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Thomas Middleton's pamphlets and prose are in some ways more accessible to the modern reader than his plays, and they certainly provide us with very different challenges to his dramatic works. These texts are, if not quite foundational works of the modern English language genres of prose fiction and true crime, key works in the development of these modes of writing. We know that genres are unstable and that they change and mutate over time: in other words they lack fixed boundaries. Nonetheless, Middleton and his immediate precursors Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene have for some time appeared to be 'father' figures in the development of modern prose.

One of a number of factors that make Middleton's prose stand out against that of many later writers is that he clearly didn't write it all himself, and as a consequence his work is infinitely superior to that of those who used their 'muse' to pursue some half-baked notion of 'originality'. Middleton wrote for money and used whatever was to hand, without any expectation that the resultant words would be appended with his name. As a consequence, he suffered from none of the 'anxieties of influence' that were to bedevil later hacks who placed their pens and typewriters in the service of the bourgeoisie.

Here it is important to stress that Middleton was writing prior to the English Civil War, when the bourgeoisie in the British Isles was still a rising class. It doesn't matter whether Middleton suffered from a sense of nostalgia for the fast fading feudal order whose destruction he so lovingly catalogued in the first part of Father Hubburd's Tales, or he merely adopts such a stance because he thinks it will appeal to his readers, or even that he is satirising such positions, because he unambiguously belongs to the rising class still struggling against the last remnants of an obsolete feudal system. Linguistic innovations always emerge from the lower orders (because they do not have a vested interest in the status quo and thus a freezing of thought and experience), and since it was only in the years following Middleton's death that the bourgeoisie established its formal domination in England (and it would not ascend to a position of real domination until the industrial revolution), this placed our playwright and prose stylist at the forefront of literary transformations. It is this that makes his work so much more substantial than that of anyone who might lay claim to being his heir today.

Precisely because of the Janus-faced nature of Middleton's prose, it occupies a terrain in which religious language begins to mutate into a form of political discourse that does not yet know what it is. One of his key texts in this regard is the aforementioned Father Hubburd's Tales which was published in 1604, the year after James I of England ascended to the throne, and like his predecessor Elizabeth I, this Protestant monarch functioned as a vessel through which Christianity was able to overtake Islam as the world's dominant merchantile religion, and simultaneously transform itself into a capitalist political form. A manuscript version of Hubburd called The Nightingale And The Ant exists, and I will provide citations from both where material is found in the two texts – from the versions edited by Adrian Weiss and included in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Clarendon Press, Oxford 2007 - my references underneath are to the line numbering within this work). Hubburd consists of three tales told by an ant to a nightingale: in the first story the ant takes on the form of a ploughman whose master's son proves to be a profligate heir squandering his lands; in the second narrative the ant is an ill used English soldier, and in the third tale a scholar.

The political language emerging in Hubburd sometimes appears in the form of what seem to be new phrases, at other times old ones that are taking on new meanings. An example of the latter - what 'after' structuralism we can call a 'sliding signifier'- is the well-used formulation 'the world turned upside down'. In the feudal epoch this phrase could perhaps be read as a reference to the tribulation and assumption in the Christian Bible; a period supposedly characterised by the reign of 'Anti-Christ' during which Christians are persecuted prior their final triumph during the 'day of judgment'. Due in part to works such as The World Turned Upside Down (1972) by the Oxford historian Christopher Hill, who used it as the title of a book about the more radical currents (Levellers, Diggers, Ranters) that were ultimately defeated during the course of the bourgeois English revolution, today this phrase is very much understood in political terms; or more specifically as being a pivotal formulation in the transformation of religious into political discourse.

In Hubburd (498-509; or Nightingale 433-448), when the ploughman signs his name with a symbol as the lands he worked are handed over to a 'rootless' lawyer, he tells us: "But I, not so simple as they laughed at me, drew the picture of a knavish emblem, which was A Plough with the Heels Upward, signifying thereby that the world was turned upside down since the decrease of my old landlord, all hospitality and good housekeeping kicked out of doors, all thriftiness and good husbandry tossed into the air, ploughs turned into trunks, and corn into apparel. Then came another of our husbandmen to set his mark by mine; he, holding the pen clean at the one side towards the merchant and the mercer showing that all went on their sides, drew the form of an unbridled colt so wild and unruly that he seemed with one foot to kick up the earth and spoil the labours of many toiling beasts…"

This might be taken as one of the key moments in the ongoing mutations of what this phrase signifies. Perhaps its most famous incarnation in this new guise occurred slightly more than forty years later, as the refrain of a distinctly political ballad titled The World Turned Upside Down (first published as a broadside circa 1646). This song protests against the Puritan Oliver Cromwell's suppression of traditional Christmas celebrations as not being sombre enough to mark the date on which the 'messiah' was allegedly born. It ends:

To conclude, I'le tell you news that's right, Christmas was kil'd at Naseby fight:
Charity was slain at that same time, Jack Tell troth too, a friend of mine,
Likewise then did die, rost beef and shred pie,
Pig, Goose and Capon no quarter found.
Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down.

