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Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-230-34326-9,  272 pp., €83,19.

Reviewed by Gerald Maclean

[1] What did English Renaissance writers have in mind when writing about Persia? In her new book, Jane Grogan 9780230343269illuminates the flourishing of English writing about Persia that corresponded with both the resurgence of the Iranian Empire under the Safavids and the emergence of English mercantilism and overseas commercial interests. Linking these historical developments, Grogan argues, was ‘the imperial model of ancient Persia’ which was powerfully shaping ‘the English (and later British) literary and political imaginary’ (3) at a time when expanding overseas trade and maritime adventuring made thinking about empire a compelling activity. Educated Elizabethans knew rather more about the ancient emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes than about Tahmasp or even the reigning Shah ‘Abbas. But some were looking to Safavid Iran for providing an imperial as well as a commercial and religious alternative to the Ottomans.

[2] Grogan convincingly demonstrates how English writers fabricated, debated, and distributed ideas about ancient Persian imperial rule through histories, translations, romances, closet dramas and travel accounts from the mid-sixteenth century until the early seventeenth century. By the 1620s, Anglo-Ottoman trade was booming, colonial ventures were paying dividends, and Anglo-Iranian relations entered a new phase when East India Company ships helped Safavid Shah ‘Abbas expel the Portuguese from Ormuz in 1622. With the dawning of this new era of trading agreements and joint-stock companies, Grogan argues, English interest in ancient Persian history declined, along with interest in ‘theories of imperial models of conquest’ which were being displaced by ‘practices of commerce and plantation’ (11).

[3] Grogan’s argument, in other words, is that when the English wrote about Persia between the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries they had empire on their minds. Put the other way – when English writers of those years thought about empire, they thought about Persia – the importance of the argument becomes more apparent. The scholarly quest for the intellectual and imaginative origins of what would become the British Empire has long ventured beyond Roman history, competition with Spain, trade with the Ottomans, and ventures into the Indian Ocean; Grogan now adds Persia to the early-modern imaginative mapping of empires past, passing, and to be. Examining the substantial body of English writing about Persia and Persian history that appeared during the later decades of the sixteenth century, Grogan persuasively demonstrates how ‘years of imagining an English empire’ on the ‘barbarian’ Persian model shaped English expectations of empire and the ethics of empire, the ‘how to’ and the ‘why not’ (179) until that imperial model became largely irrelevant to English imperial interests and imaginings. Despite a brief resurgence of publications focussed on the adventures of the Sherley brothers between 1607 and 1613 – here neatly discussed in the final chapter – English writing about Persia turned from questions of empire as such to occasional travelogues, such as Thomas Herbert’s 1634 account of a diplomatic mission, and, later in the century, popular translations of French travellers such as John Chardin, Jean de Thevenot, and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier.

[4] At the core of English interest in Persia was an imperial model based on conflicting versions by Xenophon and Herodotus. If you were taught Greek at school, like Marlowe, Spencer or Sidney, you read Xenophon’s praise of Cyrus and his imperial rule. The Cyropaedia, Grogan pithily reminds us, ‘was deeply embedded, intertextually networked, proficiently plumbed and vastly informative’ (15). Here was a version of an ancient empire to be admired, one based on civic virtues of moderation, justice, continence, unity, and obedience. King James himself found it persuasive for thinking about a model of imperial monarchy superior to that of Rome. English writers of romance, such as Spencer and Sidney, however, also knew their Herodotus and took his more cautious lead to describe an ancient Persia that was ‘full of cruelty and vice’ (75). Persian material features in English romances such as the Faerie Queene to reveal and elaborate the ethical and political problems attendant on imperial insatiability, such as an emperor’s desire for ever more power over ever more lands, and the limitless worship of riches and luxury. Here, as in romances such as Anthony Munday’s Zelauto (1580) and William Warner’s Pan his Syrinx (1584), Grogan discovers a general ‘antipathy … to empire qua empire’ (77) signalled through Persian characters and scenarios filtered through Herodotus.

[5] On the public London stage of the time, Grogan observes, ‘Turk’ plays largely overshadowed representations of Persia as a venue for staging contemporary imperial anxieties about eastern empires. Nevertheless, closet dramas continued to plunder Persian imperial history to present examples of ethical dilemmas for elite audiences. With evident familiarity, Shakespeare scattered allusions to ancient imperial Persia throughout numerous characters’ mouths, though after Othello he mostly refers to Persia to signal romance, wealth and luxury. Grogan examines how Richard Farrant’s The Warres of Cyrus (perf. 1576?) set out to combine both versions of that emperor’s reputation and empire by following ‘competing traditions’ – Xenophon and Herodotus – that ‘were current and appealing … each offering a different view on the merits and methods of the empire that he established’ (124). Ancient Persian Empire: admirable or not? Farrant’s sententious script encouraged the debate by elaborating it through speeches rather than staged action, preferring ‘wordiness rather than spectacle,’ and left matters pretty much in historical terms. But, Grogan announces, ‘the Tamburlaine plays will change everything’ (124).

[6] Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays certainly brought action and spectacle to the imperial debate. But more importantly, Grogan argues, the two parts dramatically sutured ancient and modern, exploring Xenophon’s political ideals by setting the career of a ‘notorious fourteenth-century Mongol ruler’ inside a resonantly contemporary world of Christian slaves and Ottoman-Safavid conflicts in order to ‘challenge the nature and desirability of those ideals in an English context’ (127). Tamburlaine’s aspirational Persian identity nourishes his imperial ambitions even as it exposes ‘the less palatable moral and political values of empire’ once ‘the rewards of one victory are suddenly not enough’ (131). But that same assumed Persian identity also renders him ‘readable’ as a Shi’a ruler opposing the Sunni Ottomans, a matter that ‘English Protestant audiences’ might have admired in principle (134), even as booming trade with the Ottomans was making many of them rich. Shaped by that Persian identity, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine performed ancient Persian imperial ideals coming to crisis within recognizably contemporary settings and terms, and in doing so effectively shifted focus from an increasingly irrelevant Persian past to the Anglo-Ottoman present. Persia was proving a dead-end for thinking about actually emerging imperial formations.

[7] Grogan usefully reminds us that even while Marlovian ‘Turk’ plays were captivating London theatre audiences, closet plays and court masques continued to engage educated audiences and readers with the ethical and political debates arising from thinking about Persia, past and present. Samuel Daniel’s The Tragedy of Philotas (1605) daringly presented the Jacobean court with an Alexander who was ‘paranoid, deceitful and hubristic’ (139), while William Alexander flattered the king in his four Senecan Monarchick Tragedies (1602-7) with their prophecies of Protestant imperium. But were it not for the notorious adventures of the Sherley brothers, which briefly brought the actually existing Safavid court to the attention of English readers, the rise of English interest in Persia as an imperial model would, according to Grogan’s compelling argument, have ended here.

[8] Writing about the Sherleys is a perilous enterprise, but Grogan pulls it off with panache and to good effect. Their story has often been told by admirers who praise the brothers’ rugged independence and derring-do as exemplary models of Elizabethan adventuring. Grogan briefly reminds us of Sir Thomas’ three sons, Thomas, Anthony and Robert, in more revealing terms. ‘If corruption,’ she writes, ‘expensive tastes and indebtedness already ran in the family, the brothers added a catalogue of further transgressions to their account: spying for other countries, privateering, obstruction of English trade and interests, lying, embezzlement, probably murder, recusancy and connections with Jesuits and Catholics including one of the figures behind the Gunpowder plot’ (156). Grogan’s aim is not to revile but to demonstrate and explore how otherwise establishable facts about the Sherley brothers becomes the stuff of fabrication in John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins’ play, The Travailes of the Three English Brothers (1607), and the stuff of self-representation in Anthony Sherley’s Relation of His Travels (1613).

[9] In a bravura contextual reading of The Travailes, Grogan illuminates the play’s achievement at staging the contemporary status of the Persian imperial model in terms of English interests refracted through romance narrative. Chronology is collapsed and events distorted in order to bring all three brothers together in Persia where their evident mission is to make the Persians more like the English, in part through common cause against the Ottomans. Unlike the conversion narratives of ‘Turk’ plays, at issue here is the fantasy that the Safavids were awaiting conversion to Anglo-Protestantism, and the play concludes by promising such a take-over through dynastic intermarriage. Attentive to the dramatic design of the play, Grogan shows however that ‘what the play actually depicts’ in terms of performed staged action, ‘is Englishmen acting like Persians’ (167). In this theatrical dis-articulation of the ‘likeness’ between the English and Persians, Grogan reveals The Travailes offering a last-ditch effort to stage, literally, the complex and ambiguous fantasies of Cyrus’ ancient Persian empire as a model worthy of emulation by the English.

