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The Nautilus And The Pearl: Accreting The Early Modern English Collection

The Nautilus and the Pearl:
Accreting the Early Modern English Collection

Alexandra Marraccini

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

— from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At The Fishhouses’

I. Chambers

[1] The Cabinet in Early Modern England could be a series of small drawers, a room like a closet or a large parlor, or even a series of purpose-built display chambers. The nautilus is a creature famous for using its chambered compartments to be able to dive. While the nautilus accretes its chambers over time as it grows, deep under the waves, the Cabinet’s chambers are made by Early Modern collectors, and not grown—though they, too, are filled over time with much natural material that often creeps into the blurry realm of artifice and initially artificial material that asymptotically approaches the axis of the natural. Working particularly, but not only, during the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, these collectors were often also naturalists, merchants or aristocrats, and members of the early Royal Society. Their collections were forces and sources in shaping new period of scientific inquiry in England. This text examines the nautilus, the pearl, and the English Early Modern Cabinet together in context as a way of looking at looking itself, including in related scientific prints, silverwork, and still lifes in Northern Europe.

[2] This essay is also an exercise in Cabinet thinking as a methodology. Formatted as a series of related chambers, each spilling over into the next, it suggests a way of reading the Cabinet between multiple media and temporalities, dancing always between points of reference without a strict linearity, a structure imposed on the Cabinet only retrospectively by typical historical analysis. Echoing the multiplicities of shells, paintings of these same shells, accreted pearls and exotica, prints of oceanic objects, and paintings of oysters, this essay gives its reader a new way of negotiating the sensorium of the Cabinet as a whole and models this method in its structure. It begins with a wave of dates, names, and facts. This crests in a series of related observations, first turning to oysters and a still life by Roestraten, then to nautilus cups and the concept of liquidity in the Paston Treasure Painting, and to pearls and accretion in period literary sources, before returning to the Frewen Cup and then Von Somer II’s frontispiece to Willoughby’s Icthyographia as case studies, and finally concluding by asking how the Cabinet uses the interrelations of these things to construe what we call the ‘real’. Problems of Cabinet media and depiction inform a multivalent Cabinet ontology.

[3] The first wave begins to press at its chamber here, with a swell of relevant background information:

   Starting in about the 1590s, Portuguese and then Dutch traders in the Pacific brought back nautilus shells to Europe for sale to collectors. In 1594, Theodore De Bry, a Belgian exile in Amsterdam, engraved indigenous and enslaved peoples diving for pearls and other wondrous objects in the Caribbean. Both the pearl and the nautilus are described as far back as Pliny and Aristotle, and indeed Pliny was a primary source for considering these natural-historical phenomena in Cabinets and related painting.[1] Philemon Holland’s English translation of Pliny, including the passage on the nautilus and that on the pearl in Book IX, Chapter XXXV, was first published in 1601.[2] Channeling Pliny and his own distaste in turn, Holland notes specifically of pearls:

It was not sufficient belike to bring the seas into the kitchin, to let them down the throat into the belly, unlesse men and women both carried them about in their hands and eares, upon their head, and all over their bodies…this shell-fish which is the mother of Pearle, differs not much in the manner of breeding and generation, from the oysters[.] (Holland 1634: 254-55)

Meanwhile, in the mid-to-late 1600s in Amsterdam, Cornelius Bellekin used engraving on the surface of the nautilus and other mother-of-pearl shells to make images (Kisluk-Grosheide 1997). These are variously human, vegetable, and animal in form, and include images of specific fishes that look drawn from nature and resemble related scientific prints. In 1680, a Dutch émigré to London, Peter Roestraten, painted both oysters and nautilus cups, some engraved by Bellekin.[3] The paintings went on to hang in the Cabinets of Royalists and their allies. One example is the painting of the Paston Treasure, which is in the style of Roestraten, and hung in the cabinet of the Pastons at Norfolk, with no fewer than four nautilus cups shown in depictions of their collection. At roughly the same time, Paul Von Somer II, a Flemish Protestant religious refugee in England (who eventually went on to work as an engraver for Francis Willoughby, fellow of the early Royal Society and co-author, with John Ray, of its first book on ichthyology) was commissioned for an illustrated frontispiece. This frontispiece, which has numerous shells and shell creatures amongst its oceanic bounty, was published in 1685.

[4] In 1698, the English scientist and antiquarian Martin Lister went to France, ostensibly to study medicine. He ended up in the aquaria of Guillame Rondelet, trying to make pearls out of sea snail mucus. He wasn’t as far off from Mikimoto and the cultured pearl of the 20th century as it sounds, since nacre is mucus layered on an irritant in the oyster’s body. Lister also observed artificial pearls, made from ground mussels and mother-of-pearl bearing shells. He went on, with the aid of fellow antiquarian Hans Sloane in the Bahamas, to publish the first comprehensive treatise on conchology and the shells of related organisms, in which the pearl oyster and the nautilus both receive full page engraved foldouts. In the 1690s, in the Low Countries, Wenceslas Hollar engraved a plethora of these same shells, and in 1705, posthumous engravings from Robert Hooke, another prominent early scientist in England, prominently feature the nautilus. The Royal Society, meanwhile, had already published its first catalogue, again featuring pearls, oysters, and the nautilus, in 1685.

[5] There is a net here that dredges up things in common: the first is refugee or immigrant artists from Northern Europe producing media for the English aristocracy and their collections, and the links in these media between modes of representation from portraiture, to still life, and finally to scientific illustration. The Royal Society—and the new ‘English’ conception of scientific and natural-historical activity it nourished throughout the seventeenth century—is shared amongst people and things the nautilus and the pearl also share. This essay takes the nautilus and the pearl as its seed, and layers it with the accreted nacre of Early Modern English collecting culture, broadly conceived, as case study. From the oysters of Roestraten’s still lifes, to the nautilus cup engraved by Bellekin with marine animals for the Pastons, to the oyster and other shells of Lister and fish of Willoughby, the nautilus and the pearl allow us to ask how seventeeth-century collecting in England related to temporal layers and types of gazes, both for period collectors and art historians now. They particularly allow us to consider what it meant to show knowledge and its acquisition, situated precariously between art and nature, the personal and societal.

II. Oysters

[6] Pearls are embedded in oysters and their stories, including for Samuel Pepys, who sponsored Willoughby’s Icthyographia for the Royal Society, and specifically recommended oysters for New Year’s breakfast in his diary of 1661. The oysters at the Borough market in London, where they have been sold at the stall of Richard Haward since at least 1792, are shucked by professionals in one of two ways.[4] Especially with English native oysters, sticking the specialized oyster shucking knife through the ‘hinge’ at the back of the bivalve, where the two matching halves meet, is the preferred method. The ‘French’ or generally Continental method of shucking is to run the knife around the sealed edges of the two shells, where the membrane meets, and open the shells on their own hinges.

Figure 1. Peter Roestraten, ‘Porringer, German Cup, and Oysters’ (1680). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[7] Curiously, the oyster halves in ‘Porringer, German Cup and Oysters’ (Figure 1), currently hanging in the silver gallery of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and painted in London by Pieter van Roestraten around 1680, must have been shucked both ways. The halves are entirely separated, meaning the membrane connecting the two shells has been severed, but so too has the connecting ‘hinge’. It is shucked in both the Continental and English modes to display its innards, bitter and briny in contrast to the sweet white wine in the glass behind it. Roestraten, initially trained by Frans Hals in Haarlem, depicts an English collection for an English aristocratic patron in this still life, but one who is drinking imported Spanish or Italian wine, has a period English gilt-copper cup, and a porringer, or stew pot, that is German ware, in the style of many ornamental Kunstkammer objects.[5] Superficially an English painting for an English client, the artist’s Dutch origins, as well as the far- flung imported goods depicted in a single collector’s holdings, show that stylistic ‘Englishness’ in the object culture of the period is hybrid across national boundaries.

[8] The inside of the oyster, with the muscly white flesh that accretes the nacre to form pearls, is itself here a literal accretion of layers of oil paint in service of the figurative. The ‘real’ oyster and the ‘real’ wine, if there was ever any single oyster or cup of wine used as model and not indeed many equal ‘real’ multiples, are presumably long spoiled. The open golden pocket watch, in this Roestraten as well as in a comparable vanitas example in the Royal Collection, and another in the Art Institute of Chicago, recalls this tendency toward rot, an emblematic memento mori common in this type of pronk stillleven [ornamented still life] of the period.[6] The watch ostensibly reminds the viewer that all things perish, that mortal wealth is meaningless in the face of immortal salvation.

[9] I say ostensibly because the very existence of the images of bread, wine, and oyster, means that in some sense, these things don’t really perish at all, or if they do cease to exist in the flesh, the ‘real’, they continue to exist in the translated medium of paint, which is artificial, but not exactly ‘fake’ either, so far as the values-system of the Cabinet collection is concerned. Nor does the painting suggest the complete obliteration of memory in death that a memento mori implies is the fate of all earthly things. The specific metalwork objects in this painting cannot be traced, but many other such objects survive to this day, and in the case of the pronk stillleven crossover-style Paston Treasure painting, we can still handle the many specific cups, jewelry, and other luxury goods depicted. The real-fake ontological dialectic of the still life is troubled by the Cabinet and its contents—in this case beginning with oysters, and expanding to the precious material beyond pearls and the pearly surface of shells.

[10] In the Chicago example, a branch of coral dangles downward, and in yet another V&A Roestraten, a silver encrusted nautilus cup similarly represents the specific bounty of marine treasures dredged up. These are natural objects, enhanced by the means of art to appear in collections, and then by further art still, depicted in collection still lifes, which might in turn hang in those very same collections. These shells, pearls, and other sea objects are key examples of a kind of nature made art made art-as-depiction-of-nature, which is in turn hung as a sort of meta-art, a third-order ‘real’ that is either extreme artifice in some sense, or extreme reality — an encounter with modes of seeing and beholding — in another.

[11] The pearl and its oyster are biological accretions of calcified, membranous mollusk slime, but in their lives as collected and depicted objects, they become figurative accretions too. They enter the boundary territory not only between art and nature, between land and sea, air and water, but also between depiction, description, and collection. They are realfakes and fakereals, accreting ontologies and categories, as they make their way in the Early Modern world. Shucking these kinds of oysters also means turning the knife between membranes of both the material and the fundamentally abstract layers of the Cabinet and its constructions. What does it mean to peel back how the Early Modern Cabinet intends us to look?

III. Liquidities

[12] The Dutch-style still life has much to reveal about the nature of English collecting in the seventeenth century. As a form, it has been characterised by Alpers (2009) as mimicking the scientific gaze of the Dutch ambassador to England in the period, Constantin Huygens. For Honig (1983: esp. pp.175-6), the Dutch still life is a font of descriptive information, a way to transmit knowledge in multiple, sometimes conflicting material forms, with objects serving both literal and allegorical purposes. None of this would matter so much were it not for two crucial factors: the high number of Dutch genre artists abroad in England depicting Cabinet contents (especially those of Royalist patrons), and the incompleteness of surviving English Cabinet collections today in terms of material objects.[7] Although we have collection lists (like that of the Tradescants, compiled by Elias Ashmole[8]) many objects disappeared during the Interregnum or were accumulated into later museum holdings, without persistent recordings of their provenance. The shells that Hans Sloane collected in the Bahamas for Martin Lister, for instance, may have made it into Nehemiah Grew’s initial catalogue of the Royal Society’s own collections and Lister’s own books, but disappeared for several centuries until they were identified by Guy Wilkins in the existing collections of the Museum of Natural History in London in 1953.[9] Sloane’s carved and engraved nautilus shell, it should be noted, is an exception to this rule, and has been displayed fairly continuously and identified as Sloane’s—likely due to its status not merely as a natural specimen, but also as a biographical and art object.

[13] The nautilus, with its mother of pearl surface and association with mollusks, lies at the intersection of Dutch still life in the seventeenth-century English milieu and the pearl and its accreted relatives in natural-historical collections and books.[10] Not only is the nautilus cup a kind of stock object in the still life, it occurs in the same emerging visual sources as the pearl oyster. While Hollar’s illustrations of shells stand out as a singular focus for his genre painting, other still life drew on a wide repertoire of shell images and specimens in circulation.[11] Fossilised ammonites also spur Continental interest in the nautilus, as early as 1565 in Gessner’s De Rerum Fossilium Lapidum, which depicts the nautilus right after the ammonite fossil, and right next to the scallop and mussel (on pp.164-5). Other depictions for comparison, which can be found in Aldrovandi’s De Reliquis Animalibus [1606] and Michael Rupert Besler’s Gazophylacium Rerum Naturalium E Regno Vegetabili, Animali Et Minerali Depromptarumi [1642], show that a collector with any interest in shells or sea life would have been familiar, at least, with their illustrations, as these were widely purchased volumes for natural historians in both England and the Continent.[12]

Figure 2. Anonymous, ‘The Paston Treasure’, ca.1670. Norwich Castle Museum.

[14] The multiple nautilus cups of the Paston Treasure Painting (Figure 2) speak to both the still life as observational device for the collection, and the scientific gaze on the shell, which I will expand at length upon in my discussion of the Frewen Cup (Figure 3). This engraved nautilus cup in the Paston’s closet holdings can also be directly linked to the tradition of depicting and re-depicting natural-historical subjects—particularly marine ones. Exploring these linkages is a mode of understanding their multitudes. The Paston Treasure Painting as a whole, recently re-evaluated in an exhibition that re-united many of its objects and produced an accompanying catalogue on the painting, is somewhere between still life and portraiture, collection display as literal value, and material as allegory for other, moral values. The nautilus cups, various shells, and pearls in the Paston Treasure, along with the other numerous treasures, animals, and people, mark an uncertain point for the still life as metaphysical depiction versus the still life as a catalogue embodied in paint.

