The World We Have Lost


The World we have lost is a book written by the English historian Peter Laslett (1915-2001) and for the first time printed in 1965. In it Laslett, in a series of essays, questions the picture of early modern times as formed in the minds of our contemporaries. Early modern times are generally defined as the time from the late Middle ages c. end 15th century till about 1789, year of the French Revolution. Laslett demonstrates how the mentality of the pre-industrial period has, partly at least, become widely incomprehensible to modern people.
The following text deals with the punishment of religious dissidence (heresy) and political dissidence (especially high treason).

We should always be aware that what now lies in the past, once lay in the future.
                                                                      Frederick William Maitland
for the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikeness between past and present and his chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own. It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt for the present in the past. Rather it is his work to destroy those very analogies which we imagined to exist.”
                                                           Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History

The first mediaeval burning of heretics in Western Europe took place in 1022 in Orléans.   In England no burnings at the stake are recorded until March 1401 when William Sawtrey was burned for heresy. Sawtrey was a priest  who had denied transsubstantiation and rejected the veneration of saints. Sawtrey was a follower of John Wycliffe (1320-1384), considered a precursor of Protestantism. Wycliff’s followers were called Lollards[1]. The most famous adherent of Lollardism was Sir John Oldcastle, who in 1408 became Lord Cobham through marriage with Joan de la Pole, baroness of Cobham. Oldcastle was a trusted companion of Henry V. He had been imprisoned for heresy – therefore he was burnt. He escaped from prison and is said to have perpetrated a rebellion against the king. This was high treason – therefore he was hanged. In 1417 he was hanged, then burnt.

Of course, he was first hanged, then burnt. This seems ludicrous to us, kind of “economics of overkilling”. Why had he to be executed a second time?

John Wycliffe (1330-1384), translator of the Bible into Middle English (before the invention of the printing press), the reformer himself, was burnt at the stake in 1428, over forty years after his death. He had to be exhumed before. Absurd? Surely a “piece of vengeful folly”[2]

Not unlike Sir John Oldcastle, William Tyndale (1494-1536) gifted translator of the entire New Testament and some other parts of the Bible into English, was simultaneously strangled and burnt at the stake, though not in England. Why “double-killed”, if he would have been quite dead either way?

Or are we missing some significance hidden to us, an “unlikeness“ or dissonance between past and present, between the Middle ages, no matter how late, and the post-mediaeval times? Are we – to use Herbert Butterfield’s terms –“hunting for the present in the past”?

A closer look into the Act against heresy of 1401 can provide a hint. In the last paragraph we read [italics are mine]:

“And if any person within the said realms and dominions, upon the said wicked preachings, doctrines, opinions, schools, and heretical and erroneous informations, or any of them be before the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries convict by sentence, and the same wicked sect, preachings, doctrines and opinions, schools and informations, do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court (upon which credence shall be given to the diocesan of the same place or to his commissaries in this behalf), then the sheriff of the county of the same place, and mayor and sheriffs, or sheriff, or mayor and bailiffs of the city, town, and borough of the same county next to the same diocesan or the said commissaries, shall be personally present in preferring of such sentences, when they by the same diocesan or his comissaries shall be required; and they the same persons and every of them, after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt and they the same persons and every of them, after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors and fautors, in the said realm and dominions, against the Catholic faith, Christian law, and determination of the holy church, which God prohibit, be sustained or in any way suffered;”[3]

The “said wicked preachings” evidently are those of the Lollards. Those Lollards shall be condemned as heretics, and they will be publicly stigmatized as such by burning them at the stake, visible to as many people as ever possible “in a high place”; and not merely as punishment but as deterrence:  “to strike fear into the minds of others”.

