1650, with the English Civil War barely over and a weakened parliament in charge of the country, seems like an odd time to start worrying about people’s bad language. But it was in August of that year that the Blasphemy Act was signed. It might seem like a straightforward continuation of the “Puritan Revolution” – after all, what could seem more Cromwellian than a crackdown on impiety – but the Blasphemy Act was never intended to be about swearing. In order to understand what prompted the Blasphemy Act, we need to look at the English Civil War and the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters.
The Ranters were one of the many non-comformist Christian sects that sprung up after the civil war, but they had a particular panache of their own. They weren’t particularly formal* and didn’t have official leaders, but one of the more charismatic figureheads of the Ranters was the zealously non-conformist Abiezer Coppe. In his 1649 publication The Flying Fiery Roll, he said “Be no longer so horridly, hellishly, impudently, arrogantly wicked as to judge what is sin, what not, what evil and what not, what blasphemy and what not.” And he certainly seems to have practised what he preached. He condemned monogamy and used liberal amounts of sexual metaphor in his sermons, which he enjoyed delivering in the nude.
(c) The British Library
The Ranters believed that the truly holy couldn’t be made impure by “impure acts” so they swore (and practised free love) as a badge of their holiness. Coppe claimed, in volume two of The Flying Fiery Roll that swearing is “meat and drink to an angel” and that it is “a joy to…curse like a devil.” But it probably wasn’t this part of his book that prompted the blasphemy act.
In volume two, full title A Second Fiery Flying Roule: to All the Inhabitants of the earth, specially to the rich ones, Coppe rounded off his rant with a warning to the “Great Ones on Earth” that God, “The Great Leveller,” would soon come and that one of his first concerns would be to avenge the deaths of the Leveller “martyrs” who were executed by Cromwell’s troops at Burford, the previous May. This caused a certain amount of consternation in the Rump Parliament – the Levellers and the Diggers were the most likely threat to the new order as they were still holding out for a more radical form of democracy than had been achieved with the execution of King Charles the First. Forces loyal to the Levellers had refused to join Cromwell in his Irish campaign, an act seen as mutinous by Cromwell himself.
Shortly after the publication of the second Roll, Parliament passed the Blasphemy Act. The Blasphemy Act 1650 makes six provisions. It became an offence to do any of the following in public:
- encourage drunkenness, adultery, or swearing
- claim that there was no difference between morality and immorality
- claim that heaven and hell were the same or that salvation and damnation were one and the same
- declare oneself to be God
- deny the existence of God
- deny that heaven, hell, salvation or damnation existed
The sentence was six months’ imprisonment for the first offence and banishment from England on pain of death for the second.
But was this act about bad language? It’s no coincidence that the act bans exactly those claims that the Ranters were making. It’s also no coincidence that the act only talks about public activities and makes no attempt to regulate what was done in private. Finally, it wasn’t about bad language per se. Shortly after the act was published, John Crouch published a book called Mercurius Fumigosus. In this book, Crouch uses the word “Shit” 21 times, “Arse” 12 times, “Fart” 10 times and “Bastard” six times. He also makes frequent references to “swarms of bees” (a euphemism for an erection) and “honey” (sperm). Strangely enough, the supposedly puritan parliament had no problem with this.
But they did use the Blasphemy Act to crush social disquiet. The Diggers were driven off land that they’d occupied under the pretext that they were Ranters. Coppe was imprisoned and recanted his previous beliefs when he was released.**
By the end of 1650, the Diggers and the Levellers were more-or-less a spent force, and the English parliament had demonstrated that if you want to silence a group of troublesome dissenters, it’s more effective to censor them on moral grounds than it is to engage with their dissent.
Won’t somebody think of the children?
For vastly more on the subject see Tony McEnery (2006) Swearing in English: Bad Language, purity and power from 1586 to the present, Routledge. I also relied on http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/ to fill in the most lamentable gaps in my historical knowledge. Any mistakes are my own.
*This is what they call an understatement
** He changed his name to Dr Higham and lived out the rest of his apparently blameless life as a practising doctor in Surrey.