[15] To understand the more immediate oceanic liquidities of the collected pearl and its accretions, one must think through both the liquidity of capital as depicted in Dutch still life in Early Modern England, and the liquidity of metal itself. Metal is liquid capital in the sense that it can be melted down and sold. It is also liquid in that it is initially subterranean, formed as molten streams near the magma-heated mantle of the Earth. The gold or silver applied to a nautilus cup is, in a sense, just as strange and unworldly as the shell itself. From the practical manuals of mining like De Re Metallica, to Kircher’s more imaginative (and explicitly oceanic) Mundus Subterreaneus, to circulating Naturbücher and encyclopedias, these links were made manifest in illustrated books about mining as well as metalwork itself. The metals are also linked to the movements of planets and stars, making each part of the macrocosm—and the microcosm of the Cabinet—a mirror for the other. Just as Early Modern scientists often mapped the sub-marine world onto the world of the surface, so too does the submarine map onto the underground, as well as the cosmos above.[13]

[16] As crystals or minerals accrete in mines and caverns invisible to the eye of the surface, so too do new and puzzling catagories of materials accrete in the ocean. In his work on collecting and exploring the submarine in the period, James Delbourgo (2011: 149-50, 164-7) notes that Early Modern naturalists often sought out barnacle-encrusted wood, and coral that had grown over man-made shipwrecks, in order to understand where nature ended and artifice began (whether barnacles were alive was an open question). Liquidities and liquidity also mapped on to each other in the form of shipwrecks, recoveries of which were profitable enterprises. In his account of these wracks and their diving, Delbourgo acknowledges, through the work of Dawson and others, that these profits were also very much at the expense of indigenous lives and resources (see Dawson 2006: 1327-55). The pearl on the earring of the black servant or slave in The Paston Treasure, as well as the ‘Moor’s Head’ stopper of the shell cup she touches, speak directly to this link between bodies, rare objects, and metallic riches or profit (see Chadwick 2018). The Tempest’s Ariel, whose line about sunken eyes transformed by the alchemy of the sea into pearls (1.2.476) has become perhaps the most iconic use of the material in Early Modern English, is also enslaved—first by Sycorax, and then by Prospero, himself often read as a stand-in for the wonder-making of knowledge production. Hans Sloane, a pioneer of the plantation slavery system in the Bahamas, also traded in bodies as liquid capital, shuttled across the sea by many of the same shipping routes that on return legs to England often brought his objects, including shells specifically, back to Cabinets and their collectors.[14]

[17] The literary period use of pearl and sea material as collection and object is far more about pearl as metaphor for the world in which the colonial user dwells than the one from which it is dredged up and extracted by force. These texts, circulating in the same circles of Early Modern English society as scientific books, prints, and mercantile collections, give us some sense of what period viewers read about pearls and their meanings in depiction and substance. Playing on the trope of pearl as symbol of both virginity and purity, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella has a beloved whose lips are sealed by pearls, as Shakespeare’s mistress in Sonnet 130 has lips redder than coral, whereas Milton reserves pearls for the sybaritic ornaments of Asia—paralleling the use of exotic materials to symbolize foreign accretion of capital in the physical Cabinet (see Paradise Lost, Book 2, ll.3-4). In a sermon delivered in 1627, Donne agonises about bodily presence and reconstruction after the apocalypse by linking the undersea and the underground, specifically though the device of pearls in the collecting Cabinet:

Where be all the atoms of that flesh, which a corrosive hath eat away, or a consumption hath breathed, and exhaled away from our arms, and other limbs? In what wrinkle, in what furrow, in what bowel of the earth, lie all the grains of the ashes of a body burnt a thousand years since? In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a body drowned in the general flood? […] One humour of our dead body produces worms, and those worms suck and exhaust all other humour, and then all dies, and all dries, and moulders into dust, and that dust is blown into the river, and that puddled water tumbled into the sea, and that ebbs and flows in infinite revolutions, and still, still God knows in what cabinet every seed-pearl lies, in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies[.] (Donne XXXX: xx; see also Greteman 2010)

Ironically, on Donne’s own theological terms, nothing buried in human time can truly be completed until after the resurrection, whatever the categorical completeness and splendor of the cabinet in which tiny seed pearls are kept en masse. For Donne, the totality of turban and strombus cups, of coral spoons, and of all crafted metal things cannot stand in for the body lost in this life, until that body is resurrected by the all-knowing God. Whatever the liquidity of capital in the still life, or the liquid objects transported to air in the scientific miraculous, the dust of the body in infinite theological time, and a certain obsessive uncertainty about that dust, remains. The cabinet and its depictions in genre painting remind us of the power to be leveraged by man and the bodies at his disposal against the elements, especially the water of the sea. Donne, read as a rejoinder, is a reminder that even the life of the collector is dissolvable, liquid, and ultimately borne away by the currents of time. The Cabinet does not exist in a vacuum without sermons and vanitas poems that reiterate this conclusion in its parallel library.

[18] But what do literary period sources mean for how we consider the pearl and the Cabinet as theological things? Does this mean that the Cabinet is a kind of artificial salvational balm, promising mastery when earthly life is by nature only temporary? Or is it a real escape from the ravages of time in that it exists as preserved objects? When the pearls turn to dust, after the men, usually in 90-150 years, when the monarchy falls or the Cotton library burns, what then? Perhaps the pearl, the shell cup, and its cabinet don’t promise mastery at all. Its depiction in genre painting, after all, both cements and subverts its ontological status as both ‘real’ and ‘fake’, somehow simultaneously both permanent-seeming and imbued with historical and material contingency.

[19] Perhaps knowing this, we look at still life and pearl objects anyway, imagining the jellied dust of our bodies in the floods and ventricles of the Mariana Trench or the Gulf stream. Donne is good at uncertainty, at begging to be battered bodily by the truth while doubting and circling around it. But it is not just Donne who is uncertain; the sea brought into the Cabinet by way of the oyster and its pearl is in a middle space, between surety and doubt. Tides make us good at certainty, at thinking we can predict what comes next. Tsunamis make us doubt that same ability. After Charles I was executed, the single pearl drop earring he wore was taken from his ear by a bystander. It survives today, in the collection of the Dukes of Portland. The pearl is shaped like a tear, that smallest of salted seas.

IV. Handworks

[20] The Frewen Cup (Figures 3 and 4), a mounted nautilus with gold-plated ornament and foot, came into the collection of John Frewen by 1667, and was subsequently listed in the inventory of the Paston Closet, one of the sources for the objects in the Paston Treasure painting above (Vanke 2018). The cup is larger than the hand can grasp, and cool to the touch on both nacre and metal surfaces. Cups similar to this one are depicted in both the AIC Roestraten, the Roestraten in the Royal Collection that depicts the collection of Charles I, and in numerous other paintings of the period, including that of the Pastons’ objects. The metal was re-done by Yorkshire goldsmith John Plummer, including the strapwork, sometime after its transit to England from the Netherlands. Although Early Modern scientific observation found the nautilus or ‘boat shell’ interesting for its ability to pressurise and re-pressurise its successive chambers with air and water, and thus serve as a diving machine, this nautilus is filled internally mostly with gold.[15] It is thus serviceable, at least, as an actual cup, although the frequency with which it would have been put to this practical use is likely low. The cup could hold a small ocean of water that drained into the mustachioed mouth of the fanciful, gilt monstrum marinum on the topmost curve of the shell.

Figure 3. John Plummer, ‘The Frewen Cup’, ca. 1650 (engraved), 1658-1660 (repaired). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Figure 4. ‘The Frewen Cup’, reverse side. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[21] The cup is small, and kept specifically in a treasure closet space (Vanke 2018), and so encourages a both haptic and visual intimacy. The shell is inscribed with marine motifs, to which I shall return shortly, but first I draw attention to perhaps its single flaw (visible in figure 3). There is a crack running up the middle of the wide face of the nautilus shell that has been re-sealed and filled with wax, then subsequently set against metal. You can see it only with close attention, as it was refilled before goldwork was added, and the best way to find it is to run one’s hands across the shell. The crack leads directly to the one part of the outer shell of the nautilus that hasn’t been stripped, a piece with striated brown marks that nestles the cup’s curve. This fracture in turn leads to the visibility of the cup’s both facture and manufacture. It shows a careful viewer how cups of this kind are made generally, but also the specific hand and choices of the artist who made this one in particular.

[22] Manufacture is typically defined as a less sensuous concept than the term ‘facture’, which is more often applied to the stroke of a brush than the casting of a cup in metal. The pseudo-indigenous female figures on the strap-work of the cup are common to this type of vessel, and at first seem an object of manufacture independent from this particular thing, and then subsequently applied by a goldsmith who did not necessarily purpose-make them. Yet, these figures, topless and crowned in feathers, are themselves wearing ornamental necklaces, irregular and ovoid in shape, suggesting mussel shells or drilled pearls.[16] To juxtapose the commodified body of an indigenous person with the nautilus body itself (likely recovered by a non-European diver from the Indo-Pacific) is provocative in a way that lends itself to a reading of the pronkstilleven that depicts such a cup, and indeed the Paston Treasure painting itself, as perhaps having an implicit question built into its material fabric. Manufacture has here superficially allowed, for a modern viewer, a crack into the colonial façade, allowing access into a postcolonial critique of the Cabinet’s global materialities and their human costs.

[23] Yet, pronkstilleven is not a period term (Honig 1998: 170). Overmuchness, superfluity, and indeed the idea of the decorative itself, are categories projected onto Kunstkammer and Cabinet objects by the world after modernism and the minimalist aesthetic that is now largely the province of the wealthy collector. Whatever the form’s associations with seventeenth-century Dutch mercantilism, and its triumphs or Calvinist religious pitfalls, these are mitigated by types and times of later viewership. Layers of accreted gold, engraving, and invented artificial life replaced the scraped away natural surface of the nautilus that forms the cup. The visible nacre is itself a wonder, but also a sort of inverse pearl, made visible by the removal of biological material formed in the ocean rather than by its accretion. What does accrete is goldwork, visual images, and depictions, layered on top of each other. The cup both as an object itself, then, even if some of its parts or co-objects in still life paintings are ready-made, is also a product of facture — conscious artisanal choice that reflects particular stylistic aims. Even if critique of its brutal colonial origins is possible on this level, any reading of the cup is also personal, intimate, and complicated with respect to its position in historical time, like the thing itself. The presence of facture, a very intentional artifice, along with nature, breeds uncertainties in looking and reading both for period actors and for modern ones.

[24] The form of the luxury cup even aside from this consideration is, to borrow Honig’s terms for still life objects, a ‘container for knowledge’ and taxonomic interplay (Honig 1998: 173). This is as much a product of artistic facture as any other aspect of the cup’s material being, and as significant. Material accretions reflect and refract phenomenological and ontological accretions in the Cabinet at large. That the English Cabinet is again at another degree of remove from Dutch objects, in Dutch cabinets with Dutch still lifes on the walls, creates even more space for negotiating meaning. Both separated and connected by the North Sea geographically, the Netherlands and England as proto-nation-states stand in the same physical and ontological relation to the nautilus cup as object. A liquid ocean, contained in the cup’s gilded shell, links and buffers both. Depictions of nautilus cups also depict this connecting and dividing North Sea relation by extension. The inscribed geography of the Cabinet is also worked into the nautilus cup as object.

[25] The engraved eyes on the cup’s surfaces (on the monstrum marinum, on all the bird-like hinges, on the women of the strapwork, and on the fish) all gaze outward at the viewer. These are ornaments, on an ornament, to an ornament—which is then painted as an ornament. The fourth order of ornamentation is also neither ‘fake’ nor ‘real’ per se but something that purposefully calls into question this ontological binary in the Cabinet. This is uncertainty lavishly embodied: like the oyster, the nautilus cup is an object that does not invite easy answers, and indeed invites rather more questions. It is rooted, heavy to lift because it is silver-plated gold. It is also fragile because it is biological, and additionally because its status as a bearer of meanings is fluid. It is nature artificed beyond easy recognition, or artifice shaped to the natural so that it elides what naturalness can be. As many eyes look out at us from the Frewen Cup as there are ways we can look back at them. Oysters and pearls can’t look back at their viewers. The engraved and ornamented nautilus cup can in some sense, being endowed with faces and eyes, giving it an agency both in and of itself, and as it is represented in the collection still life.

[26] The cup is inscribed with fish, shells, and looping acanthus; the realistic specimens in particular are closely associated with scientific fish books, such as Johnston’s Historise Naturalis de Piscibus (1650-3) (see Vanke 2018; for the history of the Bellekin family as makers of these cups, see Van Seters 1958). While the Frewen Cup predates Ray and Willoughby’s magnum opus on fish for the English Royal Society, and Lister’s Conchyliorum, it depicts many species with an accuracy that borders on illustration intended for classification purposes (on the nature drawing as means of classification, see Swan 2002). There is a possible murex, the source of Tyrian red (within Figure 3), carved into the surface, and then buffed with wax and black coal to make it visible. As I shall shortly elaborate, engraving printed illustrations of the ‘book of nature’ was the mode of representational choice of natural history in the early English Royal Society. Engraving directly on the pages of nature’s book—which is to say on natural objects themselves like the nautilus — is a second order act of knowledge production and a metaphysical conceit at once. Objects such as shells become, through this doubling inscription, treatises of knowledge about themselves, functioning as both the depicted thing and its ‘real’ counterpart in the Cabinet.

[27] There is also a strombus shell engraved on the surface of the Frewen Cup (see figure 4). This is the same type of mounted conch that is also depicted as engraved on the surface with tiny figures in the Paston Treasure Painting (see figure 2 detail). This strombus is a decoration depicting a shell, on a decorative shell as art, that may indeed derive from scientific depictions of shells, but that also crucially links circularly back to shells as objects that themselves serve as surfaces for depiction. (It may also derive from Collaert, shell still lives, and other sources. Still life paintings of shells are themselves a genre, particularly in the Netherlandish context.) The idea of drawing a shell on a shell, which in turn refers to shells as things to draw upon, and then encasing that drawing in a meta-depiction of the sea made of gold, is a kind of perfect nexus of baroque maximalism as structure for thinking, a kind of multiplication of wonder that provokes interrogation by the eye and mind. This depiction of shells on shells also layers places: a Pacific shell, from a Dutch workshop, worked by an English goldsmith, is kept in an English treasure closet, and then depicted in paintings by Dutch immigrants in England.[17] The nacre may be scraped down to make the mother of pearl visible, but everything else is built up, re-weighted not only with a baroque sensibility for mirroring real-fake conundra, but one in which geographic origin is also a sort of accreted multiple ornament in turn.

