The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards's Gangraena , a lengthy three-part sprawling exercise in heresiography, appeared in 1646. Quintessentially a tract for the troubled times in which it appeared, its jaundiced presentation of radical religion immediately attracted much attention. Though never reprinted, it was much invoked, quoted, applauded and reviled by its immediate contemporaries. Edwards was quickly hailed by some as "the true hammer of the heretics" and dismissed by others as a mere retailer of "shameless untruths".
His book had a powerful afterlife. Late 17th and 18th-century church libraries almost always had it, and its frequent presence in booksellers' catalogues indicated its continuing currency and utility. Though later Presbyterians found Edwards's overheated prose an embarrassment, historians studied Gangraena regularly to document the troubled decade of the 1640s and to argue over its accuracy. David Masson in the 19th century rounded on Edwards as "a nasty kind of Christian". A reprint of the full text, however, appeared as recently as 1977. Christopher Hill and J.C. Davis, major historians of the English Revolution, took up rival positions on Edwards's value as source material.
Ann Hughes's book, however, is the first to examine Edwards and Gangraena in their own right. She offers a fascinating portrait of the hitherto unsuccessful and undistinguished Edwards, who was thrust temporarily into the limelight by Gangraena before he fled the country in 1647 as the religiously radical New Model Army advanced on London. Depicted here as an opponent of schism rather than as a pillar of Presbyterianism, Edwards comes across as one who perhaps did more than any other writer in the mid-1640s to engender religious panic.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of Gangraena were conducive to the task he set himself of alerting his contemporaries, particularly those in authority, to the perils that threatened to submerge them. Gangraena thus lends itself to be used as a window on the chemistry of printed polemics at this time, the fracturing of the Parliamentarian side, the mobilisation of causes and the nature of Presbyterianism.
Edwards's text, Hughes makes clear, was loosely organised. Its length exceeded what the author originally intended and his publishers expected. Its present-mindedness ensured that Edwards was always open to the receipt of new evidence, which he crammed into postscripts even at proof stage. Gangraena was always "a work in progress". The text, which was hastily compiled from written and oral sources as well as first-hand observation, set out to attack that "mis-shaped bastard monster" of religious toleration and saw little to choose between the Independents and the more extreme religious sects that proliferated in these years. Though he saw himself as following in the footsteps of St Paul, Augustine and John Foxe in his exposure of religious error, Edwards, in Hughes's view, is best understood as a polemicist rather than a systematic heresiographer.
Gangraena is emphatically London-based in its standpoints and coverage. In what is in essence a collection of moral "stories", more than 40 per cent of those included were drawn from the capital. Kent and Essex came a poor second and third, with 6 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. London with its teeming population, its competing pulpits and its unique place in the book trade was the most fertile seedbed of religious unorthodoxy. The religious radicalism Edwards chastised in the provinces was chiefly a metropolitan export. Home-grown radicalism in the counties received short shrift. Edwards freely indulged his fixations with the noisiest of the London religious dissenters. The same stories about them occur again and again at different places in this repetitious text.
Can Gangraena be relied on as an accurate documentary source? Hughes is careful to present it as "an exercise in truth-telling" rather than as a factual catalogue that can automatically be trusted. Unquestionably, it is highly selective and is full of bias, both Edwards's own and that of his informants. Women, as religious radicals in their own right and as informants, were largely ignored. To this would-be patriarch, men were self-evidently more important and dangerous.
Hughes is convinced that Edwards's stories of religious radicalism were not simply invented, but as they cannot all be checked she concedes that this must remain "a provisional and contestable judgment". In a study dealing with the gestation, functions and impact of another book written three and a half centuries earlier, "accuracy", in any case, is not the principal concern. This book is a landmark in 17th-century studies and a model of how cultural theory can be harnessed to good effect by historians.
R. C. Richardson is professor of history, Winchester University.
Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution
Author - Ann Hughes
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 482
Price - £63.00
ISBN - 0 19 925192 4