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David Loewenstein, Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature (Oxford University Press, 2013)

David Loewenstein, Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-19-920339-0, 512 pp. Hbk. £65.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Stone


[1] In Treacherous Faith David Loewenstein has produced a wide-ranging and well-researched study of ‘the specter of heresy, including the making of heretics, in early modern English literary culture’ (p. 1). Whilst the work is of significant size, scope and ambition, Loewenstein’s concise prose prevents the book from ever becoming bulky – as any volume covering materials from More to Milton is always at risk of doing. Indeed, this is a very readable, knowledgeable and accomplished book.

[2] The work is divided into two sections with the first part discussing ‘The Specter of Heresy and Religious Conflict in English Reformation Literary Culture’ and the second exploring ‘The War Against Heresy in Milton’s England’. Loewenstein’s organisation of his materials combined with his chosen methodology neatly balances a tricky remit which demands a book that is at once a work of early modern literary criticism and, simultaneously, a cultural history. By taking a series of case studies of literary figures and key literary works, Loewenstein develops a rounded discussion of the varied conceptualisations of heresy and heretics. It is, in the first instance, an excellent (and in some respects unique) discussion of the phenomenon of heresy in early modern England. In the second instance, it offers both scholars and students a variety of insightful readings of some of the key figures on either side of the debates with which Loewenstein engages. In this respect, Chapter 1, ‘Religious Demonization, Anti-Heresy Polemic, and Thomas More’, is a particular highlight.

[3] In discussing More, Loewenstein promotes an understanding whereby the reader should focus upon the development of More’s attitudes throughout his literary works; from humanist gentility in Utopia, through humanist methodologies strained by their content in the Dialogue, to a brutal and overly-lengthy anti-heretical tirade in the Confutation. More is, as the Chapter states, ‘a richly complex writer with an ambiguous legacy’ (p. 68) and Loewenstein appears to have drawn on the current momentum (provided by works such as The New Milton Criticism) for early modern literary criticism which does not force ‘great’ writers to be without ambiguities or inconsistencies, but rather revels in these challenging moments as the source of the writer’s complexity and greatness rather than a blot on the copybook of a talented mind. This Chapter also highlights Loewenstein’s skill in unifying such a large volume given his frequent references to Milton when defining More’s works, characteristics, and attitudes. It provides – from the book’s outset – a sense of inherent narrative which might otherwise be lost in a work divided into two parts and covering such a broad chronology.

[4] It is also worth noting that Loewenstein’s selection of more minor writers is well thought out. In discussing Anne Askew, John Goodwin, William Walwyn and Richard Overton, he offers a strong overview of a variety of heretics and heresiographers which enables the reader to engage with some of the period’s more extreme responses to heretical behaviours. Indeed, it is within Chapter 6 that Loewenstein’s work is at its most successful. This Chapter ostensibly demonstrates the working of three controversial proponents of religious toleration in the figures of Goodwin, Walwyn and Overton. It notes the power of imagination in religious interpretation and offers a range of examples – from Walwyn’s imagined operations removing heresy from the brain to Overton’s fictional court room trials – to demonstrate the creative nature of those controversialists most concerned with maintaining an open mind when considering heretical behaviours. However, further to providing an intriguing glimpse of ‘the striking and more original polemical responses to the dreaded specter of heresy’ (p. 237), Loewenstein also demonstrates skill in the crafting of a scholarly text. A work as large as Treacherous Faith – which covers such a breadth of both materials and chronology – is open to become a series of independent case-studies positioned about a central theme. Therefore, Loewenstein has studded his entire thesis with clear reminders and signifiers of the interrelation of the individual areas of study which form the unified work. Within Chapter 6 these markers are seamlessly integrated. The discussion of Goodwin, which notes how he ‘suggested, there was much yet to discover about Scripture and its wealth of not-yet-known spiritual truths, if only we keep our religious imaginations open’ (p. 238), establishes the topic of the inherent usefulness of imagination in religious interpretation. It also acts as the most moderate example which the chapter presents since Loewenstein then builds into the ‘even greater linguistic suppleness, literary creativity, and conceptual originality’ (p. 243) of Walwyn, Overton, and (in the following chapters) Milton. Even the use of Thomas Edwards’s descriptions of Goodwin and Walwyn in the opening sentences of the pair’s respective sub-sections within the chapter demonstrates Loewenstein’s ability as, not merely an informative but equally, a persuasive scholar. Such rhetorical flourishes abound within Treacherous Faith and play a significant role in its ability to present a convincing and coherent narrative.

