Of Goths and Gospels

I had an absolute blast in Sheffield last week for the Gothic Bible conference. Not only was the city completely energetic and fun, the conference itself was magic. MASSIVE well done to everyone at SIIBS and the Centre for the History of the Gothic for putting together a programme that was so diverse and interesting. I’ll never get over my Percy being invited to tea with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, William Peter Blatty, and Satan himself. I particularly enjoyed the tiny trick-or-treater, in costume, distributing sweeties to the seated delegates.

The decor at the conference was next-level. I never thought I’d be so excited by the sight of my own grave.

One benefit – to me – of this conference was the opportunity it gave me to write about something new after years of slogging away on the thesis. While my PhD focused on Percy’s major anthologies (the ReliquesFive Pieces of Runic Poetry, and Hau Kiou Choaan), this paper gave me the idea and the space to spend a bit of time on his recently under-appreciated clerical books. So it was off to my friends at the Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections, where Percy’s own library is housed, for some fascinating discoveries on what these books were about and how Percy contextualised them in his own career. I discovered two things. Firstly, thankfully, I had been correct when preparing my research questions in my hypothesis that these books did not really represent a major contribution to Percy’s fashioning of the British nation as an anthological text. Secondly, that Percy’s Gothic nativism was as present in his discourse on religion as it was on his work with ancient texts.

I was very grateful for the positive feedback and attention that my paper generated, both in discussions after the panel and on Twitter, and I think there might be a journal article in it at some point. With this in mind, let this post function as a (slightly trimmed) rehash of the paper, as well as a preview of the journal article to come.

Thomas Percy, Cultural Anglicanism, and the Gothic.

When Bishop Percy died in 1711, he left behind a legacy of dedicated service to the Church of England, laudable commitment to his friends and patrons, and an impressive catalogue of publications on ancient texts, family history, and religious instruction. By many accounts he was an admirable public servant, with one obituarist lauding him for “promoting the instruction and comfort of the poor with unremitting attention, and superintending the sacred and civil interests of the diocese, with vigilance and assiduity [and being] revered and beloved for his piety, liberality, benevolence, and hospitality, by persons of every rank and religious denomination,”[1] but today, much of the attention afforded to him focuses on the Reliques, and to a lesser extent Hau Kiou Choaan and Five Pieces of Runic Poetry. This paper examines his ecclesiastical texts, Song of Solomon (1764) and Key to the New Testament (1766). Percy’s work was rooted in the conviction that the literary lineage of Britain was to be found in the Gothic line. He believed in a native, Homeric British genius of Gothic extraction. How do these hugely popular (in their day) clerical texts fit into this narrative?

Percy first began to engage with the Gothic explicitly in his 1763 collection Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, in which he argued that the skalds were the first poets to use rhyming verse, that in spite of their reputation for barbarity, their poetic expressions on various subjects including love and friendship were “amazingly copious and fruitful,”[2] and that Icelandic poetry could “constantly afford matter for philosophical reflection by showing the workings of the human mind in its almost original state of nature.”[3] Five Pieces of Runic Poetry should be read at least in part as a response to the Ossian phenomenon and the controversy surrounding James Macpherson; in the preface to the book he notes that “It would be as vain to deny, as it is perhaps impolitic to mention, that this attempt is owing to the success of the ERSE fragments.”[4] In Northern Antiquities, Percy differentiated between the Celts and the Goths as “two races of men ab origine distinct.”[5] In the perceived dichotomy he explored between the Celts and the Goths, the former spurned literacy to foster a “remarkable air of secrecy and mystery with which the Druids concealed their doctrines from the laity; forbidding that they should ever be so committed to writing, and […] not having so much as an alphabet of their own,” while the latter were “addicted to writing […] no barbarous people ever held letters in higher reverence, ascribing the invention of them to their chief deity and attributing to the letters themselves supernatural virtues. [There is no] room to believe that any of their doctrines were locked up or concealed from any part of the community.”[6] This ancient dichotomy had more recent echoes of Catholicism and Protestantism following the Reformation. Percy valued the textual literacy of the Goths. It meant that, unlike Macpherson, he had access to some physical media which he could use as evidence for his claims about the nature and origins of British poetry. This access was useful to Percy as an antiquarian, but it was also ideologically useful, as the Gothic affinity for the written word could be spun as a more ‘advanced’ version of barbarism. Although the Goths embodied a fashionable primitivism, their literacy also represented a technological sophistication which could be claimed as a founding inheritance of modern British culture. The Celts did not have “that equal plan of liberty, which was the peculiar honour of all the Gothic tribes, and which they carried with them and planted wherever they formed settlements,” and where barbarity may have existed in the Gothic people, Percy supposed, these practices were borrowed from the Celts “without being at all descended from them, or having any pretensions to be considered as the same people […] Nothing is more contagious than superstition; and therefore we must not wonder, if in ages of ignorance one wild people catch up from another, though of very different race, the most arbitrary and groundless opinions, or endeavour to imitate them in such rites and practices as they are told will recommend them to the gods, or avert their anger.”[7] In Percy’s mind, the Celts were truly barbaric and that is why their influence on Britain was minimal; the Goths, on the other hand, were primitive but progressive, and that is why their influence is seen in contemporary British culture. In another sense, the almost contemporary threat of Jacobitism seems to stem from this Celtic cultural threat, while the Goths seem like proto-Protestants with a Whiggish admiration for liberty.

