chapters in the book treat the ostensible subject: the royalist newsbooks. McElligott certainly performs many valuable services to scholarship in these chapters. He insists upon the depth of ideological commitment of the activists responsible for the newsbooks (be they publishers, printers, publishers, or writers), and similarly upon the risks they took in support of the cause. He very usefully follows the principals into the interregnum, where he finds they made the adjustments that other royalists did when it seemed the Stuart cause was lost and when the moderating and quasi-conservative instincts of some Protectoral figures were to be preferred to the unadulterated extremism of others. In particular, McElligott argues vigorously for the royalist bona fides of Marchamont Nedham; in this he will not convince many, but it is surely to be noted that Nedhams’s defense of the Protectorate, The True State of the Case of the Commonwealth (1654), was in a distinctly royalist and conservative idiom.
A problem remains, though. For a reader who has not dipped into John Crouch, the royalist Nedham, and the rest, not enough is done to demonstrate how these newsbooks were, as McElligott properly described them on p. 1, as “remarkable.” Indeed, in a sense, the book steps backward from McElligott’s own more vivid and entertaining explorations elsewhere. While McElligott nicely avoids the over-quotation and tedious explication of the obvious too often found in contemporary monographs, here, perhaps, he errs on the side of terseness. Readers who have not “been there and done that” will hardly know what made these newsbooks “remarkable.”
Nevertheless, this is a commendable volume. Its collective biography of its universe of royalist literary activists and its very serviceable commentary upon the now massive censorship debate will remain rewarding. As McElligott extends his research horizon, much will be expected of a writer equally comfortable in the minutiae of basic research and the higher ground of historical modeling.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Michael Mendle. Review of McElligott, Jason, Royalism, Print and Censorship in Revolutionary England.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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