[28] The mother of pearl surface of the cup is of interest to both collectors and painters of pronkstilleven partly for its remarkable colour. In 1611, von Borsselen, quoted in Segal, notes of one nautilus:

Here follows a silver Hulck, the net of shell which holds the pearl, that is placed on the table on a golden foot, so that one can drink from a clean cup the joyful wine. The costly cup reflects the sun on man’s face and miraculously shows the rainbow, painted so often, which crowns the earth. (Segal 1989: 92)

The Neptune figure on the top of the Frewen Cup, like that on many similar objects, masters a gigantic fish, and in doing so, on the surface represents mastery over the element of the marine.[18] So too does the netted encasement of the mother of pearl nautilus in man-made goldwork, torn from the depths of the earth just as the shell is from the depths of the sea. Yet it is the rainbow, not of man’s doing but of God’s, that is the ultimate shining idiom the nautilus reflects in von Borsselen’s description. It is a wonder that cannot be captured, just yet, in a cabinet (or indeed in a modern photograph). The nacre evokes it, mirrors it, but cannot catch it. The rainbow is utterly free, momentary, and unembodied. It defies both the Cabinet and its still life, both the boundaries of art and that of nature. The nautilus cup engraved with all the bounty of the sea also reminds us of that which we cannot possibly have or make permanent. It is a paradox poured out.

V. Printings

[29] The Frewen Cup, and other nautilus shells engraved by Cornelius Bellekin for the collecting market, can easily be linked to sources of representation of natural abundance in Dutch period prints in general, from emblem books to allegories of the four elements. Bellekin produced at least one other cup currently in the collections of the V&A, this one adorned with morphologically distinct insects. This second cup is also mounted far more delicately, and parts of the shell are cut away like vaulting to suggest a ribbed structure. It is possible that this cup is representative of air as an element in the way that the Frewen Cup represents water, but they are not part of any set that we know of.

[30] Still, the hybrid method of using both ‘artistic’ and natural historical source material in tandem has many parallels, including in the books of marine life both cited directly in, and in turn influenced by, the presence of objects like the Paston Cup. One such example is the frontispiece to Francis Willoughby’s Ichthyographia (Figure 5). The Ichthyographia is more commonly referred to as the second volume to the work posthumously completed by its co-author, John Ray. The whole two volume work, known as the Historia Piscium of 1686, is discussed at length by Sachiko Kusukawa (2000) in an article of the same name, where she notes that the book had at least eleven engravers, that the sources included new specimens, illustrations, and written and verbal accounts from all over Europe, and that it was a collaboratively produced volume of the Royal Society. She traces not only John Ray’s use of illustration as a convincing proof of seventeenth-century scientific faith in images for classification, but also the near disastrous cost of the two volumes to the Society, for which they are possibly more famous than for their content, given that they almost inhibited the publication of Newton on gravitation.

Paul van Somer's 'Frontispiece' to Francis Willoughby's Icthyographia

Figure 5. Paul van Somer II, ‘Frontispiece’ to Francis Willoughby’s Icthyographia (Oxford, 1686). © The Trustees of the British Museum

[31] Nonetheless, the much-maligned fish books are here of interest not for their costly content, but for the frontispiece to the second volume, engraved by Paul Von Somer II for a then-large sum of £4 (Kusukawa 2000: 191). Paul II’s older brother Jan was also an immigrant to England (Curd 2010: 129-130). Paul von Somer I was a portrait painter of some renown in court circles of James I about generation earlier. He was apparently not directly related to the later two brothers, who are also notable for their early use of mezzotint. Thus, the engraver we now call ‘Paul Von Somer II’ signs the elaborate frontispiece to the figures of De Piscibus, a volume titled the Ichtyographia in its own right, with the phrase ‘Paul von Somer invent et fecit Londini’ in an oar on the frontispiece’s lower right-hand corner.

[32] This signature is just one part of a multi-level, multiply encrusted and depicted, frontispiece. Like the Frewen Cup, or indeed the Paston collections in which it was contained, Von Somer II’s frontispiece contains multiple accreted layers of images that speak to its status both as art and as a depiction of nature intended for natural historians. The first of these layers, in descending perspectival order from the viewer, is the outer architectonic ‘frame’ of the page. Against this structure, fish specimens—some as depicted in the internal plates to follow—hang encircling the centre images. The sheer diversity and close detail of each of these species, including sharks, pufferfish, and flatfish among others, attest to the value attached to illustrations of morphology in the book’s instructive plates.

[33] The bottom of the first frontispiece layer, however, conflates the mythological and naturalistic. A typical monstrum marinum, much like the one on the Frewen Cup, rests at the feet of a nereid crowned in shells and bearing a trident. Behind her Poseidon blows into a conch shell (much like those set into gold and fashioned into cups), presumably to summon the bounty of the ship on the section of the plate positioned behind him in space. The two nereids to the fore frame a gigantic fish, whose mouth violates the scheme (and in some sense, the constructed reality) of the rest of the plate by opening onto blank white paper, and a text acknowledgement of the Royal Society as printer-funder, and the date (‘Sumptibus Societas Regalis Londinesis 1685’). This device reminds us that even though the frontispiece (and the book’s many plates) depicts nature accurately and in detail, printed images themselves are an illusionistic device that represents a step between the reader and observation of nature in the field. They aren’t fakes, per se, but neither are they real–that is, nature in the flesh. While this isn’t Donne’s explicitly theological and bodily uncertainty, it does raise questions about the status of the illustrated book as an epistemological device. The book juxtaposed with the nautilus cups in the Cabinet once again troubles the status of the ‘real’ as reference, whether in artistic or scientific knowledge production.

[34] Van Somer II continues to draw attention to this discomforting ontological doubling with a figure of Athena sketching the section of the plate that is in front of her gaze and set back with respect to the frontispiece’s first section. She renders the fish in front of her from life on a square board, angled so as to be visible to the frontispiece’s audience. A finished sketch rests on the shelf below, on a long, curling sheet of paper. Knowledge herself works, as the Dutch would have it, naer het leven, drawing the flopping body of the gigantic fish in front of her, again visible at the same time to the reader-viewer, who sees both the depiction of the fish, and the depiction of its depiction. The interaction between the two layers of the frontispiece is thus a crash course in the layers of natural historical methodology and its many mediations through initial drawing, print, and reception. That this book would have itself been shelved in a Cabinet next to, say, an engraved nautilus cup, and again next to specimens of taxidermied fish, further problematizes making and looking at images as modes of knowing.[19]

[35] The second layer of the frontispiece features what at first seems to be a fairly normal scene of working fishermen. The sail the men raise in the background, flush against a sky decorated with flying fish, disrupts the illusion of the image as a realistic scene once again by being a paper space for the title of the volume. For all the nets, boats, and buckets, this portion of the plate, however real it seems, is twice-removed from the world—encased in the first layer where the mythological figures dwell, which is itself evidently part of a book, teased into existence by the open mouth of the central fish.

[36] Nothing is what it seems, even though the premise of Ray and Willoughby’s two volumes is that everything labeled and described therein is exactly what it seems, making it useful for the scientists of the Royal Society. Fish engraved onto the surface of a shell carry with them less expectation of physiological accuracy (because they are ornament in this context), and the same shell engravings as depicted in pronkstilleven examples are even further removed from the account of the scientific gaze in the seventeenth century. Yet Van Somer II’s frontispiece reminds us that this accretion of looking, the ways in which we are distanced from nature through art that also purports to bring us closer to it, is just as much a part of the seventeenth -century scientific collection as the plates that follow it of isolated, seemingly sterile and unproblematic specimens. The frontispiece to Willoughby’s Icthyographia and the Frewen Cup share both possible print sources of inspiration, but they also share a mode of visual dialectic that opens up the English Cabinet.

[37] Another crucial aspect of the frontispiece (and the book it introduces) is that it exists, in virtue of being a printed object, multiply. Natural objects resist this kind of reproducibility — after all, every nautilus shell is uniquely grown in the depths of the sea, and every pearl formed in what is often allegorically portrayed as the miraculously sealed womb of the oyster. The problem of reproducing the singular specimen to diffuse knowledge across a wide range of readers and places is one the Royal Society, its mostly expatriate Dutch printmakers, and the presses on the Continent, were keen to address. Martin Lister was an English antiquarian and scientist and friend to Ray and Willoughby, as well as a member of the same formative Royal Society cohort. He attacked the reproduction problem in two ways. First, he resisted importing a Dutch printer or engraver to manufacture his treatise on shells, instead training his own teenage daughters as limners and engravers (Roos 2019). The volumes were conceived and printed in England by English hands. The illustrations of the species of pearl oysters, one of which is a particularly full page, were completed by Anna and Susanna Lister in their father’s study, and the family retained the plates for further printings. This is not the case for Robert Hooke and Waller’s drawings of fossils and related shells, for instance, which were sent off to an engraver to copy for the publication of Hooke’s posthumous works in 1705 (Kusukawa 2013). That the acts of both drawing and engraving scientific images played crucial mediating roles in the transmission of knowledge was, however, duly noted by Hooke while he was alive, and he famously retained architect Christopher Wren for the plates of the Micrographia. Similarly, Wenceslas Hollar’s studies of shells, for which a mysterious patron remains unidentified, were etched by the artist himself from his own drawings (for a more detailed account, see Leonhard & Leuker 2013).

[38] Lister did not limit the problem of reproducibility to printed images, however. He was similarly interested in how one might reproduce mother-of-pearl, or pearls, either by mimicking nature or by other laboratory procedures. In his published accounts of his travels in France in 1698, he discusses the manufacture of artificial pearl from stripped-down shells:

Amongst the Bïoux made at Paris, a great quantity of Artificial Pearl is to be had, of divers sorts but the best are those which are made with Scales of Bleakes. These Bleaks they find in the River Seine at Paris and sell them to the Pearl-makers for that purpose[.] (Lister 1699: 142)

Lister then describes how the shells or scales of fish are beaten down to a powder, and then reconstructed with glass and cast into beads in the shape of natural pearls:

Enquiring of a Goldsmith a great Dealer in Pearl about those which were made the Scales of Fishes he told me that it is so: That the Scales were beat to Powder and that made into a Liquid Paste with Izing-glass and cast into the hollow Glass beads, and so gave colour by way of the foil from the inside. (Lister 1699: 142)

This is less about how nature makes pearls than how they might be credibly imitated for the purpose of commerce, but Lister is interested nonetheless in how art might form a plausible nature. The liquidity of pearls as capital is inseparable from the quiddity of the pearl as a thing, one which might in fact be merely an illusion of a ‘real’ pearl. The illusion interests Lister as much as the real pearl because it also relies on generation by (al)chemical process, albeit not the same process as forms the pearl inside the oyster.

[39] From ‘fake’ nature, Lister still learns something about the structure of minerals and accreted stones like pearls in the ‘real’ world. After the pearl merchants, Lister visits a manufacturer of false eyeballs, Hubins, who confirms that some of the same processes apply to his goods, which must match nature exactly – ‘this being a Case where Mis-matching is intolerable’. The process used to accrete fake pearls that do indeed perform the decorative function of pearls is also used to accrete eyes that perform the decorative (but not of course, anatomical) function of eyes. The replicability of nature depends on whether the artificial substitute is meant to been merely seen, or truly used in some way that would reveal its non-functionality. Then again, the purpose of a false eye or false pearl is in this case, to be looked at, so the artificial replica succeeds almost or as well as the real in fulfilling the function of a visual stand-in. The ontologies of the ‘fake’ shed light here on the similarly problematic category of the ‘real’.

[40] Of course, not all glass or paste replicas of nature last as long as prints of nature usually do, which in their durability often form our contemporary general impression of Early Modern collections. Most Cabinet objects, from the bodies of specimens to the delicate hybrid wares fashioned from them, do not survive. Since the prints outlast the bodies and often the other treasures, it is from the reproducible and multiple that we learn about the singular and irreplaceable. Further, Dutch printers and painters in England, as well as other expatriate artists and their representations, mediate what is superficially called the ‘English’ Cabinet in our reconstructed schemata. We are, as it were, looking through our own kind of pearlised glass eyes at the past—tinted by the inner foil of the reproductive media we tend to see more often and with more primacy. The encrustation and accretion of gazes in the period Cabinet extends forward to the modern gaze backward at that same Cabinet.

VI. Conclusions

[41] The line between real and fake is well and truly blurred just as intentionally as that between nature and its reproductions. Consider another engraving on a shell, by the same Cornelius Bellekin that engraved the Frewen Cup, this one created in late seventeenth-century Amsterdam (Figure 6). This little box is in the shape of a scallop or bivalve oyster, and was made to contain the original piece by Louis Métayer. It is in the same stylised oyster form: it opens on delicate hinges like an oyster, and it is even made out of the same materials (the shell itself) as an oyster. It plays on its oyster-ness even as it is manifestly not an oyster. It relies on the viewer’s knowledge or the origin of the then doubly-artificed shell in the ocean and organism to make the play on oyster/not-oyster work.

Figure 6. Cornelis Bellekin & Louis Métayer, ‘Engraved shell box’, late seventeenth century.  Image made available under a CC 1.0 license by the Amsterdam Museum: see <https://hart.amsterdam/nl/collectie/object/amcollect/21075>

[42] Such objects pleased the collector’s sensibility because they also innately commented on the ontological status of the collection and its in-betweeness. The topic of the engraving is the allegorical figure of the element water, again drawing on several likely print sources. Bellekin’s central female nude is draped against a rocky shore, and stands out particularly because the lines she is made of were not later filled with blackened wax like the rest of the shell, but have a white-on-white softness. Like a similar nude of Marten de Vos from the same period that was likely a source for this depiction, she is surrounded by both the danger and bounty of the sea. The monstrous fish in the background of both the print and the shell, as well as the litoral pile of creatures at Aqua’s feet, are stereotypical elements of these depictions of water as element. Hieronymous Cock and Collaert treat the subject similarly. De Bruyn’s engraving after De Vos (ca. 1645-1665) of ‘Aqua’ also recalls Van Somer II’s frontispiece, with a bounty of natural diversity laid out in a didactic frame that suggests specimen display just as much as general oceanic fertility. The idea that scientific illustration exists separately from both viewers and makers of this kind of nominally decorative scheme is exploded both by scientific books and by these kinds of prints and objects.

[43] Bellekin’s box features a particularly striking example of where scientific, bibliographic, and artistic interests collide, in a detail of the shell pile at Aqua’s feet. Next to an oyster and a scallop is a shell that is a particular favourite of Early Modern collectors. It is a pointed, round conch found in the Pacific, known as Conus Litteratus or Conus Arabicus in the period and in early Linnean coinage, because its organised, linear striping and spotting looks like letters, or Arabic script. The enduring popularity of these shells in Early Modern cabinets is such that one even appears in a 1636 painting by Frans Francken the Younger of a Continental Kunstkammer. They were sold at auction in the Netherlands to collectors across Europe after they were imported on VoC ships coming back from the Pacific. Next to the portrait of Ortelius in this same cabinet, this shell—actually a closely related species called Conus Marmoreus—embodies the accretions of both depictions and multiple spaces spanning the early modern globe, whether literally, or with the hand across a newly bound world map.