So, now that we know what Percy meant when he talked about “the gothic”, what do I mean when I talk about “cultural Anglicanism”? The theologist Diarmuid Martin has described the phrase in its modern usage as a term which “at times seems to reflect a brand, a corporate culture, or even a tribe, rather than what is essential in faith,”[8] a definition that speaks to ideological notions of appropriateness which were prominent in eighteenth-century literary/Enlightenment discourse. When we speak of cultural Anglicanism, we describe less the influence of faith on a person or a community and more the influence of religion. Moral judgements which are informed by cultural Anglicanism are not necessarily borne from ethical considerations but from the wider social context of the cultural standards of societies which are predominantly Anglican in their faith or government, such as eighteenth-century England/Britain. When I describe Thomas Percy as being culturally Anglican, his faith comes with the assumptions of English-speaking, class stability, literacy and associated cultural markers not limited to language and social standing and defined by the perspective in which he stood. His life is, at least retrospectively, defined far more by his cultural contributions than his religious ones. Cultural Anglicanism therefore refers to his aesthetic assessments, which may be informed by religion rather than his spiritual or philosophical ones. These assessments are to be found throughout his work. Does his cultural Anglicanism, and his attached insistence on literacy and class-stability occur in his engagement with ancient British texts? Percy’s own Anglicanism, grown out of a textual Reformation, was founded on principles which he could see a version of in the Gothic people, who were supposedly the first Germanic peoples to convert to Christianity,[9] who supposedly invented rhyming verse, and whose Pagan religion offered a template for the stratification of English aristocracy.[10] Though Percy saw himself as an appropriately learned gatekeeper for the knowledge of the texts in his oeuvre, his Anglican politics demanded that the material be essentially accessible. Publication is how Percy realised this aim.

Woodcut illustration of Song of Solomon from Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s Die Bibel in Bildern (1860). [Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5490767. Accessed 7th November 2017]
His Song of Solomon follows in a tradition of eighteenth-century metrical psalmody which treated the Psalms of David “not as unique meditations of a significant Hebrew poet but as the deliberately ‘poetic’ works of an ancient, like Homer.”[11] The text itself is of questionable canonicity, originally accepted into the Jewish canon as an allegory of Yahweh’s love for Israel and the Christian canon as an allegory of Christ’s love for his church. Its authorship has been contended for centuries, and its tenuous proximity to more readily authentic Abrahamic religious texts means it is often approached by translators and editors as a text for literary, rather than spiritual examination. This is precisely Percy’s approach. It is also an interesting departure to choose so sensual a book over the more conservative Psalmody or hymn composition which was also popular in this time.

To the book is attached an epigraph from Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, reading “The scriptures contain not only the purest precepts of morality, but the most ‘beautiful’ and sublime strokes of genuine poetry.” To read the scriptures, including the Song of Solomon as ‘genuine poetry’ is a theologically complex position, which would appear to put the Song of Solomon in a similar intellectual category to the ballads, to which he ascribes “a pleasing simplicity… if they do not dazzle the imagination, [they] are frequently found to interest the heart.”.[12] He is emphatic in the introduction to the text that he is not interested in the spiritual and allegorical aspect of the text, but that he wishes “to ascertain that lower and more obvious meaning” in order to “deliver the most sublime and important truths”.[13] Percy is drawing the Song of Solomon into the Homeric tradition, which he coded as Gothic, using it as a case-study for what “genuine poetry” can be. In much the same way as Five Pieces of Runic Poetry and the Reliques, Song of Solomon is an ancient poem which Percy could adopt as a part of the canon of English literature because it spoke to the theology of the English church. Because its quality of ancientness, not to mention its physical provenance, it also spoke to contemporary concerns about the nature of poetry.

