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‘Like to a title leafe’: Surface, Face, and Material Text in Early Modern England

‘Like to a title leafe’: Surface, Face, and Material Text in Early Modern England

Lucy Razzall

[1]  In a letter composed in 1645 and published posthumously in an English anthology just over a decade later, the French writer Jean-Louis Guez Balzac thanked a friend for sending him a work of theology. Responding to the book, Balzac wrote:

Expect not here […] from me a precise judgement of what I cannot reach. I have not discover’d the depth of the book: It is true, Madam, the outside and surface is very beautifull and is precious. I am ravished with the sound of the harmony which is made by matters I cannot comprehend: this way of writing would have amazed the Philosophers whom it had not convinced. And had Gregory of Nazianza, shewn such a piece of work to his friend Themistius, questionlesse it had wrought upon him He would have admired the appearance and outside of Christianity though he could not have beheld the secret and interiour part of it. They are not words printed and read on the paper, they are felt, & penetrate even to the very heart. (Balzac 1658: sig.O8v)

In praising the gift, Balzac opposes its ‘depth’ and ‘surface’; the former is something he ‘cannot reach’, remaining yet to be ‘discover’d, while the latter is at ‘the outside’, and readily appreciated as ‘very beautifull’ and ‘precious’. It is not clear, from these lines, whether he is referring to the visual appearance of the material text he has received, presumably a bound book, or more metaphorically, to its literary qualities. The contrast between the superficial and the hidden persists throughout his letter; he goes on to praise ‘the appearance and outside of Christianity’, which is more easily admired than the ‘secret and interiour part of it’. As the letter progresses, the distinction between the book as material object and mental or spiritual experience is increasingly blurred, as is the distinction between this particular work of theology and the broader concept of ‘Christianity’. In the final line of this passage, Balzac seems to downplay the importance of the book’s materiality – rejecting the ‘words printed and read on the paper’ – but it is only through the very physical vocabulary of sound, feeling, and penetration that he can express the persistently inward effect of these words, which ‘penetrate even to the very heart’. Despite his rhetorical negation of the material text, ultimately Balzac is dependent on this materiality to make effective his portrayal of the complete experience of reading. His letter neatly illustrates the inevitable intricacy of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’, even as it sets them in opposition: literary or spiritual ‘depth’ can only be facilitated by, and encountered through, the simultaneously mental and material experience of ‘the outside and surface’ of ‘words printed and read on the paper’.

[2]  This brief early modern account of reading elides the material and conceptual experiences of the book. Balzac blurs the distinction between his book’s various possible surfaces, which might be visually impressive – perhaps a beautiful binding, or ornate title-page – or intellectually so – a ‘way of writing’, as he says, which stirs his mind in a way that also has to be expressed in physical terms. The moment of interplay between visual and intellectual experiences of a book in Balzac’s letter provides a helpful opening for this essay, which will explore some of the visual and metaphorical aspects of one particular bibliographical surface in early modern literary culture: the printed title page.

[3]  The title page is one of the first textual surfaces, and very often the first textual surface, that a reader of an early modern printed text encounters. Although bindings, blank sheets, waste sheets, and fly leaves may precede it, the title page is usually the outermost or uppermost textual surface of the printed book as a multi-surfaced, multi-dimensional object with physical as well as metaphorical ‘depth’. Like contents pages, prefatory dedications and epistles, indexes, and other paratextual features, title pages set themselves outside the book proper, as navigational starting points for finding a way into, and through, the book. Modern editions of early modern texts usually standardise the information provided on original title pages, and so it is easy to forget that title pages are often intriguingly messy typographical sites, as well as particularly rich reminders of the many agents involved in producing a printed work in the early modern period.

[4]  Bibliographers, book historians, and others usually offer fairly fixed definitions of what a title page is, although there are some disciplinary variations. In her history of the title page in the incunable period, Margaret Smith reminds us that ‘whereas bibliographers are at pains to define the title-page as not containing the beginning of the text, manuscript specialists conflate a decorated first page of text with a frontispiece, or a title-page. For bibliographers a title-page must be distinguished from both a frontispiece and the first page of a text’ (2000: 12). Building on the conventions of manuscript culture, the title page in the early years of print emerged gradually: ‘the title-page went through several stages of development: beginning with the adoption of manuscript practice, then to a blank, to a label-title on the blank (the birth of the title-page in the printed book), and finally to the full title-page’ (Smith 2000: 16). Throughout the sixteenth century the visual and verbal conventions of the title page continued to evolve, and in English, there appears to have been no specific name for the title page until the end of the century. Moreover, the very concept of a title, as well as its form and function, and its relationship to a written text, were also evolving gradually in the early modern period (Genette 1997: 55-103).

[5]  Physically outside a printed text proper, the title page is a distinctive exterior surface, but it is also a distinctive intellectual exterior, usually serving various practical and commercial purposes. Although the term suggests that this is a surface primarily concerned with a text’s ‘title’, in the early modern period this page is also the site for other important information about the work and those involved in producing it. It might provide the names of authors, editors, printers, and publishers, as well as the date and place of publication. If it supplies the details of an individual printer’s or bookseller’s shop, for example, a title page links the book as commercial object to a geographically specific location in London. A printed title page might feature other text too, such as epigraphs or quotations, instructions to the reader, and perhaps non-textual material in the form of decoration and illustrations. In contrast with engraved title pages, printed title pages have received relatively little attention in critical work on early modern paratexts. [1]

[6]  Title pages are one of the principal outward faces of a printed text, usually providing the reader with some information about what will be found inside. As sites of initial encounter, they are both face and surface on the book as object, communicating textual identity but also suggesting physical and intellectual senses of depth. This article brings together some early modern literary responses to real and imaginary title pages, including the first known use of a specific term for this particular part of a book, and teases out the connections between ideas of face and surface embodied at these sites. In considering how they operate in textual, material, and metaphorical ways, the article explores how early modern title pages might be useful locations for troubling some of our own, as well as early modern, assumptions about ‘surface’. This word itself has its origins in the early modern period, and the first part of the essay examines the relationship between ‘surface’ and ‘face’ as the former entered the English language. In its early appearances, the idea of ‘surface’ offers not simply an oppositional contrast with ‘depth’, but is associated with the creation or inscription of identity. The origins of ‘surface’ as word and idea in English writing provide an illuminating backdrop for thinking about the textual, visual, and material functions of the title page in early modern literary culture.

[7]  The word ‘surface’ entered English usage in the later sixteenth century, from the Middle French ‘surface’ and Latin ‘superficies’, referring to the ‘visible outside part of a body’ or ‘outermost boundary of any material object’ (OED 2016). In its early English appearances, it is generally employed as a technical term in geographical, mathematical, and astronomical contexts, where it is particularly associated with descriptions of the globe – as one astronomical handbook illustrates, a globe is ‘a massie body inclosed with one platform or surface’ (Tapp 1602: sig.A4r). In his 1592 dialogue on globes, the mathematician Thomas Hood explained that ‘whether the Globe be Mathematically conceaued in minde, or sensibly deliuered to the eye, it is contained and inclosed vnder one surface’ (1592: sig.B2r). His two speakers discuss the basic form shared by both terrestrial and celestial globes:

The surface of the Globe, as wee haue hetherto spoken of it, is to be vnderstood as a blancke hauing nothing inscribed in it, yet fit to receiue any inscription: therefore according to the inscription of the Globe wee diuide it two seuerall wayes: so that the Globe is saide to be eyther Celestiall, or Terrestriall (sig.B2v).

Their metaphor evokes bibliographical imagery: the ‘surface’ of any globe is compared to a ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’ – in other words, it is like a sheet of paper, awaiting text. This paper-like ‘blancke’ exterior is crucial to imagining a globe’s transformation from the general to the particular. The nature of such ‘inscription’ on this exterior surface decides and defines what kind of globe it will be, either ‘Celestiall or Terrestriall’. These early appearances in English reveal the word ‘surface’ to be associated with enclosure and exteriority, but also to have intriguingly imaginative, textual connotations.

[8]  Yet a keyword search in Early English Books Online suggests that beyond these technical contexts of mathematics, geometry, and geography, ‘surface’ was not more widely used in English until further into the seventeenth century. Alongside Hood’s description of the surface of terrestrial and celestial globes, I now want to compare the more poetic context of the opening lines of the book of Genesis, which describe the creation of heaven and earth. Contrasting early English translations of these lines leads Adam Nicolson to think about the apparent hesitancy in this period surrounding the word ‘surface’, and the possibilities offered by its close relation, ‘face’ (2003: 192-4). In his unfinished Old Testament translation of the 1530s, William Tyndale wrote:

In the beginnyng God created heauen and earth. The erth was voyde and emptye, and darcknesse was vpon the depe, & the spirite of God moued upon the water.

Tyndale’s prose here is accessible and useful, stating the facts of creation, but it is without any literary grandeur. Twenty or so years later, the compilers of the Geneva Bible offered this variation:

In the beginning God created the heauen and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darknesse was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

In their version, the prose is made more fluent, and more specific. The earth was ‘without form and void’, rather than only ‘voyde’, and the word ‘face’ is introduced in the final clause, suggesting the possibility of life emerging from the now plural ‘waters’, in contrast with Tyndale’s singular ‘water’. The King James Version of 1611 incorporates the additions of the Geneva text, building on them further:

In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darknesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

Although the changes are slight, the effect is magisterial. The prose is rhythmic, poetically balanced through judicious punctuation, the repetition of ‘the’ and ‘and’, and the ‘darknesse’ ‘vpon the face of the deepe’ set against the ‘Spirit of God’ ‘vpon the face of the waters’.

