Blind devotion: sight-loss and religion in early modern Britain

The following is a slightly amended version of a paper I delivered to the Experiences of Dis/Ability conference last August in Tampere.

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In 1636, the wealthy Cheshire gentleman, William Bereton, was touring Scotland. A staunch puritan, Bereton was a Protestant nationalist, with anti-Popish attitudes, who showed revulsion to the imposition of Catholic ceremonial, and admired Scotland’s Presbyterian church. In Edinburgh, Bereton heard Archibald Scaldee, a preacher ‘much to be admired’ because he was blind. We know more about Scaldee from the spiritual diary of Archibald Johnston of Warriston, who was mentored by the blind minister. Johnston took note of Scaldee’s sermons on Psalms, which compared the persecution of the Jews with the seventeenth-century Scottish Church under threat from the reforms of Archbishop William Laud. Scaldee’s laments convinced Johnston God marked out the chosen by their suffering: He sent his ‘weakest instruments’ to perform His works, and among the weakest were the mute and the ‘blind’, like Archibald Scaldee.

There is scattered evidence of blind ministers’ exalted status in early modern Britain. In 1667, the devout countess of Warwick recorded hearing a blind minister, Richard Lucas, preach at Chelsea. On their first encounter, Warwick felt pity, but after some conversation, she concluded the preacher was a much more pious Christian than those who ‘had the eyes of their understanding darkened’, and prayed God to rather blind her eyes than keep her mind blind of religion. Lucas would agree: his blindness prompted him to compose Enquiry after Happiness, which set out a practical route to attaining Christian perfection.

It was not just ministers who found special favour with God: the poet John Milton went completely blind writing Paradise Lost. Milton thought his blindness gave him powers of prophecy.

Both men born blind and those who became blind by accident or disease could rise to prominence: the Lacastrian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Nicholas Saunderson, was blinded by smallpox in his youth, while the Glasgow historian, William Jameson, was blind from birth. Exceptional ability need not preclude charitable assistance: in 1688, church courts handed Jameson money, on grounds that ‘his infirmitie’ meant he could be ‘imployed in no beneficial service tending to the relief of his daylie infirmitie’. They paid for a ‘man to wait upon him’. Milton relied on his nephews and his daughters to put his final works to paper, in exchange for a thorough education in the classics.

On the conventional narrative, the history of disability is the story of prejudice. Emerging out of British activist circles in the 1970s, the ‘social model of disability’ saw disability as something society did to those with physical impairments. Historians of disability have therefore taken for their subject the methods societies used to exclude the physically-impaired. This has produced oddly Whiggish accounts, which read disability history as a story of progress towards full inclusion. So, we read that medieval society put ‘stumbling blocks’ in blind people’s paths. On this account, barriers only began to be lifted in the eighteenth century, when a blind man, Louis Braille, invented a language that allowed blind people to communicate, and concerned French and British citizens set up schools for the blind.

This narrative is skewed by design: the social model looks for prejudice and finds it. It also privileges equality over diversity — suggesting the only positive outcome for disabled people is emulating our able-bodied peers.  Social-model history therefore ignores the value of disability in shaping a person’s identity, obscuring the positive meanings pre-modern societies ascribed to it — the attractions of a blind minister like Archibald Scaldee — while papering over more ad hoc forms of charity that allowed those like Jameson and Milton to ‘get along’ with others.

In her work on medieval blindness, Joy Hawkins has tried to escape these limitations. She points out that before the development of modern ophthalmology, too many people (including many of the elite) experienced blindness to give the exclusion narrative plausibility. Hawkins has examined the treatment of blindness and the meanings medieval folk ascribed to it — sometimes a result of sin, sometimes of virtue. She demonstrates that people followed Christ’s example to set up charitable institutions specifically catering to the blind.

I want to move into the early modern era, to ask if religious belief could still help those with visual impairments. I’ll examine two cases, George Hakewill and Alexnder, 3rd Earl of Kincardine. Hakewill was chaplain to Prince Henry, whom Godly puritans believed would save Britain from the Catholic religion. Hakewill is known for his critique of images, The Vanitie of the Eye which provided Stuart Clark with the title to his brilliant recent account of the early modern reaction against the visual. But what Clark failed to notice is that Hakewill was blind himself. Understanding the Vanitie as the work of a blind author challenges us to think about the Puritan condemnation of imagery in a more positive light, or perhaps, a more positive darkness. What I mean can be seen by my second example, the 3rd Earl of Kincardine. The Earl has been obscured by the fame of his father, a minister in Charles II’s government. Yet, a unique correspondence survives which allows us to trace how mystical piety — which contrasted divine light with worldly darkness — gave his son a more assured path to Heaven.

Hakewill’s Vanitie of the Eye takes as its point of departure the multitude of sins the eye causes: wantonness, gluttony, covetousness, pride and contempt. The eye was the Devil’s main way to deceive. It had caused Eve to sin. Hakewill’s oculophobia was not entirely religious: He was deeply indebted to classical models and drew on  recent philosophical scepticism. Published in 1608, while Hakewill was completing his doctoral studies with European Calvinists, the minister saw his Vanitie as a high-road to the English court: the final chapter gave all the reasons why blind men shouldn’t be excluded from political office. Preferment came swiftly: in 1612, Hakewill became tutor to Prince Henry, with special orders from King James to protect his son from Roman Catholic influence. Hakewill’s quick promotion was thanks to his cousin, Elizabeth Periam, who had connections to the upper echelons of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. Vanitie was written as a piece of spiritual counsel by a man who had lost his sight for a woman losing hers, possibly Periam herself. By printing it, Hakewill hoped to guide other blind people and inform public discourse about blindness and religion. Ultimately, he wanted a job!

Hakewill saw his blindness as a blessing from God, which made him more attuned to God’s workings in his soul: ‘I have lost’, he explained, ‘the fruition of the sight of the heavens’, but ‘by that losse I know the worth of that fruition the better; and now mine eie is ever fixed upon [God]’. Hakewill found blindess had positive effects: it made him less prone to Satan’s deceits and encouraged charity in his friends. God sent angels to ‘pitch their tents about’ him. Hakewill identified himself as one of the Godly because he was blind.

Portrait of George Hakewill, unknown artist, Exeter College, University of Oxford
unknown artist, George Hakewill (1578-1649), Exeter College, University of Oxford

The eyes were capable of judging only ‘corporal, accidental [and] particular things’, and then only ‘by their crust and surface’, and with the aid of light. To objections that the world constituted a ‘book of nature’ — a form of divine revelation parallel to Scripture — Hakewill countered that humans were crafted in accordance with our prelapsarian state. Satan had exploited Eve’s sight of the apple to corrupt her, and He continued to work through the eyes, instruments of ‘curiosity and presumption’ by which false Christians, like their pagan ancestors, attempted to enter the holy of holies, in breach of the Second Commandment.

Running through Vanitie was a critique of the veneration of images. God spoke to people through public preaching and private spiritual exercises. The ‘divel takes occassion to withdraw the mind’ from these verbal exercises ‘by nothinge less than by the wandring of the eie’.  St. Paul, Jewish rabbis, even Islam made it clear: women should be covered. This discouraged men from worshipping them as idols. The Roman church, like its pagan forebears, placed the ‘main part of their superstitious worship in the eie service’.

The Bible taught not to judge by outward appearances. In listing rules to discern true and false spirits, Ecclesiastes argued no judgement should be made on sight. God confirmed this when telling Samuel that while ‘man looketh on the outward appearance … God beholdeth the heart’.  Because it took away ‘lustful lookes’, blindness gave less opportunities to sin. Hakewill listed examples from classical, Biblical and British antiquity of virtuous blind people, starting with Democritus, who ‘supposing the sharpeness of his sighte to hinder the quicknesse of his wit’, plucked them out. None of the Bible’s blind characters were branded with vice. On the contrary, many were renowned in virtue and ‘commended to prosperity’.

