Anti-Intellectualism and the Invisible Man

L0040942 Ancient herbalists and scholars of medicinal lore (Galen,
L0040942 Ancient herbalists and scholars of medicinal lore (Galen, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

By Sara M. Butler; posted 22 August 2016.

If any lessons have come home to roost as a result of this election cycle, it is that America is in the grip of anti-intellectualism. Polls indicate that Republican supporters of Donald Trump are overwhelmingly white males with little education, who regard universities as bastions of liberalism. When President Barack Obama speaks of providing opportunities to go to university to a wider pool of applicants, his words are greeted as elitism, a serious blow to blue collar values and lifestyle, and distinctly unAmerican. Admittedly, we could easily have seen this coming.  Not only did Richard Hofstadter issue a powerful (if densely worded) warning with his 1963 publication, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the flag of anti-intellectualism waves enthusiastically throughout the American south.  With state-wide bans on revisionist history (Florida, 2006), anti-ethnic studies initiatives (Arizona, 2012), and Texas edition textbooks for history and biology that omit evolution in favor of “creation science,” university professors work in a climate of increasing hostility to actual learning.

Anti-intellectualism in the Anglo-American world is nothing new.  In fact, one might argue it is the foundation of American culture.  In 1642, the Puritan minister John Cotton warned:  “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee if the Lord leave you.”[1] Since that time, Americans have struggled through the Butler Act of 1925 (prohibiting public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of humanity’s origins), McCarthyism, renunciations of global warming, and the Tea Party. How deeply imbedded is anti-intellectualism in American society?

A 1441 bill from England’s court of Chancery reminds us that intellectuals have always been greeted with a high degree of suspicion by those within their community who simply could not fathom what an intellectual might do all day. Richard Barbour, an employee of Thomas and Elizabeth Bothewell, lord and lady of the manor of Sutton in Bedfordshire, responsible for supervising the gathering of rents, complained about two of Sutton’s most troublesome tenants. Thomas Burgeyn (aka, Burgoyn) and Thomas Kyrkeby spent much of their time harassing Barbour and the manor’s other tenants. Barbour claimed to have been assaulted and terrorized by the two Thomases, to the point that he was “in such fear that he dare not go about his office.”  What had driven Barbour to write to the chancellor asking for assistance, however, was that Thomas Kyrkeby had of late enlisted his brother, Richard, to the cause.  Until very recently, Richard Kirkeby had been a scholar at the University of Cambridge, where it is “openly said [that he] uses certain necromancies and other craft to make himself go invisible, and by that craft he would mischieve a man or maybe war of him.” The two Thomases were “counselled and governed in all their malicious proposals” by the said Richard Kirkeby, and Barbour and the tenants were “put to such trouble that they were at the point of leaving the said lordship” (presumably the goal of all this harassment). Barbour meekly begged the chancellor for writs of sub pena directed to all three, to have them appear before him in the court of Chancery, and examine the case, thus bringing an end to the threats and intimidation.[2]

Barbour’s petition tells us much about anti-intellectualism in fifteenth-century England. His description of Richard Kirkeby speaks not only to fear of the intellectual, but also to the power of knowledge. M.T. Clanchy has written of the distrust experienced by Englishmen in transitioning from an oral to written culture.[3]  Yet, Barbour’s sense that books contain secret, dangerous knowledge – such as the ability to become invisible in order to terrorize one’s brother’s neighbors! — reminds us that this process was not complete by the fifteenth-century.  While today university professors are accused of spreading liberal propaganda, medieval university professors dealt with similar accusations.  Heresy, or more particularly, perversion of Catholic doctrine, was the most common accusation. Oxford scholar John Wycliffe was held responsible for the rise of the Lollards no matter how hard he attempted to disassociate himself from them. Sorcery (a particularly virulent form of heresy) was the most pressing late medieval concern.  While popular history perpetuates the image of the medieval witch as women living on the margins of society, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe was far more concerned about learned magic, perpetuated by the clerical elite in the university environment.  Bernard Gui’s Practica inquisitionis heretic pravitatis (The Practice of Inquisition into Heretical Depravity) saw educated clerics as the most dangerous of all sorcerers, because of their love of necromantic rituals and misuse of the sacraments.[4]

Fear of academics and their books can be seen throughout the surviving legal documentation. A 1432 letter patent records a commission to arrest Thomas Northfelde, professor of divinity and member of the order of Preachers, to “search and seize all his books treating of sorcery or wickedness, and bring him and them before the council.”[5]  A Yearbook from 1371 reports the case of a man taken to Southwark with the head and face of a dead man, and also a book of sorcery in his pack.  No indictment had been brought against him, so justices made him swear that he had never been a sorcerer; the book and the head were burned at Tothill, at the prisoner’s charge.[6]  Henry Hoigges of Bodmin in Cornwall, a gentleman, accused the prior of Bodmin of setting a sorcerer against him in revenge for standing as an attorney in a suit of oyer and terminer against the prior. Hoigges claimed the prior hired Sir John Harry, a priest, and that by his “malice and evil will, imagining by subtle crafts of enchantment, witchcraft, and sorcery maligned the said suppliant endlessly” and through “pure withcraft he broke his leg” so that he was “in despair of his life.”  Worse, he had openly bragged of his plan to use “enchantment, witchcraft and sorcery” to brake Hoigges’ neck, and “destroy” him, unless the chancellor took pity on him and offered him assistance in the matter. He beseeched the chancellor to summon John Harry before him and force him to “forsake his heresy, witchcraft and sorcery” and reform his life as an “example to all of this of his sect.”[7] Whether the chancellor actually believed that Harry was capable of breaking a man’s neck through witchcraft is another story altogether; the fact that Hoigges believed it, and was convinced that the chancellor would, too, tells us just how powerful was the myth of the educated man.