[9]  Nicolson points out that there is a word which means ‘surface’ in the Hebrew, but all of these early English versions of Genesis avoid it (2003: 194), unlike modern English translations – the New Revised Standard Version, for example, gives us: ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’, overlooking the poetic possibilities embraced by the King James translators. Early modern translators repeatedly chose ‘face’ rather than ‘surface’; indeed, the word ‘surface’ does not appear anywhere at all in the King James text. Nicolson’s comments about the general preference in scriptural translation for ‘face’ over ‘surface’ are very suggestive. ‘The spirit of God moving on the face of the waters has a mysterious and ghostly humanity to it which neither the modern translations nor Tyndale’s blankness can match’, he writes – ‘The face of the waters carries a subliminal suggestion that the face of God is reflected in them […] In this first, archaic darkness a connection already exists between God and his creation. The universe from the moment of its making is human and divine’ (2003: 194).

[10]  While Nicolson’s justification is theologically and poetically convincing, it may also be the case that the King James translators were more conscious than Nicolson acknowledges of some of the contemporary technical associations of the word ‘surface’, exemplified in the astronomical works I cited earlier, and also in Robert Norton’s 1604 volume of applied mathematics, where it is stated that ‘A Superficies or Surface hath onely length and bredth without deepenesse’ (Norton 1604: sig.G3r). Norton’s definition in particular suggests one reason why ‘surface’ might not be an appropriate word to use for the primal waters of Genesis, even though is already associated with descriptions of terrestrial and celestial globes – according to Norton, a surface is specifically ‘without deepenesse’ (my italics). However, even as it sets up a contrast between surface and depth here, Norton’s definition complicates any potential binary, giving ‘surface’ the expansive dimensions of both ‘length’ and ‘breadth’, which define it as more than simply the opposite of ‘deepenesse’.

[11]  The hesitation of early modern scriptural translators surrounding ‘surface’ is a reminder that this word can be as potentially problematic as it is useful. With the avoidance of ‘surface’, the relationship between maker and what is made in Genesis is depicted implicitly as one of seeing ‘face to face’, a phrase which comes up explicitly, no fewer than eleven times, in the King James translation. It is perhaps most famously used by St Paul, who reassures the people of Corinth that ‘now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), but it also appears many times in the Old Testament, where Moses and other prophets are associated with seeing God, or his angels, ‘face to face’ (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). Whereas ‘face’ implies desirably direct, intimate encounter in all of these examples, when it is given the three-letter prefix ‘sur’ (from Latin, super, meaning ‘above’, ‘on top of’, ‘beyond’, ‘besides’, ‘in addition’), it is immediately made less direct, those three letters performing on the page a visual intervention like that which the word ‘surface’ itself implies, as something that comes before something else, concealing something from direct view or immediate revelation.

[12]  The printed title page provides a rich material and imaginative focus for thinking about the web of associations between the visual and the metaphorical connected to the word ‘surface’ in early modern writing. Like Thomas Hood’s ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’, the title page serves as a defining surface, at which we might expect to deduce something of the nature of the text within. As these early modern technical and literary contexts for thinking about ‘surface’ suggest, title pages, like faces, might also be associated with literal and metaphorical kinds of recognition and reflection. Several of these material and imaginative connections are at play in the first published instance of a specific term for a title page in early modern writing, to which I will now turn, before then considering what some other literary and real encounters with title pages tell us about how these bibliographical sites work as surfaces.

[13]  In the opening scenes of William Shakespeare’s The Second part of Henrie the fourth (written around 1596 and first printed in 1600), three different messengers bring conflicting news from the battle of Shrewsbury, and on the arrival of the third, the sick Earl of Northumberland exclaims:

Yea this mans brow, like to a title leafe,
Foretells the nature of a tragicke volume:
So lookes the strond whereon the imperious floud,
Hath left a witnest vsurpation.
Say Mourton, didst thou come from Shrewsbury? (1600: sig.A3v)

Morton’s facial expression, before he has spoken, reveals that he brings bad tidings – the news that the rebellion against the king has largely been defeated, and Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, has been killed by Prince Hal, not the other way round as reported several lines earlier. In response, Northumberland likens Morton’s face to a ‘title leafe’ of a ‘tragicke volume’; more specifically, it is his ‘brow’ which draws this simile from him. His words suggest a physiognomical moment of revelation, in which the furrowed lines of Morton’s forehead can be read, accurately foretelling ‘the nature’ of his news. No sooner has it been read in this way, however, than Morton’s face is rapidly transformed into another surface, on a much greater scale: a shoreline bearing traces of tidal invasion. While editors of the play usually comment only on the comparison between the frowning human brow and the lined aspect of a beach encroached upon by the tide here, there is also a suggestion of the lingering salty wetness of sweat on his brow, or even tears on the rest of his face, further ‘witnesses’ of the news of Hotspur’s death.

[14]  It is especially appropriate that this invocation of a title page comes at the beginning of the play, as initial encounters between protagonists take place, and the nature of the drama that is to follow is established. ‘How doth my sonne and brother?’, Northumberland goes on to ask Morton, continuing before he can respond: ‘Thou tremblest, and the whitenes in thy cheeke/Is apter than thy tongue to tell thy arrand’ (sig.A3v). As an ominously trembling ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face has the ‘whitenes’ of paper, on which blankness might ‘foretell’ and ‘tell’ as much as, or indeed more than words. Northumberland elaborates that because of this face, he knows ‘my Percies death ere thou reportst it’ (sig.A3v), making Morton into a primarily visual, rather than verbal, source. In the Induction moments earlier, the figure of Rumour, ‘painted full of Tongues’, has established an atmosphere of mistrust for the play’s opening, in which ‘continual slanders ride’ and ‘smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs’ circulate (sigs.A2r-v). Upon Morton’s entrance though, Northumberland trusts what he sees, before he hears anything; in this encounter, all is on the surface. He focuses on Morton’s face as a visual form of communication, rather than an aural one, in contrast with the cacophony of uncertainties ‘from Rumour’s tongues’. As a legible ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face more reliably establishes the nature of the action to follow.

Figure 1: William Shakespeare, The Second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S. for Andrew Wise and William Aspley, 1600), title-page. RB 69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[15]  Shakespeare’s simile of the ‘title leafe’ also hints at the materiality of the play in its printed form. Although it does not feature Northumberland’s word ‘tragicke’, the title page of the 1600 quarto describes The Second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift, tempering this with the promise of the humours of sir Iohn Falstaffe, and swaggering Pistol. Between the printed text of the title, the references to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and William Shakespeare, and the colophon at the foot of the page, there is one piece of non-alphabetical type – an architectural ornament depicting a small grotesque face within a cartouche. Although this ornament is there to fill blank space, and as a necessary feature of the printing process has no intentional relationship to Shakespeare’s play, the presence of this image is a reminder of the connections between faces and books embodied in another term sometimes used as a synonym for title page or ‘title leafe’, the ‘frontispiece’.[2] From the Latin frontispicium, meaning literally ‘looking at the forehead’, ‘frontispiece’ was an architectural term referring to the principal ‘face’ or front of a building in use in English from the late sixteenth century, as well as to the first page of a printed book from the early seventeenth (OED 2016). Thus as Northumberland reads Morton’s ‘brow’, he might equally and more literally liken it to a ‘frontispiece’. Although a distinction is usually now made between title page and frontispiece, with the latter term given to an illustrated page facing the title page, often involving a portrait, the terms were less clearly distinguished in the early modern period.

[16]  For example, John Taylor conflates these two terms figuratively in a sermon on repentance, which he describes as ‘a great volume of duty; and Godly sorrow is but the frontispiece or title page: it is the harbinger or first introduction to it’ (1653: sig.E5r). Just as Morton’s face relays sad news at the start of Shakespeare’s play, here Taylor asks his audience to imagine ‘Godly sorrow’ as the necessary ‘harbinger’ of repentance. In both texts, the ‘frontispiece or title page’ works as a crucial simile or metaphor to convey the sense of something to be read, indicating what is yet to come. For Shakespeare’s Northumberland and for Taylor, the face and the ‘frontispiece or title page’ are both reliable surfaces, which in a culture that made much of physiognomy, can be accurately read as revelatory sites. [3]

[17]  Yet at the same time, anxieties about the reliability of such outer surfaces pervade early modern writing. The reinforcement of the surface-depth distinction is often in the context of religious polemic, and is particularly tied to the distinctively Protestant fixation with the idea that exteriors are deceptive.[4] In his exposition of ‘Meekness’ as a ‘necessary feminine Vertu’, the preacher Richard Allestree uses another metaphorical ‘frontispiece’ to insist that a woman’s ‘mind’ should ‘correspond’ with her face:

For tho the adulterations of art, can represent in the same Face beauty in one position, and deformity in another, yet nature is more sincere, and never meant a serene and clear forhead, should be the frontispiece to a cloudy tempestuous heart. ’Tis therefore to be wisht they would take the admonition, and whilst they consult their glasses, whether to applaud or improve their outward form, they would cast one look inwards, and examine what symmetry is there held with a fair outside; whether any storm of passion darken and overcast their interior beauty, and use at least an equal dilligence to rescu that; as they would to clear their face from any stain or blemish. (1673: sig.C3r )

According to Allestree, it is fundamentally unnatural for the face to conceal the true feelings of the heart. The truly virtuous woman should seek to resolve the desired ‘symmetry’ of the face and what is ‘inwards’, so that the former looks outwards unblemished, accurately foretelling ‘interior beauty’. An earlier seventeenth-century treatise on virtue and moral conduct by Henry Crosse offers a more general catalogue of the ways in which ‘by the disguised craft of this age, vice and hypocrisie may be concealed: yet by Tyme (the trial of truth) it is most plainly reuealed’ (1603: sig.A1r ). The sin of hypocrisy is everywhere: ‘this idle shewe and false appearance, o how dangerous it is to the truth! being possessed with nought but treacherie and cosonage, a capitall plague, it is for the wicked to make shewe of goodnesses, and may fitly be sorted to the Apothicaries painted boxes, that haue nothing within but poyson, or some deadly compound’. A man to whom ‘glorious titles’ are given, but who does not match these with a virtuous character, is like ‘a rotten carkasse with a painted skin’, but as Crosse warns, ‘the all-seeing eye of heauen, to whom darknesse is light, perspicuously obserueth all their deeds, and will bring them forth euen as they are naked and vncouered’ (sigs.D3r, H2v-H3r).