[10] If, by the time the Sherleys were in the news, the relevance of Persia as an attractive imperial model was proving rather hard to sustain, the ‘uncertainty of tone, genre, ethos, purpose and perspective’ (172) of Anthony’s Relation fall into place. A ‘hodge-podge of genres’ that ‘oscillates between travel and news’ (174, 175), Anthony’s praises of Shah ‘Abbas failed to convince Samuel Purchas any more than his advocacy of developing Anglo-Iranian trade persuaded investors. Anthony himself, it seems, was unable to provide a coherent rationale for continuing to think of Persia – ancient or modern – as a model for actually existing imperial ideals and practices. The burst of publications concerning the Sherleys, however, put Safavid Iran on the literary agenda, not so much as an imperial model but more as a culturally interesting commercial region with a fascinating past.

[11] The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 is a learned study that convincingly establishes the importance of ancient Persia for English writers in those dynamic decades when ideas about empires were taking on an imaginative and aspirational urgency, and making deals with eastern empires was enriching London’s merchants. Demonstrating a commanding purchase over early-modern writing about ancient Persia and Safavid Iran (including classical sources and relevant contexts) as well as recent scholarship and debates, Grogan writes with admirable clarity, confidently enlivened by witty outbursts. Packed with historical insights and illuminating asides, this book is a pleasure to read and learn from, and should prove a new touchstone for all scholars of the period.

University of Exeter, November 2015

Northernness in the Renaissance: Thoughts on the Constructivist Character of the ‘North’

Inken Schmidt-Voges

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus (1539). Image: Wikimedia Commons

[1] In the learned discourse of the Renaissance, the North was not just depicted as a geographical location, but also contained a set of qualities which characterised its nature as well as the people who lived there: ‘Northernness’. It was a rough, wild place full of rocks, water, and woods, that posed a challenge for the people there. But instead of being barbarous villains – as antique, medieval and Italian humanist writers claimed – those people developed (in the eyes of historiographers from the supposedly ‘Northern’ cultures) an outstanding capacity to master their environment. To achieve this, their first and foremost qualities were bodily strength and health, inventiveness and, above all, incorruptible virtue and piety.

[2] During the sixteenth century, such concepts of ‘Northernness’ were increasingly adapted by those scholars who hoped to place their native country within the ‘competition between nations’ (Caspar Hirschi [1]), but could not rely on its participation in the Greek-Roman antiquity, or even in the sphere of Carolingian Latinity. In their historiographies, they shaped their ‘own’ Northern antiquity, on a par with its Greek-Roman counterpart, and in which they developed a cultural history of a specific Northern civility. With its unique link to nature, and nature’s impact on civility, the scholars not only formulated an ‘imitatio’ of Roman-Greek concepts, but rather an ‘aemulatio’. Thus, they responded to the offensive claims of superiority by Italian humanists. And in the religiously heated period of the sixteenth century, such Northern ‘aemulatio’ could easily transform into a protestant abiectio of Rome and all its moral depravations. In making such fundamental juxtapositions between concepts of civility, ‘Northern’ historiographers in the Renaissance drew upon a way of mapping civic Europe deeply rooted in European tradition and learned thinking.

[3] Understanding  the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ – not as given facts, or alleging any kind of essence to them – but rather by seeing them as outcomes of complex processes of scholarly negotiation, it is essential to analyse the learned traditions, the core elements of inventing ‘Northernness’, and the use of such concepts in the political arena. Referring to recent studies that deal with similar ideas with regard to single societies and cultures, a comprehensive view will be suggested, to offer fresh insights on the overarching context of cultural differentiation and stratification in Renaissance Europe.

[4] To produce a positive image of the North, it was vital for Northern European historiographers to overcome negative associations, which had been shaped by classical authors such as Phyteas of Massilia (c. 380 BC – c. 310 BC), Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 AD) or Pliny the Elder (23-79). These writers had passed on the image of a peripheral region on the margins of the world, shaped by  darkness, fog, cold, and scarce resources. These areas, where water and land merged in what Strabo called a ‘sea-lung’, marked the transition zone between earth and sky: here lived lugubrious and menacing people like the Cimmerians. [2] The North still remained a disquieting space for medieval writers, who filled in gaps in their knowledge by referring to classical authors. Adam of Bremen, for example, wrote in the 11th-century about the regions beyond the Danish sound as an alter orbis of Sueonia and Nortmannia, which were said to be two vast Northern realms, though they were mainly unknown to ‘us’.[3] In 1185, with Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, a more detailed view of the nature, culture and history of Denmark was available to European scholars. Although he played with elements of notions of the ‘North’, he placed Denmark within the cultural and political norms of continental Europe, thus moving the ‘North’ higher in terms of latitude.[4] With the rediscovery of Strabo’s Geographia in 1469, alongside with Tacitus‘ Germania, and other ancient texts about extra-classical regions and people, this ‘new ancient knowledge’ fuelled the humanist discourse on the history of peoples and their ethnography. Such histories provided elements for a nation-based collective identity which – because of its comprehensive framework – became increasingly attractive at a time of increased political change, conflict, and fragmentation. While Italian humanists used negative depictions of Gothic and Germanic peoples and their habitats to demonstrate the superiority of Italian culture and learning [5], historiographers of those slandered regions had to draw a different picture. Their notion of the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’, and its qualities, was to contain not only equally-accepted elements of culture and civility in the sense of an imitatio, but one that exceeded those claimed by the Italian humanists in the sense of an aemulatio.

[5] The most spectacular examples were certainly the histories of the brothers Olaus and Johannes Magnus, who published the comprehensive tripartite work: the Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata (1539), the Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque (1544) and the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1557). Their position was an awkward one, a classic double bind. As canons in Strängnäs and Uppsala they had supported the political disengagement of large parts of the Swedish elites from the Kalmar Union and Sweden’s independence which was established through the coronation of Gustav Eriksson Vasa as King in 1523. They served the new government mainly as envoys in the Baltic and Italy, using networks and contacts established during travels as students. But they clearly opposed Gustav Vasa’s move towards the reformation, so that both brothers fled Sweden in 1526 to escape the execution of a ban. Henceforth, they lived in the hospital of St. Bridget in Rome, travelling through Italy and trying to build support for a counter-reformation agenda in Sweden among the European clerics gathered for the Tridentine council. Since they were confronted with a deep lack of knowledge and ignorance as far as those Northern peripheries were concerned, they tried to implement a positive, attractive and captivating picture of the ‘North’ by depicting the benefits of ‘Northernness’ for Europe, proving the particular kind of civility that if offered.

[6] Given the existing notions of the ‘North’, they chose not to contrast nature and culture, but to relate them to each other and show nature’s impact on human life and the emergence of a specific form of ‘pure’ civility. Pursuing this task, three elements can be discerned in their historiographic work, which found their pictorial representation in the Carta marina: firstly the characterisation of Northern nature; secondly its richness and wealth of resources; and thirdly the qualities of the people living there regarding physical strength and health, bravery, and above all, piety.

[7] In humanist discourse, nature was seen as a gauge of the degree of wilderness or civility. Referring to classical texts, a wild and inhospitable nature produced wild and barbarous humans, while a moderate climate and mellow landscapes formed civilised and peaceful people. Dealing with such prevailing views, the Magnus brothers drew the picture of a rough, though elevated, nature which showed in its ‘grandezza’, and overflowing abundance, a special set of blessings within God’s creation: vast woods, roaring waterfalls and rivers, ice covering the gulfs of the Baltic in winter providing additional ground for trade, architecture and divine services, and a never-setting sun in summer that outshone the darkness of winter.

[8] The positive notion of ‘Northern’ landscapes was reflected in its richness of natural resources, such as precious furs of wolverines, polar foxes, martens, otters, seals and even polar bears. Reindeers, deer and fish provided food; whilst amber and ambergris as well as copious ore reserves made the Scandinavian North a powerful and indispensable region for European trade and well-being.

[9] But most important for a construction of Northernness was the positive impact such a natural environment had on the people living there, whose qualities were shaped and related to these special conditions.

[10] Above all, physical strength and health of the Northern people was a direct consequence of the harsh environmental conditions. Endurance and velocity in hunting marked women as well as men; subtle handicraft skills allowed them to make use of nature’s richness. Using fishbones as building material; preservation of fish by drying instead of using expensive salt; or hunting on skis: Northern people were not the supposed barbarians in an overwhelmingly rough nature. Rather they appeared as paragons of civility who tamed and subdued such a powerful territory by resilience and inventiveness.

[11] This was also true as far as the social order was concerned. Being the most significant aspect of civility, Northernness was expressed in forms such as of a literate legal culture; a political culture shaped by an elective monarchy; the rule of the best  rather than a hereditary nobility; as well as an outstanding toughness and bravery in war against outside intruders. Domestic politics however were dominated by prudent, diligent and peaceful governance; tyrants and luxurious rulers were not tolerated; and the lack of splendour in court or of elaborate ceremonial pomp was – in the eyes of the Magnus brothers – not a sign of barbarity or savagery, but an indication of a pure and plain core of human existence, shorn of superficiality and material excess (things Northern people could not afford anyway, given the severity of living).

