Jubilee and Nationalist Time

{As prepared for delivery November 11, 2012 at the MMLA Annual Meeting in beautiful Cincinnati, Ohio, on a panel called “Debts to the Past” ably organized by Andrew Williams.

I’m sheepish including the nerdily pre-written jokes, but they really tie the room together.}

This talk, “Jubilee and Nationalist Time,” is going to trace the concept of Jubilee from its scriptural origins to the middle of the eighteenth century. In the Hebraic Law, the jubilee year was a special observance every fifty years, when debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and alienated land was returned to its traditional owners. The scriptural authority for this idea is scattered across the Pentateuch, with references in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and it was an important metaphor in some of the prophetic books of the Bible, especially Isaiah. By placing a limit in this way on the alienability of property — including property in people — jubilee placed a kind of check on economic accumulation and, thereby, historical change. Not only did the redemption of land make the accumulation of wealth and influence in any one family unlikely, anyone who had been forced by poverty to sell themselves or their kin into bondage was periodically released. The Mosaic law reacted to the depredations of the market with a periodic reset.

But the laws also withheld these protections from strangers, from the nations living around the ancient Hebrews. It thus divided and set off the ethnic/religious/national community of Jews from the other people of the ancient Middle East. In this way, it is similar to Mary Douglas’ famous reading in Purity and Danger of the dietary laws in Leviticus — these also, she argues, serve a centripetal, integrative function, forcing the group to stick together and preventing their easy integration with other ethnic groups. Both sets of regulations underscore the lines dividing Jews from others.

But what’s interesting here is that by the eighteenth century, the idea of the Jubilee has lost its economic sense altogether. There are some people — Catholics and some flavors of dissent — for whom Jubilee maintains a spiritual sense, but this spiritualizing path was either unattractive or unavailable to the Anglican Establishment. The official culture instead gives the jubilee a new, nationalist gloss. The new jubilee is to be a secular commemoration — as secular as anything official could be in a confessional state — of royal accessions or successful battles. Perhaps we could see this as an intuitive effort to rekindle the integrative function of these financial norms through a culture of commemoration.

I want to talk about the way this transformation came to pass, and will conclude by mentioning its significance for the eighteenth century reinvention of literary history under nationalist rubrics for nationalist purposes.

First, let’s take a look at the Old Testament texts. Deuteronomy says that

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor; he shall not expect it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it; but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).

This seems pretty clear. The seventh year is what is called the Sabbatical year, on analogy with the Sabbath. On the seventh day you rest; during the seventh year, you rest.

May sabbatical years come at least this frequently in all of your lives.

Importantly, as I noted above, these protections are denied to the outsider. Those people, you can keep as slaves for as long as you want, even bequeathing them to your children: no big deal. It is only your “brother,” your co-religionist, who receives this protection.

In the sabbatical year, you leave the fields fallow. Here it is in Exodus:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard (Exodus 23:10).

The passage in Exodus doesn’t actually mention debt forgiveness, but it further develops this idea of the sabbatical year. In the extended passage, Exodus — more than the other passages — develops a sense of the sabbatical year as a spiritual exercise, by associating these practices with other righteous traits, such as regard for the truth, decency to strangers, and looking out for the poor. But, as will become important, even in Exodus there is no mention of the forgiveness of sins.

Jubilee itself, a sort of Sabbatical year of Sabbatical years, is only mentioned in Leviticus.

And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field (Leviticus 25:8-12).

The word jubilee actually comes from the Hebrew from Ram’s-horn, or at least that’s what one of my seventeenth-century Biblical commentators said. Apparently that’s what the trumpet was supposed to be made of.

I want to reiterate, before we move on, that these two laws serve these two functions. They mark the Jews as separate from their neighbors, and they prevent economic accumulation from destroying the community. While there is a subtext throughout this discussion of sanctification in a kind of Bataillean, Accursed Share mode, and an important connection to the day of Atonement, most of the Pentateuchal discussion is practical and legalistic rather than spiritual in a sense that remains legible. We learn about which slaves can be kept and which must be freed, and under what conditions; what happens if a slave wishes to remain with his master; how agricultural land should be treated versus property in walled cities — and so on.

The point here is that later senses of Jubilee as spiritual redemption are not literally present in the pentateuch.

