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The Reformation Unsettled

British Literature and the Question of Religious Identity, 1560-1660


Edited by Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen & Richard Todd


Proteus - Studies in Early-Modern Identity Formation, Volume 3

Turnhout / Tournai: Brepols, 2008

Hardback. x + 246 p. ISBN 9782503526249. €60.00 / £54.64


Reviewed by Pauline Croft

Royal Holloway University of London



The editors’ introduction follows historians such as Robert Whiting and Christopher Haigh in emphasising that until well after the Elizabethan settlement of religion in 1559, an older, residually Catholic community culture was largely intact. The new Protestantism had not fully established itself in England; indeed, as the late Patrick Collinson argued, the “Protestantising” process was barely completed by the second quarter of the 17th century. Hence the essays in this book argue for “the religious hybridity of early modern England”. Helen Wilcox examines post-1559 poetry, particularly that of George Herbert, indicating that the inter-weaving of Catholic and Protestant tropes and traditions shaped the complex nature of everyday devotional experience. Individual poets were often unsure, even perplexed. As a result, “devotional poetry ... could function as a place of exploration and a site for the confession of not knowing”—presumably not knowing exactly what the current religious and political situation required from the believer.

Similar perplexities are found in Richard Todd’s essay, “Was John Donne Really an Apostate?”, where he asks why the question itself should still arouse passions. We need, he argues, to distinguish between treachery to one’s church and treachery to one’s nation, the dilemma facing all educated Catholics after the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570 excommunicated Elizabeth. Donne might be characterised as heterodox rather than as an apostate from Catholicism; perhaps that complexity was what empowered him. Similarly James I’s queen was Anne of Denmark, a Lutheran who was deemed by her contemporaries to have converted to Catholicism, although the evidence is not conclusive. Charles I married, not “the French Princess Isabella” (as wrongly stated here [40]) but Henrietta Maria, brought up as a Catholic but the daughter of the great Protestant hero Henri of Navarre, later Henri IV of France.

Three further essays also focus on Donne. Hugh Adlington elegantly considers Donne’s engagement in his religious prose with both pre- and post-Reformation canon law, pointing to his distaste for papal innovation and his attempts to undermine unquestioning Catholic assent. He suggests that Donne’s central objection was to the elevation of non-canonical writings to a position of equal authority with the Bible. If so, on a key issue, Donne took a very Protestant stance. Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen considers Donne, Herbert and what he calls “the theology of pain”. He notes Diarmaid MacCulloch’s observation that late medieval Christianity particularly emphasised the physical sufferings of Christ, whereas Calvin saw the essence of Christian martyrdom not in physical pain but in steadfastness. Both Donne and George Herbert repeatedly addressed questions of suffering and salvation in sermons and writings, seeing physical pain as a pathway to spiritual self-examination.

Following on, Claudia Richter discusses the literary representations of John of Leyden and the Munster Anabaptists within the contexts of shaming, cursing and derision. The iconoclastic tendencies of radicals were presented as violations of a sacred order, and this could act as a conduit for the expression of political, as much as religious, anxiety. Frances Cruickshank discusses visions and images in the poetry of Donne and Herbert, unusual in the Protestant tradition with its emphasis on the written and spoken word. Instead they offered “glimpses of the spiritual vision available to the poetic conscience” and were “purveyors of private praise rather than of public policy”. The visual, rather than the verbal and written, expression of devotion is also a key theme for Bart Westerweel, whose study of emblems and emblem books concludes that the genre did not only appeal to an intellectual elite, but could also support private and family meditations. English Protestant devotion, he concludes was more fluid in nature, less exclusively written, than we have realised.

The third section of the book is entitled Drama and the Politics of Locale. John Kerrigan’s essay on “Religion and the Drama of Caroline Ireland” begins with the arrival of Lord Deputy Wentworth (later Earl of Strafford) in Dublin in 1633. The country was apparently at peace, but “texts ... reveal a mass of unresolved tensions around land-ownership, social mores, and the powers of the Crown with respect to religion”. These tensions came to the forefront during the 1641 rising. A surprising quantity of dramatic writing survives, but Kerrigan finds that even dramas which engaged with the international Counter-Reformation could narrow into a specifically Irish discourse on the threatening machinations of English and Scottish Puritans. Kristine Steenbergh also uses drama to explore the dissolution of the monasteries in England. Some monasteries were physically recycled as theatrical locations, as with the Whitefriars and the Blackfriars in London. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1597) Portia tells her household that she and Nerissa will retire to a nearby monastery, and famously, Hamlet brutally orders Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery”. Steenbergh makes a strong case for the frequent use of monastic imagery in drama as echoing “an older, Catholic culture still powerfully present in post-Reformation literature”.

The fourth and final section of the volume, Consolation and Remembrance, contains three essays. Andrea Brady discusses the experience of grief. Some extreme Protestants—though not, interestingly, John Calvin—argued that all grief was un-Christian, revealing a sinful uncertainty about the resurrection of all believers. However, the elegies of Henry King and others show how the loving expression of sorrow, and the creation of dignified rites of passage, provided psychological support for the bereaved. Protestants never accepted the doctrine of Purgatory, but this culture of grief lessened the sense of a radical break with the past. Kevin Laam scrutinises Robert Persons’ Christian Directorie which offers, not mystical ecstasy but a testimonial to the value of “life in progress”, with the gift of grace made accessible to all those humble and reasonable enough to accept it. This tract softens the usual firebrand reputation of the politically aggressive Jesuit. The last essay, by Oliver Harris, shows how the antiquarian outrage at the destruction of Church monuments, stained glass, and the defacing of tombs was essentially non-sectarian, driven by a desire to celebrate and preserve the record of the English past. At Peterborough in 1559, the staunchly Protestant William Fleetwood, later Recorder of London and a leading member of the House of Commons, was enraged by the defaced state of the tomb of Queen Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII and unbending Catholic. Fleetwood promptly ordered the tomb’s restitution. As Harris comments, “Antiquarianism was a broad church” with no particular religious agenda.




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