Gould, Fall in the House of Ussher

substantial precedence in usage (the Oxford English Dictionary traces this meaning to 1205). Thus, we zoologists are the usurpers, not the guardians of a standard. (I wonder if preachers laugh when they see the term in a zoological book and think of a baboon running about in a neck ruff.) In any case, the archbishop of Armagh is titular head, hence primate, of the Anglo-Irish church, just as the archbishop of Canterbury is primate of all England.

This little tale mimics the forthcoming essay in miniature for two reasons:

1. I shall be defending Ussher's chronology as an honorable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past--just as our current amusement in picturing a primate of the church as a garbed ape inverts the history of usage, for the zoological definition is derivative, and the ecclesiastical primary.

2. The mental picture of a prelate as a garbed ape reinforces the worst parochialism that scientists often invoke in interpreting their history--the notion that progress in knowledge arises from victory in battle between science and religion, with religion defined as unthinking allegiance to dogma and obedience to authority, and science as objective searching for truth.

James Ussher (1581-1656) lived through the most turbulent of English centuries. He was born in the midst of Elizabeth's reign and died under Cromwell (who gave him a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, despite Ussher's royalist sentiments and his previous support for the executed Charles I). As a precocious scholar with a special aptitude for languages, Ussher entered Trinity College, Dublin, at its founding in 1594, when he was only thirteen years old. He was ordained a priest in 1601 and became a professor at Trinity (1607) and then vice chancellor on two occasions in 1614 and 1617. With his appointment as Archbishop of Armagh in 1625, he became head (or primate) of the Anglo-Irish church--a tough row to hoe in this preeminently Catholic land ("Romish" or "papist" as Ussher always said in the standard deprecations of his day). Ussher was vehement and unrelenting in his verbal assaults on Roman Catholicism (he wasn't too keen on Jews and other "infidel?" either, but the issue rarely came up). His 1626 "Judgement of the Arch-Bishops and Bishops of Ireland" begins for example:

The religion of the papists is superstitious and idolatrous; their faith and doctrine erroneous and heretical; their church ... apostatical; to give them therefore a toleration, or to consent that they may freely exercise their religion ... is a grievous sin.

One may cringe at the words (and no one can take Ussher as a model of toleration), but he was, in fact, regarded as a force for moderation and compromise at a time of fierce invective (read Milton's anti-Catholic pamphlets sometime if you want to get a feel for the rhetoric of those troubled years). Despite his opinions, Ussher continued to espouse debate, discussion, and negotiation. He preached to Catholics and delighted in meeting their champions in formal disputations. His own words were harsh, but he believed in triumph by force of argument, not by banishment, fines, imprisonment, and executions. In fact, even the hagiographical biographies, written soon after Ussher's death, criticize him for lack of enthusiasm in the daily politics of ecclesiastical affairs and for general unwillingness to carry out policies of intolerance. He was a scholar by temperament and, at best, a desultory administrator He was in England at the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 and never returned again to Ireland. He spent most of his last decade engaged in study and publication--including, in 1650, the source of his current infamy. Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, "Annals of the Old Testament,