In February 1698, the Anglican clergyman, Samuel Wesley (1662–1735) delivered a sermon in Westminster and the City on the reformation of manners. His text was Psalm 94, verse 6: ‘Who will rise up for me against the Evil-doers, or who will stand up for me against the Workers of Iniquity’?1 One of his principal targets was ‘our infamous Theatres, which seem to have done more Mischief, than Hobes [sic] himself or our new Atheistical Clubs, to the Faith and Morals of the Nation’.2 He went on to elaborate his claim about the moral dangers of theatregoing at some length:

What Communion hath the Temple of God with Idols, with those abominable mysteries of Iniquity which outdo the old Fescennina of the Heathens, the lewd Orgies of Bacchus, and the impious Feasts of Isis and Priapus? I know not how any Persons can profitably, or indeed decently, present themselves here before Gods Holy Oracle, who are frequently present at those Schools of Vice, and Nurseries of Profaneness and Lewdness, to unlearn there what they are here taught, out of Gods Holy Word.3

Yet what could a Lincolnshire cleric – two of whose sons, moreover, were the founders of Methodism – know about ‘the lewd Orgies of Bacchus, and the impious Feasts of Isis and Priapus’? The answer is, more than one might think.

It is true that the least familiar term in Wesley’s denunciation of the theatre, fescennina, had recently been discussed by John Dryden in the ‘Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of SATIRE’ that he prefixed (by way of a dedication to the Earl of Dorset) to the translations of Juvenal and Persius published in 1693. Tracing the ‘first Rudiments of Poetry’ in Italy back to harvest festivals, Dryden quotes from Horace’s epistle to Augustus: ‘Fescennina per hunc inventa licentia morem’ (‘From flowing Cups defaming Rhymes ensue’) (Epistles II.1.145). However, Horace adds, when such verbal libertas eventually turned rabid (‘In rabiem verti’; Epistles II.1.149) it became punishable by law. Dryden also draws a contrast between the ‘saturnian’ verses the ancient Romans ‘us’d in the solemn part of their Ceremonies, and the Fescennine’ ones that featured ‘in their Afternoons Debauchery, because they were scoffing, and obscene’. This ‘Gross and Rustick kind of raillery’ derived its name, he said, from the town of Fescenina where it was ‘first practis’d’.4 Surprisingly, having invoked debauchery and obscenity, Dryden does not go on to canvass the alternative etymology in which fescennina was derived from fascinum, the Latin word for the phallic emblem that warded off evil.5 This form of licentia was associated especially with marriage festivals, as seen in the epithalamia of Claudian and Catullus; ‘Let the ribald Fescennine/Jesting not be silent longer’ (‘ne diu taceat procax/Fescennina iocatio’), as the latter puts it.6

However, while it is possible that Wesley was alluding to Dryden or Catullus, it is far more likely that at the back of his mind was a book – a different kind of satire – to which he had been exposed some fifteen years or so earlier, but which also, as we shall see, cropped up in a letter he wrote to his friend Dr Charles Goodall (1642–1712), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and friend of John Locke, only a few months after delivering his sermon to the Society for the Reformation of Manners: namely, Aloisaæ Sigeaæ Toletanæ Satyra Sotadica, de Arcanis Amoris et Veneris. Aloisia Hispanicè scripsit. Latinate donavit Joannes Meursius (c. 1665). The claim being made on the title page is to the effect that this sotadical satire – alluding to Sotades, an obscene and subversive Alexandrian poet of the third century BCE – on the secrets of Love and Venus had originally been written in Spanish by Aloisia Sigea of Toledo and then translated into Latin by Johannes Meursius. Although Louise Sigée and Jan van Meurs were real enough (both were humanists of some distinction) this was a double fabrication. The actual author was Nicolas Chorier (1612–92), a Dauphinois lawyer and historian and ‘the most important erotic writer of the period’, according to James Grantham Turner.7 Originally comprised of six dialogues between the experienced Tullia and the inexperienced Octavia in which the latter is sexually initiated by the former, Chorier later added a seventh: ‘COLLOQUIUM VII. FESCENNINI’.8 During this fescennine exchange, Octavia quotes Claudian and Chorier further contrives a scenario where, as Turner describes it, ‘nuns gather round the bed of the freshly deflowered Mother Superior and “sing Fescennine songs”’.9 As this suggests, the work has a strongly anticlerical and anti-Catholic dimension; for example, its interest in flagellation – in the fifth dialogue, Octavia and her mother Sempronia are whipped before an altar by the priest, Theodorus – can be construed as a subversion of the Catholic doctrine of penance.10 That said, it is unlikely to have been the doctrinal implications of the Satyra Sotadica that primarily interested the young Wesley.

