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The rise and fall of Peg Plunkett, 18th-century courtesan and consummate memoirist

If sex in the past – in the sense of what people did to each other, in or out of bed – is notoriously hard to pin down, the larger history of sexuality and society is most rewarding.

Yes, madam: an 18th-century portrait of Plunkett

Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore
Julie Peakman
Quercus, 256pp, £20

Such was the opulence of a well-known courtesan’s house in 15th-century Rome that when a visiting French ambassador was overcome by the urge to spit, he expectorated into the hand of a servant rather than using the floor. Rome, filled with Catholic clergy bound to a celibacy that didn’t include chastity, provided rich pickings for courtesans, though most of these women died in penury as their looks faded and business dried up. During their best years, a few even had their words go into print – poems on the beauty of their city, metaphysical treatises on the nature of love. These were women pretending to be who they weren’t.

Contrast that with Peg Plunkett, the 18th-century courtesan and brothel-keeper in Dublin who, when she finds her fortunes waning, announces her intention to publish her memoirs. Her aim: to generate a profit through subscriptions and sales and to shame those who have done her ill or owe her money, making them pay up to keep their names out of the finished manuscript.

Sexual history is a rich field these days and we should be grateful that Julie Peakman, who specialises in 18th-century culture and sexuality, decided that Peg’s memoirs – all three volumes of them – needed rigorous filleting for a modern audience. Despite its deliberately alluring title, Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore is not about sex (foot fetishism is about as graphic as it gets). Instead, what is on offer is a biography “to some extent built on Peg’s words”, shaping a life from rambling, often undated recollections, “littered with accounts of rivalries, petty jealousies, retributions, accusations of infidelity and broken promises”.

Born in the countryside outside Dublin around 1736 (no one knows the exact date and Plunkett was happy to keep it vague), she was one of 22 children, only eight of whom survived. When her mother died, the family was taken over by her violent elder brother who ruled with the horsewhip. Peg, in her mid-teens, manages to escape by visiting relatives and on one such trip starts a liaison with a man who promises marriage but delivers only pregnancy.

So begins an inexorable moral slide, from a series of “kept woman” relationships (a few containing real affection), through the birth and death of six children, to running various establishments of her own. Soldiers, landed gentry, judges, politicians and all manner of Dublin society flock to her. In times of plenty, she is wealthy and feted: she claims that she is “esteemed the first woman in Ireland in my line” and it doesn’t seem to be a boast. But, as a result of her generosity and living above her means, her story moves – as such stories so often do – to debt, illness and death.

The book is aimed squarely at a non-academic audience. For the most part, it has an informal, chatty style – “Peg welcomes the soldiers . . . with open arms”; “Peg was back in town and raring to go” – and assumes that its readers know nothing about 18th-century Ireland. At one level, that’s fine: the political context of Dublin under British rule, with the Catholic majority subjugated by privileged Irish and English Protestants, is important to know. But the book goes further than that. With the mention of any new person, place, fashion or mode of transport, it launches into a factual digression. It’s a temptation well known to historical novelists, who feel the need to show how much they know. Peakman clearly knows a great deal but the digressions threaten to overwhelm the character and the world that she is trying to bring alive.

Perhaps there are readers who don’t know what a wet nurse is. But a sentence would do – one doesn’t need to be told the pros and cons and given other contemporary writers’ positions on it. The same is true of the bell-hooped petticoats that Peg favours, which bring a comprehensive fashion history with them. New lovers are often introduced with a thorough genealogy and the descriptions of Dublin’s social life include the price of theatre tickets and the times, places and frequencies of concerts. In the middle of all this, Peg’s life gets overshadowed. Her journey to England ushers in a quick history of package boats, travellers’ recollections and stories of shipwrecks, with their name and dates, at the end of which we read: fortunately for Peg, her crossing was safe and she arrived in one piece. On her return home, we are told the date on which the lighthouse that welcomes her “first shone” and given a list of other historical figures who had disembarked on the quay before her: “Jonathan Swift in 1723 . . . Handel in November 1741 and John Wesley in August 1747, after a 26-hour journey”. It is as if Peakman is trying to make up for Peg’s historical slipperiness by drowning us in details.

This is a shame, for Peg, in her own words, cuts rather a dash. She was clearly successful as much for her personality as for her looks: her vivacity, appetite for fun, courage, wit and almost painful resilience shine through. “Chastity . . . is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But may I be allowed to ask – is it the only one?” she writes at one point, while still being clear-sighted – or contrary – enough to see herself as a “woman of loose turn of mind and changeable disposition”. Such quotes may be the highlights of three volumes of unreliable gossip but there is an authenticity to her voice and her life that would have been more poignant with more Peg and less extraneous detail.

The 18th century is considered by many as a watershed when it comes to sexual history. A few years ago, the Oxford historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala did an elegant job of placing what he claimed was the “first sexual revolution” firmly inside the Enlightenment, charting how religious control gradually ceded power to ideas of personal and civil liberty, taking many forms of consensual sex out of the clutches of the law altogether. Against this backdrop, Peg’s dealings with the law become most revealing. Not only does her popular reputation help her (in a spat with an actress, the jury favours her because the local shop owners know that she brings them business) but she also takes to court men who attack and abuse her and, more often than one might expect, she wins. That shows very different social attitudes to those of even 50 years earlier.

If sex in the past – in the sense of what people did to each other, in or out of bed – is notoriously hard to pin down, the larger history of sexuality and society is most rewarding. One only has to think of the crowds outside Dublin Castle (a building that I know a lot about after reading this book), celebrating a vote for gay marriage in what many regard as still a Catholic country, to see how alive that history still is. Peg Plunkett was a colourful dot on the pointillist canvas of this history. Yet I am not sure that Peakman’s “biography” does her – or her place in the larger story – full justice.

Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, “Blood and Beauty”, is published by Virago

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue