Balm in Gilead


At book club the other week we were discussing Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (verdict: mixed) and one of our number reminded us in passing that there is a spiritual called “Is there balm in Gilead” – the Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir does a particularly lovely version of it here.  The spiritual (“There is a balm in Gilead/To make the wounded whole”) is a New Testament response to a question posed by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (8:22), confronted by the Babylonian army: “Is there balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

I’ve been looking a lot at the erotic, sacramental and martyrological resonances of wounds in the years following the regicide, so the Gilead reference got me thinking of the use of wounds to expound upon the disintegration of the nation’s body. This is the context of the verse from Jeremiah, as the prophet laments the sins of the people and the imminent fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.

It is impossible to ignore the scriptural dimension of the early modern response to calamity. The London plague of 1603 inspired a stream of texts on the ethics of flight from the city, including Dekker’s The Wonderful Year, that rage-filled elegy to London and its dead. Many of the plague pamphlets and sermons revolve around Psalm 91, which says that the godly will be held safe from pestilence: “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling”.

Jeremiah, along with Lamentations, is another of those Biblical proof texts where calamity is articulated primarily as a heavenly response to the sins of humankind. So when I found the balm of Gilead reference in Colchesters Teares (Thomason / E.455[16]), a 1648 tract bewailing the horrors of the siege of Colchester , l assumed that the pamphlet would fall into a general homiletic category.

The siege of Colchester in the second Civil War of 1648 was vicious and protracted. The town was staunchly Parliamentarian, but was actually being held by Royalist forces, led by Lord Goring, Lord Capel, Sir George Lisle and Sir Charles Lucas and besieged by Lord-General Thomas Fairfax’s army. When Colchester surrendered after nearly three months, Lucas and Lisle were executed on the basis that they had continued to prolong the siege and therefore unnecessary suffering, including mass starvation. It made them into Royalist martyrs and set in train the events that led to the assassination of Thomas Rainsborough (Civil War historians will appreciate that this summary is far from adequate). Because of its length and the high politico-military stakes, the siege of Colchester was played out as much through print as on the walls of the town, as both sides struggled for control of the atrocity narrative.

Colchesters Teares is a remarkably skilful piece of writing. With most texts on the siege you can guess the political alignment from the first page; John Rushworth’s reports back to Parliament, or the Leaguer at Colchester put the case for the Parliamentary forces, while Mercurius Pstiacus and Mercurius Anglicanus and The Royall Diurnall emphasise the heroism of the besieged and deride the ‘Saints’.  But in Colchesters Teares it’s not immediately obvious. The quote from Job 19:21 (“Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of the Lord hath touched me”) and Lamentations 1:12 (“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow which is done unto me; wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me, in the day of his fierce anger”) initially embed the text into a tradition of collective remorse for general transgression. The war has “labour[ed] to dig a grave for the Kingdome, and to bury poore England in her owne sad ashes and wofull ruines” .

But then there’s a clever rhetorical shift. Over the course of a couple of pages the anonymous author moves, via a nifty bit of providential framing of Parliamentary victories, from castigating collective sins to note those of the Royalist forces in considerable detail, notably their attempts at sexual violence:

“Ah unkind friends, whom we are grieved to complaine against, and yet enforced to be angry with for such bitternesse and unnaturall dealings [….] how can you look us (moderate men, well affected to you heretofore) in the face, when you have made us blush and hide our heads as we hear these things?”

It’s quite a trick to maintain that tone of general lament while heaping the blame squarely on the opposition, implicitly drawing down the wrath of heaven upon them. It’s a stratagem widely used now – you know, we’re all in it together, but some of us are less deserving than others.

A practised reader in Civil War London might have worked out the pamphlet’s political affiliation pretty efficiently. It was printed by one John Bellamy “at the Three Golden Lions in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange”. A bookseller and parish leader of St Michael’s of Cornhill, Bellamy was a radical Protestant with links to the Independents but who tempered his stance in the later 1640s by embracing Presbyterianism. Despite the lengthy prayer for reconciliation at the end of Colchesters Teares, this is by no means a neutral text.


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