Barbour v. Burgeyn (1441)

To the full reverent fader in god and gracious lord the Bisshop of Bathe Channceller of Engelond.

Besecheth mekely yowre pouere continuell oratour Richard Barbour of Sutton in the shire of Bedford that where the said Richard is ordaigned and deput by Thomas Bothewell and Elizabeth his wiff to be warner and gederer of the rentes of the said Thomas and Elizabeth in her lordship of Sutton foreseid the wich the said Thomas and his said wiff have in the right of his said wiff the reversion of the said manor for life of ———-he said Elizabeth to owre soverain lord the kyng as of his duchie of Lancastre oon Thomas Burgeyn and Thomas Kirkeby tenantes to the said lordship for asmoch as the said Richard offre (?) with them for often ————– to the said Thomas Bothewell and to Elizabeth as to ther manour foreseid have diverse times assauted the said Richard and manaced and put him in such feer that he dare not goo abowte his office nowe —– and over that gracious lord the said Thomas Burgeyn  and Thomas Kirkeby hav dayly recours and communicacion with on Richard Kirkeby brother to the said Thomas Kirkeby the which was late a scoler of the vniversitee of Cambr[idge] the which as it ther openly said useth certeins nigromancies and other craft to make him self to goo invisible and by that craft he wold mischieve a man or may be war of him be whos counsell the said Thomas Burgeyn and Thomas Kirkeby be counseled and governed in all ther malicious proposes ageyns yowre said suppliannt that he and all the tennantes of the said lordship be put in such trobell that they be poynt to voide the said lordship in short time.  Please it yowre gracious lordship to considre thes premisses and to grannt yowre said suppliannt certein writtes of sub pena direct to the said Thomas Burgeyn and Thomas Kirkeby and Richard Kirkeby to appere by fore yow in the channcellere of owre lord the kyng at a certein day by yow to be limited for to be examined of thes materes foreseid and theruppon to do that that shall be by yowre gracious lordship ordaigned in this partie for god and in waye of charite.

«Pleg’ de pres’: Johannes Smyth

Johannes Mynnes

Hoigges v. Harry (1432-43)

To the ryght Worthy and reverent holy fader and his gracyous lord, my lord of Bathe and Channceler of Engelond.

Most mekely bysechit and full pytuously compleynyt your pore and contynuall bedeman Henry Hoigges of Bodmyn of the counte of Cornewyll Gentilman certefyyng your gracious lord how that late on Richard Fflamank of the said countie squyer suwyd an oyer determyner ageyns Aleyn the priour of Bodmyn of the said counte so that your said suppliant was witholde as attorney with the said Richard in the said mater on Sir Johis Harry of the said toun of Bodmyn prest and servant of the said Priour of hys malys and evele wyll ymagenyng by sotill craftys of enchanntement wytchecraft and socrye malygnyd your said suppliant endeles (hole) destroye throug weche craft abowesaid he brake his legge and foul wors hert throug the weche he was in despayr of his lyff and more over contynualy fro day to day the said sotill craft of enchanntement wytchecraft and  socerye usyth and ocupyyth and in opyn plot promincit and to fore many other dyvers persons boldely avowith and withstonde  by the weche yt ys weel knowen to many folkys of the said countei and more over in opyn place saide that he wolde by the said crafte of enchanntement wytchecraft and socerye wyrke your said suppliant his nekke to breke and hym endeles to destroye with oute your gracyous lordship aide and support Plese unto you gracyous lord of your reverent paternyte and of your hye gracys is lordship to considere pargre (?) myschef harme and damage y do unto your said suppliant and also that gret myschef that may folle to hym here after and to all other that buth suters and attorneys avane to our sovereyn lord the kyng and to per chance in all maters as reson and consience askyt and requyrth yn as so moche as the comyn lawe may nought helpe that ye wold suche saf of your benygne grace to grannte a writ of sub pena dyrect on to the said Sir John Harry personaly to apere afore you unto your gracyous presence at a certeyn day lymyted up a certeyn payn hym duwely to examyne of all the said premys ydo onto your said suppliant agenys all ryght and reson and moreover hym to swere to forsake his eresy witchecraft and socerye and also hym to redresse and reforme to a good lyf and more over hym to prmysse in amendement and correction of his soule yn exemple to all of this of his secte and so to ordayne a due remedy and a way after your gracyous avys and dystression that your said suppliant may have his pees with damage and expenses and that in the house of god and in the way of charyte.


[1] John Cotton, The Powring ovt of the seven vials (London: Henry Overton, 1642), p. 39.

[2] T[he ]N[ational ]A[rchives]: P[ublic ]R[ecord ]O[ffice] C[hancery] 1/11/519, can be viewed digitally at “Anglo American Legal Tradition,” The O’Quinn Law Library, University of Houston, . Accessed 15/8/2016. This petition is dated with the assistance of another petition by Thomas Bothewelle against Thomas Burgoyn and Thomas Kyrkeby over encroachments on the manor of Sutton that mentions also the harassment of Bothewelle’s tenants and officers, TNA: PRO C 1/9/314.

[3] M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 3rd edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012).

[4] For more on this subject, see Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

[5] C[alendar ]P[atent ]R[olls] for 1432, p. 220.

[6] Y[ear].B[ook]., Trin. Term, 45 Edw. III (1371), fo. 17b.

[7] TNA: PRO C 1/1/33 (1432-43), can be viewed digitally at “Anglo American Legal Tradition,” The O’Quinn Law Library, University of Houston,

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