Whereas Percy’s Song of Solomon was an exercise in framing poetry as an Anglican pursuit, his Key to the New Testament works to reinforce the position of the cleric as a gatekeeper by knowledge. Key to the New Testament functions as something of a footnote to the Good Book itself. He writes in the preface that “A clear introductory illustration of the several Books of the New Testament, shewing the design of their writers, the nature of their contents, and whatever else is previously necessary to their being read with understanding, is a work, that, if well executed, must prove the best of commentaries, and frequently supersede the want of all other.”[14] It ran through four editions quickly, and was still being produced well into the nineteenth century, so it was a tremendously popular book with a general audience. This book answers to his professional and literary ambitions. Its success certainly made him a Priest-to-watch; within three years of its publication, he was a personal Chaplain to George III. It also brought distinction on his patrons in the great house of Northumberland, who supported him until he became Dean of Carlisle in 1778, by which point he was well on his way to becoming Bishop of Dromore. The financial support afforded by the Northumberlands allowed him to work on some passion projects, including Northern Antiquities in 1770 and The Hermit of Warkworth in 1771. The second was to give a specific textual identity to the New Testament which acquiesced to both his cultural Anglicanism and his claimed Gothic heritage. Percy introduces The Key with some fairly fundamental remarks on the nature of the spiritual text:

The sacred Writings, which Christians receive as divinely inspired, are called in general Scripture or The Scriptures, a word which literally signifies Writing, or The Writings. This Title often occurs in the New Testament, and was commonly applied in the time of our Saviour to denote the books received by the Jews as the rule of faith: it has since been extended to the writings of the Apostles and Evangelists, as compleating the whole of divine revelation; so that the writings of the Old and New Testament are indiscriminately called by Christians, by way of distinction, SCRIPTURE, or THE SCRIPTURES.

The whole collection of these sacred writings is called THE BIBLE: This word originally signifies BOOK, and is given to the writings of the Prophets and Apostles by way of eminence. These collectively are called the Book, or BIBLE, the Book of Books, as superior in excellence to all others in the world.[15]

The identification of the New Testament as a text is consistent with Percy’s editorial principle. His Gothicism was informed by an antiquarian methodology which demanded that history be physicalized in a way in order to take ownership of it. James Macpherson, perhaps the best-known purveyor of ancient poetry in the British Isles during the eighteenth century, identified the nation’s poetic voice as being Celtic, an identification which worked to his advantage when his detractors called for the manuscript of poems that existed in an oral culture and which, after all, were forgeries. But while Macpherson coded his native genius as Celtic, Gothicism was Percy’s literary-cultural ideal. He claimed that they showed themselves to be more sophisticated writers than previously believed because they supposedly invented rhyming verse (though he celebrated this through their written compositions, not their oral ones; one wonders if the rhyme has the same value written down as it does said aloud?). He bemoaned the existing perception of the Goths as barbarians, writing that “It will be thought a paradox, that the same people, whose furious ravages destroyed the last poor remains of expiring genius among the Romans, should cherish [writing] with all possible care among their own countrymen: yet so it was.”[16] Unlike Macpherson’s Celts, whose oral literature was charming precisely because of its ghostly ephemerality and difficulty in pinning down, Percy’s Goths’ textual literacy made them a friend to the antiquarian. He looked to the figure of the Gothic minstrel as a carrier for artistic truths in indigenous historical literature. The peculiar figure of the literate minstrel in the Reliques allowed Percy to explore Anglo-Gothicism to its fullest extent. In emphasising the physical textuality of The Word, Percy draws a line from the literate gothic forebears of the British people to the apostles and evangelists who composed the New Testament, and a circle around his own role in providing the reading public with a guide to the Holy Word, made possible by the Anglican reformation.

So, to summarise: Percy worked within an antiquarian tradition that was concerned with discovering the Homeric voice in British literature. He believed he had done so in his investigation of the Goths in Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, drawn out further in the Reliques. In his identification of Gothic traits, he was especially interested in liberty and literacy which, as it happens, he also observed in the Anglican tradition. The Gothic, therefore, was the true Homeric voice of Britain because it spoke to the cultural situation within what he saw as the true church. In Song of Solomon and Key to the New Testament he made this connection explicit while also tending to his responsibilities to his patrons and to his church by expanding the textual reformation to what we may think of today as commercial bible study texts.

[1] ‘The Late Bishop of Dromore’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 81.2 (1811). p.483

[2] Thomas Percy, Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1763). p.A6

[3] Ibid. p.A9

[4] Ibid. p.A4

[5] Thomas Percy, Northern Antiquities: Or, A Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes and Other Northern Nations (London: T. Carnan and Co., 1770). p.xix

[6] Ibid. p.14

[7] Ibid. p.15

[8] Diarmuid Martin, ‘The Christian in the Public Square’, The Furrow, 58.9 (2016), 447–60. p.454

[9] Richard A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999). pp.71-2

[10] Margaret Clunies Ross, The Norse Muse in Britain 1750-1820 (Trieste: Edizioni Parnaso, 1998). p.84

[11] Roger Lund, ‘Making an Almost Joyful Noise: Augustan Imitation and the Psalms of David’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 39.1 (2016), 121-39. p.124

[12] Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1765). Vol.1, p.x

[13] Thomas Percy, Song of Solomon (London: R. and J. Dodsley 1764). p.v

[14] Thomas Percy, A Key to the New Testament (London: L. Davis and C. Reymers). p.v

[15] Ibid. p.xxxvii-xxxviii

[16] Five Pieces, p.A2


Author: Danni

Glaswegian in Northern Ireland. Writer, PhD researcher, cyclist, camp cinephile.

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