Charitable Hatred, or the Trouble with Tolerance in Early Modern England

In her book on ‘tolerance and intolerance’ in early modern England Alex Walsham takes a swipe at the Whiggish notion of the ‘rise of toleration’ (7) and the domination of the field by the history of ideas. Emphasisng the point that it was the moral duty of every good Christian at the time to correct any deviance from true religion in their neighbours, Walsham considers persecution itself as some kind of ‘charitable hatred’. Toleration, however, meant no more than ‘to permit or license something of which one emphatically disapproved’ (4). The relationship between ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ was therefore much more complex than the dominant Whig interpretation suggests.

Walsham also emphasises the often contradictory behaviour of the population towards deviant groups, in particular Catholics. Since post-Reformation Catholicism had a political dimension Catholics were usually considered ‘traitors rather than hereticks’ (22) , and anti-popish prejudice could ‘inflate Catholicism to menacing proportions’ (27). Nevertheless, many people who hated ‘papists’ in the abstract could still get on perfectly well with their Catholic neighbours. The uniformity in religion seen as so crucial for national unity meanwhile seemed like a utopian goal, even though this was not publicly acknowledged before the passing of the 1689 Toleration Act.

Unsurprisingly, many at the receiving end of persecution were ‘foreigners and strangers,’ and there was a clear ‘xenophobic dimension of contemporary intolerance’ (141). The experience of persecution, meanwhile, led to both ‘active forms of resistance’ (177) and ‘concessions to repressive regimes through conformity and dissimulation’ (188) – a response that is often neglected by the historiography.

Overall, however, there was a considerable amount of negotiation between people of different faiths and confessions and a great willingness of neighbours to get on with each other. Like the rest of Europe, England underwent a process of ‘confessionalisation’ as the people slowly began to understand that ‘religious pluralism’ (301) was there to stay.

Walsham’s book is an excellent work of synthesis, covering much of the available literature on the topic as well as bringing together the social history of religion with the history of ideas and political history. Not all of its facts or insights might be new, but the way in which they are presented and brought together certainly is. A great introduction for all newcomers to the subject, and an eye-opener for many specialists in the field.

Alexandra Walsham, Charitable hatred: tolerance and intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (Manchester: MUP, 2006; paperback ed. 2009).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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