The Great Fire – in requiem

September 2 is the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, 1666. One of the most tragic and iconic single moments in English social history, the Fire blazed 3 days (Sunday to Wednesday) and essentially gutted the ancient, medieval part of the city, which had been built with mostly flammable materials such as wood and thatch. (Despite long prohibitions on them, they continued to be used)

Of an estimated 80,000 residents in the City proper (i.e. the old walls – about 500,000 in the whole city, though), the homes of as many as 70,000 people may have been destroyed. Many people were forced to flee to the countryside, where they spread rumors of Catholic perpetration of the fire. Outside London, few Englishmen saw anything beyond their county, or even town, so the shock was large, and the listeners credulous. Common to the period following was a superstitious belief that some Catholics carried magic “fireballs” with which to execute their plans of incineration.

Importantly, English fears shifted from republican plots of upheaval, left over from the Civil Wars and substantiated in part by several 1660s attempts, to the latent and vehement anti-popery that would fill English politics for the next hundred years. This change is evident when we recall that the wretched wave of the bubonic plague that came in 1665 was often attributed to Providence, for judgment on the nation’s regicide. The Providential explanation was minimal in 1666, though, and Jesuits were quickly the culprits. Most immediately, this shift allowed England to “forget” the Interregnum and the crimes of Cromwell, continuing the practice of Opposition while de-linking it from the theories of the Levellers and Fifth Monarchy Men, and the instability that followed (1641-1660).

The fervent anti-Catholicism of the masses was stoked and re-stoked ‘til it exploded in 1678, when a man named Titus Oates unveiled a supposed conspiracy to kill the king and thereby change the country’s religion. Though an elaborate hoax, the kingdom and especially the City convulsed in an anti-popery furor. Without the fear of being labeled a disorderly republican, the Earl of Shaftesbury was able to create an organized, self-sustaining opposition (the Whigs) based on anti-Catholicism. His efforts to exclude the King’s brother and Catholic successor, James, from the throne failed, but were the basis for the Glorious Revolution a decade later.

As a Humane Pursuits post, a lesson befits this history: the development of ideas is rarely so linear as to look easy or evade the influence of non-intellectual events (like the 1666 fire), but on the other hand, minds are substantially formed and informed by real ideas once they are out there. So it’s not a pure development – e.g. one specific theory of liberalism does not “necessarily” lead to another specific one. Also, ideas aren’t just material conditions expressing themselves in the ideas of the ruling class – e.g. a theory of Catholic plotting had to be articulated before it could take hold, and then the paradigm became difficult to shake; Whig theory in fact became based on it. Rather, theory works out as an intricate interplay of residual ideas reinterpreted and misinterpreted, of old practices being justified with new logic, of undefended activity becoming newly articulated. The past lives on, but it’s rarely the same past it once was.

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