[12] Closely intertwined with those political morals was the piety and religious devotion: an essential dimension of Northernness. Having to meet the challenge of living in a demanding environment, Northerners could not afford to neglect their religious duties – they honoured God in a plain, but truly-heartfelt worship as well as in a virtuous conduct of life.

[13] Hence, ‘Northernness’ was applied to a set of human qualities emerging from the exposure to a demanding, but nevertheless extraordinarily-elevated, nature. In the context of humanistic discourse, the said qualities appear to be the core elements of a ‘civility’, devoid of all ostensible representation, but manifest in acting and behaving. Such a notion of Northernness ties in with critical discourses of aristocracy of virtue and of decadency, yet the texts hint at the preeminence of the Northern way of life, compared to the decadence in – if not in the ‘south’, yet at least in the moderate regions.

[14] Since Olaus Magnus and his brother sought to inspire Catholic Europe, i.e. Italy, they could not elaborate too much on these aspects of aemulatio, but had to keep highlighting the imitatio: the equality of the culture of the Northern – in his case Swedish – people despite their exclusion from classical antiquity. Magnus’ historiographical successors in seventeenth-century Sweden, had no difficulties in focussing on this aspect and give it a religious meaning [6], but his more moderate concept of ‘Northernness’ can be observed in his description of the Laplanders. They very much appeared as the wild, barbarous North where civility was still lacking. Writing the History of the Northern people, and sketching a map of the Northern regions, has therefore to be considered as an attempt by Magnus to encode his native culture within the European community of values and civility, offering Northernness as a beneficial, rejuvenating and nourishing part of it.

[15] The Swedish example of actively promoting a positive notion of Northernness had been perceived as the most far-reaching one. Yet, it was part of a much more comprehensive development in the societies beyond the Alps, who in one way or another felt the need to respond to Italian vilification.[7] It shaped the dispute about Tacitus’ Germania and influenced the writings of Albert Krantz, David Chyträus or later Philipp Clüver on the cultural history of Germanic tribes.[8] But it was also a crucial part in Dutch writings about their Batavian history, trying to historicise their political independence and cultural superiority over a decadent and tyrannous Spain. Thomas Brochard has recently pointed to the internal differentiations in the British Isles between English civility and Irish or Scottish savagery.[9] Like the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’ was not a given, fixed attribution but was a relative concept within the European arena of political and cultural competition – and as such could be used in various ways. How much it was indeed a fluid concept of self- or other-ascription can be seen in the fact that such notions of ‘Northernness’ were not only to found in regions of a certain latitude, but also of certain altitude, as descriptions of Alpine people show.[10]

[16] To draw some conclusions from these reflections on the constructing processes and contexts of ‘Northernness’ in Renaissance historiography, it seems necessary to scrutinise their meaning for our own academic understanding of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ as descriptive and analytical patterns.

[17] Notions of the ‘North’ as well as ‘Northernness’ are the results of complex and more-or-less subtle negotiating processes in Renaissance Europe, when the insertion of newly rediscovered source material altered the way of thinking about Europe as a culturally and historically diverse and complex ensemble. In integrating a positively connotated ‘North’ into an emerging and changing concept of Europe, it served as a line of gradation within internal disputes of hierarchy. These Renaissance discourses formed the base for enlightened thoughts of climate and culture as well as romantic and racial concepts of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ in the nineteenth and twentieth century.[11] All of them referred to it in order to think, mark, and express difference, and quite often in a manner calculated to demonstrate fundamental cultural superiority or inferiority. These contexts should be kept in mind when we discuss concepts of the ‘Northern renaissance’, in which this underlying struggle of cultural meaning exist on a different level.

Philipps University Marburg, September 2015

About the author

Inken Schmidt-Voges teaches Early Modern European History as an Interim Professor at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. In her PhD-thesis she had worked on Swedish gothicism as historical self-image and its political use. Her research interests centre more broadly on political communication from judicial rhetorics in domestic conflicts up to printing strategies in international relations. She is managing a DFG-founded project on ‘Media Constructions of Peace in Europe, 1710-1721’ at the University of Osnabrück and currently developing a book-length project about the intertwining of domestic economy, politics and diplomacy in the cross-cultural networks of Northern Europe in the sixteenth century.

End Notes

[1] Hirschi, Caspar. Wettkampf der Nationen: Konstruktionen einer deutschen Ehrgemeinschaft an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Neuzeit, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2005.

[2] Käppel, Lutz. “Bilder des Nordens im frühen antiken Griechenland” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 11-28; Molina Moreno, Francisco. “Bilder des heiligen Nordens in Antike, Patristik und Mittelalter” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 29-46.

[3] Adamus of Bremen. The History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. Francis J. Tschan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, chap. 4,21. For a discussion of medieval notions of the North see Scior, Volker.

[4] Hadfield, Andrew. “The Idea of North” in Journal of the Northern Renaissance 1 (2009).

[5] Magnus, Olaus. Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Olaus. Ain Kvrze Avslegung Vnd Verklerung der neuuen Mappen von den alten Gœttenreich vnd andern Nordlenden sampt mit den uunderlichen dingen in land und uasser darinnen begriffen biss her also klerlich nieintuuelt geschriben, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Johannes. Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque, Rom 1544; Magnus, Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, Rom 1557.

[6] Inken Schmidt-Voges, De antiqua claritate et clara antiquitate Gothorum: Gotizismus als Identitätsmodell im frühneuzeitlichen Schweden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2004, chap. 8.

[7] Münkler, Herfried. Nationenbildung. Die Nationalisierung Europas im Diskurs humanistischer Intellektueller: Italien und Deutschland, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1998.

[8] See for example Krebs, Christopher. A most dangerous book: Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, New York: Norton, 2011.

[9] A recent discussion with regard to Scotland see Brochard, Thomas. “The Integration of the Elite and Wider Communities of the Northern Highlands, 1500-1700: Evidence from Visual Culture” in Northern Scotland 6 (2015), p. 1-23.

[10] See for example: Mathieu, Jon. Die Alpen! Les Alpes! Zur europäischen Wahrnehmungsgeschichte seit der Renaissance, Bern: Peter Lang, 2011.

[11] Hormuth, Dennis / Sach, Maike (eds.). Norden und Nördlichkeit. Darstellungen vom Eigenen und Fremden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2010; Fülberth, Andreas (ed.). Nördlichkeit – Romantik – Erhabenheit: Apperzeptionen der Nord/Süd-Differenz 1750-2000, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007.

Exile in that Infinity: Giordano Bruno

Ed Simon

“If you had found planets circling one of the fixed stars, there among Bruno’s infinities I had already prepared my prison shackles, that is, my exile in that Infinity.”
– Letter from Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei, 1610

“I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”
– Robert Cardinal Bellarmine SJ, 1598

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[1]  According to the Italian, the English were just as unimpressed with him as he was with them. On an Ash Wednesday in 1583 they sat in this dark-wood panelled dining room, tapestries keeping out the chill of late winter even as the cold couldn’t help but enter through the leaded window with its multicoloured glass diamonds. The Italian’s thin, stubbly black beard, his olive complexion and his shaggy dark hair that had grown out from his tonsure distinguished him from the gathering of fair skinned courtiers who had invited him to supper. Giordano Bruno, of Nola, born in the shadow of Vesuvius and raised on the peaches and lemons which grew in her fertile soil, and whose intellectual training was in Naples’ monasteries and chaotic streets, was very far from home here in damp, dark London. Chief among the English was Fulke Greville, author of arguably the first biography in English, who was perhaps dressed in his imposing ruffled Elizabethan collar and the rich satins and velvets of the aristocratic class. Greville was close friends with Sir Philip Sidney, who admired Bruno and who the Nolan dedicated a book to. Yet despite his affection for noble Sidney, for the cosmopolitan Bruno, who true to the humanist maxim had made wherever he happened to be residing at that moment his home, still found the English to be “disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage and badly brought up.” While he disparaged their uncouth table manners and their inability to clean themselves before and after they ate, the Englishmen found Bruno to be obtuse and pretentious, answering his declarations about Copernicanism with snotty rejoinders quoted from Erasmus. And yet, in Bruno’s fictionalized dialogue Ash Wednesday Supper, which recounts the dinner, and which appropriated the form and structure of Plato’s Symposium and married it to the vulgar, obscene, practical and endlessly creative Neapolitan dialect of his youth, Bruno expressed some of the most sublime metaphysical speculation of the sixteenth century. It is as if Pulcinella, the clown of commedia dell’arte, was suddenly able to declare with utmost sophistication and beauty the infinite nature of the universe.