The evidence that Wesley knew Chorier’s work comes from the horse’s mouth. Indeed, it became a matter of public record during a pamphlet exchange over dissenting academies that was sparked by the controversy over ‘occasional conformity’ following the accession of Queen Anne in 1702.11 Three times between 1702 and 1704 the Tories introduced a bill to prevent nonconformists from circumventing the provisions of the Corporation and Test Acts (1661 and 1673) by conforming occasionally to Anglican rites while for the rest of the time worshipping in their own meeting houses or chapels. The reason why the academies were drawn into this larger debate was because their raison d’être was precisely that of supplying the children of nonconformists with a type of education from which they were otherwise precluded by the requirement to conform at Oxford and Cambridge; much to the annoyance of High Church Tories, it was yet another way in which the penalties for nonconformity were routinely being side-stepped. And it was into this furore, at its height in 1703, that an anonymous pamphlet by Wesley was launched, addressed to the parliamentary Grand Committee on Religion and laying bare the moral and political failings of these nonconformist institutions: A Letter from a Country Divine to his Friend in London. Concerning the Education of the Dissenters in their Private Academies in Several Parts of this Nation.

Wesley’s father had been one of the ministers ejected on St Bartholomew’s Day in 1662 with the result that Samuel was sent to Theophilus Gale’s dissenting academy in London in March 1678, as both a godly alternative to the supposedly debauched universities and to prepare for the Independent ministry, only to find upon his arrival that Gale had died. After a further spell in his old grammar school, he attended Edward Veal’s academy in Stepney and, two years later, Charles Morton’s establishment in Newington Green, where he remained for another two years.12 But, says Wesley in the Letter, discussing Morton’s academy, ‘the more I saw into what was about me, the more, I confess, I disliked it, and began to doubt whether I was in the right’. Morton personally was not the problem; it was the ethos of the student body to which Wesley belonged: ‘We almost universally entertained a Mortal Aversion to the EPISCOPAL ORDER, and very few but Equally abhorred MONARCHY it self’ – indeed, ‘KING-KILLING DOCTRINES were generally received and defended’.13 In response, Wesley turned his thoughts to Oxford, where he matriculated as a servitor at Exeter College in 1684, took his BA in 1688, was ordained a deacon by Thomas Sprat, Bishop of Rochester in August 1688, and was ordained a priest in 1689 by Henry Compton, Bishop of London. Now a loyal servant of the Church of England, Wesley had an intimate knowledge of what went on in the dissenting academies that could be deployed to blacken their reputation – even if to do so necessarily meant implicating himself in what he condemned.

The composition of the Letter actually predated its publication by several years. Wesley later disclosed that in the early 1690s he had been asked by ‘a Gentleman of the Church of England’ (presumably Goodall) to supply an account of the dissenters’ teaching methods in the academies, but held off doing so until 1693 when he happened to meet some former dissenting acquaintances and was profoundly disgusted by their ‘lewd and profane’ discourse and antimonarchical ‘railing’.14 He drafted the text of what became the Letter that very night but was dissuaded from sending it to Goodall the next day by a dissenter (possibly his own mother). However, at some point Goodall did receive the papers before returning them to Wesley to see whether he still stood by what he had said. After duly reviewing their contents, Wesley sent them back to Goodall in October 1698, and even discussed their publication in the covering letter:

At length I am as good as my word, & have by Gainsborough Carrier, which Inns in Aldersgate street at the Red Lyon, sent you back ye Papers, I have reviewed them carefully, & the matter of fact is true, & I am not unwilling any passages therein should be public, if don by a prudent Hand & for the service of the Church, tho I dare say you will not let every one see them, or make use of them, or of my Name in them.15

In the event, Goodall waited until 1703 before publishing the Letter, though Wesley’s phrasing was opaque enough for him subsequently to be able to claim with a degree of plausibility that this had been done without his consent.16

Wesley also took the opportunity in the covering letter to reply to a query from Goodall about the Newington Green students’ extracurricular reading:

As for what you desire concerning the Bookes we generally used to read, you may easily beleeve that the space of almost Twenty years blotts many things out of our minds, but what little scatterings remain I will freely give you. We had severall of us. Lucius Junius Brutus among us Milton’s Apology was In deliciis with most of us. I am apt to beleive poor Will: Jenkins formed his Latin style very much by reading him, for He had a very good one. We had also Eiconoclastes. Som of ye Lads had Meursij Elegantiæ. Aloysia Sigilla Terentia and octavia, & the most lewd abominable Bookes that ever blasted christian Ey. These you will beleive our Tutors knew not of, nor did they direct us to the former.17