[5] Loewenstein’s construction of a parallel between Goodwin and Walwyn is notably effective. Quoting Goodwin’s opinion on why ‘sects, schisms, and “wild opinions… lately started amongst us” spread so rapidly’ as being caused by a tendency to ‘resort to coercive human authorities and power, especially the “iron rod of the Civill Magistrate”’ (p. 240) strikes at the very heart of why this study of early modern heresy is such a timely one; that Loewenstein later notes Walwyn’s question, ‘What causes some religious believers to become so dogmatic, violent, and unchristian in their views?’ before expressly stating this to ‘resonate well beyond the tumultuous religious culture of seventeenth-century England’ (p. 256) only acts to further establish Loewenstein’s mastery of his materials.

[6] The timeliness of Treacherous Faith as both a study of heresy and of extreme religious understandings makes this study one which should become required reading for a range of scholars and students across a number of disciplines. Indeed, Loewenstein’s work provides an exemplum to anyone who poses questions over the significance of early modern study to the modern world. It is true that there are moments when his analogy comparing early modern and contemporary religious extremism can seem at risk of becoming anachronistic, however, Loewenstein’s deft and subtle prose never indulges in such an overt simplification.

[7] Throughout Treacherous Faith Loewenstein marshals his wealth of sources admirably, and he has successfully balanced readings of individual authors which will interest author specialists with a more general cultural, political, and religious narrative which illuminates the intricate debates prevalent throughout this tumultuous period in English history.

May, 2014

Malabika Sarkar, Cosmos and Character in Paradise Lost (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Malabika Sarkar, Cosmos and Character in Paradise Lost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). (ISBN 978-1-137-00699-8), 236 pp. HBK. £55.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Stone


[1]  Since the 1960’s the astronomical elements of Paradise Lost have been a recurring theme in the work of Milton scholars. Perhaps the most notable contributor to these discussions, Marjorie Nicholson, laid the foundations for the vast majority of the debates that have occurred and in many of them a state of academic impasse has been reached. We are left with some questions that have been answered and others that are frequently re-answered through diametrically opposed arguments with contributions to the respective debates often amounting to little more than the most minor re-configurations of established positions. In essence, the field has not stagnated but is in a state that requires significant invigoration. Malabika Sarkar’s work does, to some extent, offer this re-vitalisation.

[2]  Sarkar’s work reads the cosmos of Paradise Lost in the context of those lesser known intellectual nuances and intrigues that occurred within the restoration period but have not sustained academic interest into the modern day. Sarkar acknowledges the significance of both the new astronomy and traditional understandings but tempers this by noting the significant role of a number of seemingly less eminent academic pursuits – amongst these cabalistic and hermetic thought, the Mosaic tradition, alchemy, the roles of British scientists in the establishing of the new astronomy, millennial concerns, and vitalist thought. Sarkar offers chapters on ‘Invocations: Milton as Moses’ in which she reads Paradise Lost in the context of cabalistic thought and the mosaic tradition, “Unoriginal Night’ and Milton’s Chaos’ where she provides a new understanding of the dual nature of Chaos, “This Pendent World’: The Cosmos of Paradise Lost’ and “The Visible Diurnal Sphere’: Space and Time’ which contain excellent descriptions of the landscape of Milton’s cosmos, ‘Satan and Astronomical Signs’, ‘Milton’s Angels and Celestial Motion’, ‘The Galileo Question’, and ‘Adam, Eve, and the “Virtuous Touch” of Alchemy’. Amongst these it is her readings of the character of Satan and the role of Galileo in the poem that are most intriguing. Sarkar offers a pithy and economical reading of Satan in the context of the ‘millenarian fervour’ (p.111) that arose in the wake of the observations of the 1572 and 1604 supernovae. Indeed, her reading of Satan as ‘millennial hero’ (p.116) and false prophet based on his comparison to the comets and stars noted in the constellation of Ophiuchus in the ‘Satan and Astronomical Signs’ chapter is amongst the most compelling in the entire work.