[44] As Roos carefully explains, a Codex Marmoreus was one of the shells which Anna Lister engraved for her father, although not without knowing about the most famous representation of it, a drypoint by none other than Rembrandt. Anna corrects Rembrandt though, because she and her sister, along with their father, were interested in the left- or right-handedness of shells, and Rembrandt’s is, in fact, a mirror-image when printed (Roos 2019: 115). The biological specimen engraving requires the additional accuracy, but retains the aim of beauty. The Lister sisters ultimately engraved both shells with the name of books as well as the name of marble.

Anna Lister’s engraving of Conus Marmoreus next to Rembrandt’s print of the same shell

Figure 7. Anna Lister’s engraving of Conus Marmoreus  next to Rembrandt’s print of the same shell (Rijksmuseum)

[45] Known by the vernacular name of the ‘alphabet cone snail’ this creature—whether painted in the Netherlands or engraved in England—is indeed part of a larger metaphorical alphabet. In natural historical encyclopaediae like Willoughby’s Icthyographia and Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum (1685/92), each letter is a fish or a shell, a single species among a plethora in the language of the natural world. The alphabet cone snail also works in translation, from the shoals of the Pacific to the then newly-established headquarters of the Royal Society in Holborn, London. Each related object of the natural historical collection is too a letter, a volume perhaps in a shell library that could tell the whole history and composition of the sea if one could only read it. The oyster, like the book, opens in two halves when shucked; a bifolium.

[46] Bellekin’s engraved oyster box can also be read as a layering of meanings, places and substances around the pearl and nautilus—from Anglo-Dutch still life, to Cabinet objects from global networks, and finally to depictions of the marine life in scientific books that both the paintings and objects gesture towards. These literal and figurative encrustations ask what it means to look in the seventeenth-century English collection, and what looking allows us to know about the Cabinet and the world. Shucking the oyster of the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ via oceanic accretions in collections is not as easy as the deft slice of the knife. In their various intersecting media, and as mediations, the nautilus, oyster, and pearl interact with one another, the period viewer, and the modern art historian, to suggest that thinking with the Early Modern English Cabinet is as much a question of the deep ontology of depiction and source, as it is of materiality and origin. This Cabinet of sea things is itself certain and uncertain, briny and bitter, accreted and stripped, showing and shown.



​[1] The use of Pliny in Continental Wunderkammern, including specifically with respect to nautilus and mother of pearl, as well as other natural exotica associated with the four elements and Continents, is well documented. For a particularly relevant case here, see Baadj 2012, especially pages 221-3.​[back to text]​

​[2] ‘Of the Calamarie, Cuttles, Polypes, and Boat-fishes called Nautils’ (Holland 1634: Ch. XXIX). The (inaccurate) description, following Pliny, reads: But among the greatest wonders of Nature, is that fish, which of some is called Nautilos, of others Pompilos. This fish, for to come aloft above the water, turneth upon his backe, and raiseth or heaveth himselfe up by little and little: and to the end he might swim with more ease, as disburdened of a sinke, he dischargeth all the water within him at a pipe. After this, turning up his two foremost clawes or armes, hee displaieth and stretcheth out betweene them, a membrane or skin of a wonderfull thinnesse: this serveth him in stead of a saile in the aire above water: with the rest of his armes or clawes, he roweth and laboureth under water; and with his taile in the mids, hee directeth his course, and steereth as it were with an helme. Thus holdeth he on and maketh way in the sea, with a faire shew of a foist or galley under saile. Now if he be afraid of any thing in the way, hee makes no more adoe but draweth in water to ballaise his bodie, and so plungeth himselfe downe and sinketh to the bottome.​[back to text]​

​[3] A good, brief overview of Roestraten’s still life in England that informs this short summary and later sections is to be found in Shaw 1990.​[back to text]​

​[4] The account of shucking methods comes both from a visit to the market and Smith 2016.​[back to text]​

​[5] The provenance of many of these objects is identified by their makers’ marks, and listed in the V&A’s description of the painting, item P.3-1939.​[back to text]​

​[6] ‘Still Life with Ostrich Egg Cup and the Whitfield Heirlooms’ at the AIC, and ‘A Vanitas c.1666-1700’ in the Royal Collection Trust.​[back to text]​

​[7] On the nature of Dutch artists working in England in the long term and the relatively low status of still life in England under Charles II, see Curd 2010. For period accounts of still life versus other types of painting see Talley 1983.​[back to text]​

​[8] This eventually made it into print under Tradescant’s name, even though Ashmole may have written most of the source material: see Tradescant 1656.​[back to text]​

​[9] See Wilkins 1953. This find was brought to my attention by the Sloane Letters Project and historian Anna Marie Roos.​[back to text]​

​[10] The nautilus is, of course, a cephalopod, but Early Modern natural historians associated the shape of the animal’s shell with the snail.​[back to text]​

​[11] For an overview of the shell still life in the Netherlands (including examples by Linard and Kalf) and its emblematic origins, see Segal & Jordan 1989, esp. Chapter 5, ‘The Shell Still Life’, pp.77-92.​[back to text]​

​[12] These volumes were part of a long natural-historical argument that also concerned the relation of the nautilus to fossil ammonites: see Findlen 2015: 238.​[back to text]​

​[13] The correspondence between these cosmoi, and especially between ocean and macrocosm on earth, is briefly drawn out in Delbourgo (2011: 152-3, 156), but I expand and allegorise the concept.​[back to text]​

​[14] A full exploration of Sloane’s slavery and his collections, as well as his books, is currently being spearheaded by the ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ consortium at the British Museum, British Library, and Natural History Museum in London.​[back to text]​

​[15] Once again, Early Modern sources here evoke Pliny’s description, or Holland’s English translation of it.​[back to text]​

​[16] Provocatively, this toplessness, and the woman’s body as an object in parts, might be suggested by the form of the shell itself, as it is in Nuremberg examples of goldworking (see Grasskamp 2017).​[back to text]​

​[17] The accretion of nationalities present in the cup, even for Dutch viewers right after its manufacture, is also significant (Kehoe 2011).​[back to text]​

​[18] For more on this genre of Neptune figure in general on nautilus cups, see Zuroski 2017. Zuroski argues that the monstrous figures on the cups can be read in light of ambivalence about Dutch nautical power in particular (7). For Zuroski, it is the monstrous and grotesque aspects of these cups’ decoration that trigger their formal fluidity as meaningful signifiers. She also describes the presence of the cups in Dutch still lives, including Kalf and the Paston Treasure Painting, in terms of excess and instability in a culture of plenty.​[back to text]​

​[19] One such example resembles the surviving taxidermied pufferfish of Tradescant that hangs in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford today.​[back to text]​


Texts Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 2009. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press)

Baadj, Nadia. 2012. ‘A World of Materials in a Cabinet without Drawers: Reframing Jan Van Kessel’s “The Four Parts of the World”‘, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, 62: 202–23

Chadwick, Esther. 2018. ‘This deepe and perfect glosse of Blacknesse: Colour, Colonialism, and The Paston Treasure’s Period Eye’ in Moore, Andrew W., Nathan Flis, Francesca Vanke, and Miko McGinty. The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World

Curd, Mary Bryan H.  2010. Flemish and Dutch Artists in Early Modern England Collaboration and Competition, 1460-1680 (Farnham: Ashgate)

Dawson, Kevin. 2006. “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World”. The Journal of American History, 92.4: 1327-1355

Delbourgo, James. 2011. “Divers Things: Collecting the World Under Water”. History of Science, 49.2: 149-185

Paula Findlen. 2015. ‘The Specimen and the Image: John Woodward, Agostino Scilla, and the Depiction of Fossils’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 78.2: 217–261

Findlen, Paula, and Pamela H. Smith. 2002. Merchants & Marvels: Commerce And The Representation Of Nature In Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge)

Grasskamp, Anna. 2017. “Spirals and Shells: Breasted Vessels in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg”. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics. 67-68: 146-163

Greteman, Blaine. 2010. ‘”All This Seed Pearl”: John Donne and Bodily Presence’, College Literature, 37.3: 26-42

Holland, Philemon, and Pliny. 1634 [1601]. The History of the World, Commonly Called the Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus (London: A. Islip)

Honig, Elizabeth A. 1998. ‘Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life’, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 34: 166-183

Kehoe, Marsely K. 2011. ‘The nautilus cup between foreign and domestic in the Dutch Golden Age’. Dutch Crossing : a Journal for Students of Dutch in Britain, 35.3: 275-285

Kisluk-Grosheide, Daniëlle. 1997. ‘Dirck Van Rijswijck (1596-1679), a Master of Mother-of-Pearl’, Oud Holland, 111.2: 77–94

Kusukawa Sachiko. 2013. ‘Drawings of fossils by Robert Hooke and Richard Waller’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 67.2: 123–138

______. 2000. ‘The Historia Piscium (1686)’. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 54, 179-197

Leonhard, Karin, and Maria-Theresia Leuker. 2013. ‘Who Commissioned Hollar’s Shells?’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 37.3/4: 227–239

Lister, Martin. 1699. A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698 (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson)

Moore, Andrew, Nathan Flis, and Francesca Vanke. 2018. The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art)

Roos, Anna M.  2019. Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters: The Art of Science in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Bodleian Library)

Segal, Sam, and William B. Jordan. 1989. A Prosperous Past: The Sumptuous Still Life in the Netherlands 1600-1700 (The Hague: SDU Publishers)

Shaw, Lindsey Bridget. 1990. ‘Pieter Van Roestraeten and the English “Vanitas”‘, The Burlington Magazine, 132.1047: 402–406

Smith, Ed. 2016. ‘Drawn together: the oyster shucking knife ‘, Borough Market, 28 April. Originally at <http://boroughmarket.org.uk/articles/drawn-together-the-oyster-shucking-knife>, now available at <https://web.archive.org/web/20190522223050/http://boroughmarket.org.uk/articles/drawn-together-the-oyster-shucking-knife>

Swan, Claudia. 2002. ‘From Blowfish to Flower Still Life Paintings: Classification and Its Images, circa 1600′ in Findlen, Paula, and Pamela H. Smith. Merchants & Marvels: Commerce and the representation of nature in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge), pp.109-136

Talley, Mansfield Kirby. 1983. ‘”Small, Usuall and Vulgar Things”: Still-Life Painting in England 1635-1760’, Volume of the Walpole Society, 49: 133-223

Tradescant, John. 1656. Musaeum Tradescantianum : or, A collection of rarities preserved at South-Lambeth neer London. (London : Printed by John Grismond, and are to be sold by Nathanael Brooke)

Vanke, Francesca. 2018. ‘Treasures of the Paston Closet, 73. The Frewen Cup’ in The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World, ed. by Andrew W Moore et al. (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art), pp.350-51

Van Seters, W. 1958. Oud-Nederlandse Parelmoerkunst: Het Werk Van Leden Der Familie Belquin, Parelmoergraveurs En Schilders In De 17e Eeuw. Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, 9: 173-238

Wilkins, Guy. 1953. ‘A Catalogue and Historical Account of the Sloane Shell Collection’, Bulletin of The British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 1: 3-50 <https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2238723#page/11/mode/1up>

Zuroski, Eugenia. 2017. ‘Nautilus Cups and Unstill Life’, Journal18, 3: n.p. <https://www.journal18.org/issue3/nautilus-cups-and-unstill-life/>

An Historian fit for a Queen? Elizabeth I’s translation of the Annales and the Tacitean Turn

An Historian fit for a Queen?
Elizabeth I’s translation of the Annales and the Tacitean Turn

John-Mark Philo

[1] The re-emergence of Elizabeth I’s translation of Tacitus has important implications not only for our understanding of the queen’s literary tastes and pursuits, but also for our understanding of Tacitus’s reputation in the final decades of the sixteenth century (LPL MS 683; see Philo 2020b). After all, there could hardly have been a stronger endorsement for the study of a particular historian at court than the queen’s own reading and translation thereof. Elizabeth’s Tacitus encompasses the first book of the Annales, covering a period of history that witnessed extraordinary changes in the traditional political structures of Rome, namely the gradual centralisation of power in the emperor Augustus and Rome’s transition from republic to principate. Taken on its own, the first book might be read as illustrating the stabilizing effects of monarchical government for a troubled state, a theme which, as is explored below, also underpinned the queen’s translation of Cicero’s Pro Marcello. By examining Elizabeth’s choices as a translator and her implicit support of Tacitus as an historian suitable for study at court, this article underlines the significance of the queen and her translation in the early modern reception of Tacitus.

[2] The majority of scholarship to date has associated Elizabethan enthusiasm for Tacitus with the Essex circle and with the political ambitions of the Earl of Essex himself.[1] In this view, Henry Savile’s translation of Tacitus’s Historiae and Agricola (1591), despite its being dedicated to the queen, has been understood as a kind of textbook for Devereux, ‘support[ing] what seems to have been Essex’s political strategy in the early 1590s’ (Womersley 1991: 317). Though Bart van Es allows that ‘Savile himself was a proficient servant of monarchy who was successful in his pursuit of patronage under both Elizabeth and James’, he suggests nonetheless that ‘through the Essex circle […] Tacitus came increasingly to be associated with subversion’ (2015: 448). This view, though enduring, has been challenged. In her essay on Henry Savile’s Tacitus and the politics of Roman history, Paulina Kewes cautions against reading Savile’s translation ‘proleptically’, noting a tendency of scholarship to approach the work ‘as a knowing supply of images and vocabularies of corruption, despotism, and faction that had not in fact come to determine the view of Elizabeth among Essex and his followers until several years later’ (2011: 516). Instead, Kewes reads Savile’s translation as a subtle commentary on the unsettled succession, not least of all through ‘its vivid depiction of civil wars ignited by brutal competition for the throne’ (2011: 544). More recently, Mordechai Feingold has questioned the depth of Essex’s engagement with Tacitus, as well as his apparent friendship with Savile, concluding persuasively that ‘nothing like the intimacy and extended patronage between Savile and Elizabeth (and Burghley) can be found in Savile’s relations with Essex’ (2016: 863).