These ‘scatterings’ constitute an eclectic mixture of politically and sexually radical materials. Nathaniel Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain as an ‘antimonarchical play’ in December 1680, though it was printed the following year.18 Milton’s Eikonoklastes (1649), burnt by the executioner at the Old Bailey in 1660, was another notoriously antimonarchical work. ‘Apology’ sounds like it ought to be Milton’s Apology against a pamphlet (1642). But even though the appeal of a prominent anti-prelatical tract to dissenters is obvious, the phrasing of the compliment (‘In deliciis’) and the otherwise puzzling remark about how William Jenkins had ‘formed his Latin style’ in imitation of Milton’s point instead to one of Milton’s Latin defenses of the 1650s, like Defensio pro populo Anglicano, which might be construed broadly as an ‘apology’. And it is striking that when Wesley later quoted from A Defence of the People of England, the 1692 English translation of the Defensio, he called Milton the ‘Apologist’.19 Nor is it at all impossible that there is an element of misdirection here, with Wesley simulating an imperfect recall of youthful peccadilloes that had thankfully failed to make a permanent impression upon him.

Something similar may be at work in the running together of the original title of Chorier’s work (Aloisae Sigeae Toletanae Satyra Sotadica) and the blander one under which it later circulated more freely (Joannis Meursii elegantiae latini sermonis) as ‘Meursij Elegantiæ. Aloysia Sigilla Terentia and octavia’.20 Since the letter in the Bodleian is only a copy of Wesley’s original, it is unclear whether he or the transcriber was responsible for the errors whereby the surname Sigea improbably becomes ‘Sigilla’ (‘little images’, ‘statuettes’) and ‘Toletanae’ turns into ‘Terentia’ (possibly informed by a subliminal association with ‘Octavia’; Cicero’s wife and daughter were called Terentia and Octavia respectively). The confusion – or deliberate obfuscation – was partially undone by the printer in 1703, who, perhaps working from a more accurate copy text, rendered the phrase in question as ‘Meursii Elegantiae, Aloysia Sigæa Terentia and Octavia’.21 The italics now made clear that a further and separate work had featured in the students’ clandestine reading: namely, the anonymous and derivative Aloisia, or, The Amours of Octavia Englished (1681).22 What is striking is that Wesley switches in the course of the passage from the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ to talking about the ‘Lads’, thereby – so the implication seems to be – excluding himself from the circle of those who read Chorier, before resuming with ‘us’, which is to say the body of students not directed to antimonarchical works by their tutors. One might deduce from this that, for Wesley, politically radical material was less compromising than what was sexually transgressive.

It is true that there is a residual ambiguity about what Wesley means when he goes on to say ‘& the most lewd abominable Bookes that ever blasted christian Ey’. In a recent article, Nicholas D. Nace assumes that Wesley can only have been referring to other erotic works in addition to those already named; Wesley, he says, ‘is not at first specific about these “lewd abominable Books” but implies that they must exceed even the excesses of Chorier’.23 For Nace, then, the ‘and’ is simply connective (OED, conj.1 1.a). Seventeenth-century usage would suggest instead that it is being deployed by way of introducing an amplificatory clause, as when, to adopt the OED’s example, Gonzalo says in The Tempest, ‘I heard a humming (And that a strange one too)’ (OED, conj.1 9.a). At this stage, therefore, Wesley was not hinting at further revelations that might be made but underlining just how obscene he thought Chorier and his anonymous imitator were.

Wesley’s attack on the academies was, however, soon picked up by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Palmer.24 At the time, Palmer was a dissenting minister though he was to take Anglican orders later in the decade.25 In his Defence of the Dissenters Education in their Private Academies, Palmer countered these allegations about the ‘lads’ by imagining what their counterparts at Exeter College would have read: not only orthodox works like Salmasius’s Defensio regia and Eikon Basilike, but also heterodox ones like ‘the State Poems, and Rochester’s Sodom’.26 Wesley obligingly rose to the bait; in this oddly back-to-front competition, it was now incumbent upon him to show that these heterodox texts too had been available at Newington Green, even though it meant implicating himself more deeply still in questionable reading practices.