[18]  In this conventional Protestant polemic, God alone remains undeceived, while mortals are easily led astray by earthly things, amongst which are the particularly dangerous agents of ‘vaine, idle, wanton Pamphlets and lasciuious loue-books’. Crosse protests that they conceal ‘idle Poems of carnall loue, lust, and vnchaste arguments’:

the very nurses of abuse, by which the minde is drawne to many pestilent wishes. For when as young folkes haue licked in the sweete iuice of these stinking bookes, their conuersation and manners are so tainted and spotted with Vice, that they can neuer be so cleane washed, but some filthy dregges will remaine behinde. I may liken them to fawning curres, that neuer barke till they bite: or a gaye painted coffer, full of toades and venemous beasts: So in like manner many of these bookes haue glorious outsides, and goodly titles: as if when a man tooke them in hand, he were about to read some angelicall discourse: but within, full of strong venome, tempered with sweete honey: now while the minde is occupied in reading such toyes, the common enemie of man is not idle, but doth secretly insnare the soule in securitie […] (sig.N4v).

While there are men with ‘glorious titles’ which are not matched by inner virtue, so too are there books with ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ which ‘infect and poison delicate youth’. In this passage Crosse exploits the aptness of pestilence and poison as metaphors for the way in which books affect their readers in unseen, insidious ways. The ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ of a book are both material and intellectual surfaces, and when the reader takes the book ‘in hand’, literally and mentally, they must be wary of how they interpret these external surfaces, in case the volume turns out to contain ‘strong venome’ rather than the ‘angelicall discourse’ promised.

[19]  Such diatribes against worldly dangers, in which the danger of superficiality is relentlessly emphasised, present fairly standard reformed rhetoric. Books are implicated as material, intellectual, and spiritual experiences, with a particular emphasis on the deceptive potential of their ‘titles’, and by extension, their title pages, as distinctive faces or surfaces. This anxiety about the reliability, or not, of a title page extends beyond puritanical debate to a more generalised fear of dishonesty in print, as Thomas Dekker admits in one of the prefatory epistles accompanying his intriguingly-titled pamphlet A strange horse-race:

The Titles of Bookes are like painted Chimnies in great Countrey-houses, make a shew a far off, and catch Trauellers eyes; but comming nere them, neither cast they smoke, nor hath the house the heart to make you drinke. The Title of this booke is like a Iesters face, set (howsoeuer he drawes it) to beget mirth: but his ends are hid to himselfe, and those are to get money. Within is more then without; you shall not finde the kirnell, vnlesse you both cracke and open the shell. (1613: sig.A2v).

The ‘Titles of Bookes’ manipulate a reader’s perspective, Dekker says, on closer inspection often turning out to mean less than they promised. His appropriately architectural simile for the frontispiece or title page suggests the reader’s material as well as intellectual experience of it, as something that is often visually tempting from a certain distance, but which may disappoint within. Turning to his own book, he implicitly brings in the more literal meaning of ‘frontispiece’, likening his title to ‘a Iesters face’, which seems to ‘beget mirth’ but conceals a more avaricious intention. Books, buildings, and faces all have the potential to mislead with their exterior surfaces, but Dekker dares his reader to venture further, even at the risk of disappointment.

[20]  While Dekker meditates on the deceptive potential of the title page for his own entertaining purposes, the problems he raises are recounted in other ways by contemporary writers concerned with the fact that printers have significant influence over the titles of books, and can exploit title pages for their own commercial ends. Barnabe Rich, soldier and author whose various works include six texts on the art of war, reflected that:

the Printer himselfe, to make his booke the more vendible, doth rather desire a glorious Title, than a good Booke: so that our new written Pamphlets of these times, are not much vnlike to a poore Inne in a Countrey towne, that is gorgiously set foorth with a glorious signe; but being once entred into the house, a man shall find but cold intertainment, as well of homely lodging, as of bad fare. They are but resemblances to the Apples that are said to grow about Sodom, which being pleasant to the eye, doe vanish into smoke, or into soot as soone as a man doth but put his teeth into them: and like the small bells of the Choribantes, that may make a little tingling noise, but they are good for nothing but to trouble the braine. To speake truly, I haue many times beene deceiued with these flourishing Titles that I haue seene pasted vpon a Post, for bestowing my mony in haste at my better leisure looking into the book, and finding such slender stuffe, I haue laughed at my owne folly: but I haue yet made vse of them, for what will not serue for one thing may well be imployed to another. (1606: sig.L4r)

Rich’s vocabulary here is very similar to Dekker’s, but instead of an ostentatious country house he invokes ‘a poor Inne in a Countrey towne’, whose ‘glorious signe’ conceals the poor welcome offered inside. Moreover, title pages may even be detached from the book altogether, and ‘pasted vpon a Post’ for advertising purposes. This passage reinforces in emphatically material terms the idea that the title or title page is all too often but a let-down, promising more than it delivers. Although title pages were among those things ‘we commonly hang vpon a wall, fasten thereunto’, as one contemporary noted – ‘if it be a Proclamation or Title page of a booke, that it is pasted vnto the wall; if it be a new Pamphlet, that is fastened to the wall with nails’ (Willis 1621: sigs.B2v-B3r) – Rich finds the complete separation of this part of the book especially problematic. He says he has ‘yet made vse of them’, however, euphemistically alluding to other possible uses of paper that reduce it to nothing but an entirely disposable surface.

[21]  In such articulations, title and title page inevitably conceal a lack of substance. While these are commonly expressed concerns in early modern writing, the reality is that title pages represent much more complex kinds of surface, which confound many of our assumptions about how this particular face or surface of a book should work, complicating the relationship between surface and depth. The close imaginative associations between title pages and other surfaces requiring visual interpretation, whether faces, or buildings, or inn signs, are a reminder that the printed title page may be visually striking, even in purely typographical terms. Title pages printed in the first half of the sixteenth century are often especially engaging in this respect, with text laid out in bold, graphic shapes. The visual effects of the text often conflict with our modern sense of what a title is, and what the title page should do, as words are prioritised and split in surprising ways, and an often symmetrical, visually pleasing outline of the text block is achieved at the expense of easy reading. Access to the contents of the book may be slowed down through unexpected hierarchies, where opening articles such as ‘a’ or ‘the’ are given greater prominence than the more specific details of the title. The eye may be gradually drawn in to a vanishing point, to a single piece of type, blurring the distinction between letter and ornament. The effect is almost one of optical illusion, not unrelated to the early modern fascination with visual perspective, in which the two-dimensional page gestures towards the three-dimensional space of the whole book. While engraved title pages might more explicitly play around with perspective, using architectural designs to create an almost tangible sense of depth, for example, printed title pages can also visually suggest depth, revelling in the possibilities and limitations of the printed surface.

[22]  Very little has been said about this curiously ornamental stage in print history – Margaret Smith says, dryly: ‘it must be conceded that a label-title arranged in a half-diamond indention could be quite attractive’ (2000: 60). Her comment is insufficient in responding to the effects of these surfaces, where the textual becomes the visual, and individual letters units of decoration, before they are words. We might compare them to shape poems like George Herbert’s familiar Easter-Wings, which resolves the fallenness of sin and the uplifting power of Christ’s resurrection in a poem that hovers, as a pair of wings, as if about to take flight from the page, or ‘The Altar’, which similarly slows down the process of reading, and hints at a three-dimensional material form beyond the page.

[23]  One example of this manipulation of the visual possibilities of type on a title page is found in a quarto printed by John Day in 1560, containing three sermons given by Roger Hutchinson. On Day’s title page, framed by an architectural border of scrolls, leaves, and faces, eight lines of text gradually shorten, announcing the topic of the sermons, the name of the preacher, the place in which he preached them (Eton College) and the year (1552). The description of the sermons, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, involves upper case type in two decreasing sizes for ‘A faithful declaration of’, as well as italic and blackletter fonts in smaller sizes again for ‘Christes holy supper’. The word ‘comprehended’ and the two parts of the author’s name are split over breaks between lines.

Figure 2: Roger Hutchinson, A Faithful Declaration of Christes holy Supper (London: John Day, 1560), title-page. RB 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Day’s details and the date of printing, as well as the Latin statement of royal approval are set out beneath in a similar visual composition.[5] Between these two blocks are some further lines, in type of the same font and size, and a similar almost-triangular shape: ‘Whose contentes are in the other syde of the lefe.’ In the Huntington Library copy of this text, a reader has added in the name of the author, Roger Hutchinson in manuscript, in the gap between this note and the printing details, reasserting that crucial detail in the conventional form of complete words, as if for quick reference.

[24]  This early modern reader’s intervention is perhaps a giveaway that this title page is not so easy to read – that the printer’s practical decisions over how to arrange text on this surface have brought about visual coherence at the expense of readerly convenience. The printed title page thus becomes a surface obsessed with itself. In the sixteenth century there is often little distinction between a title page and a contents page, hence Day’s reminder to check ‘the other syde of the lefe’ for the ‘contentes’ of the sermons. Moments like this are quite common: ‘Thou that to read this title doth begin, turn over leaf and see what is within’ (Anon 1663), announces one anonymously published moral treatise of the mid-seventeenth century on its title page. Unlike other paratextual materials, such as epistles, the title page itself is not usually explicitly attributed to anyone, and so these moments of instruction come from an uncanny, unknown voice. Such volumes are acutely aware of their own materiality, and remind the reader that intellectual engagement is inseparable from tactile, physical encounter.

[25]  The direction to ‘turn over leaf’ seems unnecessary – surely the reader does not need to be directed to turn this page, of all pages – but it also works like a sort of apology for the limitations of the page itself, as well as anticipating verbally the moment of suspense as a page is turned. Even as it admits to its own two-dimensionality, the printed title page signals the three-dimensionality of the book, and complicates our notion of its surface function. The early modern literary invocations of the title page discussed here have revealed how these paratextual features are especially vibrant surfaces, at which the book is especially aware of the possibilities and limitations of its own form. They also illustrate the importance of thinking beyond a clear-cut opposition of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’; as well as suggesting something within, and potentially deceiving the eye about what is hidden, title pages might be more reflective or participatory sites. As a ‘superficies or vpper part, the first shew or outward face’ as one early seventeenth century dictionary defined ‘surface’ (Cotgrave 1611: sig.4Fiiv), the printed title page is not merely a passive surface on which text is laid, but a transformative site of initial encounter, at which the material, visual, and mental experiences of the book as three-dimensional object are particularly closely intertwined.