[3]  Stylistically, Sarkar’s work has two major strengths. Firstly, her descriptions of the physical layout of Milton’s cosmos significantly supersede any precedents. Sarkar demonstrates a vivid visual imagination and her eloquent explanations establish the physical geography of the universe of Paradise Lost in a manner that benefits the field enormously. In areas where Milton demonstrates certitude Sarkar offers confirmation; in areas where Milton offers ambiguity Sarkar offers thorough explorations of the intellectual possibilities of his descriptions. Secondly, Sarkar’s methodology contributes significantly to the clarity of her arguments. As the book progresses it makes a notable effort to demonstrate the growth of a core thesis with later chapters repeatedly referencing the readings posited at earlier points in the work. The effect created is to suggest a naturalness in Sarkar’s understanding of Milton’s cosmos. Her readings grow organically as the book progresses guiding the reader through what is a complex and much disputed area of study with the utmost precision.

[4]  The work is not without its flaws. The chapter on the character and role of Milton’s angels seems rather too brief to add to Joad Raymond’s excellent work Milton’s Angels (a work Sarkar references), and occasionally the work is guilty of exploring the secondary meanings of passages in a manner which can undermine the significance of Sarkar’s contribution to Milton studies. Sarkar herself acknowledges this fact in the ‘Invocations: Milton as Moses’ where she states that her reading of these passages represents a ‘second benchmark’ of significance behind that of the invocations reflecting Milton’s knowledge of ‘classical and Spenserian epic’ (p.23). However, these are minor issues in what is fundamentally a stimulating, nuanced, eminently readable, and well researched work.

[5]  Given that Sarkar’s chapter on ‘Milton’s Angels and Celestial Motion’ seems rather perfunctory in the wake of Raymond’s work; it is of great credit to Sarkar that she avoids a similar fate in her chapter on ‘The Galileo Question’. ‘The Galileo Question’ is, in fact, a series of well-versed intrigues which could – and in the hands of a lesser skilled academic would – become a mere revision of over-exploited materials and over-repeated arguments. Sarkar acknowledges the recent discord over whether or not Milton actually met Galileo (as he famously claims to have in Areopagitica) and rather than engaging in debate either pro or against such a meeting suggests that Galileo’s inclusion in Paradise Lost is of great significance in either situation. If Milton met Galileo then clearly he made a distinct and direct impact upon the poem; if not then Sarkar suggests that this it is ‘all the more significant that Milton needed to invent such a meeting’ (p.148). Sarkar is also adroit in distinguishing between the reference to meeting Galileo in prose and the repeated uses of images relating to him in Paradise Lost, ultimately concluding that Galileo is selected for inclusion in Milton’s epic as both a ‘martyr in the cause of intellectual freedom’ and an ‘example of a combination of outstanding scientific achievement and the capacity to believe in doubts and uncertainty as positive and enabling’ (p.159).

[6]  Cosmos and Character in Paradise Lost, therefore, offers its readership a wealth of materials that significantly advance the present state of Milton studies. Sarkar has read widely and combines this breadth of knowledge with a focus upon the details of Milton’s work admirably. The work is a must read for serious Miltonists, and would offer invaluable clarity to undergraduate students in a field that can often seem obfuscated by the nuanced readings of arguments with significant critical heritage. This is not to say that Sarkar is any less nuanced in her understanding, nor less appreciative of her academic forbears, but rather that her style demonstrates an admirable lucidity that is often missing from these complex debates.

University of Leeds, May 2013