[2]  Almost exactly seventeen years later and also on an Ash Wednesday, the short former monk would find himself naked, chained to a bundle of cut faggots, with one spike pierced through both his cheeks and another one finishing a cross through his lips. Here, in the Campo de Fiori – the Roman “Field of Flowers” – he had finally returned to his homeland and faced Michelangelo’s massive and still unfinished dome as he was immolated. For what was the Nolan philosopher burned? He was executed because the Church feared what was printed in his dozens of books, spoken through his lectures at the top universities of Europe from Padua to Oxford, and scratched in the very margins of his personal library, composed as it was with the infernal syllabus that is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For several months in 1593 he was imprisoned by the relatively liberal Venetian Inquisition – the Doge always eager to keep his independence from the Pope – and then possibly tortured for the next seven in the dungeons of the Tor di Nona by the Roman Inquisition (for which no records survive, lost in the Napoleonic conquests). Bruno was made a martyr for his beliefs – but it remains difficult to classify those beliefs. Witnesses for the prosecution (and there was only a prosecution) claimed that he abjured Christianity, that in his earliest days as a friar in Naples he denied the Trinity, stripped his monastic cell of all but a crucifix (reminding his superiors of those iconoclasts beyond the Alps), that he defended the fourth-century heretic Arius, that he had consorted with and attended services amongst the Lutherans and Calvinists in the great schismatic capitals, that he had bragged about trying to start his own Rosicrucian religion, and that there were already cells amongst the swayable people of Switzerland and Germany who were attracted to Bruno’s hermetic faith with its blend of Christianity and the occult, his mythology as familiar with Thoth and Apollo as it was with Christ. A man who had been imprisoned with Bruno in Venice was brought forth as a witness to the many blasphemies in word and heresies in thought which the Nolan had supposedly uttered as he awaited trial. The prisoner – a cleric himself – claimed that Bruno denied that “bread transmutes into flesh” and “that he is an enemy to the Mass, that no religion pleases him” and that he claimed “that Christ was a wretch…. [and] that Christ….. was a magician.” This witness stated that while awaiting his trial Bruno often ironically compared himself to Christ, and claimed that the Son of God was no better than any of the prisoners, for even Christ wished to resist his execution during that human moment at Gethsemane. Sometimes the blasphemy was less sophisticated than that – sometimes in rage and frustration the philosopher would scream at God the Father “I despise you, fucked cuckhold, done and undone!” But Bruno also said more sublime things that for all their beauty enraged the Church no less, for he believed that “the world is eternal and that there are infinite worlds.”

[3]  Like Erasmus, whose books he had hid in his monastic cell when he was young, he made no single town his home, but rather the whole of a rapidly disintegrating Christendom was his study. From a provincial settlement some thirty miles from Naples – which at the time ranked among one of the largest cities in the world – he would travel to, write in, and teach at universities in Paris, Venice, London, Geneva, Oxford, Prague, Wittenberg, Venice and Padua. He would meet the crowned heads of Europe: Henri III of France, humbled by the violence of the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, when the Seine was bloodied by the martyred Huguenots; Elizabeth of England, who for some time seemed to offer the promise of toleration to persecuted Bruno but whose via media was more Machiavellian strategy than intellectual position; and Rudolf II of Prague, with his court filled with not just jesters and magicians, but astronomers and artists, and always with that regent’s aching desire to pierce that shadow veil between the world as it seems and the world as it is. On these journeys, over the course of a short life of only a bit more than a decade of writing, he had printed dozens of arguments, dialogues, plays, pamphlets, poems and even instruction manuals with exotic titles such as The Song of Circe, The Candlemaker, Ash Wednesday Supper, and On the Limitless and Numberless. In his writing, his lectures, and his private tutoring (to among others Henri III) he argued for a strikingly original interpretation of the universe. And what was this vision? For Bruno reality did not end at the conclusion of the nine crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic world: it extended indefinitely into pure infinity, and was aged on a scale of eternity and not the prosaic few millennia that organized Christianity believed in. That in this immeasurable universe there are other suns, with other planets, which have their own inhabitants. That our reality is structured by atoms, and that we are unified in our compositional substance, and that as God is somewhere, God is everywhere. In On the Immense he writes “Now, if you please, ask me: Where is place, space, vacuum, time, body? In the universe. Where is the universe? In every place, space, time, body. Is there anything outside the universe? No. Why? Because there is no place nor space nor motion nor body.”

[4]  It would be easy to read this as a scientific world view (and it often still is read this way), but it would be a mistake. Bruno was conversant in the emerging new science, but Bruno was not a scientist. His was not an empirical world – at least not exactly. For Bruno it was the manipulation of numbers and symbols, memory and word, which generated knowledge of the cosmos. It is true that he embraced Copernicus’ heliocentrism, but not necessarily because it simplified complex calculations involving epicycle upon epicycle or because it explained the retrograde motion of Mars, but rather because in restoring the sun to the center of the solar system it gave due reference to Apollo. “Sun, who alone bathes all things in light” as Bruno said in his Apollonian hymn, his Copernicanism justified more by a type of Neo-Paganism than by the telescope. Kepler, for his witchy associations, or Tycho Brahe even with his astrological ones, and certainly Galileo (who sometimes seems so modern that he may be a refugee from the future), all began to speak in the language of science. Bruno was a hermeticist: however, his unseen forces were not things like gravity but substances of a more occult sort. Bruno’s laboratory was not Brahe’s Danish island observatory espying the supernova of 1572, but rather the libraries of Italian occultism. He was the embodiment of the mystical, otherworldly, transcendent perspective of men from the previous century like Giovani Pico della Mirandola or Marsilio Ficino, or even Plethon who still worshiped the gods of old, and who attended that Medici-funded Florentine conclave in 1438 which was the closest the Catholic Church ever came to suturing that amputation from the Greek east. None of this is to disparage the Nolan – far from it. It is merely to explain that his was not a modern heresy, but rather a golden thread of a heresy which stretched back to the beginning. Bruno was thinking of that thrice-great Hermes, who the Egyptians believed was baboon-faced Thoth, who first invented writing, and who the Christian kabbalists of Florence and Prague believed had even taught Moses in his youth, when he wrote that “Egypt is the image of heaven, and to state it more clearly, the colony of all things that are governed and exercised in heaven.” In believing that the reality could be infinite, and that time could be eternal, Bruno did not justify his beliefs by science, yet he still may have been right. And regardless, his vision remains beautiful. And he tried to spread that vision throughout that disunited continent. Giordano Bruno’s career is a story of cities – Naples, Geneva, Paris, London, Prague, Venice, Rome.

[5]  It was Naples that gave the Nolan his tongue. The dedication to his Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast reads “Giordano speaks the common language, he names names freely…. He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot, and other parts by their proper name.” Neapolitan is a frank, no-bullshit dialect, which trades freely in wit, insult, obscenity and casual blasphemy. At Oxford they laughed at him when he lectured because his accent was so thick, and even in Venice fellow Italians had trouble understanding what he was saying. But it was in that low dialect that he was able to express that which was highest. He would learn not to fear authority in Naples, whether among his own Dominicans, or later among the Calvinists of Geneva who would excommunicate him from a faith which wasn’t even his, or among the fearsome and brilliant new Jesuits. He once quipped that Naples was a paradise inhabited by devils, and indeed life was not always at a premium in a city that existed under the threat of continual volcanic annihilation (and which still does). This was the dirty but also the beautiful city, where that fellow heretic, the utopian Thomas Campanella would dream of his City of the Sun and of an Age of Spirit which would commence in 1600, and where half a century after Bruno’s death the fishmonger Masaniello would expel the Iberians in Europe’s first modern revolution. In Florence there was magic practiced in the institutes of the Medici, and the hermetic corpus and the Sibylline oracles were consulted as Plato’s Academy was reopened. But Naples was a different city, full of not just philosophers and monks, but pick-pockets, prostitutes, and murderers. Where Pico della Mirandola consulted the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the young Nolan would have seen magic of a more practical manner – the buttara la fava of men forecasting the future by throwing beans, of women scrying oil floating on water. Here, in Naples, the Renaissance was maybe not always the high-class affair it would be in Florence, but it was a crowded, dynamic, confusing, and violent one. It is only appropriate that in the heat-blanched fields of the Mezzogiorno that a man like Bruno could turn his eyes to that celestial orb and see infinities of light. And yet the Church did not take to Bruno’s philosophical improvements upon Catholicism, and so they expelled him from the community of the faithful, and he exiled himself from Italy.

