John Selden among the Quakers: Antifeminism and the Seventeenth-Century Tithes Controversy

  • Marcus Nevitt
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


20 July 1659 witnessed a landmark event in the history of early modern women’s writing when two nameless women presented a massive, collectively written text to the House of Commons. Despite the fact that the Commons would not accept the document, it appeared in print later that year as a 72-page pamphlet published by Mary Westwood entitled These Several Papers Was sent to the Parliament The twentieth day of the fifth Moneth 1659 Being Above seven thousand of the Names of the Handmaids and Daughters of the Lord. The text bearing this unwieldy, ungrammatical title was actually a densely printed collection of petitions by different groups of Quaker women from various parts of the country collated together as a single female response to ‘the oppression of Tithes, in the names of many more of the said Handmaids and Daughters of the Lord, who witness against the oppression of Tithes’.1 The tenor of These Several Papers differs from petition to petition but all are characterized by a shared concern to expose the material depredations and economic hardships (including imprisonment and property distraint) that Quaker women suffered as a result of the institution of tithe payment.


Dinner Table Woman Writer Table Talk Property Distraint Forced Maintenance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 5.
    The best narrative of these events is Ronald Hutton, The Restoration: a Political History ofEngland and Wales (Oxford University Press, 1993), 42–8; Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658–1660 (Huntington Library, 1955), 101–22.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    B. Reay, ‘Quaker Opposition to Tithes, 1652–1660’, Past & Present 83 (1980), 105. The compilers of a recent biographical dictionary of women writers in early modern England devoted over one-third of their entries to Quaker women. By their own admission, their inclusion of more than 200 Quaker women writers is conservative; Maureen Bell et al., A Biographical Dictionary of Women Writers, 1500–1800 (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 257, 295.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    For Braidley’s and Barwick’s brief treatment of the institution of tithes see Christopher Taylor, Certain Papers Which is the Word of the Lord as was moved from the Lord by his servants to several places (1654), 5–6; Grace Barwick, To all Present Rulers, whether Parliament, or Whomsoever ofEngland (1659), 2–3.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    J. Milton, Lycidas, I1. 114–20 in John Carey (ed.), John Milton: Complete Shorter Poems (Longman, 1992), 248.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    J. Milton, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means toRemove Hirelings Out of the Church, in R.W. Ayers (ed.), CompleteProseWorks of JohnMilton VII (Yale University Press, 1974), 297.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Ibid., 275.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Ibid., 302–3.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Milton’s Quaker sympathies have been noted by other commentators on his later work. See, for instance, Thomas N. Corns, John Milton: the Prose Works (Twayne, 1998), 108–15; David Loewenstein, ‘The Kingdom Within: Radical Religious Culture and the Politics of Paradise Regained’, Literature and History 3:2 (1994) 63–89; Steven Marx, ‘The Prophet Disarmed: Milton and the Quakers’, SEL 32 (1992), 111–28.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    M. Beynon, The Antitythe-Monger Confuted; Or Ministers Maintenance Defended and Vindicated (1662), sig. A3’.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    On this issue see Christopher Hill, Economic Problems of the Church from Archbishop Whitgift to the Long Parliament (Oxford University Press, 1956), 84; Edith Bershadsky, ‘Controlling the Terms of the Debate: John Selden and the Tithes Controversy’, in G.J. Schochet, P.E. Tatspaugh and C. Brobeck (eds), Law, Literature and the Settlement of Regimes (Folger Inst., 1990), 191; Laura Brace, The Idea of Property in Seventeenth-Century England: Tithes and the Individual (Manchester University Press, 1998), 20.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    J. Besse, A Collection of the Sufferings of People Called Quakers (1753), 115, 117–18.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    On Quaker women’s meetings see W. Beck and T.F. Ball, The London Friends Meetings (F.B. Kitto, 1896), 343–54; W.C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism (Cambridge University Press, 1955), 340–2; Beatrice Carré, ‘Early Quaker Women in Lancaster and Lancashire’, in Michael Mullet (ed.), Early Lancaster Friends (University of Lancaster, 1978), 45–7; Bonnelyn Young Kunze, Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Macmillan, 1994), 143–57.Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    A succinct assessment of the relationship between sectarianism and education in the civil war can be found in Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (Penguin, 1991), 300–5. On the role of education in Quakerism more generally see D.G.B. Hubbard, ‘Early Quaker Education, c. 1650–1750’, unpublished MA thesis (University of London, 1939).Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    W.C. Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism (Cambridge University Press, 1961), 524–5.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    For Pearson see Amy E Wallis, ‘Anthony Pearson (1626–1666)’, Journal of the Friends Historical Society 51:2 (1966), 77–95.Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    A. Pearson, The Great Case of Tythes Tmly Stated (London, 1657), sig. a2r.Google Scholar
  17. 25.