Under Henry V, heresy was made an offence against the common law in 1414: “The Act made heresy an offence against the common law and temporal officers were to swear to help the spiritual officers in the suppression of heresy. Justices of the Peace were given the power of inquiry; to issue an order to arrest; and to hand over the suspected heretic to the ecclesiastical court for trial. It also enacted that

that whoever should read the Scriptures in English (which was then called Wycliffe's Learning) should forfeit land, cattle, goods, and life, and be condemned as heretics to God, enemies to the crown, and traitors to the kingdom; that they should not have the benefit of any sanctuary, though this was a privilege then granted to the most notorious malefactors; and that, if they continued obstinate, or relapsed after pardon, they should first be hanged for treason against the king, and then burned for heresy against God.[4]

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)) and Paul Fagius (1504-1549) were prominent German reformers from the region around Strassbourg. Both denied the transsubstantiation doctrine. This linked them to Oldcastle and the Lollards. Bucer was born in Sélestat in Alsace. He joined the Dominican order at the age of sixteen but left the order under the influence, at first mainly of Erasmus, then of Martin Luther, with whom, however, he differed on the precise interpretation of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Bucer and his Strassbourg friend Paul Fagius (1504-1549), one of the foremost students of Hebrew of his time, held the presence of Christ to be merely symbolic. [5]

After the defeat of the Schmalkaldic League (the league of Protestant noblemen against the emperor Charles V) in 1547, the centre of Bucer’s and Fagius’ pastoral care and teaching had become Strassbourg. Strassbourg was a so-called “free imperial city”, (“Freie Reichsstadt”), that is a city under the direct jurisdiction of the emperor with a certain amount of autonomy and direct representation in the diet as opposed to a “territorial city” (“Landstadt”) ruled by some local prince (duke, margrave, count, or ecclesiastical lord).[6] Bucer and Fagius were more in line with other reformers such as the Zürich reformer Zwingli, whereas Luther stuck to the conception of a Real Presence in the Eucharist.[7]

So Bucer and Fagius could somehow be linked with Oldcastle and the Lollards. But that is not the topic on which we focus here.

In 1549 Bucer and Fagius lost their influence in the free city of Strassburg to Jacob Sturm[8], the then political leader of the city.

 In April 1549 they left Alsace and Germany for England on the invitation by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Fagius died soon afterwards in Cambridge (November 13, 1549). Less than 2 years later Bucer also died. So both were deceased when Mary Tudor   succeeded to Edward VI (1553)

Under Mary I Thomas Cranmer was burned in Oxford in March 1556. One month before, on February 6, Bucer and Fagius, though no longer alive, were also tried as heretics –posthumously. They were disinterred and their caskets burned at the stake. On July 22, 1560 they were formally rehabilitated by Elizabeth I on July 22, 1560 by a brass plaque on the floor of the choir in Great St. Mary’s.[9]

“Vengeful folly” again? It might seem evident so from a possibly still current and for a fairly long time official representation of the reign of the Catholic zealot Mary I, of Bloody Mary (1553-1558). The interpretation of an ultimate convulsion of a nearly extinct epoch, incarnated by a regressive catholic spinster, supported by cardinal Reginald Pole, archbishop of Canterbury,  previously featuring as a candidate for the papacy, main councilor of Mary, assisted by the arch-conservative Catholic ministers Stephen Gardiner, Lord Chancellor, and Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, seems to seamlessly fit into that picture.

But was it really the “ultimate convulsion of a nearly extinct epoch”?

Some doubts about an alleged linear evolution path from mediaeval “barbarism” to subsequent “modern rationalism” are in order:

For on 30 January 1661, the twelfth  anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I, the same treatment as practiced on the reformer John Wycliffe in 1428 and half that as on Sir John Oldcastle in 1410, i.e. without burning, was practiced on three prominent regicides, all of them already deceased so that they had to be disinterred: Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658), his son-in-law Henry Ireton (d. 1651), and John Bradshaw (d. 1659), President of the High Court of Justice that sentenced King Charles I to death. All three were posthumously tried and “post mortem executed” for high treason after the same procedure as specified in the judgement of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603 (not carried out until 1618) or the Gunpowder plotters in 1606.

“you shall be had from  hence to the place whence you came, and from thence you shall be drawn upon a hurdle, through the open streets, to the place of execution,”[10]

and of the Gunpowder plotters in 1606:

“you should be strangled, being hanged up by the neck between heaven and earth. As deemed unworthy of both or either; as likewise , that the eyes of men many behold, and their hearts condemn them, Then to be cut  down alive, and to have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face, as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to have any generation after him. His bowels and inlaid parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible treason. After, to have his head cut off, which had imagined the mischief. And lastly his body to be quartered, and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place, to the view and detestation of men, and to become a prey for the fowls of the air.”[11]

And long after 1558, the death of Mary I, similarly in other high treason trials.