Blindness produced opportunities for devotion, and so sighted people should follow the examples of the blind. What the blind lost in their eyes, they gained with their other senses. So Jesus prayed more often in the darkness than in the light, and he ‘commands us to practice the same’, keeping our doors closed, so we are not disturbed by the light.

Hakewill concluded that the blind cannot sin. He deploys a number of Biblical passages to show the ‘care and respect’ Jesus had for the blind. Most of the cited passages call us to show particular charity for the blind, but many early modern commentators argued Jesus denied blind people agency. Hakewill uses Jesus’ encounter with a man born blind to make the argument that, because they provided Jesus his preferred example of the poor and dispossessed, the blind are guaranteed a place in Heaven. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples ask whether the man’s blindness was the result of his parents’ sins — the standard ancient explanation for blindness. Jesus responds in the negative: it wasn’t the result of their sin, but so that God’s works could be made manifest in him. Jesus proceeds to cure the blind man, using his stock response that he has come to turn the world upside down: ‘For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind’.  Hakewill hones in on the last verse of John’s account, ‘If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth’. The passage showed ‘our Saviour not only excuseth blindnesse, as not proceeding from sin, but’ makes it the cause of ‘not sinning’.

This became the standard Puritan view of blindness: Christ had shown special favour to the blind because of their suffering, which meant that they were assured a place in Heaven. This understanding was premised on certain epistemological claims: the soul provided men and women with direct access to God, an inward ‘moral sense’, which was a source of knowledge immune from corruptions of their outward senses.

The idea of an inward sense was contested in 1689, when John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke argued that everyone was born ignorant of the world around them. All knowledge derived from outward senses: sight was most reliable. The only knowledge a man born blind would have of the outside world was through the sense of touch—and Locke did not think touch was very reliable.

Locke’s epistemology posed serious problems for Christian theology. One of the most interesting responses was the promotion of mystical theology. In his Faith and Reason Compared of 1707, the French Luteran pastor, Pierre Poiret contested Locke’s claim that without the senses, the human mind was a blank state. But Poiret accepted the premise of Locke’s argument: the human mind was a tabula rosa. Poiret proposed that the soul was a sixth sense, through which all men and women perceived God. In 1708, Poiret published his catalogue of mystic writers — to prove the number of people inspired by God. Foremost among Poiret’s authors was St. John of the Cross. John’s Dark Night of the Soul argued that all creatures were related to God, but all were infinitely distant from him. Nothing created could serve to reunite them with God. Before embarking on a spiritual journey, the soul needed to separate itself from created things to travel securely through the dark night to faith.

It’s worth reflecting on this argument. First, let’s recall George Hakewill’s suggestion that vision distracted from God, but hearing brought us closer to him. St. John went further: all senses distracted from God within. If everything outside distracted men and women from the ultimate goal of union with God, those incapable of experiencing the outside world need to make less effort to reach him. Hakewill lauded the blind while disparaging the deaf. John of the Cross believed all sensory impairment brought us closer to God.

What effect did this have on blind people? To answer, let’s examine the case of the 3rd Earl of Kincardine, who was tutored by the Scottish minister, James Aird. In the 1690s, Aird became a follower of Poiret, and counselled the 2nd earl of Kincardine, his Dutch wife, and their children in Poiret’s mysticism. We have a number of Aird’s own compositions, including Moral Meditations upon the Mysteries of Christ, which argued that Christ had called the dispossessed to be his champions, and that women were God’s chosen vessels to reveal his truth to a world corrupted by manly virtu. Moral Meditations sought to guide women in mystical contemplation. Aird selected works of devotion for pious women. He created such compilations for the 2nd Earl’s wife, Veronica Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, and for their daughter, Elizabeth Bruce, which give us an unrivalled insight into the spiritual life of an early modern noble family. But it is Aird’s counselling of the Earl’s blind son, Alexander, which is of special interest. The correspondence shows the mystics’ championing of interior devotion led them to extoll the religious virtue not just of women, but of blind people: all were less burdened by worldly distractions than able-bodied men.