[6]  It was Geneva that gave him division. The Inquisition would make great purpose out of Bruno’s attending of Calvinist services in that Swiss city, but the philosopher had always maintained that he was simply following local custom. It was an unusual town for him to migrate to. Though Italian Protestants had been crossing the mountains now for two generations to find amnesty here in Beza’s theocracy, it was not a place conducive to the temperament of a scholar like Bruno. Surely he knew the cautionary tale of the Spaniard and possible marrano Miguel Servetus. Some decades before Bruno, that unfortunate had come to Geneva fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition only to find himself the first heretic ever condemned and executed by a Protestant regime. Some say that his incineration was a sort of perverse favor that the Catholic Church had asked of their Calvinist enemies. That earlier heretic, whose life and fate so mirrors that of Bruno’s, was guilty of Socinianism, of denying the Trinity, something which Bruno had flirted with since he was a teenager. Servetus’ prosecutor was John Calvin, who had failed at everything he had ever tried – be it the Parisian legal trade, or a career as a rakish, humanist dandy penning homoerotic poetry. And so, since he had failed at everything to that point, he decided to move to Switzerland and redefine God. And some half-century before Bruno’s arrival, Calvin had looked at Servetus and with those cold eyes with their cold gospel he sentenced the Spaniard to a burning flame. The only reason Servetus’ work survives is because a sole copy not consigned to the bonfire of the vanities was maintained by that old scholar himself, whose name was once Jean Chauvin, and who ironically couldn’t part with the Spaniard’s book. When the Nolan arrived Geneva was still a city dictated by Calvin’s interpretation of biblical law, and for Bruno with his exultation of human freedom the dark theology of double predestination was as psychologically restrictive as the town’s puritanism was socially. The Calvinists excommunicated the Italian for the second time in his life: once an exile from the faith of his fathers, he was now an exile from those that had rebelled against the same fathers Bruno had.

[7]  It was Paris that gave him memory. Henri III had invited Bruno to be his personal tutor, to explain to him the Ars Magna, the art of memory, which he travelled the continent teaching at universities. Bruno had been inspired by the medieval Catalan Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century Franciscan who invented a complex calculus of intellectual interconnectedness, finding parallels between disparate phenomena and ideas to generate new concepts. Llull’s method of intellectual computation involved a simple yet ingenious mechanism – paper wheels turning within wheels marked with a complex set of symbols representing various forms and thoughts, with different categories lining up and generating new concepts, and intricate tree-like diagrams that he used to create a type of spiritual physics, hoping to generate the doctrine of Christianity through calculation and pure reason and thus to demonstrate to Jews and Muslims the intellectual superiority of the Catholic Church. The Muslims of North Africa were less than impressed with his theological calculating machine, and ended up stoning him to death. But from his Ars Magna came the earliest articulation of what could be thought of as a computer, and Bruno’s inspiration for his own great art, a complex mnemonic system for improving one’s memory. Inspired by how Llull’s rotating circles within circles made connections between different phenomena, Bruno invented a method of combining various divergent concepts so as to better commit to memory tremendous amounts of information and text. Drawing not just from Llull, but from classical rhetorical theory as well, Bruno developed a system whereby ideas and words were metaphorically associated with elements of actual physical buildings, and in recalling the details of their architecture one could almost magically bring forth the memorized works in question. It was a system of memorization by divide and conquer, texts broken down into their smallest elements, and then perhaps arbitrarily wed to some element of a place so that when the student mentally returns to said building they only need to imagine themselves walking throughout to recall all of the stored information. Brought to Paris by the king, Bruno may have taken a concrete space such as Notre Dame Cathedral to explain to Henri how a given text, say something from Bruno’s long-dead yet respected sparring partner Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, could be memorized as effortlessly as the ancient druidic bards were once able to recall their epics. A few sentences may be associated with one stained glass pane, a whole chapter with the window, a book with the side of the nave, the conclusion with the altar. Bruno converted text into space, and made calling forth whole books as simple as visiting a place in your imagination. With all the enthusiasm of some sort of back-woods confidence man, Bruno advertised his amazing skills by writing “This art required much less work, industry, and practice than all the others you might read about, so that within three or four months it offers an easier, more certain method for those who choose it than those who follow other methods will attain in three of four years.” But for Bruno this was no parlour trick, this was, as it was for Llull, the very physics of thought, the means by which the great code of reality could be interpreted.

[8]  It was London which gave him debate. That northern city was cold, and was unlike Apollo’s hazy land of the midday sun which had birthed the Nolan. It may have been a few decades since the Thames had frozen over and it was possible to walk from Fleet Street to Southbank without crossing at the city’s only bridge, but that early March Ash Wednesday when he dined with Greville there would have still been the unfamiliar chill which marked this planet’s last mini-ice age. For Bruno, London seemed encased in cold, though in other ways it was not dissimilar to Naples – it had the same mélange of cut-throats and cut-purses – a canting underclass with a colourful vocabulary who crowded the just opening theatres across the river from London, as well as her brothels and her bear-baiting pits. Ruling over that island was Spenser’s Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. She was the monarch of a small island at the very western edge of the world, speaking a honking, guttural, monosyllabic branch of West Germanic, and like Bruno’s fellow countrymen under constant threat of attack by the seemingly omnipotent Spanish with their treasures of Aztec and Incan gold. And despite these seeming limitations, Elizabeth had apparently created a very Golden Age, her courtiers had taken the fourteen-line parsimony of the sonnet (so amenable to the easy rhymes of the Romance languages) and hammered earthy English into something that would perfect that form. The theatres south of London began to stage dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson which conveyed a type of interiority no literature had achieved before, and the difficult reformations she inherited from her sister, her brother, and her father made this Protestant island a surprisingly fertile field for all manner of creative thought. Here Bruno met and immensely admired the great Sir Phillip Sidney. They shared a name – Giordano was his confirmation name, his birth name was Filippo. And both Sidney and Bruno were named for the same Philip, ironically the one who sat on the Hapsburg throne at El Escorial. Many of Bruno’s teachers at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore died in the Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule; Sidney would be felled by a bullet at Zutphen as he aided the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. There were other connections between them, Bruno and Sidney were like two divergent categories on concentric wheels of Llull’s apparatus rotated onto one another. How could Bruno not appreciate the aristocratic courtier-poet, whose magnificent sonnet cycle took that most astronomical of titles, Astrophel and Stella? But on the whole Bruno did not enjoy the English – their island cold, their people unappreciative. It is possible that he, like other continental refugees, could have found a home among the British. Despite the growing Puritan faction within the Church, Hooker’s burgeoning live-and-let-live latitudinarianism was at least for some a matter of genuine Anglican policy. But Bruno, who always loved the sun, could not abide this kingdom of short winter days, and he began his way back southward. Some believe however that before his departure he was recruited as an espionage agent by Sir Francis Walshingham, the reptilian head of the Privy Council. Knowing how he remained unwelcome by the inquisitions of many of the city-states of Italy, Bruno cheekily and ultimately appropriately took the codename “Faggot”, after the bundle of sticks that heretics were burnt alive on.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

[9]  It was Prague that gave him magic. Here the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II forged a strange and occult kingdom, very different from the Counter-Reformation police state that his cousin Philip ruled over in Spain. Rudolf, who some saw as mad, was obsessed with oddity, aberration, and the spectacular. Here he assembled collections of Wunderkammer filled with ancient artifacts, exotic taxidermy, shells, minerals, and curiosities collected from around the world. Rudolf fancied himself a type of Prospero, and true to his desire to be both king and wizard he had summoned the greatest scientific and magical minds to Prague in an era in which the demarcation between those two spheres of knowledge was less clear than it is today. This claustrophobic capital of winding cobbled streets snaking over the Bohemian hills and of mist falling on the red-tiled roofs of its small stone houses was for a time the most occult city in all of Europe. Here, in the shadow of its gothic cathedrals and synagogues were gathered at a time not just Bruno, but also the astronomers Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the English-court astrologer and communicant with angels John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly, and the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo with his fantastic paintings of men composed of books, fruits, and mechanical devices. It was in sixteenth-century Prague that the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel had taken mud from the Vlatava and fashioned a golem, using incantations to imbue this pile of dust with life, taking motes of adamah and making his own Adam. The creature was to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto, and was controlled by the inscribing and erasure of a single Aleph on his forehead, that primordial letter being the simple difference between the words for “truth” and “death.” Supposedly the remains of Yoselle the Golem are still entombed in the attic of the Prague synagogue. Less evidence remains of that other necromancer, the historical Johann Faust, who though he mostly resided in that capital of division that was Wittenberg, spent some time in Prague decades before Bruno would be a resident.