Here, as in Middleton, we can see the beginnings of the formation of the modern English identity – rooted in a nostalgia for a non-existent past - with its invocation of roast beef as something quintessential 'British'. But while the emergent bourgeoisie attempted to conjure up the chimera of an 'English' national identity with which to mesmerise its nemesis the proletariat (the working class, of course, has no country), the flipside of all ersatz 'patriotisms' is inevitably bigotry and chauvinism. That said, new meanings do not necessarily spring fully formed from words and phrases that once carried different connotations. In Hubburd one can see the roots of much modern racist discourse, but whether this belongs to its pre-history or its early history, is a matter that has yet to be fully disentangled.

Keeping our focus on Hubburd, we find the following description in that text (544-7; or Nightingale 484-7): "The lawyer then, turning his Irish face to usward, willed us to attend his worship the next term, when we should further understand his pleasure. We poor souls thanked his worship and paid him his fee out in legs…." Adrian Weiss, the modern editor of Middleton's text glosses "Irish face' as meaning 'coarse'. Such usage emerges from prejudice, the bigot's unfounded assertion that the Irish are ugly. Needless to say, as well as attempting to use racism to divide the working class, the bourgeoisie simultaneously use it to provide an illusory ideological 'justification' for inhumanity and economic expropriation and exploitation. Ireland can be viewed as the first English colony, and the complex history of its occupation ebbs and flows from the twelfth-century onwards, but most significantly from the perspective of understanding Hubburd, this imperial aggression was intensified from the fifteenth-century and the conquest of the entire territory more or less coincides with the first publication of the text. The conquest of Ireland was the greatest conflict in which the English participated during the Elizabethan era, and thus it is not surprising if the genesis of modern British racism can be traced via Middleton and his contemporaries, as well as his immediate predecessors, back to this vicious imperial adventure.

While Weiss in his footnotes does no more than suggest that the term 'Irish face' is a metaphor, it is tempting for a modern reader who is aware of the history of English bourgeois barbarism in Ireland (as well as around the world) to read the phrase in other ways, since the complete text of Hubburd seems to suggest it can be understood literally. This may or may not be what Middleton intended, but it is worth pursuing because even if some of the formulations to be found in the text had not fully acquired their current connotations in 1603, the way Middleton and his contemporaries deployed them appears to have impacted on their contemporary racist significations.

Taken in isolation, the words 'paid him his fee out in legs' in the sentence following the use of the phrase "Irish face', do not seem to mean any more than Weiss suggests in his gloss: 'a courteous bow involved bending the legs'. But viewed from the perspective of the entire tract and its historical context, the phrase may signify more. I will attempt to separate out the various abusive elements within Hubburd that went on to be (and perhaps were already being) deployed by English Protestant bigots against the Irish and/or Catholics (the latter term is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish within British imperialist discourse). Middleton does not use the bigoted phrase 'left-footer' to denote specifically that someone is Irish or more generally Catholic, but at a number of points he might be taken as alluding to it, and more general association of left with the Irish and right with the English (by the nineteenth-century this also encompassed politics – often in the form of 'anarchy' being associated with the Irish - as well as other literal and symbolic meanings).

With regard to the lawyer with the 'Irish face', we find the following in Hubburd (535-540; or Nightingale 475-480) immediately before the use of what may well be a literal rather than a metaphorical turn of phrase: "With that they stiffed two or three angels in the lawyer's right hand – 'right hand' said I? Which hand was that, trow yee? For it is impossible to know which is the right hand of a lawyer because there are but few lawyers that have right hands, and those few make much of them." Weiss says in his notes with regard to Middleton's emphasis on the right hand: "the ant puns on 'right vs. wrong', i.e. lawyers have no concern for morality." But for any modern reader, and possibly for Middleton too, the 'pun' may stretch further than that, in that this could be a false right-hand, or to put it in other words, the lawyer serves from the left and as I've suggested is Irish and Catholic (or at 'best' an Anglo-convert).