Our main source is a collection of letters and devotional materials addressed to Betty, but intended to be shared with her brother, Alexander, whose blindness meant he relied on his sister to read to him. The collection is part of a series of papers collected by Betty Bruce, and catalogued by her grandson, James Boswell, who was fascinated by his grandmother’s mysticism. Boswell tells us that Alexander was blinded in a riding accident in his youth that prevented him from reading or writing. Aird’s letters to him were communicated through his sister. Aird writes to Alexander in the first person, but Betty is there at a distance: his first letter is addressed to Lady Elizabeth Bruce, but is superscribed ‘my Lord’, and prefaced with Aird’s remark that ‘this, as all others of this streame, is only to be by you communicated to your brother alone’. He concludes that he ‘chearfully communcates’ his letters, so ‘that your bosome freind and secretary, to whom I addresse this, will I hope also reap benefit, by these, transmitted from her and your Lordships freind and servant’. Betty intrudes again in a later letter, where the idea that both Alex, and his sister, could reap benefits from his spiritual counsel is made explicit: ‘My Lord, & you Madam, I hope for your Christian deference you have to them both, will pardon, my inserting this passage’.

Aird believed Kincardine, as a blind noble, could provide an example to the rest of society. He closed one of his letters with a prayer that ‘his Lordship may be made ane emient example and instrument in the kindome of our Lord, among men, by righteousness  by holynes unto God, and innocency of Lyfe’. Writing to Betty when her brother was ill, Aird restated his desire Alex be made an ‘eminent example and instrument of reviving the primitive spirit of religion, and the life that shined once in the saints – so much now decayed’.

Aird made similar points to his other two charges, Betty and her mother, Veronica: his comments suggest there was something special that these two women shared with their blind relative: all were less likely to be distracted by externals and far more attuned to God. In Moral Meditations, written for Betty in 1693, Aird argued the ’singlenes of heart, ane honest simplicity’ which women are ‘endowed with’ can discover ‘the will of God, more distinctly, then all those’ male ‘reasonings which for the most part, disturb, cheat and mislead us’. While he does not explicitly say Alexander is more virtuous for being blind, Aird implies this, focusing on the Earl’s worldly affliction. Human ‘infirmities and sinful despondencies’, he writes, set off ‘love of God, more livelily’. His fellow minister George Monro was explicit: Betty and her brother had been selected as ‘examples of self-denial and contempt for the world’. God had chosen Kincardine because he was blind: ‘to arise on him in darkness’. Both ministers believed Alexander Bruce could be a better Christian because he was blind.

Early modern piety privileged interior devotion over external senses. The eyes were the main path the Devil had into our souls. Blindness protected people. Christian theology emphasised the need to suffer in this world to prepare for the next. The poor and the vulnerable were afforded a special place in Heaven. For puritan Calvinists, blindness was a sign of election.

Furthermore, early modern men and women were not seen as lone agents, they were members of communities who could care for them. Unlike modern disability rights theories, which assert it is the state’s duty to level out differences between able-bodied and disabled people, early modern society was based on a much more localised system of care, based on a Christian concept of charity. Relatives and friends together ensured the blind could live active lives in the world.

The historiography of disability has been guided by the social model, which suggests it is society that disables. But this does not work in different contexts — like early modern Britain. Here, a different set of assumptions about reasons for an impairment, and the duties that society had towards those individuals, enabled those with physical impairments to participate more fully in the world.

You are welcome to link to, and cite, this article. Please do not use material from this article without citation. This article is a work-in-progress report, and should not be taken as my last word on the subject. I have tried to provide links to representative sources, where possible. I am working to produce a longer version of this article for publication.