[10]  It was Venice that gave him prison. Returning to Italy should have never been considered an option by the Nolan, and yet years living among the descendants of Goths in the lands of cold winters, warm beer, and bland food had convinced him to return to Italy. Still, that most Serene Republic of Venezia was not necessarily an inappropriate place for Bruno to take up residence, even if it was on that Catholic peninsula. It was a transitional place, between east and west, buffeted by the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, and the Ottomans. The Venetians had grown rich on massive trade, opening up the orient centuries before, and in the marketplaces of the Piazza San Marco there were artefacts from the Levant, spices from India, textiles from central Asia and cloth from China all being haggled over. The canals of that wedding-cake city were traveled by not just Catholics, but Protestants, the Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims. Venice was nominally Catholic, but her true faith was trade, and in the ecumenical spirit of capitalism the Other was mostly welcome within her watery byways. Despite the worst intentions of the papacy, Venice remained the capital of southern European publishing, now rivalled only by Frankfurt, and the city honoured the long dead printer Aldo Manuzio who saw accessible books as a birthright for all scholars. Venice had an independent and liberal spirit, and she had buffered herself against the political machinations of Rome as affectively as the dams which kept the city from sinking. The Venetian Inquisition was more to pay lip-service to Rome, being comparatively forgiving. And the doges, always careful to never acquiesce too much to any foreign power, either sultan or pope, ordained their own bishops without intercession from the Vatican (which is why many Hussite heretics received the collar in Venice). But Venice’s fortunes were falling – the defeat of the Armada off the coast of England began to move the centre of sea-faring commerce from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic– and the memory of her spectacular vanquishing of the Turks at Lepanto was beginning to fade into history. The doge needed the support of the Papal States as the Spanish began to hem him in, and so Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. And in the course of his deposition, shadow diplomacy secured the Nolan’s extradition from Venice to Rome.

[11]  And it was Rome that gave him death. In a lifetime of traversing many rivers – the Seine, Danube, the Thames – he now faced the Tiber. Giordano – Jordan. He was obsessed with waterways almost as much as he was with the sun, but unlike in the conclusion of his poem The Heroic Frenzies he would not find baptism at this Jordan. Instead he found Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bruno’s career intersected with virtually every important intellect of the late sixteenth century, and while many of them were geniuses and were his equals, perhaps no piercing intellect understood him and took him as seriously as Bellarmine did. He was the first Jesuit cardinal, made so by Pope Clementine VIII, and often when he explained why he joined the Society of Jesus he said it was because it precluded the possibility of his ascending higher office since before him Jesuits had been barred from being made princes of the Church. But for all his stated humility, he was also a dogged and zealous enforcer of orthodoxy who fully lived the Ignatian zeal to affirm that black is white if the Church so decrees it. But Bellarmine also belied the old and naïve slur that the zealous are always stupid, for in the cardinal Bruno ironically may have found the first equal who truly absorbed and understood his system and what precisely was so dangerous about it. There were scores of heretics not just in Rome and Italy, but throughout Europe. Men and women were routinely brought in by the inquisitions, and overwhelmingly acquitted and released. Eccentric aberrations in proper theology were in some ways tolerated, punished just enough so that everybody would remember who was actually allowed to write doctrine. But Bruno was a different matter: here was a well-travelled and well-connected man who preached a strange gospel of pantheism and apocatastasis, who denied all miracles so as to enshrine the world itself as the only miracle, who saw organized faith as superstition and her clerics as ignorant asses. Using the analytical prowess that to this day has rightly earned the Jesuits their reputation as the intellectual vanguard of the Church, Bellarmine encapsulated the Nolan’s philosophy into eight positions untenable to Catholic orthodoxy, which Bruno was asked to repudiate. By the conclusion of the trial, after six years of imprisonment, and possibly torture with devices that had names like the strappado (which wrenched your limbs from your sockets as you were hoisted upon a pulley) and the Judas Chair (in which one was partially impaled upon one’s anus), Bruno refused to recant and couldn’t explain away the seeming heresy, and so his execution was ordered in that Roman field of flowers on an Ash Wednesday, in that jubilee year of 1600. According to one witness the philosopher told Bellarmine and the Inquisition that “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam”, that is, that he thought that they feared delivering the execution sentence more than he feared hearing it. If Bellarmine was troubled by this seeming curse from the Neapolitan magician, we do not have a record for it. And yet sixteen years later, perhaps haunted by the memory of the little monk being burnt alive in that Roman square, the once fearsome inquisitor would be uncharacteristically charitable when presented with another heretic, the astronomer Galileo, whom the cardinal spared from the auto da fé.

Ettore Ferrari, (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[12]  The question is still unanswered: what was Bruno a martyr for? It’s been cliché for centuries that he was the original sacrifice for the new science, a scapegoat delivered by the hands of a backward and superstitious church. But none of it is as easy as that, for, as I have said, Bruno was no scientist. And his own biography denies that he had a personal opposition to the very church which would ultimately condemn him; after his excommunication Bruno attended Mass every week (and when in non-Catholic countries attended the services of those lands), while faithfully and respectfully abstaining from the Eucharist, in accordance with the terms of his expulsion from the Church. Several times in his life he tried to have the bill of excommunication reversed, pleading with confessors that he be readmitted, but with these cases only able to be nullified by a bishop or the pope. In 1889 a group of Italian free-thinkers emboldened by the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ferrari to place a statue of the Nolan in the Campo de Fiori as a monument to early science and secularism. In his hooded cowl, which the historical Bruno had not actually worn for years, and which made him look like a character from one of Mathew Lewis’ gothic novels, Bruno seemed to face accusingly in the direction of the Vatican. At least that’s how his directional stance has usually been interpreted. Who is to say that the look on his face isn’t one of longing?

[13]  It is an inconvenient fact that while Bruno was certainly a heretic in his era, he’d remain one today as well, albeit one not sacrificed in a public square. In the sixteenth century he perhaps naively and unintentionally existed outside the strictures of normative Christianity. But today his strange world-view and his esoteric epistemology would mark him as separate from the prevailing intelligentsia’s positivist orthodoxy. Despite modern declarations that canonize Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, he was not. There was not yet a “science,” not even a word for it. The Renaissance is a foreign and confusing nation. Its laws are different from ours; its rules are different from ours; its thoughts and dreams are different from ours. They speak not just a different language, but the very definitions of words are different. Bruno lived in a twilight world, not quite antiquity and not quite modernity. He was not against it, but he was not a martyr for science. He was a martyr for something else. In his own words, his belief was that there was a “harmony with all nature, and… a general philanthropy by which we love even our enemies, lest we become like brutes and barbarians, and are transformed into his image who makes his sun rise over good and bad, and pours out a rain of grace upon the just and the unjust.” Perhaps he was a martyr for a faith that is not yet ready to be born? But in the end, he was a martyr for something. And maybe that, in its own way, is enough.

Lehigh University, November 2015


Note: A shorter version of this essay is concurrently being published under the title Featured Heretic: Giordano Bruno by ExCommunicated, the newsletter of the International Society for Heresy Studies (www.heresystudies.org).

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Mark Brayshay, Land Travel and Communications in Tudor and Stuart England: Achieving a Joined-up Realm (Liverpool University Press, 2014)

Mark Brayshay, Land Travel and Communications in Tudor and Stuart England: Achieving a Joined-up Realm (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014). ISBN: 9781846319501, 448 pp., £80.00.

Reviewed by Andrew Gordon

Screenshot 2015-11-04 16.50.27[1] In the early hours of 24 March 1603 Sir Robert Carey left Richmond Palace to carry news of Queen Elizabeth’s death to her successor James VI at Holyrood. Despite injuring himself in a fall from his horse that put back his progress by half a day, Carey covered the 458 miles in only three days, at an average of 152 miles per day. Such an achievement was undoubtedly a prodigious feat — and one with which Carey sought to earn early favour with the newly acclaimed monarch — but the fact that it was achievable at all is testimony to the highly developed travel infrastructure that Mark Brayshay painstakingly reconstructs in this scholarly and well-written book. Based on careful analysis of archival and printed sources, the author counters the hackneyed image of travel in Tudor and Stuart England as a perilous endeavour blighted by impassable ways and hostile wayfarers, fear of which led most to remain at home. Brayshay’s work is much more than a history of transportation in this pivotal period however. As a cultural geographer by discipline, he is well positioned to uncover the interconnections that stemmed from the expanding infrastructure of mobility. Refocusing attention away from the small chorus of travellers’ complaints that have occupied a disproportionate place in the histories, Brayshay demonstrates that ‘personal mobility and the exchange of communications, written or verbal, were a mundane part of the routine of almost everyone in the sixteenth an seventeenth centuries’ (p. 13). Systematically showing how contemporary economic, governmental, and social structures all relied upon people from a wide range of social positions engaging in regular acts of travel, this book provides a compelling account of the cultures and practices of everyday travel in the early modern period.