In the tract's second narrative, when the ant is a soldier, metaphors of left and right again seem to be used to identify an unwanted or despised Englishman with 'foreigners' (Hubburd 932-933; or Nightingale 919-920): "they lurched me of two of my best limbs, viz my right arm and right leg…" In other words the soldier lost his right limbs. Likewise (Hubburd 938-9, or Nightingale 926-928): "I appeared to my captain and other commanders, kissing my left hand that then stood for both…" And again (Hubburd 945-946; or Nightingale 936-937): "…my lamentable action of one arm like old Titus Andronicus". Similarly (Hubburd 964-5; or Nightingale 956-957): "One among them, I remember, likened me to a sea crab because I went all to one side…" The contempt with which those who are not able bodied are still treated in England (and elsewhere) is evident in modern usage of words such as cripple (a corollary of the prejudice that animates racism), and therefore it should not surprise us that once the soldier becomes a 'raspberry' he is given traits that readers can identify as 'foreign'.

The origins of the term 'left-footer' are disputed, but one suggestion is it refers to the type of spade used in Irish agriculture, which traditionally had a foot rest on the left: two-sided spades are believed to have been introduced by Protestant planters in Ulster, and so the left foot became associated with Catholics and the Irish. Two-sided spades were being mass produced in the north of Ireland by the early nineteenth-century, and the origin of the phrase left-footer is therefore traced back to this period in some accounts. However, it is also contended that Protestants introduced two-sided spades to the north of Ireland as early as the sixteenth-century, and so the term may have an equally early origin (and thus may have been in use by the time Middleton wrote Hubburd). Other explanations for the phrase include the suggestion that when Catholics genuflect before the altar in church they kick their left foot forward, or that it was Ulster Protestants who put their best (right) foot forward to defend the British state in the first inter-imperialist war (1914-18), while Irish Catholics unsurprisingly failed to rally to the defence of their exploiters and oppressors.

Returning to the text of Hubburd, there are further traces of modern racism in the repeated uses of the words 'monkey' and 'marmoset' to describe those who are not English. To give a few examples: Hubburd 326-331 (or Nightingale 233-239), the profligate heir "was attended only by a monkey and a marmoset…. With this French page and Italianate servingman was our young landlord only waited on…"; Hubburd 449 (or Nightingale 376), "…the apish humour of him and the fantastical faces he coined…"; Hubburd 463 and 477 (or Nightingale 392 and 408), the servant is again called a "marmoset" (two instances thereof); and Hubburd 396 (or Nightingale 315), the page is described as a "French monkey". Here the epithets are applied indiscriminately against anyone who is not English and even to those who might be English but behave in a foreign manner and have thus become 'un-English'. By the nineteenth-century the depiction of the Irish as 'apes' (particularly in cartoons) was a commonplace of bigoted English discourse and can be seen in publications such as the journal Punch; and after it had been applied to the Irish, this form of racialised dehumanisation went on to be used with equal venom against victims of the black holocaust.

Within Hubburd where an English character is denigrated with monkey metaphors, they're simultaneously treated as being under the domination of foreign notions. For example, (Hubburd 685-690; or Nightingale 645-51): "The first that appeared to us was our most lamentable landlord dressed up in his monkey's livery cloak (that he seemed now rather to wait upon his monkey than his monkey upon him), which did set forth his satin suit so excellent scurvily that he looked for all the world like a French lord in dirty boots…." "Scurvily' here seems to have implications of travel across the sea (without fruit) to bolster the notion of the heir being stripped of his Englishness. The passage also continues the 'world turned upside down' metaphor via an apparently inverted relationship between the master and his servant. It also utilises the classically conservative equation of those overturning established orders with filth and foreignness via the reference to the gallant looking like 'a French lord in his dirty boots'.

At a number of points the profligate heir and his friends are denigrated as given over to foreign habits, and thus treated as subhuman. Hubburd 556-568 (or Nightingale 509-511):"he buckled on his rapier and hangers, his monkey-face casting on his cloak by the book; after an apish cone or two, passed downstairs without either word or nod to us…" Then there is in Hubburd 577 (or Nightingale 521) the phrase "ape of fashions". And again, Hubburd 372-376 (or Nightingale 287-291): "At last, to close up the lamentable tragedy of us ploughmen, enters our young landlord, so metamorphosed into the shape of a French puppet that, at the first, we started and thought one of the baboons had marched in in man's apparel." The use of such imagery was as lamentably widespread when Middleton was writing as it is today. This is not to excuse it, since I don't think the arrangement of such language in Hubburd can in any way be interpreted as critically deployed or an attempt at linguistic deconstruction, but it is important to stress that Middleton alone should not be singled out for criticism on this score. Indeed, the title of this particular tract invokes the work of another writer who is notorious for his racist and totalitarian anti-Irish diatribes, viz Edmund Spenser's Prosopopoia. Or Mother Hubberds Tale (1591).