The consensus in the rabbinical tradition holds that the jubilee was practiced until the Exilic period — that is, during the sixth century BC — and fell into disuse thereafter. But a sort of different tradition operating under the same name was recuperated by the Catholic church almost two millennia later. The Catholic jubilees were inaugurated by Pope Boniface VIII in the year 1300, although there is some dispute about whether these late Medieval jubilees were actually a resumption of an earlier medieval tradition. We don’t know: there are some indications but no corroborating evidence.

These jubilees adapted the prophet Isaiah’s metaphor between the coming of the Messiah to redeem humanity and the economic redemption offered in the year of Jubilee. In the Jubilee celebrations, therefore, indulgences and remissions of sins are offered to pilgrims who come to Rome and visit certain holy sites. There is an extensive tropics surrounding this that metaphorizes sin as a form of bondage or servitude from which one can be released, as by the Pentateuchal Jubilee.

The financial theme here is traded in and replaced by this hamartiological metaphor about sin and its redemption. There’s a different repemption on offer that has displaced the financial meaning of jubilee.

These Catholic jubilees have been continuous down to the present, at various intervals. The second one was supposed to be held in 1400, but the strong sense of God’s disapproval in Europe following the Black Death in 1348 prompted a second Jubilee in 1350. While this may not have been the soundest move epidemiologically speaking, there was apparently a spiritual demand.

After the Reformation — and here I’ve finally arrived in England following a deeply dubious translatio studii shorthand for which I trust you will forgive me — the hamartiological understanding of the Jubilee was challenged. Reformed biblical commentators like Henry Ainsworth and Samuel Purchase reject the hamartiological metaphor and the practice of the papal jubilees as simoniacal, as a way of basically parting a bunch of pilgrims from their money.

Samuel Purchase in Purchase his Pilgrimage (1614) and Ainsworth in Annotations upon the Five Bookes of Moses, etc., published a book at a time between 1616 and his death in 1622, perhaps because of the puritan historical consciousness that made them identify closely with the ancient Hebrews, understand jubilee much more literally and practically. Their commentaries read legalistically, like nothing quite so much as Coke upon Littleton.

An example: there’s a passage in Leviticus that says that if you’re selling land, and the jubilee is coming soon, you should lower the price somewhat, to compensate for the reversion that will come with the Jubilee. Uninterested in parsing this into some sort of elaborate scholastic extended metaphor, Ainsworth instead works out a kind of cost schedule of jubilee-adjusted land prices. His discussion also seems to translate ancient Middle Eastern agricultural practices into early modern English ones; there’s a lot of talk about the propriety of hedgerows, as if we’re discussing the open field system. When the talk turns to how the poor should be allowed to eat from the fields during the sabbatical year, he very clearly sees that in terms of customary gleaning rights and stinting animals on the common. Purchase talks about jubilee as an attribute of the civil government of the ancient Hebrews. For him, the jubilee is about easing the transmission through inheritence of landed property and making provision for the landless poor — again, very much seventeenth century concerns.

I don’t really know what to make of this, but I would note in passing that the return of slavery as a widespread phenomenon in Europe in the period following the discovery of America may be part of this practical turn. It may have made all this talk of the release of slaves and the like feel much more present, more realistic to these men than to the medieval Catholics. Slavery is a real thing in the sixteen teens, while it is much more readily metaphorized in 1300 when it is not as normal. Just a hypothesis.

The turning point in this reception history, so far as I can determine, comes after the Restoration. From that point forward, English invocations of the jubilee simply ignore both the literal financial significance of the biblical jubilee and the metaphorized versions altogether. The whole thing is secularized, nationalized.

So William Chamberlayne’s poem, “the English Jubilee,” written in 1660 to commemorate the Restoration of Charles II, makes no mention at all of any jubilee thematics at all, except perhaps a passsing mention of Charles II’s “redemption” of his crown, a reference that I am not at all sure, in context, was deliberate. It’s sort of a one-off.

Similarly, in the eighteenth century, the meaning of Jubilee metastasizes as an ordinary thing that people do in Establishment contexts. A Jubilee is a party, a celebration: and by 1750, everything is getting a Jubilee. The 100th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia was commemorated in 1748; there was a Royal Jubilee Venetian Masquerade held at Ranelagh in 1749 — which is interesting, because while I haven’t looked deeply at this particular event, I’m not actually sure at all why it was held in 1749, unless as the 35th anniversary of the Hannoverian succession; it seems not to have been tied as tightly to round number anniversaries. And I would be remiss not to mention George II’s disastrous Silver Jubilee in 1752. I say disastrous because this party was ruined both by the rain and by the untimely death of the Prince of Wales most of a year earlier, a national tragedy made even more complicated because George II very publicly hated his son. Some of you may remember the account of this event from John Brewer’s Pleasures of the Imagination. 