 University of Cambridge


[1] The engraved title page, which I am excluding from my discussion here, is the focus of Corbett and Lightbown’s The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660 (1979). Among recent work on particular elements of printed title pages, see Smith’s ‘‘Imprinted by Simeon such a signe’: reading early modern imprints’ (2011) and Sherman’s ‘On the Threshold: Architecture, Paratext, and Early Print Culture’ (2007). [back to text]

[2] For more on reading faces in early modern culture, see Porter’s Windows of the Soul: Physiognomy in European Culture 1470-1780 (2005). [back to text]

[3] William Shakespeare, The second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S., 1600), title page. HM69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]

[4] For more on vision and superficiality in the context of the Reformation, see Clark’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (2007). [back to text]

[5] Roger Hutchinson, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, comprehe[n]ded in thre sermo[n]s, preached at Eaton Colledge (London: John Day, 1560), title page. HM 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]


Allestree, Richard. 1673. The ladies calling in two parts by the author of The whole duty of man, The causes of the decay of Christian piety, and The gentlemans calling (Oxford: n.p.)

Anon. 1663. Good counsel to be had at a cheap rate. Wherein is contained many excellent matters which are very needful to be had in consideration amongst all sorts of people that are now living in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (London: W. Gilbertson)

Balzac, Jean-Louis Guez. 1658. Balzac’s remaines, or, His last letters. Written to severall grand and eminent persons in France (London: Thomas Dring)

Clark, Stuart. 2007. Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Corbett, Margery and Lightbown, Ronald. 1979. The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Cotgrave, Randle. 1611. A dictionarie of the French and English tongues (London: Adam Islip)

Crosse, Henry. 1603. Vertues Common-wealth: Or the High-Way to Honovr (London: John Newbery)

Dekker, Thomas. 1613. A strange horse-race at the end of which, comes in the catch-poles masque (London: Nicholas Okes for Ioseph Hunt)

Genette, Gérard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. By Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hood, Thomas. 1592. The vse of both the globes, celestiall, and terrestriall most plainely deliuered in forme of a dialogue (London: Thomas Dawson)

Hutchinson, Roger. 1560. A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper comprehe[n]ded in thre sermo[n]s (London: John Day)

Nicolson, Adam. 2003. Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible (London: HarperCollins)

Norton, Robert. 1604. A mathematicall apendix, containing many propositions and conclusions mathematicall: with necessary obseruations both for mariners at sea, and for cherographers and surueyors of land (London: R.B. for Roger Iackson)

OED Online. 2016. Oxford University Press< http://www.oed.com/>date accessed 28 June 2016

Porter, Martin. 2005. Windows of the Soul: Physiognomy in European Culture 1470-1780 (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Rich, Barnabe. 1606. Faultes faults, and nothing else but faultes (London: Valentine Simmes for Ieffrey Chorlton)

Shakespeare, William. 1600. The second part of Henrie the fourth continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift (London: V.S. for Andrew Wise and William Aspley)

Sherman, William. 2007. ‘On the Threshold: Architecture, Paratext, and Early Print Culture’, in Agent of Change: Print Cultures After Elizabeth L. Eistenstein, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F Shevlin (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press): 67-81

Smith, Helen. 2011.‘‘Imprinted by Simeon such a signe’: reading early modern imprints’, in Renaissance Paratexts, ed. Helen Smith and Louise Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 17-33

Smith, Margaret. 2000. The Title-page: its early development, 1460-1510 (London: British Library)

Tapp, John. 1602. The seamans kalender, or An ephemerides of the sun, moone, and certaine of the most notable fixed stares (London: E. Allde)

Taylor, John. 1653. Eniautos a course of sermons for all the Sundaies of the year: fitted to the great necessities, and for the supplying the wants of preaching in many parts of this nation (London: Richard Royston)

Willis, John. 1621. The art of memory so far forth as it dependeth vpon places and idea’s (London: W. Iones)

Exhibition Review: The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 2 November 2012 – 14 April 2013.

Reviewed by Lucy Razzall


[1]  The year 2011-2012 saw not one but two major exhibitions of Leonardo da Vinci’s work in London. In an unprecedented achievement, the National Gallery managed to bring together more than half of his surviving paintings from across the world, including a newly attributed work, for their eagerly-awaited blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. At the other end of the Mall, the largest ever exhibition of the Florentine artist’s studies of the body, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, was staged in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. These works on paper are among some of the Royal Collection’s greatest treasures, and as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a further ten Leonardo drawings from the Collection toured regional galleries in Birmingham, Bristol, Belfast, Dundee and Hull. The two London exhibitions were both extraordinarily dazzling, each revealing in their richness just how difficult it is to pin down this iconic figure of the Italian Renaissance, but also reminding us, through the incredibly wide range of subjects, media, and intellectual concerns manifested in Leonardo’s work, how complex any definition of ‘the Renaissance’ must necessarily be. It was timely then, that by the close of the year, the Queen’s Gallery had been given over to a complementary vision of the Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein opened in November 2012, turning the viewer’s gaze away from the Italian focal point that the two Leonardo exhibitions inevitably encouraged, towards the artistic productions of northern Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, paying particular attention to two of this region’s most influential sons: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

[2]  Curated by Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker, The Northern Renaissance originally opened in June 2011, at the Royal Collection’s northernmost gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. With over one hundred and thirty individual works on display, this is a large exhibition, although the relatively intimate atmosphere of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (and even more so at Holyroodhouse), with its several small side-rooms and alcoves, means that the viewer is not overwhelmed by the number of items which the curators have brought together. The significant group of paintings and drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger is one of the strengths of the Royal Collection, and The Northern Renaissance celebrates a fine selection of them, framing the whole exhibition around these pieces and a similarly impressive choice of Dürer’s works.

[3]  We are left in no doubt that Albrecht Dürer was the most outstanding printmaker of his day. The pieces selected for The Northern Renaissance demonstrate his versatility and canny entrepreneurship, as well as his virtuosic skill. The eight images from the first edition of his first illustrated book project, the Apocalypse (issued in 1498, with German text, and then in Latin the same year), would merit a whole exhibition by themselves, such is the detail crammed within each page in this terrifying series of visions of the end-times. Almost as imposing is the two-metre segment of a woodcut frieze, The Great Triumphal Cart (1522), made from eight blocks for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, as part of a printmaking project Maximilian commissioned to celebrate his own rule. This Triumphal Procession was not completed in his lifetime, but Dürer issued the Triumphal Cart after the emperor’s death anyway, partly as a gesture of posthumous glorification, but mainly as a matter of personal financial urgency. At the other end of the scale, one of the most appealing works of the whole exhibition is Dürer’s small, elegant study of a greyhound, a brush and grey-black wash preparation piece for one of the five dogs in his engraving of St Eustace (c.1501). This simple study is comparable with some of the more famous engravings included in the exhibition – A Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), and St Jerome in his Study (1514) – as an illustration of Dürer’s ‘unrivalled sensitivity in depicting texture and form through line alone’ (The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, 73).

[4]  England’s place in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ is suggested most prominently by the beautiful array of portrait drawings and paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger. These include the three-quarter-length (a format that is rare in Holbein’s work) oil portraits of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (c. 1539) and Sir Henry Guildford (1527). The latter is one of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits, with lavish use of gold on the sitter’s sleeves, a vivid contrast with the simple green curtain pulled aside behind him. Most stunning of all, however, are the chalk drawings made in preparation for oil paintings of Thomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, his wife Margaret, and others, the serendipitous discovery of which by Queen Caroline in the drawer of a bureau at Kensington Palace restored them to their deserved place as jewels of the Royal Collection. While these drawings offer us a privileged glimpse into Holbein’s artistic process, they also have a delicate integrity of their own, the faces of their sitters cautiously emerging from the surface of the flesh-coloured prepared paper. Alongside these, it is intriguing to compare the image of Sir John Godsalve (c.1532-3), with its extensive use of watercolour and bodycolour, which suggests that it was intended as a finished work in its own right, rather than a preparatory piece.

[5]  Beyond paintings and works on paper, a significant range of different media from across northern Europe are represented in this exhibition, and this is one of its strengths. Many of the paintings, such as the famous portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massys (1517), and The Calling of St Matthew by Jans Mertens the Younger (1530s), call attention to the materiality of everyday things. Books, papers, scissors, inkpots, and coins proliferate in these paintings, with an intriguing, almost tactile quality. Sometimes, however, the apparently mundane manifests itself as more messy, and more sinister – most notably of all in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), where seventeenth-century transformations of babies into livestock, pitchers of water, and bundles of groceries reveal an attempt to rework this story of massacre into a less disturbing one of plunder. The vivid engagement with the material world in these Netherlandish works spills over into the whole gallery space, where manuscripts, printed books, sculptures, bronzes, tapestries, and pieces of armour are interspersed amongst the paintings, prints, and drawings mounted on the walls. The inclusion of these examples of moveable decorative arts also adds a striking diversity of scale, from the smallest French portrait miniature to the two large wool and silk tapestries from a Redemption of Man series, made in the southern Netherlands (c.1517-21), and measuring four metres wide and nearly eight metres high. These two examples were acquired by Cardinal Wolsey as part of his collection of over six hundred tapestries. (The bigger space available in London meant that these, as well as a few other items, could be added when the exhibition came down from Edinburgh, although they are not included in the catalogue).

