Peele's Attack on Simony in The Old Wives Tale
Frank Ardolino. ANQ. Lexington: Winter 2004.Vol. 17, Iss. 1; pg. 9

Abstract (Document Summary)

The Old Wives Tale contains a long standing crux in sanctified ground. Ardolino talks about Peele's attack on simony in The Old Wives Tale and stated that the use of the name of Simon is not a mistake on Peele's part or a reference to the actor playing the role of the churchwarden, but an indication of the simoniac practices of the Catholic Church.

Full Text (1048   words)
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Winter 2004

The Old Wives Tale contains a longstanding crux in the scene dealing with the controversy over the burial of Jack in sanctified ground. In the first and only quarto edition, which was published in 1595 after the Queen's Men had performed the play, the churchwarden's first speech at line 459 has a speech prefix indicating that his name is Simon. But he is subsequently identified twice as the Churchwarden, and in lines 495-96 he refers to himself and is referred to as Stephen Loach. Frank Hook, the editor of the authoritative Yale edition of the play, conjectured that this crux may be part of the play's overall confusion of character names such as the appearance of the dual names of Corebus and Booby for the same clownish figure. Hook also mentioned H. M. Dowling's suggestion that Simon may indicate the actor playing the role, John Symons, who joined the Queen's Men in 1588 or 1589, but, finally, he concluded that perhaps Peele includes both names because he had not made up his mind (3: 349). More recently, McMillin and MacLean have suggested that Simon may refer to Simon Jewell, who was probably a member of the Queen's Men (111). Although it is true that actors' names were sometimes substituted in Elizabethan play quartos for the characters they played, it is more probable that by identifying the greedy churchwarden as Simon, Peele is directing his reader to understand this incident in the Protestant context of attacking simony.

In the play, Eumenides has come from Thessaly to rescue Delia from the evil magician Sacrapant. When he encounters Erestus, the old man at the crossroads whom he calls "just time" (432), the senex tells him that to rescue her he must achieve "wisdome govern'd by advise" (443) and must repent that he has given more money than he has as alms "Till dead mens bones come at thy call" (446).' This advice leaves him perplexed, and, as he stands there confused, a scene unfolds before him that is directly related to Erestus's prophecy. The sexton and the churchwarden are demanding more offerings for the proper burial in sanctified ground of Jack, who is described by Steven Loach as "not worth a halfepenny, and drunke out every penny" (489-90). Jack's brother Wiggen and his friend Corebus attack their venality vociferously, and Eumenides attempts to calm the explosive situation by paying the final fee of fifteen or sixteen shillings, which leaves him with only a three-half-pence, as Erestus had foretold.

The demand by the avaricious church officials that the exorbitant funerary dues of one hundred mourning gowns be paid for Jack's sanctified burial is directly connected with anticlerical satire and the Reformation attack on simony. Significantly, Peele changes the traditional folk motif of Jack's generalized debts in the "Grateful Dead" tales to funeral dues instead (Hook 3: 325). Simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical blessings, pardons, and offices, was named after Simon Magis, the magician who challenged St. Peter in Acts 8.20 by offering the apostles money to obtain their seemingly magical powers. The practice was the target of Luther's ninety-five theses, and, as Bowker has pointed out, simony was considered the greatest sin of the age because it served as the central part of the Roman Catholic financial system of mortuary endowments, indulgences, masses, and prayers, all of which were intended to lessen the time that sinners must spend in Purgatory before ascending to heaven (86).

English anticlericalism specifically directed its attack against the church's collection of tithes and mortuary dues and the sale of indulgences (Dickens 92). In his important treatise, Supplication of Beggars (1529), Simon Fish accused the clerics of stealing wealth that belonged to the poor people and of creating a vast system of financial pillaging. Similarly, Bishop Jewel in An Apology of the Church of England (1562) attacked simony as a crime against true spirituality: "[W]hat one is there of all the fathers which hath taught you to distribute Christ's blood and the holy martyr's merits, and to sell openly as merchandises your pardons and all the rooms and lodgings of purgatory?" (92). As a result of these attacks, Parliament put pressure on the church to regulate mortuary and probate fees according to the ability of the people to pay commensurate with their financial condition (Dickens 95).

Protestantism championed the giving of voluntary charitable acts in place of enforced payments (Russell 267). Good works freely tendered promote a good community; simony, however, implies a loss of honor for those forced to pay (Wall 158). In The Old Wives Tale, Peele shows the benefits of a voluntary system of charity as opposed to the coercion practiced by the churchwarden. Those characters who freely give Erestus offerings or, as in the case of Eumenides, bestow alms according to his bidding, receive favorable prophecies and beneficial results. Because Eumenides helped Jack receive a sanctified burial, Jack returns to life as his companion, who helps him rescue his beloved Delia and kill Sacrapant.

Thus, the use of the name Simon is not a mistake on Peele's part or a reference to the actor playing the role of the churchwarden. It is an indication by Peele of the simoniac practices of the Catholic Church authorities, as personified by Steven Loach, whose surname also meant fool in the sixteenth century (OED s.v. loach, def. 3).

1. All quotations and line references are from Hook's edition.

Bowker, Margaret. "The Henrician Reformation and the Parish Clergy." The English Reformation Revised. Ed. Christopher Haigh. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 75-93.
Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. New York: Schocken, 1964.
Hook, Frank S., ed. The Old Wives Tale. The Dramatic Works of George Peele. Vol. 3. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970.
Jewel, John. An Apology of the Church of England. Ed. J. E. Booty. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1963.
McMillin, Scott, and Sally-Beth MacLean. The Queen's Men and Their Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Russell, Conrad. "The Reformation and the Creation of the Church of England, 1500-1640." The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain. Ed. John Morrill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 258-92.
Wall, John. "Church of Rome." The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton et al. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990. 153-60.

[Author Affiliation]
University of Hawaii