“THE stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh; but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.” Somewhere in the history of social relationships between the composition of Ecclesiasticus and now, this wisdom was reversed, so that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” — although we now live at a time when we are again acutely aware of the power of insult and the sensitivities of those perceived to be vulnerable.
It was in the 17th century, Professor Fara Dabhoiwala argued in The Invention of Free Speech (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week, repeat), that the balance began to shift, although, in charting this move, he confronted listeners with two of the nastiest examples of legal violence in the early modern era: the Quaker James Naylor presented himself in the mid-1650s as Jesus, and even rode into Bristol on a donkey to prove it. He was rewarded with the most excruciatingly savage of punishments, though Cromwell forbade his execution, just in case there was some truth in Naylor’s claim.
Thomas Aikenhead, in 1697, made fun of Christianity, and was executed for blasphemy: the last person to suffer such a fate in Britain.
All this in the age of such inspiring tracts as John Milton’s Areopagitica, now regarded as a seminal defence of free speech — except that nobody read it at the time; and, in any case, Milton’s enthusiasm for free speech derived not from an ethical investment in intellectual pluralism, but from a longing for the truth that might be achieved by sifting through all opinion — good, bad, and ugly.
The Radio 4 schedules last week also featured The Battles That Won Our Freedoms, creating a neat double bill. In last Tuesday’s episode, Phil Tinline looked at Roman Catholic emancipation, and traced a narrative arc that began with the Act of Toleration in 1688 and ended in 2001.
While it is Daniel O’Connell, in the 19th century, whom we credit with campaigning for the rights of Catholics in public life, certain restrictions carried on under the radar of legislators. Thus it was only in this millennium that the exclusion of former RC priests from being Members of Parliament was finally rescinded.
Perhaps the only proper view to take of these large-scale historical trends is The Long View (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). Last week, however, Jonathan Freedland’s programme strained credulity to breaking point. While it is true that the careers of Pope Gregory VII and the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman are characterised by the frustrated promise of reform, I am not sure that the Yemeni war and the investiture controversy naturally resonate across the centuries in some grand historical rhyme. Put your faith in a politician, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Ain’t that a fact.