For the past decade I have been studying representations of terrorist violence in literature, and especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain and France. Terrorism in the early modern world was rather different from terrorism today. In the first place, there wasn’t any dynamite or automatic weaponry. It was harder to kill. In the second place, the idea of killing people indiscriminately, without regard to their identity, didn’t seem to occur to anyone yet. But still, there was lots of violence using terrorist tactics, and there was lots of writing – and worrying – about it.
Of course, there was no word for terrorism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word terrorism, in the modern sense of an act of violence intended to convey a political message and thus alter a society’s power relations, was not current until the nineteenth century. Political conspirators usually understood that they were trying to change their societies through a swift and signal act of violence – an assassination, a staged execution, an act of sabotage, a mass murder – but they could not be and were not called “terrorists”. Nor could any perpetrators think of themselves as being involved in a strategy of terrorist agitation. Every major case of violence was unique, the deployment of a tactic that seemed to fit the needs of the moment, and seemed to belong to no set category of political action.
One of the things the early modern situation tells us today is that we have to be very careful distinguishing between the tactics of political violence and something more general that might identified with a long term goal of terrorization. No one in the early modern period ever espoused such a thing, or a strategy equal to carrying it out. The detractors of terrorist violence were similarly limited. They could excoriate evil when they saw it, but only with great difficulty could they come to terms with something like a strategy of evil. Often they pooh-poohed the idea.
The most notorious case of terrorist violence in English history was the abortive Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 — an incident that brings up very starkly the difference between tactics and strategies. Literally hundreds of pages were written about it over the years. It inspired plays by William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Dekker. Dialogues in verse, narratives in verse, some satirically aimed against the folly of the conspirators, some celebratory of Britain’s victory in having escaped the Plot by providential intervention, appeared regularly for years to come. The young John Milton wrote a long poem in Latin about it. Catholic priests wrote memoirs of the event. Protestant ministers wrote and recited Gunpowder sermons once a year from the pulpit. As late as the 1680s the legacy of the Plot was a common literary topic, sure to arouse patriotic outrage at a dastardly bit of treason.
The Gunpowder conspirators were extremely angry at what they considered to be repressive policies. The open practice of Catholicism in England had been illegal for years, and the men, all of them devout Catholics, believed that ever more repressive measures were soon to pass into law, finishing off their faith in England once and for all. The conspirators felt they had no choice but to act, and act now. And so they came upon a terrific tactic. With thirty-six casks of gunpowder stored beneath the House of Lords, in one blow they would murder most of the royal family, along with hundreds of others – parliamentarians, aides, visitors, including foreign dignitaries. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Surely the conspirators were right about that. But their strategy was terrible. They thought that their tactic, successfully executed, with such massive destruction, would trigger a revolution and bring England back to Catholicism, in league with Spain, France, and the Papacy. But it is very unlikely that their aims would have been successfully achieved over the long term. Very few people, including English Catholics, were happy about the idea once it was discovered. Not even Catholic foreign governments were happy about it. And none of them had plans in hand to arm themselves and invade England. Spain in fact was eager for peace with its Protestant rival.
The conspirators, in short, were ready to die for their cause, and to bring about the deaths of many others. But they weren’t ready to bring about the kind of revolution they wanted. They didn’t have the backing. They didn’t have the means. Fortunately, many writers and politicians, including King James himself, recognized this failing. Although in the short term some anti-Catholic hatred was stoked in the aftermath of the plot, writers and politicians of the time consistently distinguished between what the conspirators felt they had to do and what they could have reasonably achieved. The Gunpowder Plot was put down as a terrible error. A misreading of the meaning of Christianity was part of it, and of certain Catholic doctrines perhaps – but only among those for whom a misreading of something even deeper could have incited violence: a misreading of what it means to be human. That is what Shakespeare’s Macbeth among other texts has to teach us. Don’t mistake a tactic undertaken out of delusion for a strategy undertaken out of a plausible desire to change the world. Some writers, especially later on, insisted that the conspirators must have in league with something like the devil, and must have been well along in a strategy of destroying the Protestant faith. But during the crisis and its immediate aftermath cooler heads prevailed. The best defence against the power of a delusion, people from King James to Shakespeare seemed to agree, is not to be deluded oneself.
Featured image credit: The Gunpowder Plot conspirators – Warhafftige Beschreibung der Verrätherey (1606). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.