Thursday, April 25, 2013

William Prynne, Dissenter


This is William Prynne, a British polemical writer of the 17th century.  There's a reason he wears his hair like that.

I haven't been doing much blogging recently because I'm finishing my first semester of grad school and doing a lot of research on Jonathan Swift's The Tale of a Tub (which I've totally figured out, by the way.  Email me for deets.)  In my research, I came across the story of William Prynne, the serial malcontent who published subversive pamphlet after subversive pamphlet and didn't know when to stop until he had been imprisoned, lost both of his ears to the pillory, and been horrifyingly disfigured.
A man being pilloried.  

Prynne was a Puritan, and Puritans were dangerous nonconformists in England of the 17th century.  He  began publishing at the age of 27, and in his pamphlets he spoke out against vulgar practices such as stage plays and the celebration of Christmas.  He published his first inflammatory work, Histriomastix, a thousand-page diatribe against the theatre, stage-plays, and actresses.  

(His texts were so hard to read and so full of marginalia that he became known as "Marginal Prynne.")

Histriomastix affronted Queen Henrietta Maria of France, who was an actress, the Catholic wife of Charles I, and, as it turns out, the lady after whom Maryland is named.  As a punishment for the Histriomastix, Prynne was imprisoned for a year, fined, and then sent to the pillory to be humiliated and have his ears cropped, or cut off

One ear was cropped on May 7 of 1634.  After a few days of rest, he was pilloried again, and his other ear was cut off.  

Prynne, who had once said that it was "unseemly and unlawful" for Christian men to grow long hair had to grow his own out to cover up his hideous lack of ears.  You might think that he had learned his lesson about writing things that would anger the authorities, but he was not done!  He continued to show contempt for the religious and political leaders of the day, and he published more pamphlets from jail that attacked the archbishops of the Anglican church.  He was again sentenced to the pillory, where his torturers had to devise a way of cutting of an ear that had already been cut off.  They also branded him with an S on one cheek and an L on the other, signifying that he was a seditious libeller.  As he returned to his cell, he improvised a few lines (in Latin, naturally) about how his brand stood for "stigmata laudis," or "proof of praise."

But, still, he was not done.  He continued to cause problems, including tampering with a trial, opposing the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and insulting John Milton.

Prynne proved to be seditious into old age, but he became less controversial with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  In his dotage, he was the Keeper of Records for the Tower of London, and he worked on a history of England that grew to be two million words long.  He never got to finish it, and he died in 1669.  


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