I believe this was the first Jubilee of a Royal Accession, although people sometimes confer that title onto George III’s Golden Jubilee in 1810. George III certainly held the first Golden Jubilee; perhaps that’s what they mean, or perhaps they feel that the event in 1752 is better forgotten.

The official announcements of these events made no apparent reference to either literal or metaphorical versions of the biblical Jubilee. There was no talk of release from bondage or debt, or of return to patrimony; neither was there any talk of the remission of sins.

But not because these themes were forgotten or inaccessible: At the same time, English Catholics such as the Bishop-in-Exile Richard Challoner were preparing for and celebrating the 1750 papal Jubilee. Between 1749 and 51, Challoner both worked on a translation of and commentary on the Old Testament — part of the Douay-Rheims translation of the bible, still the basis for many anglophone Catholic bibles — and a series of reflections on the Papal Jubilee. He, at any rate, was very much alive to the traditional Catholic interpretation of jubilee. Likewise, there continued to be anti-Catholic texts that focused on the jubilee as a simoniacal exercise, such as A Visit to the Jubilee — by “a gentleman,” published in London in 1758 — that displays a basic awareness of the theological motivations for the exercise, even as it denounces the same. While Challoner probably had little to no Anglican audience, the “gentleman” responsible for the anti-Catholic tract presumably did. So it is not as though this was some arcane knowledge that only Catholics possessed.

What is interesting is that the Catholic metaphorizing version of jubilee and the Puritan biblical-literalist jubilee both remain accessible — a quick ECCO search found Ainsworth’s biblical commentaries cited in an antiquarian context in 1760 — but have become undesirable in Anglican contexts. The Anglican establishment chose to abandon both the financial denotation and the spiritual connotation of jubilee, in exchange for the nationalist tone that Chamberlayne’s poem appears to have inaugurated.

I want to close by discussing one more thing: David Garrick’s 1769 “Shakespeare Jubilee.” This was a theatrical variety show of sorts held at Stratford, which contained songs, broad comic characters (including a comic Irishman I think is especially significant, which I would get into if there were more time), a parade of well-known Shakespearian characters from various plays, Hamlet next to Falstaff next to Malvolio, and an ode performed by Garrick, by then the most famous English actor, reclining under a Mulberry tree. The show was rained out in Stratford and lost money, but then reprised in London where they reportedly made the money back.

As a work of literature, it has little to recommend it. But as a popular work of public literary history, it’s fascinating. The “Shakespeare Jubilee” was a piece of secular hagiography, given in (a chronologically approximate) commemoration of the 200th anniversary of “The day that gave Immortal Shakespeare to this Favour’d Isle.” The whole logic of the event depends on what by 1769 was a received, nationalist sense of Jubilee, to inscribe Shakespeare into a vision of literary history just newly become national. This new nationalist jubilee serves this project by offering an off the rack historical consciousness which combines Big Round Numbers with this nationalist sense of history deprived of any spiritual content.

Page from "Shakespeare Jubilee" showing the libretto to "The Warwickshire Lad"

Page from “Shakespeare Jubilee” showing the libretto to “The Warwickshire Lad”

It isn’t, for example, providential that Will the Bard was a Warwickshire Lad, as one of the songs described him; it was a matter of the development of Englishness, and English pride in its national literature. Shakespeare is found to be the greatest of a canon that includes “Old Ben” Jonson, Otway, Dryden, Congreve, and “half a score more.” Against providence, or other historical understandings, literary history is seen as a kind of national bragging contest, something more like sports.

Our Shakespeare compar’d is to no man,

Nor French man, nor Grecian, nor Roman…

Aside from being quite-possibly the worst couplet I’ve ever read out loud, this is a transitional form of historical knowledge that depends on the repudiation of religious understandings of time, in order to make an argument for the continuity of national value across the traumas of the seventeenth-century: dynastic changes and revolutions. In this sense, then, the new secular jubilee did maintain its own form of somewhat unexpected fidelity to the Old Testament jubilee, at the level of historical consciousness. It underscored a national-religious boundary, and it checked the depredations of historical change, by emphasizing the continuity of tradition in the face of so many ruptures.

Thank you.