Vengeful folly again? So it seems to one commentator. “This cleared the way for Charles II to step into the breach and run the country. But he was filled with murderous rage and wanted revenge for his father’s execution. He ordered the surviving signatories to his father’s death warrant to be hanged. He then extended the same privilege to Oliver Cromwell, even though he had been dead for three years. And so, on 30 January 1661, Cromwell was dug up and beheaded.”[12] Like Sir Walter Raleigh beheaded according to his rank, not hanged.

Yet, it is clear that the actual addressees were not the dead Cromwell, Ireton or Bradshaw but the minds of the broad mass of subjects to strike fear in.[13]

There lurks a serious flaw in this picture which for a long time was nevertheless conventional wisdom. Cardinal Pole was no fanatical, retrogressive Catholic. He was a humanist. He had read Macchiavelli whom he judged as negatively as about 70 years later the stalwart Protestant  Roger Ascham in his educational  treatise The Scholemaster, BTW written at the instigation of Lord Burghley, then still Sir William Cecil.[14] In consideration of the growing English nationalism he rejected the offer of help from Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order of Jesuits. Pole himself entertained the   “crypto-Lutheran” notion of “justification by faith alone” and was therefore considered a heretic by the Cardinal Pietro Caraffa, the future pope Pius IV (1555-1559). Edmund Bonner, under Mary I one of the foremost persecutors of Protestants, was under Henry VIII a proponent of the royal supremacy over the pope, in favor of what Mary’s Lord Chancellor Stephen Gardiner had written De Vera Obedientia.

Warned by the rebellion of 1549, also called “The Prayer Book Rebellion” (Kett rebellion) introduced that year[15] whose unpopularity was one of the causes of the revolt, Elizabeth’s Protestant advisers opted for a cautious transition.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) de-dusted this old view.

“Our official history has taught by continual suggestion and by taking it as it were for granted that the English people were in some fashion naturally antagonistic to Catholicism. The confused revolt against the Church officials and their crystallised later-medaevial Church system of government…”

“Official falsehood equally misrepresents the successive steps by which Catholicism was ultimately driven out. We are given to understand that the architect of the whole affair was a highly popular, typically national monarch, Henry Tudor, a man of strong will and strong political sense as well. Of what followed after his death, a further false picture is drawn. His eldest daughter, the legitimate Queen of England, Mary, is set out as opposing the natural tendency of the Englishmen to deny their ancestral religion…His illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth, is represented as the idol of the nation, a woman who ruled with individual power and skill, piloting England on the course which England desired to follow..

The whole of that picture is false…”[16]

The truth, which is the business of serious history to proclaim, is that English Reformation was a slow, laborious and difficult process…

“When Elizabeth sought advice from Protestant supporters on how to proceed in religion, they counselled caution. The author of the ‘Device for Alteration of Religion’ outlined a strategy for renewed Reformation, but warned that the pope would excommunicate Elizabeth, the French would try to invade through Scotland, the Irish would rebel, and English Catholics would cause trouble . The position papers offered by Richard Goodrich, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, and Armagil Waad recognized that Elizabeth would wish to follow a Protestant policy, but set out the risks and suggested that change should be gradual : having respect to quiet at home, the affairs you have in hand with foreign princes, the greatness of the pope, and how dangerous it is to make alterations in religion, especially at the beginning of a prince’s reign.”[17]

“The Uniformity bill [prescribing the Book of Common Prayer as the worship of  the English Church in place of the mass, “but with crucial modifications” ] passed the House of Lords by only three votes. “It  was an embarassing outcome. Elizabeth  and her allies had achieved their majority by the intimidation and imprisonment of bishops and by buying off  the nobles… The Church of England was established by the merest whisker, a margin of three votes, a margin achieved by political chicanery, and by keeping the Church rather more Catholic than had been planned. Elizabeth and her Protestant advisers had wanted a thoroughgoing Reformation; they had to accept a half-hearted Reformation.”[18]

One anonymous author found the pertinent proverbial  formula: “Bottles with small necks could not be filled suddenly.”