[3] This article instead posits the queen’s activities as a translator as one of the most important influences for the study of Tacitus at the Elizabethan court. In her negotiation and occasional dilution of the republican elements of Tacitus’s political history, there is even the sense that Elizabeth was, through translation, making him an historian fit for consumption at court. In his recent examination of the plurality of responses which Tacitus’s histories inspired in early modern England, R. Malcolm Smuts observes that ‘Tacitus did not provide a single cohesive message so much as a supply of nuggets of insight and information ready to be deployed in different situations’ (2020: 443). A key, and compelling, element of Smuts’ analysis is his observation that the reading of Tacitus in fact helped to reinforce the intellectual and cultural status quo, ‘sharpen[ing] and extend[ing] patterns of thought already present in English culture’ (2020: 450). This article argues that Tacitus, as well as early imperial history more generally, could be read in late Elizabethan England as reinforcing not only the intellectual and cultural norms of the day, but also the governmental.

[4] The first section of this article considers the patron-translator relationships that encouraged the study of Tacitus at court in the latter half of the sixteenth century, namely those enjoyed by Giovanni Maria Manelli and the Sidney brothers, Robert Greenway and Robert Devereux, and finally and most significantly, Henry Savile and Elizabeth I. The second section examines those passages of the Annales which speak to the most pressing questions of Elizabeth’s late reign, from the anxieties surrounding the unsettled succession to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587). More generally, this section explores the power of the historical precedent during this period as a rhetorical tool: depending on the context, the ancient past could be used to reinforce or undermine a given course of action or practice, at one moment celebrating the stability of the English legislature and, at another, subtly outlining the necessary conditions for rebellion. As this section explores, however, the most readily accessible narratives of successful revolution for an Elizabethan readership were to be found not in Tacitus, but in Livy and Ovid. Finally, the article addresses an apparent conceptual shift between the final years of the sixteenth century, when Tacitus was an historian who found favour with the queen herself, and the reign of Charles I, when the antiquarian Edmund Bolton (1574/5–c.1634) read the Annales as a fiercely pro-republican tract.[2] Just thirty years after the queen’s death, Bolton composed his Averrunci, or The Skowrers (1629–1634), a vigorous critique of Tacitus which he dedicated to ‘his Majesties most honorable Privie Counsel’ (2017: 67). Written in the first decade of Charles’s reign, Bolton underlined what he understood to be Tacitus’s pro-republican and anti-monarchical bias. He focused on the first six books of the Annales, and in doing so, attempted to salvage Tiberius from Tacitus’s alleged misrepresentation of the emperor. For Bolton, there was a very real danger lest the devoted reader of Tacitus, repelled by the historian’s depiction of Tiberius, might be persuaded of the virtues of popular government. Intriguingly, Bolton not only touched on Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for Tacitus, but also identified what he saw as the obvious parallels between her reign and that of Tiberius. The question of succession, the censorship of historiography, and the suppression of revolts at home and further afield which defined the latter years of Elizabeth’s rule all suggested to Bolton compelling similarities with Tacitus’s account of Tiberian Rome. This third section thus considers the importance of Edmund Bolton not only as an early modern critic of Tacitus, but also as a witness to the final years of Elizabeth’s Tiberian reign. By considering the queen’s contribution to Tacitus’s growing popularity in the final years of the sixteenth century and the ways in which the Annales may even have helped to reinforce Elizabeth’s approach to and method of rule, this article offers some fresh perspectives on the court reception of Tacitus and the uses of imperial history.

I. The Reception of Tacitus at the Elizabethan Court

[5] The final two decades of the sixteenth century saw the publication of three translations of Tacitus. Each of these was dedicated to a member of the Elizabethan court whose interests in the historian went beyond simply receiving these translations. The first of these was produced in Italian by Giovanni Maria Manelli in 1586 and dedicated to Robert Sidney (1563–1626). Manelli describes the presentation of this work to Robert not so much as introducing but returning Tacitus to the patronage of the Sidney brothers: ‘With regard to Cornelius Tacitus, it would seem to me to be doing him too much wrong, if I were to remove him from the protection of the Sidney gentlemen, who singularly penetrate and understand the wisdom with which he has written’.[3] As Smuts notes, Tacitus’s focus on Agricola’s career as governor of Roman-occupied Britannia may well have suggested to the Sidney brothers ‘the career of Philip’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, as lord deputy of Ireland’ (2020: 444).

[6] In October 1580, Philip Sidney had written to his younger brother, Robert, while the latter was undertaking a tour of Europe in the company of Henry Savile, the mathematician who would, of course, ultimately translate Tacitus himself. Here Philip took the opportunity to recommend the study of Livy for his ‘Sentences’, Plutarch for his ‘similitudes’, and Tacitus for his ‘wittie word’ (Sidney 2012: 1008). Robert is to pay particular attention to each area ‘wherein the Historian excelleth’, including, for example, ‘Dion Nicæus in the searching of the secrets of Gouerment. Tacitus in the pithy opening the venome of Wickedness & so of the rest’ (Sidney 2012: 1008). While he underlines the moral value of Tacitus’s history to Robert, it was with an emphasis on warfare that Philip Sidney had recommended Tacitus to Edward Denny (1547–1600) in May of the same year. Denny would leave for Ireland just two months later (July 1580), with his cousin, Walter Ralegh (1554–1618), in an effort to suppress the second Desmond rebellion. Sidney most probably had this expedition in mind when he wrote to Denny suggesting reading material that would be of most use ‘to you that with good reason bend your selfe to souldiery’ (2012: 982). Here Tacitus appears last in a long list of ancient historians, including Herodotus, Xenophon, Quintus Curtius, Polybius, Sallust, and Caesar, the reading of whom will furnish the soldier with ‘excellent examples, both of discipline & stratagemes’ (Sidney 2012: 983). As Joel Davis has explored, Robert Sidney purchased his own edition of Tacitus while serving in the cavalry of the Earl of Essex in The Hague (2006, 3–5). Robert annotated his copy of Lipsius’s 1585 edition in considerable detail, with an eye to trends and fashions ‘now in our court’ and to the machinations of competing courtiers (quoted in Davis 2006: 10).

[7] Henry Savile’s translation of the Historiae and Agricola appeared in 1591, accompanied by one of the most detailed commentaries on Tacitus to be written during the early modern period. Savile prefaced his translations with an historical supplement of his own composition, The Ende of Nero and the Beginning of Galba, filling the historiographical gap between Tacitus’s Annales and the Historiae. According to the antiquary and biographer, John Aubrey (1626–1697), Savile served the queen as personal tutor in both Greek and politics (2015: 1.264). It seems plausible that Elizabeth was also reading Tacitus in the company of Savile in his capacity as tutor, much as she had once translated ‘a great part of the History of Titus Livius’ in the company of Roger Ascham (William Camden 1625: sig. Ar). As Savile explains in the dedication to the queen, he has published his own translation ‘as by a foile to communicate to the world, if not those admirable compositions of your owne, yet at the least those most rare and excellent translations of Histories’ (1591: sig. ¶2r). Though Savile does not explicitly refer to the queen’s translation of the Annales, we might reasonably take this to suggest that by 1591, the queen had already completed her own version of Tacitus. As Mordechai Feingold proposes, Savile may in fact have deliberately avoided translating the Annales ‘precisely because he was loath to compete with – or upstage – his sovereign’ (2016: 869). Of significance to dating the queen’s own translation, the scribe responsible for copying Elizabeth’s Tacitus appears to have been active in the secretariat from the late 1580s. This scribe was responsible for preparing fair copies of letters addressed to foreign princes, including James VI and Henri IV (Philo 2020b: 57; cf. ‘The Queen to Henry IV’, TNA, SP 78/27 fol. 19r–v), whose hand bears a resemblance to that of ‘Scribe B’, as discussed in Carlo Bajetta’s study of Elizabeth’s Italian correspondence (Bajetta 2014: 48; figures 4a and 4b: 58–9). Though it is not impossible that the Lambeth scribe completed the transcription at some remove from its original composition, the example of Thomas Windebank’s preparing a fair copy of Elizabeth’s Boethius suggests a reasonably close window between rough draft and fair copy (TNA, SP 12/289: fols 100r–102v; see Elizabeth I 2009: 72 n. 1). We might tentatively suggest then that the translation was originally completed in the second half of the 1580s or even 1590, prompting Savile to undertake his own translation of the historian.

[8] It would be difficult to conjure a scholar from the period who benefitted more directly from the favour he found with the queen than Henry Savile. It was through Elizabeth’s intervention that he secured his position not only as Warden of Merton College, Oxford, but also as Provost of Eton College. In 1592, the queen visited Oxford where she exchanged speeches with Savile and appears, as Mueller and Scodel suggest, to have undertaken her translation of Cicero (Elizabeth I 2009: 3). A fair copy of the historical supplement which Savile prepared for his translation, The Ende of Nero and the Beginning of Galba, now survives among the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House (Cecil Papers, MS 139: fols 194r–203v). As Feingold proposes, ‘its provenance may suggest that prior to publication, Savile had submitted his ingenious composition to Lord Burghley for approval – as befits a long-time client of the Lord Treasurer’ (2016: 858). Even the paper on which the fair drafts of Savile’s translation were written speaks of the patronage he enjoyed under the queen. The printer’s copy of the Savile Tacitus, now preserved at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, was written on paper produced by John Spilman (d.1626), whose watermark, featuring the garter, crown, and ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’, can be found throughout the manuscript (Gravell Catalogue Arms.021.1). The same royal watermark is also present in the paper used for the fair copy of Savile’s historical supplement preserved at Hatfield House (see Philo 2021: 11–2). Savile’s translation then was not only dedicated to Elizabeth but was even drafted on paper embossed with the queen’s coat of arms.

[9] The lattermost of the three translations of Tacitus to be printed in Elizabeth’s reign was published in 1598, undertaken by Richard Greenway and dedicated to the Earl of Essex. The Earl’s wider interest in Tacitus is suggested by a letter from Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, to an unknown recipient (possibly Richard Cotton), dated January 1602 and preserved among the Cotton Manuscripts, according to which Essex was making his own notes on the historian (BL MS Cotton Vespasian F/XIII: fol. 290r. cf. Hammer 1996: 43). Greenway himself assumes the Earl’s familiarity with the historian, remarking in the dedication that ‘the worthiness of this Author [is] well knowen vnto your honor’ (1598: s.p.). Though Mordechai Feingold has interrogated the extent of Essex’s commitment to scholarship in general, there is no reason to doubt that Greenway believed sincerely that his translation had found a suitable dedicatee (2016: 864–867). Greenway’s version was read in at least some quarters with an eye to the practical lessons that it might afford the prince. The annotator of a copy now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, next to the account of Sallustius Crispus’s advice to Livia concerning the ‘arcana domus’ (‘secrets of the royal household’), writes, for example, ‘a good rule for a wise prince to follow’ (Bod. AA3 Art. Seld.: A2r). The diplomat and administrator, Sir George Carew (1555–1629), read Greenway’s Tacitus in considerable detail, quoting directly from the translation in his extensive notes on warfare and statecraft, now preserved at Lambeth Palace Library (LPL, MS 951/1: fols 132r–133v; MS 954: fol. 36rv). It is not clear when Carew came to read Greenway’s Tacitus, but it is possible that he did so while serving in Ireland, much as Robert Sidney had read his Tacitus while on campaign in the Netherlands (Carew refers directly to the English occupation of Ireland in his notes on the Roman conquest of Britain, LPL, MS 951/1: fol. 130r). Carew appears to have taken an interest in the provisions which Augustus made for the events immediately following his death. Under the heading ‘Care of the publicke estate is most necessary for princes’, he writes: ‘Augustus example is good for princes to imitate, for after his death a booke of his owne hand writinge was found, wherein was conteyned the wealthe of the publike Treasure, how many Cittyzens and allies were in Armes, what strength the state had by sea […]’ (LPL, MS 951/1: fol. 132r). For Carew, as for Augustus, it seemed prudent for an ageing prince to attend to matters directly concerning the smooth administration of the state in the wake of the monarch’s death. Carew’s phrasing here closely echoes the translation offered by Greenway, the relevant page of which he cites immediately following this note: ‘fol: 6:’ (cf. Greenway 1598: 6). So too, for example, Carew’s pessimistic observation under ‘princes’ – ‘princes are sayed to be like vnto gods, but gods favour no petitions but suche as are Just’ – echoes closely Greenway’s wording of Gaius Cestius’s speech, as recorded in the third book: ‘Princes were like vnto gods: but yet the gods heard no supplications but iust’ (LPL, MS 951/1: fol. 132r; Greenway 1598: 75).

[10] The strongest indication of court-centered interest in Tacitus, however, is the queen’s own translation of the Annales. Elizabeth was an accomplished linguist, well versed in French, Italian, and Latin, and familiar with Spanish and Greek.[4] As Alessandra Petrina notes, the queen’s activities as a translator cover a period of over fifty years, including translations of religious works undertaken in her youth – e.g. Marguerite de Navarre’s Miroir de l’Âme Pécheresse (1544) and John Calvin’s Institution de la Religion Chrestienne (1545) – as well as translations of Seneca, Boethius, Horace, Plutarch, and Cicero completed in her maturity. If, as Petrina suggests, at least some of these works ‘were meant for semi-public perusal at court’, it seems reasonable to assume that the queen’s study and translation of Tacitus was familiar to her courtiers (2018: 39).

[11] It is not difficult to imagine why the first book of Tacitus’s Annales might have appealed in particular to an early modern prince: it shows the disintegration of the Republic and the emergence of a monarchical form of government which is able to bring stability to a state exhausted by civil war. With the first words of the Annales, Tacitus puts Rome’s remarkable political transformation in focus, offering a concise summary of the shift from monarchy to republic, and from republic to principate:

Vrbem Romam à principio reges habuere: Libertatem, & Consulatum L. Brutus instituit […] & Pompeij Craßique potentia citò in Caesarem: Lepidi, atque Antonij arma in Augustum cessere, qui cuncta discordiis ciuilibus fessa, nomine principis sub imperium accepit.

(The city of Rome was ruled by kings to begin with: Lucius Brutus established freedom and the consulship. The might of Pompey and Crassus quickly yielded to Caesar, and the arms of Anthony to Augustus, who took everything exhausted by civil strife into his power under the name of ‘prince’) (Tacitus 1574: 215. Cf. Annales: 1.1.)