At the same time, we should be glad he did so, because in the process he supplies invaluable information about the dissemination and reception of Marvell’s satires, as well as poems on affairs of states more generally, before they made their way into print and became much more easily accessible at the time of the Glorious Revolution. Wesley had earlier confessed to having been one of those who composed ‘the bitterest & most scandalous & ill mannerd sarcasms’ against the clergy and liturgy of the established church, but now claimed that he had merely been following the example of his elders and betters.27 ‘I cannot tell’, he claimed,

whether the most famous among the Dissenting Ministers were the most Provok’d of their Party; but this I’m sure of, that they were the Men from I learnt this way of Writing. That in their Hands I first saw the Lampoons which were then most famous against the Government; that I’ve heard these often repeated from their Lips, Oaths and all, so often that some of ’em yet stick in my Memory. I wish I knew how to get them out gain, particularly that zealous and religious Prayer “Noah be----- and all his Race accurs’d; ---- which that Good Man from whom I learnt it, can scarce forget, if still living, since he had that very Line so often in his Mouth: And ’twas the hearing these so frequently repeated and applauded, that kindled an Emulation in me, and set me on Imitation, in Hopes to be a Marvel, or some such notable Fellow amongst ’em.28

The line that the minister so frequently quoted, and that Wesley could not get out of his head, is from Marvell’s The Second Advice to a Painter (1666), forming the opening salvo in the twenty-line curse delivered by one of the sea-sick ‘gallants’ off Lowestoft:

Noah be damn’d and all his race accurst
That in sea-brine did pickle timber first.
What though be planted vines! He pines cut down.
He taught us how to drink, and how to drown.
He first built ships, and in that wooden wall
Saving but eight, e’er since endangers all…
  —(ll. 129, 135–40)29.

If we call to mind the readership of the advice-to-a-painter poems, then it would probably include Marvell’s fellow-MPs, naval administrators like Pepys, Marvell’s patrons such as Harley or Wharton, compilers of newsletters, those who managed scriptoria, and, quite possibly, Charles II himself. This is because state satire, as Harold Love points out, was ‘addressing a much broader and less predictable audience than the courtiers’ at whom court satire was aimed.30 Even so, we are unlikely to think of dissenting clergyman like Charles Morton as having internalized satirical verses from the 1660s in this way. It seems reasonable to assume it was Morton in this instance because Wesley also referred to him as a ‘Good, tho’ mistaken man’ in the 1693 text (adding nevertheless that he ‘particularly cautiond us against Lampoons or Scandalous Libells agt superiors, & that from the Immorality, as well as danger of being the authors or dispersers of them’).31 Moreover, the fact that Morton had emigrated to New England in the mid-1680s would explain why Wesley was unsure in 1704 whether he was still alive or not (he had actually died in Charlestown in 1698).

It is surely significant that Wesley immediately goes to discuss his ambition to be another Marvell. Can this be taken as indirect confirmation of Marvell’s authorship of The Second Advice? None of the printed editions of the work attributed it to Marvell.32 Had Wesley perhaps seen a manuscript with this attribution – if so, something of a rarity given that only one such is known to have survived?33 Or was Marvell’s authorship just something that was widely known or presumed to be the case in the early 1680s? At all events, Wesley does appear to have been unusually well-informed about Marvell and his writings. When Palmer, in a further contribution to the exchange, mentioned ‘Mr. Baies’, Wesley immediately picked up the allusion to Marvell’s The Rehearsal Transpros’d (1672), and tartly reminded Palmer ‘that Marvel is dead, and he must not pretend to weild his Weapons against the Church’.34 Palmer also sought to defend dissenting authors from charges of subversion by counter-claiming that

a multitude of Factious and Seditious Books are spawn’d by the Members of the Church of England, and of the two Universities, and I’le name some of ’em in the State Poems, which are Damn’d for Sedition, and admir’d for their Wit. We find Mr. Waller, Mr. Sprat, and Mr. South writing Panegyricks upon Cromwel and Rochester, Denham, and Marvel, that strike so severely at the Conduct of Charles II. were of the Universities. (39)

Palmer evidently had on his desk a copy of the 1703Poems on Affairs of State: From the Time of Oliver Cromwell, to the Abdication of K. James the Second which allowed him to embarrass, among others, members of the Anglican establishment such as Thomas Sprat (currently Bishop of Rochester) and Dr Robert South (currently prebendary of Westminster and canon of Christ Church) by highlighting their protectoral verses.35 Wesley’s riposte – passing over in silence the names of Sprat and South – was to the effect that the universities had actually been

in the Dissenters Power when the Persons whom he mentions were Educated there, particularly Rochester, Denham, Marvel and the rest; the last of which one wou’d have thought they might have excepted for the Faithful Service he did the Dissenters all his Life, or at least for the many Seditious Satyrs and Pamphlets which he wrote against his Prince, for which they so highly admired him.36

Whereas Palmer viewed Marvell as a university man, Wesley thought of him as a fellow-traveller of the dissenters and therefore as someone who really should have been ‘excepted’ from Palmer’s strictures. Indeed, Wesley underlined the point when subsequently discussing anti-episcopal satire: ‘I believe Marvel himself was no Profes’d Dissenter, and yet how much he was their Friend and our Enemy, we have both cause to remember’.37 As a summary of Marvell’s religious commitments, this is hard to fault.