[2] Brayshay’s study covers three principal areas of investigation. The opening two chapters examine the material infrastructure of the highway network and the forms and means of travelling upon it. To assess the state of early modern roads Brayshay charts the shift in responsibility for upkeep from landowners to the collective charge of the parish, demonstrating the regional variation in efficacy. Best suited to areas where arable and open-field farming sustained ‘a communal social tradition of parishioners working together at harvest time in a manner that readily transferred to the co-operative work needed to repair roads’ (p. 53), the mid-Tudor legislation was less successful where enclosure and pastoral farming were predominant and the supply of materials, draught animals and collective will was more meagre. The specific burdens placed upon individual surfaces determined the need for maintenance, leading Brayshay to make ingenious use of the Corporation of Coventry records to map the concentration and effects of contemporary traffic from the locations of repairs. Bridges in particular were sites of strain. Of key strategic importance to both local and national travel networks, their upkeep was funded from local rates or tolls long before the same method was applied to roads in the later seventeenth century. If ‘early modern roads were open for traffic’ (p. 72), as Brayshay argues, the instruments for orienting oneself amidst the road network were still developing. With signposts rare before the 1690s, and the pocket atlas a development of the 1720s, rudimentary itineraries (found in both popular print and manuscript form), were the principal textual aid to navigation. It might have been useful to see these textual habits placed alongside oral resources of wayfinding to explore the sociability of navigation, but there are evident methodological challenges to doing so. For the means of travel, Brayshay’s statement that ‘a majority of ordinary journeys in early modern England and Wales were accomplished on foot by folk who wore woollen stockings and leather shoes’ (p. 88) is supported by investigation of the material logistics behind the production of footwear and clothing for pedestrian use. He applies a similar eye to the consideration of travel by way of horse, coach and cart. The treatment of horseback travel is particularly illuminating. Brayshay rigorously investigates the material conditions of horse ownership and the costs of maintaining a horse on the highway, highlighting the specificity of differing equine types identifiable in the inventories of the royal stables and such large-scale horse-owners as Sir Francis Walsingham. One of Brayshay’s achievements is to demonstrate the accessibility of horses for travel to a wider proportion of early modern subjects. Probate evidence points to a ‘democratisation of horse ownership’(p. 124) in the seventeenth-century that may have risen as high as 60% spurred on by rising living standards. But horses were also readily available for hire by the day, or to ride by post between stages and this vital developing network of horse-rental also played a key role in standardising both the costs and the speeds of equine transport. Documenting the complex infrastructure that supported the accommodation of travellers, the provision of horses and wheeled vehicles, and the habits of wayfaring, enables Brayshay to scrutinise contemporary writing on travel, looking beyond complaints about the highway to note an overwhelming consensus regarding ‘the ease with which journeys were undertaken and the absence of fear or apprehension [concerning] imagined or real dangers’ (p. 119).

[3] The two middle chapters are devoted to Brayshay’s second key area of enquiry: the users of the early modern transport network, examining ‘the volume, identity, and character of people who made use of the realm’s highways and byways’ (p. 128). A careful survey of what brought people into motion works through the various administrative, legal, religious, social and above all economic imperatives. The spatial and temporal distribution of markets alone is shown to be a major determinant of travel activity, but also traced here are the various forms of journeying necessitated by individual occupations. A highlight here is the study of itinerant performers based on scrutiny of civic accounts that yields a rich description of the practices of both musicians and acting troupes, the latter taking as a case study the 1591 travels of the Queen’s Men. Brayshay draws our attention to the scale of peripatetic activity in the period, from the circuits of the assize courts to the work of church visitations, his interest not confined to the judges and bishops that oversaw these gatherings but extending to the larger casts summoned or drawn to attend. The travels of the socially elite have been relatively well documented but the short chapter devoted to them here seeks to understand how the motions of Royal Progresses and visiting ambassadors appropriated the realm’s travel infrastructure and civic hospitality, revealing how the travels of the few were facilitated by the journeying and conveyance conducted by many more. Brayshay’s account of elite travel is thus shown to fit his broader theme that ‘the social and cultural dynamism of the early modern realm was intimately connected with an equally vibrant mobility amongst the ordinary classes’ (p. 201). Amongst the agents of travel in these chapters, particular attention is paid to the extensive networks of carriers whose intersecting circuits extending from local to regional to further afield, served to ‘engender[…] a sense of its wider geography in the minds of those who themselves rarely experienced distinct localities’(p. 131). While others have pointed to the ideological work of nation-building within early modern cultural discourse Brayshay finds this function embodied in the carrier network that he argues played ‘a critically important role in binding the realm together as a coherent entity’ (p.131).

[4] The final two chapters address early modern communication networks and the variety of means available for the conveyance of correspondence. This important history has too often been overshadowed by a teleological concern with the birth of the Post Office, but here the contingencies of its later emergence are shown and Brayshay accords full attention to the complex networks and variant means by which early modern communications might be conveyed, depending upon social position, the nature of the communication and the distance to be covered. In addition to the carrier network, he highlights the range of figures from household servant to Royal messenger, who might be employed in the conveyance of letters and the variety of travel modes they might be authorised or expected to make use of. At the heart of Brayshay’s narrative is the office of the Master of the Posts whose dual responsibility for ensuring the provision of horses for hire on the one hand, and organising the state service for the delivery of strategic communication embodies the dual focus on travel and communication of this study. Maintaining the network of standing posts was always a balance between committing state resources and exploiting their commitment to the prestige of royal service in spite of the mounting levels of arrears that accrued through the sixteenth century. The laying of extraordinary posts to support royal progresses, military campaigns, or other present need was a further logistical and financial burden and it was in part to meet these costs that the crown postal service was extended to take on private letters in 1635. As Brayshay shows, the instituting of the royal monopoly over letter delivery at this date did not eradicate immediately the range of other letter conveyance practises; the insecurity and dangers of the 1640s played a part in the persistence of diversity. It was not until 1657 that the plan for a General Post Office was conceived, as a franchise, with the first occupant overpaying for the rights with the result that he cut staff wages severely and introduced the regular stamping of letters. The penny post launched in London in 1677 was another piece of private enterprise that was shut down as an infringement of the franchise only to reopen almost immediately under the franchise holder’s aegis. That franchise holder was James, Duke of York in whose hands it had been since the 1670s and it was his accession in 1685 that led to the crown taking control over letter delivery. The success of a universal service is shown by the extraordinary volume of correspondence recorded in the final years of the century, with some 720, 277 letters handled yearly by 1696.

[5] Brayshay’s book represents an important contribution to our understanding of the past: how people moved, how they communicated and were supplied within an expanding infrastructure of travel and transport, is integral to the experience of life in early modern culture as this work conclusively shows. It does not offer a heavily theorised approach to these questions but its strengths lie in the careful sifting of a huge range of detail to produce impressive insights into practice and process. Sensitive to different contexts, he sets a range of localised studies against broader regional and national networks animating vastly different archival resources. As a cultural geographer, Brayshay makes excellent use of maps and diagrams to demonstrate the material conditions of travel — whether it be recovering the relative spheres of activity of pedestrian and horseback chapman from their debt books, or countering generalisations about the preponderance of water-borne conveyance with a map illustrating the proportion of the realm more than 15 miles from a navigable waterway. If the readings of printed travel writings and geographical literature are less expansive than one might perhaps wish, this is more than made up for by the wealth of scholarship and insightful use of resources brought to bear on the book’s key questions. In sum this thorough and clearly structured account of the means of mobility across two centuries is a huge achievement which authoritatively remaps the field of early modern travel and communications.

University of Aberdeen, October 2015

Jane Dawson, John Knox (Yale University Press, 2015)

Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015). ISBN: 978-0300114737, 384 pp., £25.00.

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins


[1] John Knox was the leading Scottish Reformer of the sixteenth century. Although he spent most of his life in and out of exile, he had a tremendous zeal to see the Protestant Reformation take hold in his native Scotland and perceived himself to be the prophetic preacher to call the nation to join with God in a covenant. In most presentations of him, Knox is presented as the quintessential dour Scotsman. He is usually pictured as the tyrannical Reformer, bent on having his way, full of hard-nosed judgment for those who may disagree with him. Perhaps most of all, he is remembered for his opposition to female regency and he is often painted as the model of misogyny. Jane Dawson, however, has written a terrific new biography that makes a point to turn over each stereotype of the Scottish Reformer and examine them afresh. She predominantly lets him speak for himself, showing model historiography in returning again and again to primary sources. Recently discovered documents shed new light on aspects of Knox that were previously obscure and offer new dimensions to her portrait of him.

[2] Dawson presents a careful and detailed narrative of Knox’s life. At each turn, the reader is given a little more of the puzzle that shows how over-played the stereotypes have been. We find good detail of his conversion from notary for the Roman Catholic Church to full-blooded Protestant. He was a man who spent his much of his life in exile. He was captured and served as a slave on a French galley, forbidden to re-enter Scotland and spent many years in England. He suffered persecution under Mary Tudor and fled to Geneva to learn from John Calvin. He spent time stuck in Dieppe, apart from his family, waiting for political circumstances to allow for his return to Scotland. He even went into self-imposed exile, giving up the pastoral call of his dreams in Edinburgh to seek solitude in St. Andrews to deal with his depression.