For which Elizabeth gives:

Rome citye at first Kinges guided. Popularitie and Consulshipp L. Brutus ordained. […] Pompeys and Crassus rule to Cæsar fell. Lepidus and Anthonyes armes to Augustus gaue place, whom he to his rule did take with Princes title, all weryed with ciuill discordes. (LPL MS 683: fol. 1r)

[12] Here Elizabeth uses ‘popularitie’ to translate Tacitus’s ‘Libertatem’ (‘freedom’), a word which, in a political context, typically carried the sense of civil freedom or liberty.[5] Thus Cicero had used libertas in opposition with servitus in the Philippics, presenting liberty as a quintessentially Roman trait: ‘Aliae nationes seruitutem pati possunt, populi Romani est propria libertas’ (‘other nations are able to suffer slavery, but freedom is peculiar to the Roman people’) (Cicero, Philippics: 1.19). That Elizabeth chose to translate libertas as ‘Popularitie’, which in the early modern period was used of a popular or democratic form of government, suggests that she was sensitive to Tacitus’s politically-charged use of the word. ‘Popularitie’ was frequently invoked in opposition to a monarchical form of government and carried, as one might expect, distinctly negative connotations. Thus John Whitgift (1530/1–1604) in his response to Thomas Cartwright (1534/5–1603) at the height of the Admonition controversy warned that his opponents were fostering ‘contempt of magistrates, popularitie, Anabaptistrie and sundrie others pernicious and pestilent errors’ (1574: sig. aivr). At other moments, Elizabeth translates libertas with the cognate ‘liberty’, or else ignores the word completely.[6] As Augustus grows weaker, there is talk at Rome of the old libertas: ‘pauci bona libertatis incassum disserere’ (‘a few spoke in vain of the benefits of freedom’), for which Elizabeth gives: ‘few carelessly their good neglected’ (Tacitus 1574: 217, cf. Annales: 1.4; LPL MS 683: fol. 1v). Once again the emphasis has subtly shifted, and while in Tacitus the citizens of Rome find themselves longing for ‘the benefits of freedom’, that is, for the republican form of government, in Elizabeth’s version, they themselves fail to appreciate and attend to their own quality of life.

[13] In contrast with republican libertas, Tacitus sets the servitium (‘slavery’) suffered by the Roman people under the princes. Tacitus explains, for example, that Augustus found little opposition at Rome to his gradual assumption of sovereignty since many of the nobility stood to profit from this kind of political servitude:

ceteri nobilum, quanto quis seruitio promtior, opibus & honoribus extollerentur, ac nouis ex rebus aucti, tuta & præsentia, quàm vetera & periculosa mallent.

(the rest of the nobles, as much as each of them was the more inclined to slavery, were elevated by wealth and honours, and, now advanced by the revolution, preferred the stability of the present than the insecurity of the past)

For which Elizabeth gives:

The rest of the noblest, as redyest in seruice, so most aduanced in wealth and dignitie, increased by new gyftes chose rather the saffe, and present, then ancient, and dangerous. (LPL MS 683: fol. 1r)

[14] Here Elizabeth dilutes the force of Tacitus’s ‘servitio promtior’ (‘more inclined to slavery’) with ‘redyest in seruice’ – in Elizabeth’s translation, the senators are officious and dutiful subjects, rather than political slaves, and are therefore duly rewarded. Elizabeth has also missed, or perhaps deliberately ignored, the specialist sense of ‘novae res’ as ‘revolution’. Thus, for ‘nouis ex rebus aucti’ (‘made greater through revolution’), by which Tacitus implies that certain members of the nobility have actively benefitted from the alteration in regime, she gives ‘increased by new gyftes’.

[15] At another moment, Tacitus juxtaposes republican ‘freedom’ and imperial ‘slavery’ when he touches on the assassination of Julius Caesar, referring to those citizens who had witnessed, or had at least heard tell of, ‘diem illum crudi adhuc seruitij, & libertatis improsperè repetitæ, cum occisus dictator Cæsar’ (‘that day, when slavery was still young, and freedom was sought again in an ill-starred attempt, when Caesar dictator was killed’) (1574: 220; cf. Annales: 1.8). Perhaps telling of how Elizabeth was reading Tacitus more widely, she gives this line a different gloss in her translation: ‘that day shoulde be the caller in of cruell bondage and unfortunate libertie. when Cesar Dictator was slaine’ (LPL MS 683: fol. 3r). In Tacitus, slavery was ‘still young’ because Rome, under Julius Caesar, was experiencing its first taste of monarchy since the expulsion of the Tarquins almost five hundred years before. In Elizabeth’s version, however, it is now the assassination of the monarch which heralds in a new age of servitude. Elizabeth’s subtle condemnation of Caesar’s death we might contrast with the account offered by an anonymous tract entitled A Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of Inglande, published at Antwerp in 1595. Here in a section entitled ‘Of Kings Lawfully Chastised by their Common Wealthes for their Misgouernment’, Caesar’s assassination is directly attributed to his usurpation of governmental powers: ‘when Iulius Cæsar uppon particuler ambition had broken al law both humane and diuine, and taken al gouernment in to his owne hands alone, he was in revenge hereof, slayne as the worlde knoweth, by senators in the senate-house’ (44). There were then conflicting readings of Caesar’s rule and murder at the hands of the Roman senate circulating in the final years of the sixteenth century. For Elizabeth, however, the assassination of a monarch signified the beginning of ‘cruell bondage’.

[16] Tacitus’s description of Augustus consolidating his power in the wake of civil war and offering stability to a people ‘exhausted by civil strife’ bears a striking resemblance to Cicero’s portrait of Julius Caesar in the Pro Marcello, translated by Elizabeth in around 1592. M. Claudius Marcellus had supported Pompey’s cause in the First Civil War and, following Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalia, had retired to Mytilene. Cicero’s speech, delivered in 46BC, was part of a wider effort at Rome to have Marcellus safely repatriated. What is so striking about the Pro Marcello, however, is just how little the eponymous defendant features. Instead, the emphasis is on Caesar. As Scodel and Mueller note, Elizabeth ‘chose to translate a work that a strict republican could only have regarded as an unfortunate lapse on Cicero’s part but a believer in virtuous monarchy would find profoundly congenial’ (Elizabeth I 2009: 4; see Petrina 2018: 49–56). Here Caesar is praised for his martial prowess and urged, as Elizabeth puts it, to ‘quench the flame of civil stir’ (2009: 37; cf. Cicero, Pro Marcello: 29). Now that Caesar has proven beyond question his abilities on the battlefield, ‘yet there bides behind another part for you to play, another deed to execute; and this must be your travail: to frame a Commonwealth and compound it in so quiet sort as you may enjoy with it your ease’ (2009: 35; cf. Cicero, Pro Marcello: 27). Though Tacitus does not explicitly praise Augustus for the stability which he brought to the state – in Cicero the tone is one of celebration, in Tacitus, one of resignation – there are certainly parallels between Cicero’s Caesar and Tacitus’s Augustus, especially in their consolidation of authority in the wake of civil conflict. We might readily compare Cicero’s description, as translated by Elizabeth, of ‘this Commonwealth afflicted with this wretched and evil-destined war’, with Tacitus’s description in the above, of a city ‘weryed with ciuill discordes’ (Elizabeth I 2009: 39; cf. Cicero, Pro Marcello: 31. LPL, MS 683: fol. 1r; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.1). It seems probable then that Elizabeth, translating the first book of the Annales, approached Tacitus’s account much as she had Cicero’s, namely as an endorsement of the stability achieved through individual rule.

[17] There is in Elizabeth’s Pro Marcello a subtle but discernable introduction of monarchical vocabulary. The queen thus has Cicero single out Caesar’s ‘princely and wise voice’ for praise, where ‘princely’ translates ‘praeclarissimam’ (‘extremely distinguished’) (2009: 33; cf. Cicero, Pro Marcello: 25). So too Elizabeth’s Cicero refers anachronistically to ‘the acts of our emperors’, where ‘emperors’ translates ‘imperatorum’ (‘generals’) (2009: 19; cf. Cicero, Pro Marcello: 5). There is a similar effect at work in the queen’s translation of the Annales. Here the city is not merely splendidly restored by Augustus (‘magnifico ornatu’), but ‘royally adorned’, while the ‘initiis Tiberij’ (‘the beginning of Tiberius’) becomes ‘Tiberius new raigne’ (Tacitus 1574: 220; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.9; LPL MS 683: fol. 3r; Tacitus 1574: 224; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.16; LPL MS 683: fol. 4v). At another moment, Tacitus refers to Germanicus as ‘Augustæ nepos’, that is, grandson of Livia Augusta, for which Elizabeth gives ‘nephew to the Empresse’ (Tacitus 1574: 232, cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.33; LPL MS 683: fol. 7v). Under the Republic, the adjective ‘augustus’ suggested ‘sacred’ or ‘venerable’ (see OLD s.v. ‘augustus’). In 27BC, however, the senate awarded it as a title to Octavian, whence it was adopted by subsequent emperors. Ultimately, it acquired a more general sense of ‘imperial’ or ‘royal’. In his Dictionarium of 1587, Thomas Thomas thus defines the word as ‘consecrate, holy’, but also ‘noble, royal, imperiall, full of maiestie’ (s.v. ‘augustus, a, um’). In this latter sense, it was applied to Elizabeth herself. During the Queen’s visit to Norwich of 1578, for instance, the city Mayor addressed Elizabeth as ‘Augustissima Princeps’, or, as the accompanying translation puts it, ‘most Royall Prince’ (Ber. Gar., 1578: sig. Aivr; Biv). The English ‘Empress’, which Elizabeth employs here for ‘Augusta’, was commonly used of the consort of the Roman emperor in the sixteenth century, as with Shakespeare’s description of Tamora in Titus Andronicus as ‘Rome’s royal empress’, or Bartholomew Yong’s account of Cleopatra ‘hoping […] to have been crowned Empresse of ye Romane monarchy’, reworking Boccaccio’s ‘aspirava all’altezza del romano imperio’ (we might also note Yong’s rendering of ‘imperio’ here as ‘monarchy’) (Shakespeare 2016: 3.55 (p. 206); Yong 1587: 116–7; Boccaccio 1952: cap. VIII, p. 1211). Elizabeth herself was addressed as ‘empress’ with greater frequency in the 1580s and 90s. Thus, James Aske in his poem commemorating the English victory over the Spanish, Elizabetha Triumphans (1588), refers to the queen as ‘the only Empresse that on earth hath liu’d’, while Edmund Spenser dedicated The Fairie Queene (1590) ‘to the most mightie and magnificent empresse Elizabeth’ (Aske 1588: 24; Spenser 1590: sig. Av). In the dedication to his translation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, The Romane Historie (1600), Philemon Holland (1552–1637) brought together both the ancient and contemporary, addressing Elizabeth as ‘most Worthie and Powerfull Empreße’, while in the preface to the reader he refers to ‘prince Augustus, and Livia the Empresse’ (Holland 1600: s.p.). By introducing ‘Empress’ to her translation, Elizabeth thereby invoked a title of her very own.

[18] Perhaps the most striking introduction of royal lexis to the Tacitus translation, however, is found in the description of the German mutiny. Unusually for rebelling troops, Tacitus explains, there is a focus and precision to their actions: ‘Nought don at a fewes instigation, but togither they attempt, and so silent, with so like like lasting myndes, that Kinges you wolde haue thought them’ (LPL MS 683: 7v). That the queen should find monarch-like resolve in rebelling soldiers is perhaps surprising, but the wording appears to have been prompted by some confusion arising from the phrase ‘ut regi crederes’ (‘you would believe that they were being directed’), where Tacitus has left the direct object implicit (Tacitus 1574: 232; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.32). Elizabeth, however, treats ‘regi’ not as an infinitive (‘to be directed’), but a plural noun, ‘Kinges’, perhaps confusing ‘regi’ for ‘reges’. For the phrase ‘tanta æqualitate & Constantia’ (‘of such great uniformity and symmetry’), Elizabeth gives ‘with so like lasting myndes’, a quality which may well have appealed to a monarch who deliberately styled herself as ‘Semper Eadem’ (Camden 1615: 40). Even with the confusion over ‘regi’, however, it remains curious that the queen should associate this virtue with mutinous soldiers.

[19] The queen’s decision to focus on a moment of historiography which examines Rome’s transformation from a consular republic to what was in effect a kind of monarchy complements her choice of subject matter elsewhere. The first book of Tacitus’s Annales and Cicero’s Pro Marcello, by highlighting the stability brought to Rome by the rule of Augustus and Julius Caesar respectively, could easily be read and translated as extolling the virtues of monarchical government. In her translations of both Cicero and Tacitus alike, we can identify the queen’s negotiation with, and occasional dilution of, republican vocabularies. So too we can see the subtle introduction of monarchical lexis where there is no direct equivalent in the Latin, as well as a more general reflection of how this political lexis (princeps, augustus, libertas etc.) was being redeployed in early modern England. With their depictions of a Rome exhausted by civil war and united under a single ruler, it is not implausible to imagine that Elizabeth was reading both the Annales and the Pro Marcello as the triumph of monarchy as a means of securing the stability of the state. There were, however, some less palatable elements of the Annales for a monarch who was apparently unwilling to discuss the details of her own succession, as the next section explores.

II. The Queen’s Tacitus and Elizabethan Statecraft

[20] Elizabeth’s reign was marked from its earliest days by Parliament’s concern for a stable, and, if possible, male succession. Even towards the end of her reign, however, Elizabeth was reluctant to discuss the question of who was to inherit the English throne. As Arthur Wilson records in his History of Great Britain (1653: 2), ‘In the wane, or last Quarter of the late Queen, the Court Motions tended (by an Oblique Aspect) towards this Northern Star [i.e. James VI], and some of her great Council in her Presence, would glance at the King of Scots as her Successour which would make her break into Passion’.[7] In the Annales, however, Elizabeth was confronted directly with the question of succession and the public acknowledgment of an heir.