Palmer, as we saw, relied on one of the volumes of state poems printed in 1703 for a conspectus of subversive writings.38 But here, too, Wesley was quick to claim priority:

As for the State-Poems, he may be pleas’d to take Notice, that scarce One of ’em was extant in those times, but what we had amongst us, either in Print or Manuscript; and that some of those Manuscripts I lately mentioned, are part of that Choice Collection which has been since Printed: And so much for his State-Poems.39

The implication seems to be that the proliferation of printed collections of state poems from 1689 onwards was a misleading guide to the situation in the earlier years of the decade. Back then, such collections had to be assembled on an ad hoc basis from whatever print or manuscript versions of satires were to hand. To some degree, the survival of these texts was an achievement rather than something to be taken for granted, and one in which dissenting academies had played a crucial part.

The likelihood that Wesley was personally involved in the transmission of these materials becomes clear when he turns to the other item on Palmer’s putative Oxford reading-list, the burlesque drama, Sodom:

As for what he call’s Rochester’s Sodom, tho’ the Lewdness of it is so far beyond even Rochester’s, and the Sense so far below him, that he has publickly disclaim’d it, I have this to say, That we had some Copies of it amongst us at Newington Green, tho’ I don’t remember I ever saw it any where else; and One of the Gent’ there employed me to transcribe it for him, and I did accordingly transcribe it, for which God forgive me!40

Yet again, Wesley cannot resist displaying his superior knowledge of heterodoxy, positioning himself as an aficionado of Rochester’s writings such that his authorship of Sodom is declared unthinkable on grounds of the drama’s excessive obscenity and lack of literary sensibility.41 To the best of my knowledge, the possibility that Rochester was directly asked whether he had written Sodom has never been canvassed – still less the fact that, according to Wesley, he publicly disavowed it. At the very least, Wesley’s claims need to be factored into the still-inconclusive debate over the attribution of Sodom (Nace, for example, does not consider the point as such). Quite apart from this, it is telling that class divisions were carried over into the academy so that Wesley could be paid to transcribe Sodom by one of the gentleman students (Wesley mentions elsewhere that scions of the aristocracy like Lord Wharton’s son, Henry (‘Harry’), attended Newington Green).42 When Wesley later needed money to complete his studies at Oxford he ‘was employd to transcribe som manuscripts in the Bodley’ and, ‘being out of place and business’ in November 1689, found work ‘correcting to a Press’.43 The various milieux in which texts, clandestine or otherwise, circulated and were reproduced were all familiar to Wesley.

There was a heavy price to pay for these damaging revelations about the academies. In April 1705, Wesley returned to his living in Epworth after spending several months in London where his hopes of preferment after publishing a poem on the victory at Blenheim, Marlborough; Or, The Fate of Europe, had been raised and then dashed. He found ‘ye face of things mightily altered’ in the run-up to what was to prove a bitterly contested general election. Not only were the ‘Church, ye Clergy, & Universitys openly insulted’ but ‘ye Martyr’s memory [was] affronted, & ye Usurper Oliver’s vindicated by those from whome one would least expect it; yt was grown a dangerous thing to write agst ye dissenters or in vindication of ye Church of England’.44 His dissenting opponents had him arrested for debt on 23 June, and he was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle.45 Four days later, he wrote to a fellow-divine explaining that ‘my kind Friends ye Whiggs haue thrown me into Gaol’ on the grounds ‘both of writing and preaching Treason’. He had been expecting it, he said, ‘ever since I was in London’, where he had come under severe pressure to ‘Retract in Print wt I had publish’d agt ye Dissenters’ but had steadfastly declined to do so.46 Wesley’s stubborn adherence to his principles surely adds to his credibility as a source of information about the ethos of Morton’s academy and the insight that it affords into the afterlife of Marvell’s writings (we should remember that Wesley was reading Marvell within a few years of his death at a time of extraordinary political tension; students from Newington Green were accused of supporting the Whig campaign in the London shrieval elections of 1681). What this altogether unexpected configuration of early modern texts shows is that Marvellian state satire and pornography were (to borrow a phrase from Robert Darnton) the forbidden best sellers of pre-Revolutionary England.