[3] Events which occurred in Geneva reveal interesting aspects of Knox’s character. He is often known as the over-assertive Protestant Reformer but we also get to see a side of him where he doubts himself. When presented with various calls, particularly a pastoral call to Frankfurt, Knox becomes heavily dependent on the advice of others and seems hesitant. Although this does not completely strip away the harder aspects of his personality, it does add a layer of complication for those who would reduce him to a one-dimensional figure.

[4] Dawson presents Knox as having a very experiential theology. Many of his views were forged or refined in light of the events happening in his life. His ecclesiology was one which viewed the church as the people of God who were destined to be the small and remnant flock. This is not shocking coming from someone as Protestant as Knox who lived during the Marian persecution and it makes even more sense for someone who continually moved in and out of exile, even if it was self-imposed. He saw himself as a preacher and prophet. He never really counted himself as a theologian aimed at presenting refined theology disconnected from the situational demands of preaching, and more specifically of reforming.

[5] One striking point is how Knox continually managed to make enemies. It appears that he was hardly ever without a major foil. He managed not only to alienate other major ecclesiastical figures, but even found himself particularly despised by Queen Elizabeth I. His battles with women in power may be one of his most enduring legacies. Although it is true that Knox had very stated objections to female regency, Dawson again undoes the stereotype of a purely chauvinistic Knox by exploring his deep dependence upon circles of female friends in spiritual, emotional, and material support.

[6] There are a few criticisms. The importance of the regulative principle of worship, the doctrine of predestination, and the doctrine of justification by faith frequently come up in the biography. These are largely left undefined, which is problematic, given how important they were to Knox. It would have been very helpful to have a summary of how Knox expressed these teachings. Although the majority of the narrative is precise and clear, there are also a few spots where it could be easy to get lost in the stream of events and where and when they are taking place – although some of this has to do with how Knox returned to the same places several times. A discussion on Knox’s legacy in Scotland would also have been useful.

[7] Dawson’s book is certainly an important work. For those interested in Knox for his own sake, this is an indispensable resource. It is also valuable to those who desire to see how politics are handled in the religious landscape of the sixteenth century. Most of all, it is useful as a model of historiography, showing us the importance of returning to primary sources, and how this often overturns long-standing assumptions.

Queen’s University Belfast, November 2015

Theresia de Vroom, The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Marymount Institute Press, 2014)

Theresia de Vroom, The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-1941392102, 448 pp., $64.95

Reviewed by Lotte Fikkers


[1] ‘The mystery of the missing mothers’ in Shakespeare’s plays has long fascinated scholars of Shakespeare (Calderwood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 2). Theresia de Vroom’s The Lady Vanishes aims to add to this tradition by offering an analysis of the construction of the tragicomic heroine based on her relation to the maternal figure in Shakespeare’s last plays. Moreover, the book sets out to offer an ‘alternative and corrective to the origins of tragedy in the world of men’ (book blurb). On a grander scale, De Vroom seeks to move beyond the literary task at hand to engage with the question of ‘what it means to be a woman’ (pp. 3, 16, 70, 75).

[2] The Lady Vanishes has a two-part structure. In the first section, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, De Vroom focuses on the construction of the heroine in four of Shakespeare’s tragicomedies, whereas in the second, ‘The De-Construction of the Tragicomic Heroine: Shakespeare and Fletcher’, she concentrates on the ostensible lack of female heroism in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The first part opens with an introduction discussing what the author understands to be a Shakespearean ‘tragicomic heroine’. In her attempt to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s female tragicomic hero is indebted to a larger archetype, De Vroom draws on an eclectic selection of cultural sources and references. As such, not only does this book study the formation of the tragicomic heroine and her relationship to the maternal within Shakespeare’s late plays, but also from a broader cultural perspective, drawing on film, photography and painting. For example, to exemplify her contention that women are ‘the construction of many “selves in relation”’ (p. 37), she holds up the relationships between Mother Theresa and Lady Diana, and between photographer Imogen Cunningham and her model Twinka. However, scholars of Shakespeare may find these comparisons distracting rather than exemplifying.

[3] In the four chapters that follow, De Vroom sets out to analyse the construction of the female tragicomic heroine in Shakespeare’s plays Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, dedicating a chapter to each dramatic text. De Vroom’s proposition that the reconciliation of the young female heroine and her mother enables both to be wives (again) works well for Pericles (chapter 2) and The Winter’s Tale (chapter 4). Both plays feature young women (Marina and Perdita) who are defined by the early loss of their mothers (Thaisa and Hermione). The recovery of their respective lost mothers ultimately resolves the play’s tragic elements, and the subsequent (re)establishment of identities allows all women to be with their partner. For Cymbeline (chapter 3), De Vroom recognizes that her case is more difficult to argue. Here, the young Imogen has no mother with whom to be reconciled at the end of the play’s drama. Instead of focusing her chapter on Imogen’s relation to the maternal, the author therefore emphasizes Imogen’s heroism, nicely juxtaposed with the (lack of) heroism perceived in Imogen’s husband Posthumus. According to De Vroom, Imogen gets portrayed as the perfect female hero: the ‘ideal compounded female self’, ‘the height of perfection’, and ‘all that is extraordinary in womankind’ (pp. 141, 149). Moreover, she marks the female presence in a world composed of men alone. By the end of the play, the recovery of a lost mother may not be possible, but Imogen herself, De Vroom claims, can be seen as her brothers’ ‘non-existent mother reborn in a daughter and a sister called “Fidele”’ (p. 164). As such, the author extends her earlier claim that Shakespeare’s female characters are portrayed as many selves in relation, whilst simultaneously retreating from her statement that the reconciliation with a lost mother is the driving force in Shakespeare’s tragicomedies. With The Tempest (chapter 5) De Vroom faces a similar problem. Here, too, the young heroine has no mother to re-discover. In an attempt to solve this issue, De Vroom argues that The Tempest’s masque scene offers Miranda ‘heroic models of feminine and maternal power’ on which to base her own heroism (p. 234). Instead of a real mother, De Vroom argues that the essence of that mother gets bestowed on Miranda through the masque, and in that sense a reconciliation of mother and daughter does take place.

[4] The second part of the book discusses two plays that the author recognizes as problematic to the book’s proposition. The inclusion of Henry VIII or All Is True (chapter 6) is somewhat surprising: instead of a tragicomedy, as De Vrooms concedes, Henry VIII is a history play. As such, ‘the fantasy of tragicomic female heroism is eclipsed by the reality of what actually happened’ (p. 258). Nonetheless, she applies her schema to the three central female characters: Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, and the infant Elizabeth I. The former, De Vroom argues, is a failed tragicomic heroine, whereas Katherine’s responses to the difficult situation she finds herself in are ‘almost tragicomic’ (p. 292). In an effort to link the play to her claims about the relationship between the young Shakespearean tragicomic heroine and the maternal figure, De Vroom points out that the birth of Elizabeth I in the play can be equalled to the birth of a female heroine. While Queen Elizabeth may not be able to recover her mother, the relationship with her absent mother defines and drives her, according to the book.

[5] The book’s second problem play is The Two Noble Kinsmen (chapter 7), which De Vroom argues is more about two noble kinswomen: Emilia and the unnamed jailer’s daughter. While the other plays reconcile tragedy with comedy through the female heroine, The Two Noble Kinsmen actively and deliberately resists this drive, according to the book. Nonetheless, it is ultimately Emilia’s gift of her horse to Arcite that offers redemption: the horse kills its rider, but also saves Palamon’s life, bringing the play to a more or less neat resolve. This female intervention, then, forms ‘a shred of the narrative of female heroism that is the basis of the other tragicomedies’ (p. 363). While recognizing that the The Two Noble Kinsmen is set in a ‘hyper-masculine world’, De Vroom sets forth the idea that it is this little shred that showcases how the female characters are able to ‘subvert and destabilize the ruling order for an imperceptible instant’, and it is in this instant that the tragicomic heroine can be glimpsed (p. 317). The heroine’s mother, however, gets ignored, both in the play and by De Vroom, who, apart from admitting that ‘[n]one of the women in the play ever mention their mothers’ pays no further attention to (the absence of) the mother figure in the play (p. 333).

[6] The Lady Vanishes: Fantasies of Female Heroism in Shakespeare’s Last Plays invites scholars of Shakespeare to read the late tragicomedies as redemptive through the feminine, with the relationship between mother and daughter at their core. While the complete absence of a mother figure in some of the plays problematizes De Vroom’s reading, the book does offer an in depth analysis of female characters in some of Shakespeare’s most under-studied plays. Although The Lady Vanishes does not quite answer the question of ‘what is means to be a woman’, it is a study that will be of interest both to students of Shakespeare and gender studies.

Queen Mary University of London, November 2015