[21] For Scipione Ammirato (1531–1600), whose Discorsi on Tacitus were published at Florence in 1594, this was one of the most important lessons a prince might glean from the first book of the Annales. In the second discourse, entitled ‘with how much diligence a prince must seek to have a definite successor’ (‘Con quanta diligenza debba ricercar un Principe d’hauer certo successore’), he drew attention to how ‘very great the care was, and the endeavour, which Augustus employed to establish a definite successor, seeing that nature did not grant him male children’ (‘grandissimo fu lo studio, e il proccacio, che usò Augusto, non gli essendo dalla natura stati conceduti figliouoli maschi, in stabilirsi certo successore’) (Ammirato 1594: 4). Indeed, the opening chapters of Tacitus’s first book deal with the complex series of adoptions and promotions made by Augustus in an effort to secure the stability of his own sovereignty and that of his dynasty:

Ceterùm Augustus subsidia dominationi Claudium Marcellum, sororis filium admodum adolescentem, Pontificatu & curuli ædilitate: M. Agrippam ignobilem loco, bonum militia et victoriæ socium, geminatis consulatibus extulit: mox defuncto Marcello generum sumsit: Tiberium Neronem & Claudium Drusum priuignos imperatoriis nominibus auxit, integra etiamdum domo sua: nam genitos Agrippa Caium ac Lucium in familiam Cæsarem induxerat

(But Augustus, to bolster his rule, advanced Claudius Marcellus, his sister’s son, though he was still a young man, to the pontiff’s office and curule aedileship, and raised Marcus Agrippa (of low social standing, but worthy in warfare and his companion in victory) through successive consulships, and, with the death of Marcellus, soon took him as a son in law. His stepsons Tiberius Nero and Claudius Drusus he elevated with the title of ‘Imperator’, though his own household was yet intact: for he had welcomed the sons of Agrippa, Gaius and Lucius into the house of Caesar) (Tacitus 1574: 216, cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.3)

For which Elizabeth gives:

But Augustus tooke for rules healpe Cla: Marcellus his sisters sonne, a yong man aduancing him first to be Bushoppe and Aedyle. And Agrippa also, base for his place, but a good soldier, and compagnon of his victories, he preferred to a double Consulshippe. and soone after Marcellus dying, he chose him for a sonne in lawe. Tiberius Nero and Claud: Drusus his wyfes sonnes, he endued with Emperors names, though his own howse were well filled, for he had drawen into the family of Cesar Caius and Lucius Agrippas sonnes (LPL MS 683: fol. 2r)

[22] In making provision for the succession, Augustus turns first to Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42–23BC), son of his sister, Octavia, and of Claudius Marcellus. A favourite of Augustus’s, Marcellus married Augustus’s only daughter, Julia, in 25BC, but died just two years later. Marcus Agrippa (b. c.63BC), loyal soldier and lifelong friend of Augustus, had commanded the left wing at the Battle of Actium. Following Marcellus’s untimely death in 23BC, he married the widowed Julia in 21BC. With Marcellus dead, Augustus was compelled to turn to his stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus, whom ‘he endued with Emperors names’, that is, awarded them both the title of ‘imperator’ (‘general’). Tiberius (42BC–37AD) was the eldest son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia, later wife of Augustus. Augustus reluctantly named Tiberius his heir in AD4. Livia was already pregnant with Tiberius’s younger brother, Drusus (38–9BC), when Tiberius Claudius Nero was compelled to divorce her to make way for the marriage with Augustus, a fact to which Tacitus refers later in the same book: ‘abducta Neroni uxor: & consulti per ludibrium pontifices, an concepto nec dum edito partu rite nuberet’ (‘he seduced the wife of Nero, while undertaking a farcical consultation with the priests as to whether it was right for her to marry before she had given birth’), for which Elizabeth gives: ‘for marying Neros wife, in a skorne he demanded the Bushoppe whether mary he might one with childe afore the birthe’ (Tacitus 1574: 221, cf. Annales: 1.10; LPL MS 683: fol. 3v). This conglomeration of names and familial and inter-marital ties is deliberate: Tacitus stresses the complexities and machinations of the emperor’s foreplanning, remembering Augustus not only as a bringer of peace to a troubled state, but as a cunning strategist or ‘machinator’ (‘architect’) (Annales: 1.10).

[23] As Paulina Kewes notes, the MP Peter Wentworth (1524–1597) appealed to this very moment of Roman history in his Pithie Exhortation to Her Maiestie for Establishing Her Succesor to the Crowne (1598) (see Kewes 2011: 542–3). Drawing on the pagan precedent, he remarks: ‘wee reade that the Romane Emperours when otherwise their successor was not known, did in their lifetime adopt them heires, to whome by order of that gouernement, they caused the right to succeede them to be established. Thus, Iulius Cæsar adopted Octavius Augustus, and hee Tiberius Cæsar’ (Wentworth 1598: 23). To the example of Wentworth, we might add that of Charles Merbury, who, though he refrained from drawing quite such a bold comparison, also included the Roman precedent for adoption in his Briefe Discourse of Royall Monarchie (1581), which he dedicated to the queen: ‘Cæsar the dictator [adopted] his Nephew: Augustus th’Emperor, adopted Tiberius: Claudius, Nero: Nerva, Traian: Traian, Adrian, who after adopted Antoninus’ (17). For Scipione Ammirato, the securing of an heir was of pressing contemporary relevance more generally: ‘If ever there was ever a time, in which it were fit to put the present discourse into consideration, it is this one, in which we find that there are many princes living, who do not have a definite successor’ (‘Se mai fù alcun tempo, nel quale sia degno d’esser messo in considerazione il presente discorso, è questo, nel quale ci ritrouiamo, vivendo molti Principi, i quali non hanno certo successore’) (1594: 6). Such negligence on the prince’s part, Ammirato explains, has pernicious consequences for the dynasty as well as the state as a whole: ‘whence it comes to pass that either states pass into other families, or that, dismembering themselves, they become less strong, or struggling over the successor, they spill forth into civil conflicts’ (‘onde auuiene, ò che gli stati passino in altre famiglie, ò che smembrandosi diuengano men forti, o contendendosi del successore s’empiano di ciuili battaglie’) (1594: 6). Both in England and on the Continent, this moment of Roman history was read as underlining the importance for an heirless prince to secure his, or indeed her, own succession.

[24] Yet for all Augustus’s attempts to establish the stability of his dynasty, Tacitus also presents the reader with the complications and corruptions thereof. The demise of Augustus’s favourites leads to the ascendency of the imperfect Tiberius:

Vt Agrippa uita conceßit, L. Cæsarem euntem ad Hispanienses exercitus, Caium remeantem Armenia, & vulnere inualidum, mors fato propera, vel nouercæ Liuiæ dolus abstulit, Drusoque pridem extincto, Nero solus è priuignis erat, illuc cuncta vergere: filius, collega imperij, consors tribuniciæ potestatis adsumitur, omnisque per exercitus ostentatur, non obscuris vt antea matris artibus, sed palàm hortatu

(Once Agrippa had passed away, death, hastened by fate, or else the cunning of their stepmother, Livia, snatched away Lucius Caesar as he was going to the Spanish armies, along with Gaius, who remained at Armenia, already enfeebled through his wound. As Drusus was a long time dead, Nero was the last of the stepsons, and everything turned to him: he was adopted as a son, as a partner in empire, as a consort of the tribunician power, and was paraded through all of the armies, not, as previously, through his mother’s secret schemes, but with her open encouragement) (Tacitus 1574: 216; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.3)

For which Elizabeth has:

As Agrippa dyed. so did hastie death or stepdame Liuias crafte, depriue of lyfe Lucius Cesar going to the spanishe army, and Caius leauinge Armenia for his wound vnseruiceable. So Drusus destroyed. Nero alone remained, of all his wifes children. whom onely all respected. He was the sonne. the rules compagnon. the Tribunes powers fellow. sette out to all the army, not by slye art, as before of his mother, but openly now by a publike desire. (LPL MS 683: 2r)

[25] Augustus strives to establish the security of his dynasty with ‘pluribus munimentis’, literally ‘many defences’, a wording which Elizabeth reworks in periphrasis as ‘greater strength to enforce his rule’. Gaius Julius Caesar (20BC–AD4) was the eldest son of Agrippa and Julia. A favourite of Augustus’s, he was the most likely candidate to succeed the emperor, who had adopted him in 17BC. In 2AD, however, Gaius was severely wounded at the siege of Artagira and died two years later during his return to Rome. Gaius’s younger brother, Lucius, also adopted by Augustus in 17, died in 2AD on a journey to Spain, as Tacitus implies here, through Livia’s intervention. Tiberius’s position as Augustus’s successor was thus as much a consequence of ‘stepdame Liuias crafte’ and ‘slye art’ as it was of the emperor’s foreplanning. In Tacitus’s portrait, Livia is ruthless in securing the place of her son as Augustus’s successor and potentially dangerous in the influence she wields over the ageing emperor: ‘she had so wonne the olde Augustus, that he banished his onely nephew Agrippa Posthumus into Planasia Island’ (LPL MS 683: 2r). Livia’s influence over Roman politics was of particular concern to Annibale Scoto, valet to Pope Sixtus V (1525–1590), whose political commentary on Tacitus appeared in 1589. Of the complaint made by the citizens of Rome that, as Elizabeth translates it, ‘serue they must a woman’ (fol. 1v; cf. Annales: 1.4), Scoto comments:

Quid miserius excogitari potest, quam servire feminae viros? hoc est, liberos servis; qui ad imperandum nati sunt, ijs qui ad parendum? Hinc iure, misera Anglia, defleri status tuus potest; quæ tam peruersæ ac impiæ mulieri Iezabeli inseruis; et ei subiecta durissimam tyrannidem toleras

(What thing more wretched can be imagined, than men serving a woman? That is, free men, who are born to rule, serving slaves, who are born to obey? Therefore rightly, miserable England, we can weep for your state, who serve such a perverse and impious woman, a Jezebel, and, subject to her, endure the harshest tyranny) (Scoto 1589: 7)

Intriguingly, in at least some quarters on the Continent, Tacitus’s Livia, and the tremendous influence she wielded, was being read directly in relation to Elizabeth.

[26] Similarly desultory attempts to secure the succession were also to be found in Tacitus’s Historiae. When the emperor Galba nods to Augustus’s adoptions in Book One, he hopes to surpass what he describes as the emperor’s nepotistic precedent. As Savile puts it in his translation of 1591, Galba presents himself as:

following herein the example of Augustus, who places in estate next to himselfe, first Marcellus his sisters son, afterward Agrippa his sonne in lawe, then his daughters sonnes, and lastly his wiues sonne Tiberius Nero. But Augustus, as it seemeth, sought a succesour in his family, and I in the common wealth. (Savile 1591: 9; cf. Tacitus, Historiae: 1.15)

[27] As Kewes notes, however, Galba’s attempt to leave the Roman state in the hands of a man of ‘integritie, friendship’ and ‘round and free dealing’ ultimately comes to naught and the imperial throne falls by force to Otho (Savile 1591: 9, cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.15; Kewes 2011: 547). Elizabeth was thus confronted with distinctly pessimistic examples of attempts to secure the succession not only through her translation of the Annales, but also through her tutor’s rendering of the Historiae.

[28] As the Annales suggest, the public naming of an heir is also a recipe for conflict. Unlike Elizabeth, Tacitus’s Augustus openly, perhaps imprudently, discusses the nomination of potential successors. As Tacitus explains,

Quippe Augustus supremis sermonibus cum tractaret, qui nam adipisci principem locum suffecturi abnuerent, aut impares vellent, vel idem possent cuperentque, M. Lepidum dixerat capacem, sed aspernantem: Gallum Asinum auidum & minorem: L: Arruntium non indignum, & si casus daretur ausurum

(Indeed, when Augustus discussed the matter in his final conversations, namely who would be able to obtain the prince’s office but refused it, and those who were unworthy of it but wanted it, and then those who were both able and desired it, he had said that Lepidus was capable but disdainful, Gallus Asinus keen but inferior, and Lucius Arruntius not unworthy, and, if the opportunity presented itself, bold enough to take it) (Tacitus 1574: 222–3; cf. Annales: 1)

For which Elizabeth gives:

For Augustus in his laste speaches, of such, as ether sufficient wolde refuse a Princes place, or vnfitt wolde haue it, or might and desired. he sayd Marc: Lepidus capable but despising it. Gallus Asinius greedy, but vnworthy. L: Aruntius not vnmeet, and if chance happened, wolde aduenture it. (LPL MS 683: fol. 4r)

[29] The potential benefits of openly discussing the succession are immediately undone, however, when Tacitus explains the dire consequences of these discussions for the candidates: ‘omnesque præter Lepidum variis mox criminibus struente Tiberio circumuenti sunt’ (‘all of them, except Lepidus, were beset by various charges fabricated by Tiberius’) (Tacitus 1575: 223; cf. Annales: 1.13), or, as Elizabeth translates it, ‘All but Lepidus alone were taxed with diuers crymes, Tiberius framing it so’ (LPL MS 683: fol. 4r). Once again, Augustus’s attempts to safeguard the succession are undermined by the machinations of those closest to him. Immediately following the death of Augustus, Tiberius removes another rival claimant to the imperial throne, Agrippa Iulius Caesar. As Elizabeth’s translation puts it, ‘The first mischief of the new rule was Post: Agrippas murder’ (LPL MS 683: 2r). Like Tiberius, Agrippa had been adopted by Augustus in AD4, but was later exiled to Planasia. Nonetheless, Tiberius, according to Tacitus’s account at least, continued to consider him a threat. After he has been dispatched, however, Tiberius hastily denies any involvement in his death:

Nuntianti centurioni, vt mos militiæ, factum esse quod imperasset, neque imperasse sese, & rationem facti reddendam apud senatum respondit

(Once the centurion had announced, as is a soldier’s wont, that what he had commanded was accomplished, Tiberius denied that he had commanded it himself, replying that an account of the deed would have to be given before the senate) (Tacitus 1574: 218; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.6)

For which Elizabeth gives:

The Centurion telling (like martiall guise) that don was, what was byd. he denyed that charge and sayd he shoulde make accompte to the senate for it. (LPL MS 683: 2r)

[30] With the phrase ‘what was byd’, Elizabeth makes a passive construction of Tacitus’s active ‘quod imperasset’ (‘what he had ordered’), removing Tiberius yet further from the deed and so also from culpability. Such a scenario was evidently not beyond imagining for an Elizabethan courtier. Beside this moment in the 1585 Antwerp edition, Robert Sidney writes: ‘A prince should not desauow his secret commandment but if he do the seruant must [abide] to be disauowed’ (Quoted in Davis 2006: 11). Of this same moment, Annibale Scoto remarked:

Princeps numquam probare aperte & fateri debet res improbas, etsi ipsi conducit, vt commisa sint, ne praui nomen adipiscatur. Immo præstat extrinsecus clementem, benignum, affabilem, mansuetum, & similia præseferre. Quoties vero ipsi aliter conducit agere, id caute, & quasi coactus agere videatur.