    Ibid., 37.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    W. Prynne, Ten Considerable Quaeries Concerning Tithes, The Present Petitioners and Petitions for their total abolition, as Antichristian, Jewish, burdensome, oppressive to the godly, conscientious People of the Nations (1659), 3. J.P. Rosenblatt makes perhaps an overstated case for Milton’s use of Selden in the Considerations in his Torah and Law in Paradise Lost (Princeton University Press, 1994), 86.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    For instance, Selden writes: ‘Agreeing with him [Ambrose, Bishop of Milan] is Augustine in a whole Homily for the right of them; About Harvest hee made it. Then exorts them Decimae tribut a sunt egentium animarum redde ergo tribut a pauperibus; offer libamina sacerdotibus; and admonishes, that, if they have no fruits of the earth, they should pay the Tithe of whatsoever they liue by … And then vrging more Texts out of the old Testament touching Tithes and first fruits, and telling them, that the neglect of payment is the cause of sterility and blasting… These two great Bishops agree; and from the Law giuen to the Israelites’, The Historie of Tithes (1618), 54–5. Whilst Pearson cites the same Augustinian sermon as a source text for the corresponding section of his own treatise, however, it is clear from the simple replication of certain phrases that he is working from Selden’s account of the Augustinian sermon rather than the primary text itself. Thus, for example, Selden’s translation and interpretation ‘if they haue no fruits of the earth, they should pay the Tithe of whatsoever they hue by’ and ‘the neglect of payment is the cause of sterility and blasting’ feature unreferenced in The Great Case as Pearson’s own words. See A. Pearson, The Great Case of Tithes (1657 edn), 5.Google Scholar
  20. 28.
    I. Jackson (ed.), The Great Case of Tithes Truly Stated, Clearly Opened and Fully Resolved. By Anthony Pearson, Formerly A Justice of the Peace in Westmoreland (1754), sig. A2°. The remark is also made in the 1756 Dublin edition of Pearson’s pamphlet.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    For details of Selden’s life and work see Paul Christianson, Discourse on History, Law and Governance in the Public Career of John Selden 1610–1635 (University of Toronto Press, 1996); Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, their Origin and Development (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 82–100; A.L. Rowse, Four Caroline Portraits: Thomas Hobbes, Henry Marten, Hugh Peters, John Selden (Duckworth, 1993), 125–15; D.R. Woolf, The Idea of History in Early Stuart England: Erudition, Ideology and the Light of Truth from the Accession of James I to the Civil War (University of Toronto Press, 1990), 200–42; David Sandler Berkowitz, John Seldens Formative Years: Politics and Society in Early Seventeenth-Century England (Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988); Eric Fletcher, John Selden 1584–1654: Selden Society Lecture Delivered in the Old Hall of Lincolns Inn (Quaritch, 1969); F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought 1580–1640 (Routledge, 1962), 275–98.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    For a survey of the wider implications of the tithes controversy in the early seventeenth century see Bershadsky, ‘Controlling the Terms’; Eliane Glaser “Uncircumcised Pens”: Judaizing in Print Controversies of the Long Reformation’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of London, 2000).Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    The main protagonists here, as outlined by William Plynne in his Ten Considerable Quaeries (sig. A31), are Sir James Sempill, Sacrilege Sacredly Handled (1619); Richard Tillesley, Animadversions upon M. Seldens History of Tithes (1619); Richard Montague, Diatribe Upon the First Part of the Late History of Tithes (1621); William Sclater, The Quaestion of Tithes Revised (1623); Stephen Nettles, An Answer to the Jewish Part of Mr Seldens History of Tithes (1625). James’s admonition that Selden should desist from countering his respondents in print did not, however, prevent him from refuting and vilifying them in manuscript. See his An Admonition to the Reader of Sir James Sempils Appendix and A Reply to Dr Tillesleys Animadversions upon the History of Tythes reproduced in David Wilkins (ed.), Joannis Selden: jurisconsulti Opera omnia, tam edita quam inedita, 3 vols (1726), vol. 3 part 2: 1349–86. The second edition of Tillesley’s Animadversions (1621) reprinted the second of these intemperate responses in full.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    W. Easterby, The History of the Law of Tithes in England. Being the Yorke Prize Essay of the University of Cambridge for 1887 (Cambridge University Press, 1888), viii.Google Scholar
  25. 38.