[6]  The section on art in France in this period was another highlight. A series of arrestingly elegant royal portraits by Jean Perréal, Jean Clouet, and his son François, testifies to the popularity of portraiture in the French court at this time. The display, in an appropriately intimate side room, of a series of Clouet portrait miniatures alongside some exquisitely illuminated manuscript books of hours suggests the close relationship between these two forms of artistic production, both of which attracted significant patronage. It is in the French court, moreover, that we can locate some especially organic connections between the ‘Italian’ and ‘Northern’ Renaissances. Francis I was fascinated by Italian artists, and drew important painters and sculptors to his court with lavish financial rewards. Amongst their number, Leonardo da Vinci travelled to France in 1516, and subsequently spent the last years of his life there, working as a designer of architecture, sculpture, and engineering projects. He was also required to provide costume designs for the elaborate masques and tournaments that were so integral to courtly life; the exhibition includes A masquerader as a lansquenet, a figure worked in black chalk, pen and ink, and wash on rough paper, whose swirling silken sleeves suggest the exoticism (and expense) of these festivities. There are also polychromatic designs for furniture and ceilings by other Italian artists who received similar patronage from Francis I, illustrating some of the ways in which Italian ornamental fashions worked their way into the architectural fabric of northern Europe throughout the sixteenth century.

[7] The exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Collection, 2011) features additional contributions by Jennifer Scott, Emma Stuart, Vanessa Remington, Martin Clayton, and Jonathan Marsden. The organization of the volume matches that of the exhibition, with chapters on each principal geographical region (the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, and France) framed by sections focusing more closely on Dürer and Holbein. There is a pleasing attention to useful details: in the discussion of Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts, the eight full-page reproductions are accompanied by the relevant passages from the Book of Revelation, for example, and throughout the catalogue each main image is linked to items in the bibliography. Together, moreover, the exhibition and the catalogue shed some light on another narrative with its origins in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ – that of the Royal Collection itself, which can be said to have begun with the patronage of Hans Holbein the Younger by Henry VIII, for whom this artist produced some of his most important works.

[8]  What comes across quite clearly throughout this exhibition is a sense of the intricacy of the networks in which Dürer and Holbein, and their artistic and intellectual contemporaries, lived and worked. These networks were not necessarily confined to northern Europe, and as the selection of works produced in France in particular conveyed, the connections with the Italian Renaissance were often more integral than marginal. Thus The Northern Renaissance is an exhibition which raises more questions than it answers, but this is no criticism. It is an exhibition which subtly invites us to reconsider the paradigms of periodization and conceptualization, and thus makes an important contribution to an ongoing and wide-ranging critical venture.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge, February 2013

‘A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master-spirit’: Recollecting Relics in Post-Reformation English Writing

‘A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master-spirit’: Recollecting Relics in Post-Reformation English Writing

Lucy Razzall

[1]  In Ancient Funerall Monuments, John Weever describes how ‘Reliques were euer holden in most reuerend regard, amongst all sorts of people, insomuch that in the taking of any solemne oath, they vsed to lay their hand vpon certain Reliques, as they did vpon the holy Euangelists’ (1631: P2v). His words point to what was seen in post-Reformation England as a perilously close relationship between sacred texts and relics. In medieval ecclesiastical jurisdiction as well as in liturgical practice, relics are interchangeable with the Bible, and thus they are particularly dangerous objects in the eyes of Protestant reformers striving to assert the singular authority of holy scripture. Swearing oaths on the Bible employs the book in a way which does not demand literacy – even without being opened, it has some kind of power which can be absorbed by touch, rather than through the intellectual engagement of reading.[1] In his recent discussion of the perceived dangers of the Reformation-era relic as a focus for lay piety, James Kearney contends that ‘the holiness of the relic is a function of its contiguity with the world and the flesh […] Its materiality is not incidental to its meaning, but essential to it. Relics even more than images have the potential to lead to a misunderstanding of the sacred’ (2009: 58). Perhaps more so than the religious statue or icon, in its three-dimensionality the relic is a contentious object throughout the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth because of the questions its materiality provokes: what exactly a reliquary contains and how it can be accessed is inextricably linked to the broader ideological dilemmas debated during and after the decades of the English Reformation.

[2]  Recent criticism across several disciplines has drawn attention to the complex anxieties surrounding the material aspects of religious culture in England during and after the Reformation. One major area of discussion is that of changing attitudes towards sacred space; the Protestant battle for control over the sacred in the material world is now generally agreed to be one of modification and adaptation rather than simply eradication.[2] As Alexandra Walsham has persuasively argued, ‘the Protestant religion did not entirely relinquish the idea that the created world might be a vessel for supernatural grace’ (2005: 235). Walsham’s words bring in an important image here: the question of what exactly could serve as a ‘vessel’ of divine power is intensified in the reliquary as a religious object with troubling material and spiritual contents. My purpose in this essay is to examine some of the ways in which the relic persists as a powerful literary metaphor in post-Reformation English writing. Even after relics are literally and rhetorically attacked by royal injunctions in the 1530s, the image of the reliquary – an often ornate vessel containing blood or bones – endures well into the seventeenth century as a way of thinking about what a book or text might contain as a physical object which possesses some kind of intangible, numinous power. John Weever’s observation about the literal proximity of books and relics still has a certain truth, even in the seventeenth century: physical contact with a book, as with a relic, is sometimes as important as intellectual or spiritual engagement with its contents.

[3]  I begin with a case study from the middle of the seventeenth century. John Milton’s pamphlet Areopagitica was published in November 1644 after the licensing order of 1643, and his defence of the liberty of the printing press is constructed through a rich variety of metaphors, many of which engage closely with the materiality of printed books. In Areopagitica, as Joad Raymond observes in his work on the growth of the pamphlet as a literary and political form throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Milton is ‘supremely conscious of books as physical objects, and the experience of writing, handling, reading and smelling them inhabits his argument’ (2003: 272). Milton’s metaphor of the ‘good Booke’ as ‘the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life’ – is one of the most arresting and oft-quoted from this pamphlet.[3] He famously asserts that ‘books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’, counselling that ‘We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season’d life of man preserv’d and stor’d up in Books’. This is because, we are warned, ‘who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye’ (492). Books hold within them something which as a pure ‘extraction’ on the printed page is a physical manifestation of the contents of the writer’s mind.

[4]  This depiction of the book in positive terms as a kind of relic – an object which preserves within its pages some residual numinous qualities of the author – startles partly because of the strong Catholic resonances it invokes in a text in which the Church of Rome is held primarily responsible for the invention of licensing, and in which Roman Catholicism is proscribed from Milton’s outline of liberty in relation to the printing press (565). Throughout the pamphlet Milton criticises Catholic institutions for their history of ruthless licensing and censorship: ‘Nor did they stay in matters Hereticall, but any subject that was not to their palat, they either condemn’d in a prohibition, or had it strait into the new Purgatory of an Index’ (503). At the Reformation, he claims, they ‘sought out new limbo’s and new hells wherein they might include our Books also within the number of their damned’ (506). Milton’s criticism of the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition (they ‘engendring together brought forth or perfeted those Catalogues and expurging Indexes that rake through the entralls of many an good old Author, with a violation wors then any could be offer’d to his tomb’, 503) resonates with his depiction of the post-publication censorship of books in particularly graphic and emotive terms as ‘a kind of homicide’, ‘a martyrdome’, or even, if the entire edition is destroyed, ‘a kinde of massacre’. In latter such cases the action ‘strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe; slaies an immortality rather then a life’ (493). Later in his argument, Truth also becomes embodied: Milton writes of doing ‘our obsequies’ to ‘the torn body of our martyr’d Saint’ as it lies, ‘torn’ like a leaf in a book deliberately damaged and defaced by censors perpetrating a kind of iconoclasm (550). Volumes threatened by licensing become like reliquaries, sacred vessels which preserve ‘as in a violl’ an ‘ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe’ long after the author’s death.

[5]  Elsewhere in his writings, Milton explicitly derides relics and other devotional objects as the paraphernalia of a ‘Paradise of Fools’.[4] By this point in the mid-seventeenth century, relics were often the subject of ridicule in English literary culture; a broadsheet ballad, for example, satirises many relics including ‘a Bottle of Tears/ Preserv’d many years,/Of Mary’s that once was a sinner’. [5] Richard Overton’s New Lambeth fayre (1642) similarly mocks the church of Rome and her relics, but in the same year the printers of this pamphlet also produced an anonymous pamphlet which reported with genuine dismay and suspicion the landing on the Cornish coast of Spanish ships intended for Ireland, in which were found many relics, including ‘a little water in a very small Vessell, which the Priests say is Mary Magdalens Teares’ (1642: A2v). Thus when Areopagitica was first published, the relic was associated with a religion that at best was seen as foreign and old-fashioned, and at worst, suspicious and dangerous. Through his vivid imagery, Milton seizes on the identity of the relic as an object with a materiality that is challenging and culturally charged, and his language engages with the problematic material and spiritual characteristics of the relic in post-Reformation culture.

[6]  Milton’s polemical text is an extreme example of how the concept of the relic – as something which preserves both the material and the spiritual, treasuring up an intangible ‘essence’ – is brought into close proximity with ideas about writing and books in seventeenth-century England, in contrast with the literal juxtaposition of books and relics in previous centuries, as described by John Weever. In this essay I examine several encounters with relics and books in England and abroad from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, synthesising some important cultural and textual points of contact between relics and books. Such moments of contact, often expressed in more explicit ways than in Milton’s text, point to challenging questions about the location of the numinous or the sacred in the material world during this period, especially in human or literary remains. The first two sections of the essay, set in England and Rome as contrasting locations in post-Reformation Europe, examine the discourses surrounding relics as objects which must be alternatively believed in, interpreted, or challenged. The narratives I discuss demonstrate how relics may be deconstructed as profane objects which trick and deceive through their multiple layers of matter and rhetoric. Building on the ways in which these relics draw in both the faithful and their critics, in the final section I return to the persistence of the relic as literary metaphor, exploring how the image of a sacred vessel filled with blood or bones presents such an appealing way into thinking about what texts and books might contain as material objects.

