Dialogue of difference between son and mother

Although views differ as to the rate and mode of spread of Protestantism (Haigh, 1995), by the 1580s, Protestant persons had Catholic grandparents and sometimes parents, creating moral dilemmas in a culture that stressed family honour and obedience. Children, like wives, were seen as being in a state of tutelage, with their male superiors knowing more on all subjects. Yet the appeal to individual conscience and answerability to God only, could conflict with a traditional state of assumed patriarchal dependence. Youngsters, in rebellion and assertion, had been in the forefront of the Protestant changes in the 1530s—changes that were increasingly recouped by the establishment—but who, in years to come, would rebel further, and some would be attracted towards Puritanism and radicalism (and, paradoxically, for some, Catholicism, which became a symbol and source of resistance again in the 1590s). If heads of families could be challenged, then, by extension, so too could magistrates and monarchs. But how, in the light of this two-faith, complex denominational world, where Catholicism was publically stigmatised, were family contradictions of this sort negotiated?

Puterbaugh (2000) quotes the case of a "Zealous Protestant" son, who attempts to convert his "Devout Recusant" mother. It is based on Francis Savage's A Conference, published in 1600 and dedicated to Gervase Babbington, bishop of Worcester. Worcester was seat of Catholic resistance and Savage had had his own loyalties in writing it. "Zealous" did not have modern-day connotations of fanaticism, but signified a sense of sincerity or constancy. The word "recusant" signified anti-conformity or refusal to attend pubic worship and was a gesture/symbol within the social identity and practice of Catholics during this period. Churchgoing was a heated issue, with some Catholics, or other non-conformists, preferring segregation, even postures of irreligion, whilst others adopted outward conformity as "church papists". The concept of a "conference" or dialogue, in which participants and churchgoers engaged, challenged traditional dogmatism and received wisdom, although in this text it is clearly placed in the context of an assumed superiority of Protestant faith. It is an everyday dialogue, which, however, as far as Savage is concerned, resonates with a far bigger societal dialogue—that of the pre-existing formal Church and theological debates/disputations. In other words, this metanarrative is the informing context within which this minor, everyday dialogue between a son and his mother takes place, one that had already assured the triumph of Protestant doctrine.

The son in question is keen to engage his mother on religious observance, doing so within the "terms of duty or reverence" owed to her. But why, given the emphasis on filial obedience to the parents, is the son instructing his mother on religion and not the other way round? In the account, the son, returned from university to his home in the country, initiates a dialogue with his mother in matters about faith. Whilst respectful, he is questioning of her religious views and attachment to the "Old Faith", surprising her at the outset by claiming that it is not in fact Catholicism that is the Old Faith, but one "newly minted in culture"; it is really the Protestant faith that is the more ancient of the two, "certainly we planted no newe religion, but renewed the olde" (Puterbaugh, 2000, p. 430). She confesses surprise and is clearly not used to hearing arguments on behalf of what she would regard as Protestant heresy. The son skillfully listens whilst offering interpretations to fill the gaps and inconsistencies in his mother's position. There is a theme of restoring his mother to the new conformity, to public worship, and with it, to the rule of her husband, indeed, the state. He vigorously counters her fear that she is bound by her Catholic oaths and creates a space within which she might duly reassess her "erring conscience", advising her to "ponder with your selfe" and equipping her with various Protestant and Biblical reformulations. Their dialogue ends with the mother's quiet withdrawal and inner conversion. She is impressed by his heartfelt efforts and complains, retrospectively, that, "we on our side are greatly wronged, when we are forbidden to read your bookes, or to conferre with you" (Putterbaugh, 2000, p. 423). In gratitude, and in the context of her conversion, she exclaims, "thou hast raised out of mine bodie a teacher for me . he by thee has offered me a life concerning my soule, if I will receive it" (p. 422). A proscribed subject position, "Catholic", is potentially supplanted by another position, the "true believer" who is called into being on the basis of an appropriately "examined self".

This interaction was no mere impudence on the part of the son, but reflected the growth of a Protestantised culture that saw the past as inhabited by religious darkness and the spreading of the Word of the gospel as the central Christian responsibility. Far from occupying a compartment of life, the Bible was regarded as all-encompassing in significance (Collinson, 2003). Thus, the son partakes in a role, indeed duty, assigned to him by new cultural necessity, to restore her as a loving subject, an obedient wife, and a true Protestant. The affective tone of the dialogue is one of tenderness rather than rejection, even though the object of the dialogue is of grave, ultimate significance. Whilst some youngsters might have abandoned their families out of spiritual conviction, or been ejected for the same, more common and likely seems to have been some form of compromise and social disavowal of contradictory realities. The mother wrestles with her conscience, worried by the implicit invitation to break her oath with the Church of Rome. The son warns her of "tricks", "fond" arguments, and "intanglements" brought by previous generations and, armed with accompanying books and notebooks, strenuously argues the need for courage, to confront the "erring conscience" and, during crises of faith, to await for further revelation from God. Within a new casuistry and interpretive world of scripture, the son effectively offers a third space within which he can "hold" his mother's beliefs about this troublesome "new doctrine", although the notion of a "middle-ground" was not an accepted idea in the context of the times. This having been noted, there is another possibility, that the mother, with or without her son's connivance, adopts an outward sign of conformity whilst retaining Catholic belief, a position sometimes referred to as "statute protestantism" or "church papism". And whilst the son acknowledges that the state cannot "compel" religion, he continually appeals to her capacity for honest pondering and use of faith. In tackling her allegiance to baptism, for example, that ceremony of naming, he attempts to rearticulate the fixity of her world, freeing signifier from signified and leading her to an alternative.

