IN THE SHADOW OF THE BLACK SPREAD EAGLE ON LUDGATE HILL

by Jnana Hodson

Sometimes in exploring a niche of history, you come across an unexpected incidental detail that significantly alters your previous perception. For example, many of the earliest Quaker tracts and books bear the imprint of Giles Calvert, a publisher and bookseller at the Black Spread Eagle on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul Cathedral in London.

So extensive is his Quaker role that I’d assumed Calvert (1612-1663) was a member of the Society of Friends. For one thing, he was the elder brother of Martha Simmonds, an early Quaker convert and a central character in the notorious Bristol Controversy of 1656 that led to the blasphemy trial and conviction in Parliament of a leading Friends’ minister, James Nayler. The connection intensifies when you discover that two years earlier she had joined with Friends and the next year married Thomas Simmonds, who (according to one account) took over the shop from Calvert, by then the leading publisher of Quaker literature. And Martha Simmonds (1624-1665) was hardly shy about public protest and witness on behalf of her faith. She’s a controversial figure in her own right as she challenged much of the male leadership of the emerging Quaker movement.

One earlier connection I’d come across was Calvert’s role as publisher of Gerrard Winstanley’s True Leveller (or Digger) writings from 1648 to 1652, the year the Quaker works begin appearing. Winstanley was a radical religious and political thinker and leader, one who later had an influential role among Friends even if he drifted away for a while – his life leaves many questions and holes for the curious.

Still, it’s enough to strengthen Calvert’s position as a Quaker vanguard.

In my recent reading of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000), a broader portrait emerges.

Gwyn makes a critical connection that begins with Parliament’s attempt to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England. “One factor that doomed the project to failure was the suspension of censorship of the press,” itself a parallel to the suspension of mandatory church attendance amid the waves of civil war. “Religious ideas that before 1642 had circulated only below the surface, if at all, now reeled off presses in exponentially expanding numbers. Propaganda pieces, ranging from one-sheet ‘broadsides’ to tomes hundreds of pages long were printed and sold at low cost.”

This had my mind leaping backward to the sense that many underground religious and spiritual streams had somehow survived in Britain for centuries, in part because of valiant efforts that kept the Roman Catholic Inquisition at bay. Queen Mother Joan of Kent’s influence at the trial of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in 1378 remains a pivotal moment in the history of freedom of religion. We were a long way from tolerance, but it was far superior to the terrors of the papal machine.

Gwyn, though, introduces Calvert at this later point beginning in 1642, “One of the most notorious publishers of dissenting literature … among the first publishers in England who was not also a printer.” (That, in itself, is a fascinating detail. I had assumed he handset the type himself, placed the paper and ink of the flat press, and collated and bound the pages. Instead, he served as a go-between.) “Over the course of his career,” which began in 1643, “he published more than 600 of the most radical tracts and books written in England during that period. … Calvert was questioned, fined, and imprisoned briefly on various occasions for his publishing activities, but he was never really silenced. Once the door was opened for a free press, it was never to be effectively closed again.”

It was enough to send me back to Christopher Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1975), where Calvert gets two mentions, the first for his Quaker service. In the other, a longer overview, Hill observes, “The printer Giles Calvert’s shop perhaps came the closest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves – ‘that forge of the devil from whence so many blasphemous, lying scandalous pamphlets for many years past have spread over the land,'” as one critic put it. Hill then notes that A.L. Morton, the leading scholar on the Ranter movement, “stresses the importance of Calvert as a unifying force.” Hill has Calvert working as late as 1662 “still inciting the publication of seditious literature, and after his death in 1663 his widow continued his policy.” Unclear is whether Calvert was still with the Black Spread Eagle or working more independently; either way, he was a force who’s largely unknown today.

It’s heady stuff, of course. Here we have a champion in the history of freedom of the press and the circulation of revolutionary ideas itself. At the moment, Giles Calvert gets a single sentence as his Wikipedia entry – and that notes his publication of John Saltmarsh, another important influence on Quaker thought, as Gwyn delineates.

As a writer and editor, I am as fascinated by the idea of a bookstore that also showcases its own line of books and pamphlets as I am by the existence of a bold publisher of revolution, political, spiritual, or even literary. Think of City Lights Books in San Francisco in our own time, with its line of poetry from the Beat and Hippie years. No doubt there are many others over the centuries.

I wonder, too, about the bookstore itself. Was it more like a newsstand, with the latest blast hot-off-the-press as must-have material? (That has me thinking of record stores back in the Beatles era!) Think, too, of the audience hungry for the most recent release – in contrast to our surfeit of information today. What were the discussions like, too, in deciding whether to publish a piece or edit it or, perhaps, in gathering customers around a table to debate the merits of the most current issues? Who frequented the shop, for that matter?

Imagine, if you will, the movie version. I want the key characters to be ink-stained, for starters, and maybe tobacco smokers.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder. Would this be more like a porn shop? At least before the Internet took over? Customers entering surreptitiously, hoping not to be seen? And then slip away again?

Well, Quaker was a term of derision. As well as one of scandal. Bear it as we may.

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