I: Remembering English Relics
[7]  Erasmus visited the Marian shrine at Walsingham, Norfolk, in 1512. His satirical dialogue Peregrinatio religionis ergo (A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake), based on his experiences there and at other European pilgrimage sites, was first published in 1526, and so not long before statues, images, and relics were destroyed and forbidden in England.[6] One of the two speakers, Ogygius, has recently visited the famous shrines at Compostela, Canterbury, and Walsingham, and he describes the scene at the latter to his friend Menedemus, mentioning in particular that some of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk is displayed ‘on the high altar’. Their discussion continues thus (632-3):

Menedemus So it’s in plain sight.
Ogygius Enclosed in crystal, that is.
Menedemus Therefore liquid.
Ogygius What do you mean, liquid, when it flowed fifteen hundred years ago? It’s hard: you’d say powdered chalk, tempered with white of egg.
Menedemus Why don’t they display it exposed?
Ogygius To save the virginal milk from being defiled by the kisses of men.

Ogygius also recounts how he obtained his own secondary relic (a piece of wood on which Mary ‘was seen to stand’) which he treasured away in his purse, planning to ‘set it in gold, but so that it shines through crystal’. Ogygius insists that he cured an insane man with this relic, and in response to Menedemus’s scepticism, protests ‘To make fun of the saints is neither reverent nor prudent’ (637-641). Menedemus’s questions about the way the relic of the crystal bottle of milk is displayed betray Erasmus’s suspicion of relics as potentially deceitful objects whose contents are not fully ‘exposed’, as does Ogygius’s implication that some relics, in contrast to this one, might be forged from ‘powdered chalk’.[7]

[8]  Nevertheless, it is by virtue of being contained (and stored securely, often being hidden away in the less accessible, dark recesses of religious buildings – at Walsingham there is ‘very little light: only what comes from tapers’, 629) that blood, bones, and even gold and jewels become exclusive, sacred objects. As Ogygius reveals, only favoured visitors are allowed to come near the most precious treasures at both Canterbury and Walsingham, and even fewer are allowed to touch the contents of the coffers and reliquaries. Thus the opening of a holy object is tightly controlled and may be dramatically staged to orchestrate responses to it; Ogygius describes how at Canterbury in the tomb of Thomas Becket, a ‘wooden chest conceals a golden chest’ and he recalls that ‘When the cover was removed, we all adored’ the gold and jewels it contained (645). Similarly, in the sacristy, he was allowed a glimpse of some linen rags supposedly used by Becket to wash himself: ‘a chest with a black leather cover was brought out, placed on the table, and opened. Immediately everyone worshipped on bended knee’ (647). Such opening and displaying of the reliquary or coffer is crucial in emphasising the object’s value.[8] The medieval relic embodies a particular tension then, as an exclusive object which is enclosed and locked away secretly but at the same time represents an overflowing, outpouring of spiritual grace.[9]

[9]  As Erasmus’s dialogue illustrates, gazing, kissing, and interceding were all ritual elements of the veneration of both primary and secondary relics. Ogygius claims that in response to his Marian intercession ‘the sacred milk appeared to leap up, and the Eucharistic elements gleamed somewhat more brightly’ (633). According to this description the bottle of milk seems to contain, to use Milton’s phrase, ‘a potencie of life’ manifested in its apparent agency when activated by words of prayer. Patrick Geary outlines the three principle interconnected beliefs that had to be held communally for the acceptance of a particular relic in medieval culture: that the person was a genuine saint, that their earthly remains should be venerated, and that the remains being venerated were those of the person in question (1986: 169-194). As he points out, the latter question of authenticity could be tested through examination of the tomb or reliquary for documentary evidence of some kind, and could be confirmed by the supernatural intervention of the saint himself in the performance of miracles via his remains. To this end, Erasmus’s cynicism is further implied through Ogygius’ interaction with the guide at the shrine. Ogygius recalls asking ‘what proof he had that this was the Virgin’s milk’, explaining that he wanted to know this ‘clearly for the pious purpose of stopping the mouths of certain unbelievers who are accustomed to laugh at all these matters’. In response, Ogygius reveals, the guide, ‘as if possessed, gazed at us in astonishment, and as though horrified by such blasphemous speech, said, “What need is there to inquire to that when you have an authentic record?”’(633). Ogygius and his interpreter search out the ‘record’, finding it ‘hung so high it could not be read by just any eyes’, and thus literally elevated, like the relic it claims to verify (634). The document relates the biography of the relic in great detail, and after reading it Ogygius ‘was ashamed of having doubted, so clearly was the whole thing set before my eyes – the name, the place, the story, told in order. In a word, nothing was omitted’ (634-5). This apparently comprehensive document suffices to confirm his belief in the veracity of the reliquary’s contents. On a reliquary, as Seeta Chaganti rightly suggests, ‘inscription counted itself as an important enshrining sign’ (2008: 92). As evidenced by relics which survive today, the bones inside a reliquary may be inscribed directly with the name of the saint they are believed to belong to. The written word is important in cementing the tradition and identity of relics and for the faithful, the combination of relic and text presents an assured truth about the presence of the sacred in matter.

[10]  Visitors to medieval shrines wanted proof that they had seen or touched holy relics, and this demand for souvenirs nurtured pilgrimage industries. At Walsingham, second only to Canterbury as a site of pilgrimage in England, souvenirs for sale included a miniature monstrance enclosing a replica of the shrine’s vial of milk, labelled lac Marie. As Brian Spencer comprehensively illustrates, ampullae – small vials which could be filled with water from holy springs or wells – were the predominant type of pilgrim souvenir between the sixth and fourteenth centuries, before they began to be replaced by badges (1998: 147). Usually cast in tin or lead, they could be decorated with inscriptions or depictions of the saint’s martyrdom, or formed in the shape of a miniature church or a pilgrim’s scallop shell. Spencer observes that ampullae were made in a range of sizes to suit all budgets, but he suggests also that the minute dimensions of some of them might have served to emphasise the preciousness of their thaumaturgic contents (1998: 41). At Canterbury, ampullae had a particularly long-lasting popularity because, according to legend, immediately after Becket’s death the monks collected his blood in small vials. A drop of this blood mixed with water (to make ‘Canterbury water’) was said to have miraculous healing properties, and so the provision of ampullae enabled tiny volumes of this liquid to be conveniently carried away from the shrine. The treatment of the miniature vials in the medieval cult of Becket’s blood betrays a particular fascination with the dynamic of container and contents: Spencer describes how ‘ampullae that were believed to have unaccountably lost or rejected Canterbury water were suspended over the martyr’s tomb. The sight of these, and the belief that Canterbury water had the power to bubble and, as it were, boil over, probably accounted for the very positive way in which most ampullae were sealed’ (1998: 39). Spencer stresses the relationship between ampullae and reliquary chests as analogous receptacles of the sacred, and Hester Lees-Jeffries’s pertinent description of ampullae as a ‘formalized (and fetishized)’ way of carrying liquid from the shrine further emphasises their similarity to reliquaries (2007: 145). Inside the exclusive space of an ampulla, a material manifestation of the sacred in the form of holy water or blood could be, to use Milton’s words, ‘treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life’.

[11]  Blood relics, and statues which miraculously exude blood, are some of the most highly valued objects in Christian culture, pointing ultimately to the pouring out of Christ’s blood at the Eucharist. Keith Thomas notes that in 1591 John Allyn, an Oxford recusant, had a quantity of ‘Christ’s blood’ which he sold for twenty pounds per drop as protection from bodily harm (1971: 33). As John Calvin scornfully points out in his treatise on relics, in the sixteenth century an incredible number of religious communities claim to have reserves of Christ’s blood: ‘In one place certain droppes, as at Rochell in Poitou the which Nicodemus (as they saye) dyd gather in his gloue. In other places violes full, as at Mantone and elsewhere, in other places goblets ful as at Rome, at Sainct Eustace’ (1561: Biiiv-Bivr). One such relic in England, the renowned ‘blood of Hales’, was denounced by Hugh Latimer who inspected it for royal commissioners, reporting in a letter of 1538 to Lord Cromwell that it was ‘wonderously closely and craftily inclosed and stopped up, for taking of care. And it cleaveth fast to the bottom of the little glass that it is in […] It hath a certain unctuous moistness, and though it seem somewhat like blood when it is in the glass, yet when any parcel of the same is taken out, it turneth to a yellowness, and is cleaving like glue’ (Corrie 1845: 407-8).[10] As enclosed objects, relics embody a tension between display and concealment and it is this tension which is seized upon by Protestant polemicists anxious to expose the deceitfulness of the relic.

II: Reporting from Rome
[12]  Writing about his own travels some decades after Erasmus’s visit to England, the playwright and translator Anthony Munday recalls ‘some of the Romish Reliques’ in the churches frequented by students living at the English College in Rome. First published in 1582, The English Romayne Lyfe describes many of the relics in the seven main churches of Rome, objects which are ‘honoured and worshipped, as if they were God him selfe’ (1582: Hir). At the church of St John Lateran, Munday relates, the purported relics include some of the Virgin Mary’s milk, Christ’s first shirt, a portion of the crown of thorns, and ‘a glasse vial, which is full as they say, of the blood of our Saviour, that ran out of his precious side hanging on ye Crosse’. When this vial is shown to the people they ‘take their hands, & hold the palmes of the[m] toward the glasse, and then rub all their face with their hands, with the great holines they receiue from the Glasse’ (Fiir). It is significant that Munday notes that the worshippers receive ‘great holines’ from ‘the Glasse’ – the reliquary vessel is as essential a part of the relic’s identity as the bloody contents, marking a point of transmission between the human and the divine, even when it is not touched directly.

[13]  Gesturing towards the object is often not enough however; ultimately closer physical contact with the sacred container is desired, and Munday describes how in St Peter’s the priest on duty

taketh euerie bodies Beades, that layes them on the Aultar, and then he wipes them along a great proportioned thing of Christall and Golde, wherein are a number of rotten bones, which they make the people credite to be the bones of Saintes: so wiping them along the outside of this Tabernacle, the Beades steale a terrible deale of holynesse out of those bones, and God knows, the people thinke they doo God good seruice in it: Oh monstrous blindnesse […] (Eiiir).

More explicitly than Erasmus, Munday is suspicious of the way in which the ‘great proportioned thing of Christall and Golde’ becomes a boundary between the material and spiritual, and thus a point at which the distinction between the sacred and the profane is dangerously blurred. While the beads ‘steale a terrible deale of holynesse’, a printed marginal note in the 1582 edition describes this as ‘A craftie kinde of cosonage, whereby the ignorant people are beguiled’. Munday portrays the extraction of the relic’s holiness through a language of thievery, emphasising the trickery and fundamental deceitfulness of relic rituals. Such a rhetoric of secrecy and mystery is, however, employed by those writing in defence of relics as well as those denouncing them. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Jesuit divine John Barclay defended ‘[the] Reliques we either deposite under the Altars, or lay up in Beautified Coffers’, explaining how ‘We diligently and devoutly apply our Handkerchiefs and Garments to the Coffin, or Bier, in or on which these Sacred Bones are laid, that secret Blessings may flow upon us’ (1688: B3r-Cr). Barclay argues that the Church, as it did in its early years, should continue to recognise miracles performed through relics, protesting ‘Nor are you contented only to take away all Honour from the Souls of the Blessed, but you make war also on their Bodies. I tremble to relate how many Reliques of Saints you have scatter’d in the wind, thrown into the water, consum’d with Fire; how often you have in scorn pluckt their sacred Limbs out of the Gold, and Gems, in which they were inclos’d, to expose them to Contempt. Posterity will lament their loss, we are asham’d for the Infamy of our Age’ (B2v). Employing apocalyptic imagery which resonates with Milton’s vivid depiction of censored books in Areopagitica, Barclay compares the literal exposure of ‘sacred Limbs’ when they are ‘pluckt’ from their jewelled reliquaries with their rhetorical exposure to the scorn and contempt of reformers. For both reformers and those they attempt to reform, the relic embodies a very close relationship between literal and rhetorical containment and concealment.

[14]  The pilgrims’ beads do not come into direct contact with the bones Munday sees, but they somehow ‘steale a terrible deale of holynesse out of those bones’ through being ‘wiped’ along the outside of the reliquary. Unlike the pilgrims in Erasmus’s dialogue, who are allowed to touch the contents of some of the reliquaries, visitors to Rome in the 1580s are physically distanced from the contents of the relic at multiple removes: they must leave their beads on the altar to be taken by a priest who will then touch them against the outside of the relic on their behalf. Through such performance the relic is reinforced as an exclusive object wherein the sacred is found concentrically bound up in human remains, but which can also transcend the bounds of the container and be absorbed into other materials. For those who believe, the reliquary constructs not an impermeable barrier, but a point of transmission. Munday seizes on the reliquary container as a particularly problematic element of the relic: it is because outer coverings of ‘Gold, Siluer, or Christall’ literally obscure the contents of a relic (if indeed, it has any contents at all) that deception is possible. Munday asserts that it is in fact he who reveals the truth and exposes the crafty deceitfulness of Catholic doctrine, protesting that

they tell the people, this is the Reliques of such a Saint, and this is such a holy and blessed thing: but they be either couered with Gold, Siluer, or Christall, so that we can not tell whether there be any thing within or no, except it bee sometime in a broade Christall Tabernacle, and there you shall see a company of rotten bones, God knows of what they be […] (Fiiv).

The juxtaposition of apparently historically specific relics with vague collections of bones is a significant factor in Munday’s attack. If pilgrims will believe that the vial before them contains blood from the side of Christ (and pay good money to see it) then they should also have no doubts about a pile of bones similarly displayed in a reliquary.

[15]  In traditional worship before the Reformation, seeing was believing, epitomised at the elevation of the transubstantiated host at the Mass. To a hostile reformer however, the question of whether a reliquary contains the bones of St Peter or the bones of a pig is ultimately beside the point, because scripture is the only transparent source of truth, and reliquaries containing bones represent intellectual blindness to this truth. Calvin scorns the behaviour of worshippers who ‘haue bowed them selues and kneeled before the reliques, euen as before god. They haue lighted candles and torches in sygne of homage and honour. They haue put their trust in them: they haue had theyr refuge to them, as though the virtue and grace of God had bene enclosed in them’ (Aiiiiv-A5r). The final clause in this passage attacks the idea that there is any supernatural power at all in relics; it is impossible that divine grace might be ‘enclosed in them’. As Calvin protests further, closing one’s eyes in prayer before a relic prevents one seeing beyond the glass to the falsehood of its contents: ‘For many beholding a relique shut their eyes through superstition to the ende, that they seing shoulde see nothing at all: that is to say that they dare not looke in good earnest to consider what the thing is’ (Bir). Whereas traditionally positive accounts of relics emphasise the importance of touch and physical contact with the container, polemical works which denounce them return repeatedly to the metaphor of blindness, and the apparent inability to see the truth beyond the materiality of the relic. In Protestant rhetoric, closing one’s eyes before a relic is transformed from a sign of piety into an unwillingness to look, literally and spiritually, at what is or is not contained in the reliquary. The texts I have here examined demonstrate the extent to which relics are objects constructed (and deconstructed) both by their physical features and by the pro- and anti-relic discourses which grow up around them during and after the Reformation.

III: Rewriting Relics
[16]  So far this essay has considered some of the ways in which the relic, as an object which embodies a challenging combination of the material and the spiritual, is subjected to scrutiny and opposing interpretations during the Reformation decades and afterwards, both in England and in Europe. From recollections of relic worship and more polemical works against relics, I have drawn out some of the connections between texts and relics to consider the ways in which the physical features of the relic as a material object become the focus for rhetorical attacks on the troubling interface between the secular and the sacred they present. In this final section I return to the relic as a metaphor in post-Reformation English writing, exploring how and why the relic, as the embodiment of spirit in matter, becomes an appealing metaphor for thinking about books as sources of intellectual and spiritual nourishment.

[17]  In her description of the elaborate bindings on medieval and early modern holy books, Alexandra Walsham (2003: 156) articulates how ‘Placed on the altar in close proximity to the consecrated host, such books were receptacles of numinous power’. Medieval Bibles with richly decorated covers were integral to the performance of liturgy, sometimes being kissed, like relics, alongside the other instruments of the mass (2004: 124-5). Crucially, Walsham points out that ‘Often enclosing fragments of the bones and other remains of martyrs and saints, book covers were sometimes indistinguishable from reliquaries’. Influenced by Eamon Duffy’s fundamental work on medieval lay piety (1992), Walsham goes so far as to suggest that Books of Hours were believed to have talismanic power: ‘No less than phials of holy water, wax tablets of the agnus dei, and objects which had come into contact with special hallowed places, they might be seen as sacramentals’, and notes also that in Lutheran Germany Books of Hours were believed to be, like relics, incombustible (2004: 141). Her evidence suggests that even after the English Reformation the preservation of Bibles and prayer books (rather than any other suspicious Catholic artefacts) as precious vessels for the Word was part of the Protestant assertion of the authority of holy writ above anything else, in a surprising material synthesis between reformed and traditional belief. Esteemed Protestant works could be similarly treated: John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (or ‘Book of Martyrs’) may have been chained alongside bibles in churches.[11] Its title plays on the overlap between ‘monument’ as written document and tomb or sepulchre, and John N. King (2006: 8) argues that the book as a whole functions ‘in the manner of a symbolic reliquary that preserves for posterity the deeds and words that constitute the essence of saintly sacrifice’. Rather than the mortal remains of the Protestant martyrs, it is the written details of their lives and deaths that are sacred and must be preserved inside this doubly monumental volume.

[18]  Yet apart from these more obvious connections between sacred texts and relics there are other, more implicit, ways in which the idea of the relic informs thinking or writing about books. As in Areopagitica, these points of connection are not always felt explicitly, but in the section which follows, beginning with Michel de Montaigne’s account of his visit to the Vatican Library, I will explore how these understated moments of reflection between texts and relics may be read fruitfully. Montaigne visited many of the Roman churches just a few years after Anthony Munday, and writes in his travel journal of seeing certain relics used in exorcisms during Holy Week, such as a ‘Veronica’ cloth which is elevated before the assembled worshippers who prostrate themselves and cry out.[12] In contrast with other texts I have discussed so far, Montaigne’s travel journal is not a polemical work. In this text, the relationship between books and relics is enlightening in ways that are not engaged with religious and political debate, but is expressed in Montaigne’s personal recollections of the privileged quasi-sacred space of the Vatican Library.

[19]  Montaigne notes that the Vatican Library contains both religious and secular books from Europe and further afield, and he remembers that there were ‘a large number of books attached onto several rows of desks; there are also some in coffers, which were all opened to me; lots of books written by hand, and especially a Seneca and the Moral Essays of Plutarch’ (949). He makes specific reference to some individual volumes, including ‘a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas in which there are corrections in the hand of the author himself’ and ‘an Acts of the Apostles written in very beautiful gold Greek lettering, as fresh and recent [‘aussi vive et récente’] as if it were of today. This lettering is massive and has a solid body [‘un corps solide’] raised on the paper, so that if you pass your hand over it you feel the thickness’ (950-951).  [13] Like the relics at Canterbury, as described by Erasmus, these treasured books are stored in ‘coffers’ which must be ‘opened’ for the visitor. There is, as at a cathedral shrine, an evident tension between permitted access and the secrecy and security of the library’s valuable treasures. However, Montaigne is pleased about the relative ease with which he accessed the library, recalling ‘I saw the library without any difficulty; anyone can see it thus, and can make whatever extracts he wants’ (950). Readers can take away ‘extracts’ from these books, as if visiting a medieval shrine armed with an ampulla which will enable them to share the spiritual succour offered by the material treasured up in the sacred site.