    See Selden’s letter to Augustine Vincent in which he praises the latter’s ‘Industry in Reading, and curious Diligence in Obseruing not onely the published authors which conduce to your purpose, but withall, the more abstruse parts of History, which ly either hid in private Manuscripts or in the Publique records of the Kingdome’; Augustine Vincent, A Discoverie ofErrours in the first Edition of the Catalogue ofNobility Published by Ralphe Brooke, Yorke Herald, 1619 (1622), sig. a. Some of Selden’s early seventeenth-century opponents, however, saw his humanistic, philological method as an elitist practice which prevented general deliberation on the topic. Richard Tillesley was ‘afrayd this History of Tythes hath afforded premisses to some, and to others great surmises of religious practice of sacrilege, whilst they see, and heare, but examine not manifold quotations of Scripture, hethen writers, Rabbines, Fathers, Councels, Imperiall Lawes, private Chartularies, and many uncouth and vnusuall marginall notes, whereby they hope, nay resolve their owne desires are unanswerably defended’. Accordingly, he decreed that Selden ‘must not looke to lurke in the darknesse of unknowen language, or private Chartularies or vnusuall by-named Bookes’ and thought the tract contained ‘more paines than trueth, more strange reading then strong reasoning; more quotations than proofes; more will … then power’; Tillesley, Animadversions, sig. a°-a2, b3°, 263.Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    B. Jonson, ‘An Epistle to Master Selden’, in Ian Donaldson (ed.), Ben Jonson: Poems (Oxford University Press, 1975), 153; F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution, 276.Google Scholar
  27. 42.
    J. Lightfoot, The Harmony, Chronicle and Order of the Old Testament (1647), sig. b3r.Google Scholar
  28. 43.
    For more sustained discussion of this particular trope of self-effacement see Hilary Hinds Gods Englishwomen: Seventeenth-Century Radical Sectarian Writing and Feminist Criticism (Manchester University Press, 1996), 80–107.Google Scholar
  29. 46.
    The best full length study of Cotton to date is still Kevin Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton 1586–1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  30. 48.
    Selden was appointed custodian of the Cottonian library during the 1640s. On the importance of the library as a resource for scholars, courtiers and politicians from across Europe see C.J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (British Library, 1997); C.G.C. Tite, The Panizzi Lectures: the Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton (British Library, 1994); Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 48–83.Google Scholar
  31. 49.
    H. Paul, ‘Except Bacon’s Essays there is hardly so rich a treasure-house of worldly wisdom in the English language as Selden’s Table Talk’, cited in F. Pollock (ed.), Table Talk ofJohn Selden (Quaritch, 1927), ix.Google Scholar
  32. 50.
    G. Huehns (ed.), Clarendon: Selections from The History of the Rebellion and The Life of Himself(Oxford University Press, 1978), 45–6.Google Scholar
  33. 52.
    Cf. ibid., where Selden’s view of clerical abuse is mediated via cuckoldry anxiety: ‘The Clergie would have us beleive them against our owne reason: as the woman would have had her husband against his owne eyes; when he took her with another man; which yet she stoutly denyed; what will you believe your eyes before your own sweet wife’, p. ix. Whilst an earlier editor of Table Talk deplored the fact that such ‘indecent references and expressions’ ‘disgraced’ the book as they ‘add nothing to the force of the passages in which they occur, and which Selden himself could hardly have wished should go down to posterity as specimens of his everyday talk’, the editor of the most recent Selden Society edition does nothing to abate the masculinism surrounding Selden and his works. He consoles himself with the fact that ‘There are perhaps half a dozen passages which a delicate taste might censure. But we have no reason to suppose that they were uttered in the presence of women, and they are purity itself when compared with the habitual converse of the preceding age’; see S.H. Reynolds (ed.), The Table Talk ofJohn Selden (Oxford, 1892) and Pollock (ed.), Table Talk, ix. Google Scholar
  34. 54.
    See, for instance, Thomas N. Corns and David Loewenstein (eds), The Emergence of Quaker Writing: Dissenting Literature in Seventeenth-Century England (Frank Cass, 1995); Phyllis Mack, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (University of California Press, 1992); Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity: English Womens Writing, 1649–1688 (Virago, 1988); Moira Ferguson (ed.), First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578–1799 (Indiana University Press, 1985).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcus Nevitt

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations