(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Fuller 1608-1661

English historian, essayist, and biographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Fuller's works from 1912 through 1978.

A political and religious moderate, Fuller is known as a scholarly cleric and witty writer who blended humor with didacticism. Although popular with his contemporaries, his work suffered a lengthy period of critical neglect following the Restoration. Interest in his work was revived in the nineteenth century, however, largely through the efforts of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, both of whom considered Fuller a genius comparable to Shakespeare.

Biographical Information

Fuller was born to Reverend Thomas Fuller, rector of St. Peter's parish in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, and Judith Davenant, whose family included William Davenant, the poet laureate of England at the time, and John Davenant, the bishop of Salisbury. The eldest of seven children, Fuller exhibited intellectual precocity as a child. He attended the village school of Rev. Arthur Smith for four years and then entered Queen's College, Cambridge, at the age of thirteen. He earned his bachelor's degree three years later and his master's degree in 1628, at the age of twenty. Two years later, he took orders and was appointed curate of St. Benet's, Cambridge, and the next year fellow of Sydney College and perpetual prebendary of Salisbury. In 1634, he became rector of Broadwindsor, a rural parish in Dorset, where he remained for the next six years and where he began writing The Historie of the Holy Warre (1639) and The Holy State and the Profane State (1642). During this period, Fuller received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Cambridge, and in 1637 he married Eleanor Grove, the daughter of a member of Parliament. The couple had a daughter, Judeth, born in 1639, and a son, John, born in 1641. In 1643, Eleanor died, leaving Fuller to raise his children alone.

As Civil War approached, Fuller moved to London to take advantage of the city's libraries and to enjoy the company of its learned men. He made many powerful friends and through their connections was able to speak in a variety of venues, among them Savoy Chapel, where he became quite well known as a preacher. While he worked hard during this period to effect a reconciliation between the Crown and Parliament, his efforts met with criticism from both sides. Although he ultimately backed the King, following him to Oxford in 1643, the strength of his commitment to the Royalist cause was questioned. For the next five years, Fuller served as chaplain in a royal regiment, partly to demonstrate his loyalty and silence his critics. He continued to write and publish while on active duty and to study the history and local culture of the various towns and villages he visited with his regiment. All the while, he was collecting notes for his two most famous works, The Church-History of Britain (1655) and The History of the Worthies of England, published posthumously. Meanwhile, he had remarried in late 1651 or early 1652. He and his second wife, Mary Roper, had two sons and a daughter; however, only Thomas, the youngest, survived infancy.

Fuller's popularity was greatly enhanced by the publication of The Church-History, and after the Restoration he returned to his lectureship at the Savoy, had his position at Broadwindsor restored, and was appointed chaplain in extraordinary to the king. In 1661, he became ill, probably from typhus, and died on August 16. Fuller was buried at Cranford Church; his funeral procession included 200 clergymen from London. Six months later, in February, 1662, The History of the Worthies of England was published by his son John and dedicated to the king.

Major Works

Fuller's first published writing was a didactic poem David's Hainous Sinne, Heartie Repentance, Heavie Punishment (1631), and although he continued to write poetry throughout his life, his true talent lay in other genres. He next published The Historie of the Holy Warre, a narrative account of the Crusades that proved highly popular with his contemporaries, and an essay series, The Holy State and the Profane State. The latter consisted of biographies of historical figures in various categories of civil and religious life; the Faithful Minister, the Wise Statesman, and the Good Wife exemplified the attainment of the holy state, while the Atheist, the Heretic, and the Schismatic represented the profane state. In 1645, during the time Fuller was serving as chaplain in the Royalist army, he produced a highly successful book of meditations, Good Thoughts in Bad Times. The work contains more than one hundred short meditations divided into four sections: Personal, Scriptural, Historical, and Mixed. This was followed two years later by Good Thoughts in Worse Times; the two works were eventually combined into one volume. Throughout his career as a pastor, Fuller published a great many of his sermons, including A Sermon of Reformation (1643), A Sermon of Assurance (1647), and A Sermon of Contentment (1648).

In the last phase of his writing career, Fuller produced his three most important works. In 1650, he published A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine, which included a large number of maps and illustrations and which combined Fuller's extensive scholarship as an antiquarian with commentary on the contemporary political situation. The Church-History of Britain, a work that had occupied Fuller's time and attention for many years, was finally published in 1655. A monumental text, The Church-History covered events from the time Christianity was introduced into Britain up to the time of the work's publication and included a description of the execution of Charles I. In 1662, after Fuller's death, another important work of antiquarian scholarship appeared. The History of the Worthies of England was similar in size and scope to an encyclopedia, covering the customs and culture of every county in England and providing information on each region's principal crops and products and biographical sketches of the important citizens of each area.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Fuller's works were enormously popular, and several of them went through multiple printings. After his death, however, Fuller's work fell into a lengthy period of critical neglect until a revival of interest in his writings in the nineteenth century resulted in the reprinting of all his sermons and books, including his mediocre poetry collection, which was unpopular even in his own day. Renewed attention to Fuller's work was led by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb. Coleridge claimed that Fuller “was incomparably the most sensible, the least prejudiced great man of an age that boasted a galaxy of great men” and considered him second only to Shakespeare as a writer. In the twentieth century, Lawrence C. Wroth (1912) concurred with Coleridge's estimation, citing Fuller's wit and sense of humor: “Fuller's intense humanity and his acute perception of the absurdities of mankind resulted in an expression of humor as rich, perhaps, as any that the literature affords.” Walter E. Houghton (1938) reports that the Victorians responded enthusiastically to Fuller's blend of didacticism, wit, and optimism, discovering “in his robust charity of mind their own brand of sentimental humanitarianism.” Robert B. Resnick (1964) also praises Fuller's style of literary expression, suggesting that the author “integrated the various devices of wit into the pattern and purpose of his didacticism, teaching while he pleased and pleasing while he taught.” Thus, according to Resnick, Fuller was able to project a bit of brightness into the darkest days of the English Civil War and was even able to impart the lessons of his sermons in a manner that made his message a bit more palatable, thereby “sugar-coating the pill.”

Florence Sandler (1978) suggests that the writings of Fuller, whose reputation has again declined following the exaggerated heights it reached in Coleridge's time, should be reexamined today for the insights it provides into the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century. As a moderate in both religion and politics, Fuller represented the majority of Englishmen who avoided the extremes associated with both sides in the Civil War. His sermons and books—“at once scholarly, exemplary in their moral attitudes, and graceful in style”—were enormously popular with his countrymen, reports Sandler. In particular, she contends that Fuller's Pisgah-Sight of Palestine affords modern critics access to “the range and consistency of Fuller's views on contemporary issues” and should, therefore, be studied as a historical text. Houghton also asserts that the nineteenth-century's overemphasis on Fuller's witty style has resulted in critical neglect of his very real achievements as a biographer and historian. He, too, calls for a reassessment of Fuller's writings, insisting that “what is needed is a fresh critical and historical approach to Fuller's work which will reveal, first, the full range of his artistic achievement, and, second, his important place in the development of English biography and historiography.”