[20]  Montaigne’s encounters with books of particular value are partly characterised by sensuousness – he is allowed to handle the books and recalls how he touched them, observing the texture of the page under his hand, just as the priest ritually strokes the relics in Munday’s report from Rome. Authorial manuscript copies have a special value; Montaigne remembers seeing ‘the breviary of Saint Gregory, written by hand; it bears no evidence of the year, but they hold that it has come down from him from hand to hand. It is a missal about like ours, and was brought to the last Council of Trent to serve as a testimony of our ceremonies’. From more recent times, he sees

the original of the book that the king of England composed against Luther, which he sent about fifty years ago to Pope Leo X, inscribed with his own hand (950).

Montaigne superstitiously appreciates being able to touch the pages on which ‘there are corrections in the hand of the author himself, who wrote badly, a small lettering worse than mine’. Books such as these are legendary artefacts passed down through history ‘from hand to hand’, objects which allow physical contact with the past, and thus become a permanent embodiment, like Milton’s ‘pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life’. Indeed, as James Kearney points out (2009: 7), pages of parchment may visually reinforce their identity as once-living skin, still bearing tangible signs of their fleshliness in the form of marks left by scars, blemishes, and hair follicles.

[21]  Some decades later, Montaigne’s compatriot Gabriel Naudé insisted that ‘it is the very Essence of a Library, to have a great number of Manuscripts; because they are at present in most esteem, and less vulgar’ (1661: E3r). For both Montaigne and Naudé, the identity of the manuscript which has a distinctive material connection to its author is part of the ‘Essence’ of a library, in the same way that the touch-relic of a saint or martyr might be found at the heart of a medieval cathedral, defining its identity. Relics and manuscripts represent the desirable, the specialist, and the elite, to be treasured up. The contrast between the relative worth of manuscript and printed books in Montaigne’s account illustrates another way in which a book’s materiality defines its identity as much as its literary contents.

[22]  As Montaigne’s narrative suggests, the connections between books and relics discussed so far are closely embedded in a broader discourse surrounding libraries and memory which evolved in the decades following the destruction of medieval monastic libraries. In Memory’s Library Jennifer Summit presents an important critical account of post-Reformation library-building, in which she describes how in the hands of early modern collectors such as Robert Cotton, the contents of medieval books were rescued and rediscovered. To a certain extent these new libraries were seen as sites of memorialisation of the medieval past; Summit observes that John Weever ‘calls on libraries to do what churches can no longer be trusted to do: to preserve the memories of the dead’ (2008: 193). Ultimately however, seventeenth-century libraries such as the Bodleian served a much more complex purpose than this. Summit stresses the function of post-Reformation libraries as sites of intellectual dynamism in which the contents of books, as well as being ‘imbalm’d and treasur’d up’, were debated and actively redefined. Although such libraries were locations in which the dead author’s spirit could be remembered for eternity through the preservation of his books, they could also be the site of regeneration, in which voices from the past could be challenged and debated, as if they yet lived. As Summit puts it, ‘in preserving the medieval past, the libraries of post-Reformation England also remade it into a body of evidence’ (15).

[23]  Summit and other recent critics have frequently cited Francis Bacon, who in 1610 was called upon to oversee the founding of the library at Lambeth Palace. Bacon provides us with some elegant but not unproblematic comparisons of books with relics. At the beginning of the second book of The Advancement of Learning (1605), he declares that libraries are ‘as the Shrynes, where all the Reliques of the ancient Saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserued, and reposed’ (Kiernan 2000: 56). Bacon presented a copy of The Advancement to Thomas Bodley to mark his refounding of the university library at Oxford, and in his accompanying letter praises books as ‘the shrines where the Saint is, or is believed to be’. Elsewhere he writes that the Christian church ‘did preserve in the sacred lap and bosom thereof the precious relics even of heathen learning, which otherwise had been extinguished as if no such thing had ever been’ (Spedding 1861: 3,151). Bacon’s metaphors compare books and libraries alike with relics and shrines, and in his language there is a slippage between book/library and relic/shrine as sacred places and things which mutually define each other. Post-Reformation libraries such as the Bodleian are depicted as new kinds of shrine removed from Catholic ritual and superstition, places where ‘saints’ may be found in a discriminating setting which acknowledges its medieval past but is not constrained by it.

[24]  As Bacon sees it, books preserve learning at the same time as enabling it to be ‘improved or advanced’ (Spedding 1861: 3, 235). Even though their authors may be long dead, books have a voice which may yet be heard and challenged. The interplay between the living and the dead which characterises Milton’s metaphors in Areopagitica is also found here in the popular discourse of the early modern library as a living repository of knowledge located in the literary remains of deceased authors. Summit points out (2008: 167) that Robert Cotton’s cabinet of curiosities, containing amongst other things a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull, directly adjoined his library. By the seventeenth century, bones and books sit side by side as comparable sources of knowledge and discovery. However, although (as Bacon demonstrates) the idea of the relic is translated into secular locations and discourses in post-Reformation culture, the image is not freed from the complicated relationship of matter and spirit it embodies. While books are a location of intellectual and even spiritual contact with the dead, they must be carefully contained and controlled.

[25]  Daniel Woolf argues that by the late seventeenth century ‘most Protestants could safely adopt an attitude of benign amusement to popular Catholicism, so long as it was kept outside the church and off the throne’. Surviving medieval relics began to be transformed into antiquarian curiosities; as Woolf puts it, ‘the antiquarian artefact filled the empty space left by the relic, by providing an object of interest for people in the present which could be more safely examined, fondled, cherished, and displayed, even it if were no longer venerated’ (2003: 194). It is important to appreciate, however, that the England of the post-Reformation years did not witness a straightforward replacement of the sacred with the secular. Even if relics and relic-like objects were no longer believed to be vessels of divine grace, they might still be treated with respect, reverence, and even superstition.

[26]  In his first published poem, a sonnet commemorating Shakespeare for the publication of the second Folio, Milton praises the poet’s ‘honour’d Bones’ and ‘hallow’d reliques’, emphasising the futility of a marble tomb in contrast to the ‘live-long Monument’ of his intangible reputation, perpetuated through the printing of his literary creations. Milton’s words play into the long poetic tradition of connecting an author’s mortal body with his immortal corpus of work. Far from being an expensive book, however, Milton’s Areopagitica – a ‘meer unlicen’t pamphlet’- is an affordable product of the printing press which was published at a time when the pamphlet form was multiplying rapidly as a tool of public debate. After the Reformation, the banned religious relic becomes illicit and dangerous, demanding unsanctioned loyalty not dissimilar to that demanded by the politicised and possibly unlicensed pamphlet. Unlike manuscripts treasured up in elite libraries and collections however, the pamphlet is widely dispersed, a grubby ephemeral object which is ultimately disposable. The ‘breath of reason itself’ may be found in all kinds of books, including pamphlets such as this. Like the spirit at the core of medieval relics, reason transcends the material of the vessel it is held in whilst simultaneously drawing attention to its materiality.

[27]  As demonstrated by the range of texts I have discussed in this essay, the idea of the relic remains a powerful one in literary culture following the English Reformation. The relic, as a material object which encloses both material and spiritual content, persists in English writing as a metaphor loaded with historical and religious memory, even as it appears to be de-sanctified. In ways that might be implicitly or explicitly expressed, the interface between the material and the spiritual, between the visible and the invisible, and between the secular and the sacred presented by the relic remains a commanding one for English writing about writing, even after the relic is removed from popular worship.

University of Cambridge



[1] For further discussion of non-literary uses of holy books, see Aston (1984). [back to text]

[2] Coster & Spicer (2005) provide a valuable outline of the major areas and current state of criticism in these fields. See also Woolf (2003), and Duffy (1992). [back to text]

[3] Complete Prose Works, vol. II, p. 493. All further page numbers given parenthetically in main text. [back to text]

[4] Paradise Lost, 3.484-497. [back to text]

[5] Religious Reliques, the Sale at the Savoy, upon the Jesuits Breaking up their School and Chappel (London, 1688). [back to text]

[6] Collected Works, vol. 40; page numbers given parenthetically in main text. [back to text]

[7] This relic was at Walsingham from around 1300 until the destruction of the shrine in the late 1530s. Along with the blood of Christ and pieces of the True Cross, the milk of the Virgin has remained one of the most popular Christian relics. Vials of breast milk are especially precious because of the belief that Mary’s body was taken directly to Heaven. See Rubin (2009: 138-150). [back to text]

[8] See Malo (2008) for further discussion of the ‘occlusion’ of medieval relics as objects which were manipulated in material and rhetorical ways. [back to text]

[9] The accounts of the medieval hagiographer Jacobus de Voragine, for example, illustrate how the tombs, shrines, and relics of saints provide access to the sacred in ways that are often visually and physically realised, in sensuous outpourings of oil, blood, water, scent, or heat. [back to text]

[10] Latimer also preached about this relic in a sermon of 1549: see Latimer (1562: Miiir). [back to text]

[11] Some debate surrounds this: Evenden and Freeman argue that there were probably relatively few chained copies (2005: 1288-1307). [back to text]

[12] Complete Works, pp. 957-8. Further page references given in main text. [back to text]

[13] French text is taken from Garavini (1983: 214). [back to text]


Primary works

Anon. 1642. A true Relation of Certaine Passages which Captaine Baset brought from the West parts of Cornewall CONCERNING Some Shippes which came from Bilbo in Spaine to goe to Ireland (London: R.O. & G.D)

Anon. 1688. Religious Reliques, the Sale at the Savoy, upon the Jesuits Breaking up their School and Chappel (London, n.p.)

Barclay, John. 1688. John Barclay His Vindication Of the Intercession of Saints, The Veneration of Relicks and Miracles, Against the Sectaries of the Times (London: Mary Thompson)

Corrie, George, ed. 1845. Sermons and Remains of Hugh Latimer, Sometime Bishop of Worcester (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Erasmus, Desiderius. 1974-. Collected Works, ed. Craig R. Thompson et al, 42 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)

Kiernan, Michael, ed. 2000. The Oxford Francis Bacon IV (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Latimer, Hugh. 1562. Certayn Godly Sermons (London: John Day)

Milton, John. 1953-82. Complete Prose Works, ed. D.M. Wolf, 8 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press)

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___. 1983. Journal de voyage, ed. Fausta Garavini (Paris: Gallimard)

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