The concept of the "conference" was an idea unfamiliar to his mother and new to the culture. According to this Protestant notion, although the sermon might be paramount, subsequent dialogue and conference gained importance as a means of dissemination and responding to a heterogeneous population. Through judgment, hearing, and questioning, there is the possibility of debate between divine truth and mortal knowledge. Thus, the conference could provide an interpersonal perspective, even though the state authorities were wary of its potential for fermenting discontent. Jones (2002) argues that, in creating "neutral private spaces, in which conformity and deviance in religion were accepted as individual choices, families developed strategies for coping that prevented disintegration whilst shaping group identity" (p. 35). There is a further level to this particular family dialogue, in so far as we learn that the son had been sent away for education. Perhaps at an earlier stage, he had, like the Prodigal Son, strayed or lacked appropriate religious guidance. This brings in the role of his father and the reference to university or books, standing as symbols for a rightful, Protestant education. Now it is the son's turn to bring the fruits of his learning to guide the older generation. Overlaid with this educated/ignorant polarity, is a rural/urban dynamic, whereby what is attained in the civilised cities should spread to poorer, benighted, less educated areas. This is consonant with a Protestant view of the Catholic as dull-witted members of an ignorant multitude; this was a time of intense projections and negative mirroring (Haigh, 1995; Marotti, 2005). For Protestants there was hope that "playne meninge" and lay interpretation could carry the word/Word, aimed especially at the poor and "unthinking" populace.

There is an issue of gender in all this, with a feminised, seductive image of Catholicism at large. The broad trend at the time, in so far as women were concerned, was the building of expectations and roles as to what constituted a "good" housewife, as contrasted with the alternatives. New urban ideals of femininity and womanly obedience arose, which can partly be analysed in terms of a disciplining of unruly women and an evolution of patriarchal norms (Brauner, 1995; Stone, 1977).[1] Hence, in the dialogue in question, the mother's recusancy is seen as the product of her weakness as a woman and isolation from proper instruction or authority. Contemporary concern with the prospect of "popish wives" and the rise of leading women recusants, lead to legalised discrimination in 1606; husbands could thereafter be denied civic appointment and promotion on the grounds of problematic marriages. Ironically, later, it was often Puritan wives who admonished their non-attending, straying, or idle husbands. In the dialogue in question, the son is worried that his mother's position sets her apart and potentially dishonours the family. The son invokes the memory of "simple women, maidens and girls" (Putterbaugh, 2000, p. 425), with a political implication of recusancy, pre-established in a culture that merged religious conformity with loyalty to state/ruler: "For if the Father cannot rule in his own household, the son asks, how might he be able to 'rule others abroad'?" (p. 425).

In the culmination of the story, the mother withdraws into her closet, "where all bewashing her selfe with tears, she braek out in this sort" (Putterbaugh, 2000, p. 429). We enter the domain of the conversion narrative, in which inner dialogue with God replaces dialogue with her son. Yet it is the preceding dialogue with her son that has made this possible, as too, perhaps, has his quoting of models of conversion from the Bible. The reference to closets and cabinets (also diaries and other forms of confession) during this period is emblematic of introspection and Protestantised self-examination.5 In the climax of conversion, she exclaims, "I am caught, I am caught, o my God, if I will not damnably breake out of thy net again" (p. 429).

One way of reading the dialogue is simply to say that one "ideology" replaces another and that any implication for the respective subjectivities of the participants is merely an "effect". In this reading, subjectivity is regarded as a more or less continual space, "filled" by different contents, or a question of occupying different roles at different times. Another reading, however—one favoured here—is the argument that new subjectivities are partially born, formed, and maintained through the very constitution of discourse and dialogue, in which new subject-positions and articulations of identity become possible.

In this view, self-narration is not merely descriptive of the self, but that "self-narration ... is what raises our temporal existence out of the closets of memorial traces and routine and unthematic activity, constituting thereby a self as its implied subject" (Kerby, 1991, p. 109). The conference is inherently dialogical in the narrow sense of involving two people in discussion, but also in the wider sense of involving the voices, appeals, and interpellations of societal voices and positions; such wider voices are there even in the quiet spaces of contemplation or conversion, for even here, in supposed solitude, the mother is on a journey of becoming, dialogically connected to a dynamic of past/present, person/God, old self/new self, and so on (Webster, 1997). Thus, in general, by offering new models of comportment, male duty, womanly conduct, self-scrutiny, civility, relational obligation, and much more, reformed religious discourse enabled changes in the very make-up of persons, changes that had long-term and unforeseen consequences.

  • [1] The alternatives to meek, dutiful women are, witches at one end of the extreme and scolds, rough-tongued women, spinsters, and "old hags" at the other. There is a sub-theme surrounding the excluded elements of the then society (I will develop the concept of an "exclusionary matrix" in the next chapter) that associated women with catholic recusancy, an association that in part links back to the "danger" of catholic queens/wives in England. The woman was thus potentially "unruly", spiritually adulterous: "Women and Catholicism were feared as both intrinsically idolatrous, superstition and carnal, if not also physically disgusting" (Marotti, 2005).
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