In Will in the World Stephen Greenblatt, however, in an electrifying move did fill the bottle  – suddenly and smoothly.[19] The result was presented in a three-dimensional nicety: a nice tale, a nice smile, a nice suit. To all the obstacles traced by historians like Christopher Haigh or Norman Jones, the historicist scriptwriter  Greenblatt gives short shrift, a veritable tabula rasa. No word of the substantial amendments of the book of common prayer, that the church service was adapted so as to allow Catholics to keep to their accustomed ways, etc. Instead the historicist Greenblatt offers a succession of images in quick motion: Elizabeth presses the Bible against her bosom, tells the Westminster monks to get “away with those torches [the candles borne in the procession], for we see very well”, etc.  All very movie-like, but no gain of insight in the past.

In other words: the historicist Greenblatt does exactly the opposite of what according to Herbert Butterfield should not be the chief aim of the historian: hunting for what makes look the past more like the present.

Unless this is the very wrong objective the historicist has set himself.

[1] The origin of the term is uncertain.

[2] Gaspey, Thomas, The Life and Times of the Good Lord Cobham,  Vol. 2, London 1843,  p. 41

[3] Statutes of the Realm, 2:12S-28: 2 Henry IV (1401).

[4] Medley, Julius Dudley, A Student’s Manual od English Constitutional History, 2nd edition, Oxford and London. 1898, ;

[5] The orthodox creed insisted on Christ’s physical presence, the Swiss reformer Zwingli, like Bucer, conceived the presence as purely symbolic, Luther stuck  to a Real Presence, but not a really physical one.

[6] Free imperial cities were  among others Augsburg, Konstanz, Worms, Nuernberg, etc. Such cities generally were venue of a diet /qusasi parliament of the

[7] Fagius, Paul His original name was Paul Büchelin, literally “beech” = fagus. Humanists, especially from the Alemannic region (Southwest, Germany, Alsace, German speaking part of Switzerland) often graecicized or latinized their names. Main cities in the Alemanic region were Basel and Zürich in Switzerland, Strassbourg in Alsace/France). Melanchton is the graecicized form of the family name Schwartzerdt = black earth; Oecolampadius of John Husschyn or Hausschein (Hausschein = Houselight, hence Oiko (Haus) + lampados (light); the Strassbourg reformer Wolfgang Koepfel is better known under his latinized family name Capito.

[8] Jacob Sturm von Sturmeck (1489-1553). Sometime mayor of Strassbourg. Not to be confused with the famous scholar Johannes or Jean  Sturmius (1507-1589).

[9] Greschat, Martin, Marin Bucer, A Reformer and His Time,  Louisville/London 2004,   p. 249. German original:, translated into English by Stephen Buckwalter. German original , Martin Bucer, Ein Reformator und seine Zeit, Munich 1990p. 249.


[13] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish - The Birth of the Prison,  translated from the French Surveiller et Punir, Paris 1975, by Alan Sheridan, 1977: “The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial, but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested.”, p. 44

[14] Without naming him, Ascham must have borne Macchiavelli in mind: “They make Christ and his Gospell, onelie serue Ciuill pollicie: Than neyther Religion cummeth amisse to them In tyme they be Promoters of both openlie: in place againe mockers of both priuilie, as I wrote once in a rude ryme.

Now new, now olde, now both, now neither,
To serue the worldes course, they care not with whether.”
It is a moot question whether the way Ascham understood Machiavelli is the correct one. What seems certain now is that Macchiavelli was a republican. He didn’t subdue religion to politics, he just maintained that, to be durable, politics needed  a religious support. It is perhaps another gruesome irony of history that Ascham’s promoter, Lord Burghley’s own project could be epitomized that way. And Lord Burghley’s true precursor was Thomas Cromwell, who is said to have known the Florentine analyst. Some scholars have argued that the true reason why Macchiavelli was so conspued, is that he openly exposed how politicians were effectively acting.  As Hamlet says to Polonius: “For the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick  and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, togehr with most weak hams; all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down.”

[15] Not in the 1520s as Stephen Greenblatt would have it in one of his not so famous “narrative liberties” in Will in the World  (p.97)

[16] Brian Magee, The English Recusants, 1938, A Study of the post-reformation Catholic Survival and the operation  of the recusancy laws, Preface by Hilaire Belloc, pp. xiv-xv

[17] Haigh, Christopher, English Reformations – Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors,Oxford, 1993, p. 238. The councillors might have been aware of the Kett Rebellion in 1549, in the third year of Edward VI’s reign.

[18] Haigh, p. 240.

[19] Will in the World, p. 99