Since Father Hubburd is logically the husband of Mother Hubburd (or Hubberd to use the variant spelling), and both tracts use the same type of allegory, this is something else that might have led contemporary readers of Middleton to understand the phrase about the lawyer's 'Irish face' as literal rather than metaphorical. In works such as Prosopopoia and even more straightforwardly A vewe of the present state of Irelande (a political prose work placed on the Stationer's Register in 1598 and circulated in manuscript from that date onwards), Spenser advocated what modern readers would understand as an authoritarian and reactionary Protestant 'final solution' in Ireland. Even in the Jacobean era, Spenser's prose work on Ireland was so obviously obnoxious in its advocacy of a scorched earth policy of genocide, that it was kept out of print and circulated in private among 'gentlemen' until the middle of the seventeenth-century. In his poems, allegories and prose works, Spenser (born in London and 'educated' at Cambridge University) not only provided the English crown with an ideological justification for the atrocities it committed during the Nine Years War and later, he paved the way for Oliver Cromwell's English republican policy of mass murder against the Irish and many later terrorist campaigns carried out in Ireland by the British state, its dupes and functionaries.

The invocation of Spenser via the title of Hubburd would have been more than enough to indicate to Middleton's contemporaries that he held Protestant allegiances. Nonetheless, this is buttressed by references to the Protestant monarchs Elizabeth I and James I. For example, Hubburd (6, not in Nightingale): "hundred pound feat of arms", which as noted in The Complete Works is an: "allusion to the wholesale selling of knighthoods by James I during his progress to London for his coronation in 1603 and thereafter". Or, Hubburd 200 (Nightingale 117): "They that forget a queen, soothe with a king…" Likewise, Hubburd 222-3 (Nightingale 139-140): "But there's a manly lion now can roar/Thunder more dreaded than the lioness…", And, Hubburd 225 (Nightingale 142): "For he conceives more than they can express…" which is glossed by Weiss with the following: "James I had published treatises on witchcraft and kingship which revealed his theological and political knowledge as well as his commitment to the pursuit of virtuous politics."

The claim that any monarch (let alone James I who believed in the 'divine right of kings') was committed to 'the pursuit of virtuous politics', illustrates the difficulty of making neutral or objective readings of historical (or, indeed, contemporary) texts. We all approach our reading with certain biases; but nonetheless, I would hope that even among Bible-bashing fundamentalist Protestants, the advocacy of the 'divine right of kings' being praised as the pursuit of virtuous politics is, in our day and age, an eccentric position. If two modern readers such as Adrian Weiss and myself are led to such divergent interpretations of historical texts with regard to James I, and to a lesser extent Middleton too, there were presumably also major differences in the understandings of contemporary readers of their works.

Ultimately we can read a text any which way we want, but we have to take responsibility for the consequences of these readings. I find the tendency of some specialist commentators to ignore the atrocities committed in Ireland by the English when examining the likes of Spenser as 'a literary figure' not only unpalatable but also a hindrance to a full understanding of this repugnant figure. Middleton's audience was not identical to Spenser's, and he was a thoroughly modern writer, not someone producing deliberately archaic texts along the lines of The Faerie Queen (although we should not allow this to blind us to the fact that traditionalism too is a product of modernity, and that Spenser could not be a traditionalist without simultaneously being an 'early'-modernist). While Middleton shares some of Spenser's religious bigotries, I am aware of no evidence that suggests his views about the Irish were genocidal like the older man's. It is also important to stress that Middleton's approach to written composition was modern and self-evidently innovative, in stark contrast to the self-consciously traditionalist and archaic posturing favoured by Spenser.

Although Weiss and I appear at times to see divergent things in Hubburd and, it would seem, understand certain elements of the text quite differently, there are nonetheless also points of convergence within our at times diametrically opposed interpretations. Weiss writes in his introduction to Hubburd (Complete Works page 151): "…the ploughman's wit consists of exploiting homophonic verbal associations (.e.g., 'husbandman'/'husband', 293-7 etc." As the trick is ultimately deployed by Middleton, one can also read a homophonic verbal association into the subtitle of The Ant And The Nightingale. The last syllable of the last word might also be understood as Gael. This word is a sixteenth-century Anglicisation of the Gallic term for the Goidelic (or Q-Celtic) languages of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, but which by the time Middleton wrote Hubburd was being applied to the peoples who spoke these tongues. If Middleton was conscious of this homophonic association, it is ambiguous, since Gael most usually refers to a Scottish highlander; therefore it might be taken as invoking either James I of England (James VI of Scotland) or the Irish. Likewise, the phrase 'hundred pound feat of arms' (see above), might also be read as exhibiting a certain ambivalence towards the new monarch.

Despite such uncertainties within the text and its title, it is clear that some understanding of the historical divisions between Protestants and Catholics will enrich our reading of Hubburd. For example (Hubburd 171-173; or Nightingale 88-90): "Or to win a base intelligencer's meed/That now are Christians, sometime Turks, then Jews/Living by leaving heaven for earthly news…" Weiss glosses this by saying: "a spy or informer, presumably a Christian, who has no moral qualms about posing as an infidel, thereby sinning mortally and putting his soul in danger of damnation." For me, the issue is much clearer if we ask a question Weiss doesn't: viz, what kind of Christian would this be? The answer, of course, might hinge on the fact that Middleton is a Protestant living in London in the early seventeenth-century and writing for Protestants who hold similar views to his own. Since from Middleton's perspective Protestants are the true Christians, dissembling idolaters of the type he is putting down are likely to be either Catholic or Orthodox, and given the political and religious preoccupations in England at the time, they are most likely the former.

Likewise, (Hubburd 342-3; or Nightingale 152/3): "The nearer the Church, the farther from God." Middleton claims in his text that this is an 'old proverb'; but even if this is the case, it certainly took on a new meaning with the onset of the Reformation. Thus the homily might exploit a rhetorical tension generated by the juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory elements, but in this context it is decidedly Protestant in tenor, since one of the major ideological justifications for the Reformation was the removal of the 'obstacle' of the Catholic Church that stood between Bible-bashing fundamentalist Protestant true-believer and their anthropomorphised idea of God. Thus in the Ant's tale there may well be bigoted resonances when the heir on hearing the lawyers' various pieces of advice about adhering to a profligate style of living swears (Hubburd 565, or Nightingale 507-508): "he would keep all those better than the ten commandments." If the lawyer is - as I suspect - literally Irish, then this might be read as an equation of Satanism with Catholicism.

Middleton was a product of his time, place and class, it is therefore not surprising that his world view and writing are deformed by Protestant bigotry and anti-Irish sentiments. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of contemporary literary critics are unreconstructed lackeys of the bourgeoisie, and it will not shock those who are aware of the extremely narrow dimensions of academic discourse to discover that a professor like Adrian Weiss is either unable to spot Middleton's racism, or has chosen to gloss over it. It shouldn't need stating that it is worth exploring the historical roots of racism in an attempt to eradicate its contemporary manifestations – and these are to be found not just in Middleton's work but also in that of his near contemporaries such as William Shakespeare.

Weiss is involved in The Oxford Middleton Project, what appears to me to be a collective attempt to raise Middleton to the same heights as Shakespeare (under the slogan 'our other Shakespeare'), so there are perhaps 'professional' reasons for the line he takes. This, however, does not excuse it. Personally, I find Middleton to be a more interesting writer than Shakespeare (at least in part because of the broader range of the former's surviving output), but that said I think both should be read critically and obviously doing so entails understanding that there are racist elements in the work of these authors and their Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries. Critical readings of this type are not something that literary specialists can be trusted to do, since on the whole they are far more committed to preserving their own privileges and all the worst scholastic elements of university 'learning' than smashing capitalist alienation.

Martin Amis Is Stupid!

Kevin O'Neill on Stewart Home's novel 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess

Deconstructing neo-Nazi rock 'musician' Tony Wakeford

London Art Tripping (psychogeography of 50 years of bohemianism)



Light Journalism & Humour

Books & Writing

Engraving of Thomas Middleton
Jacobean playwright and prose stylist Thomas Middleton - by the end of his life he was well on his way to becoming a Puritan fanatic!

Thomas Middleton: Complete Works book cover
Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works as put together by general editors Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Clarendon Press, Oxford 2007). Adrian Weiss is one of four associate general editors of the book.

Stewart Home in phone box, City of London, May 2010
Stewart Home in the phone box closest to the old Fortune Theatre in the City of London.