(A Prince must never openly approve nor admit to morally reprehensible deeds, even if it serves his turn that they should be undertaken, lest he acquire a reputation for depravity. Rather, it is better that on the outside he pretend to be merciful, good, courteous, gentle, and similar. However often it serves his turn to act otherwise, he should do so cautiously, and appear to have been almost forced) (Scoto 1589: 10)

[31] Even if politically expedient, the prince should at least appear reluctant to undertake deeds which might undermine his reputation. It is difficult to read this account of Tiberius’s dispatching a potential claimant to the imperial throne and subsequent (and prudent, according to Scoto) denial thereof without thinking of Elizabeth’s response to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), who, as the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor (1489–1541), had once been considered a potential claimant to the English throne. In the aftermath of Mary’s death, William Davison (d.1608), a junior member of the Privy Council, served as scapegoat, not unlike Tiberius’s centurion. He was blamed by Elizabeth for having shared the signed warrant for Mary’s death with the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Bromley. Davison was sent to the Tower on 14th February and was tried on the 28th March, charged with disobeying the queen’s command to retain the warrant.

[32] For the most part, Elizabeth’s biographers have focused on the queen’s emotional response to the execution. As J. E. Neale puts it, ‘She could neither eat nor sleep. Pity that with her womanly sorrow she could not maintain the tragedy at its most sublime level!’ (1934: 281). More recently, Wallace MacCaffrey describes the queen ‘hysterically disavow[ing] having ordered the execution’, while Paul Jonson ascribes her ‘nervous state’ during these months to the menopause: ‘she may also have been undergoing her climacteric’ (MacCaffrey 1993: 352; Jonson 1974: 289). Such analysis, however, distracts from the fact that it was also politically expedient for Elizabeth to deny firmly responsibility for the Scottish queen’s death. Following the execution, there was civil unrest in both Scotland and France, and Elizabeth was clearly concerned for her international reputation. The queen sent her ambassador, Robert Carey (1560–1639), to James VI, ‘to make known her innocence of her sister’s death’ (Carey 1972: 7). As Carey explains, however, the anger with which Mary’s death was met in Scotland made this a dangerous and almost impossible task: ‘I was waylaid in Scotland, if I had gone in, to have been murdered: but the King’s Majesty, knowing the disposition of his people, and the fury they were in, sent me to Berwick’ (1972: 8). In these ‘letters of credence’, ultimately conveyed to James via two of his counsellors, Elizabeth emphasized her distance from his mother’s execution, which she refers to as ‘that miserable accident’: ‘I beseech you that – as God and many more know – how innocent I am in this case’ (Elizabeth I 2000: 296).

[33] The reaction in France to Mary’s death was equally hostile. As Sir Edmund Stafford (1552–1605), Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, wrote to Lord Burghley in March that year:

I never sawe a thinge [more hated by] lytell great, olde yonge and of all Relligions then the Queen of Scotts deathe, and espesially the manner of ytt […] I beseeche god and so I have written to her majeste shee maye think to look well unto her self, for I think she neuer had more nor so mutche neede, for I never sawe all so desperately bent against her as theie are. (TNA, SP 78/17: fol. 19r)

There was therefore a practical benefit of denying any involvement in Mary’s death, however incredible such a denial may have seemed. Without suggesting that Elizabeth had a copy of the Annales open before her when she denied responsibility for Mary’s execution, clearly the queen found in Tacitus practical examples of statecraft which complemented, and perhaps even reinforced, her own method of rule.

[34] Intriguingly, the authority of the classical exemplum can be found in the wider political and legal contexts surrounding the imprisonment and trial of Mary Stuart. While the tracts and dialogues which emerged in the wake of Lord Darnley’s murder had compared the Scottish queen, as Cathy Shrank has explored in detail, to those infamous heroines of Greek myth, Clytemnestra and Medea, the ambassadors sent by Henri III to sue on Mary’s behalf made an appeal to the legend of Mucius Scaevola, as recorded in the second book of Livy’s History of Rome (Shrank 2010: 523–541; For Mary’s own reading of Livy in the company of George Buchanan, see TNA, SP 52/7: 32). According to Camden’s account in the Annales, Pomponne de Bellièvre made the case that, even if the queen were found guilty,

she should be pardoned, because that would remaine an eternall example of the English clemency. Alledging to this purpose the History of Porsenna, which drew out of the fire the right hand of M. Scevola, who had conspired his death, and let him go. (Camden 1625: 187)

[35] As Livy records it, the young nobleman, Gaius Mucius, having set out to assassinate Porsinna, King of the Etruscans, is captured in the attempt. Brought before the king, he thrusts his hand into the fire in a show of Roman fortitude: “en tibi’ inquit ‘ut sentias quam vile corpus sit iis qui magnam gloriam vident’ (‘this is so you can see’, he said, ‘how cheaply they value their body that look to greater glory’) (Livy, AUC: 2.12). So impressed is the Etruscan king by the young man’s bravery that he lets him go free. Though the exemplum here points to Livy, the wording of Camden’s Latin original more obviously recalls Tacitus’s Annales. The phrase ‘eternall example of the English clemency’ (‘æternum clementiæ exemplum’) echoes the speech which Tacitus puts into the mouth of Caratacus, who, captured and delivered to Rome, persuades the Emperor Claudius to spare his life: ‘si incolumem seruaueris, aeternum exemplar clementiæ ero’ (‘if you keep me unharmed, I will be an eternal example of your clemency’) (1574: 433; cf. Annales: 12.37). There are then two historical exempla at work here – one overt, the other tacit – of foreign captives who, faced with execution, successfully delivered orations to secure their freedom.

[36] It was not only Henri’s ambassadors who appealed to ancient precedent in relation to Mary’s trial. A treatise now preserved among the State Papers, dated to October 1586 and copied by William Cecil’s clerk, makes a detailed case for the legality of proceeding against Mary Stuart. It does so with an appeal to various legal authorities – Justinian, Sextus Africanus, Paulus de Castro – as well as a series of historical exempla, drawn from Livy, Pliny, Cicero, Caesar, and Sallust. Having stated that Mary Stuart ‘hath many waies committed high Treason against the whole state of this Realme’, the treatise gradually turns to discussions of this crime in antiquity. Appealing to a definition of lex majestatis recorded in Justinian’s Digest, the treatise flags up the law’s abuse under the principate, with ‘euery mans life standing at the courtesie of a bad prince’, contrasting this with the apparent stability and consistency of treason legislation in England (TNA, SP 53/20: fol. 88v). A law which, under the republic, concerned treason committed against the state ultimately came to be used, it explains, in imperial Rome to punish verbal attacks, perceived or actual, against the prince. Intriguingly, the value of this moment of Roman history for the legal tract is to emphasise the essential distance between the ancient past and the English present:

Therefore haue those Countries dealt more prouidently, which haue not lefte the Construction of this Cryme to the uncertainty of theise generall words, Qui maiestatem læserit, Etc [‘who has injured majesty’…] but doe admitt punishment by that title only for facts certaine, as for practising the death of the Prince, leauying war within his Realme, conspyring with his enimies, and such like particularly allowed either by ancient Custome, or expresly sett downe by lawe, whereof our countrie of England is a most happie paterne. (TNA, SP 53/20: fol. 89r)

[37] The Roman lex majestatis, exploited by Augustus and Tiberius alike, thus casts a comparatively positive light on the English laws concerning treason, the phrasing of which is, the treatise argues, less vulnerable to manipulation. Here the wording of the Roman law, as found in Justinian, is set against the specificity of the version developed in ‘our countrie of England’ (Cf. Justinian, Digest: 48.4). It is from a sound legal foundation then, the treatise maintains, and with the English emphasis on ‘facts certaine’, that proceedings may begin against the Scottish queen. This particular moment of Roman history could thus be read, via negativa, as lending legitimacy to governmental strategy, drawing a contrast with the robust legal framework of contemporary England and the legislature of imperial Rome, which was, the treatise suggests, all too readily abused by unscrupulous princes.

[38] Elizabeth herself had in fact translated Tacitus’s account of the shifting definition of the lex maiestatis under the principate. Towards the end of the first book, Tacitus explains how Tiberius followed in Augustus’s footsteps by harnessing the law to encompass verbal defamations of majesty:

legem maiestatis reduxerat, cui nomen apud veteres idem, sed alia in iudicium veniebant, si quis proditione exercitum, aut plebem seditionibus, denique male gesta Republica maiestatem populi Romani minuisset: facta arguebantur, dicta impune erant. Primus Augustus cognitionem de famosis libellis, specie legis eius tractauit commotus Caßii Seueri libidine, qua viros feminasque inlustres procacibus scriptis diffamauerat

([Tiberius] had renewed the lex maiestatis, which had the same name among the ancients, but other matters came under its judgement, as, for example, if someone had compromised the army through treachery, the people through sedition, or finally, the majesty of the Roman people through the misgovernment of the state: deeds were charged, but words went unpunished. Augustus was the first to conduct a trial under the pretence of this law, unsettled by the wantonness of Cassius Severus, who had slandered noble men and women with his scandalous writings) (Tacitus 1574: 251; cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.72)

As Elizabeth translates it:

He renewed the lawe of maiesty. whose name among the auncient was the same, but other matters it extended to. If anie by betraying armies. or raising sedition, or gouerning the common wealthe, had diminished the maiestie of the Roman people. but deedes were punished, wordes without awe. Augustus was the first that under collor of that lawe, called in question infamous libels, offended with Cassius Celerus intemperancy, who men and honorable women with vilanous pamphlets defamed. (LPL MS 683: 15v)

[39] Under Tiberius, the lex majestatis was employed with greater frequency to punish slander. When consulted by the praetor Pompeius Macer as to whether ‘maiesticall iudgment shoulde be giuen’ in regard to such libel, Tiberius replies in the affirmative that ‘the laws must be executed’, spurred on by ‘verses of vnknowen authors’, which had ‘spread abroad his cruelty, pride and discorde with his mother’ (LPL MS 683: 15v). The charge of treason was thus extended by both Augustus and Tiberius to encompass slander, though in its original form under the republic it had concerned ‘betraying armies or raising sedition’. Of this manipulation of the law under Augustus and Tiberius, Robert Sidney remarked in his own copy of the Annales that: ‘A prince that wil have anything a[nd] wil find law for yt’ (quoted in Davis 2006: 15).

[40] The example of Augustus intervening on behalf of members of the nobility who had been the subject of ‘infamous libels’ and ‘vilanous pamphlets’ was of special relevance to Elizabeth in the 1580s. In 1584, the royal printer, Christopher Barker, published on the queen’s behalf ‘A Proclamation for the suppressing of seditious Bookes and Libelles’, that seek, the proclamation explains, to ‘bring in obloquie & hatred, her Maiesties principall Noblemen, Counsellers, Judges and ministers of Justice’ (Elizabeth I 1584: fol. 1r). Though not explicitly named, the proclamation most probably targets the work now known as Leicester’s Commonwealth (1584), a dialogue published on the Continent eviscerating the character and conduct of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588). This is suggested by a letter, prepared by Burghley in the following year at the queen’s behest, urging the Mayor of London to take more decisive action against ‘certain seditious and traitorous bookes, and libelles, covertly spread, and scattered abroad’, and in particular, ‘among the rest one most infamous containing slanderous, and hatefull Matter against our very good Lord the Earle of Leycester’ (SP 12/179: fol. 93r).[8] Although Tacitus refrains from speculating over Augustus’s motivations in revenging the reputations of those ‘men and honorable women’ targeted by ‘vilanous pamphlets’, for the Privy Council, the danger was obvious, namely that to critique a favourite of the queen was to undermine her majesty’s judgment:

Her highness not onely knoweth in assured certainty the Libells, and Bookes against the said Earle to be most malicious, false and slanderous […] but also thinketh the same to have proceeded of the fulnes of Malice, subtilly contrived to the note and discredit of her princely government over this Realm, as though her Majesty should have failed in good Judgement, and discrecion in the choice of so principall a Counsellor about her (SP 12/179: fol. 93v)

[41] Leicester’s Commonwealth insinuates that the queen has not only made an error of judgement concerning one of her closest counsellors, but that this choice may well have disastrous consequences for the queen and her reign. In a discussion of the Earl’s apparent licentiousness, the dialogue turns to the example of Lucretia’s rape by the Roman prince, Tarquinius Sextus, and how this served as a catalyst for the overthrowing of the monarchy at Rome. The Scholar laments:

that amonge us christians […] such a riot should be permitted upon mens wives whereas we read that among the verie heathens, lesse offences then these, in the same kinde, were extremelie punished in Princes themselves, and nor onlie in the person delinquent alone, but also by extirpation of the whole familie for his sake, as apeareth in the example of the Tarquinians amonge the Romans. And here also in our own Realm, we have regestred in Chronicle, how that one king Edwin above six hundreth years past was deprived of his kingdom, for much lesse scandalous factes then these. (Anonymous 1584: 37)

[42] Of note here is the readiness with which the speaker slips from the Roman example to the English, collapsing the distance between ancient Rome and medieval England. There are, the scholar suggests, rich examples from the past, both classical and domestic, for the ‘extirpation’ of princes. The rape of Lucretia and the subsequent expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome were recorded not by Tacitus, whose histories relate the events of imperial Rome, but two staples of the early modern grammar school, Ovid and Livy (see Ovid, Fasti: 2.685–852; Livy, Ab Urbe Condita: 1.57–59; cf. Baldwin 1944: 2.418–9, 573; Mack 2002: 13–14). This episode of Roman history had long since established its place in vernacular English literature, variously reworked at the hands of Chaucer, William Painter, and Shakespeare (see Philo 2020a: 93–114). As for the English exemplum, King Edwin’s reign was, according to Holinshed’s Chronicles, defined by the ‘Kings lust’ and his corruption of noblewomen, with this misconduct ultimately leading to his dethronement: ‘At length, ye inhabitants of the middle parte of England, even from Humber to Thames rebelled against him, and elected hys brother Edgar to haue the gouernemente ouer them’ (Holinshed 1577: 231). In both the Roman and English tradition, there were compelling precedents, the dialogue suggests, of the prince’s deposition due to sexual assault or misconduct, whether committed by the king himself, or by one of his kin. It is understandable then that Elizabeth intervened, much like Augustus, in an attempt to suppress ‘infamous libels’ and ‘vilanous pamphlets’ targeting the English nobility, given that these were being used to comment as much on her own competence as a prince as they were on the misconduct of her subjects. Once again, the first book of the Annales speaks to another key event of Elizabeth’s later reign, namely the attempt to restrain and punish defamations of the nobility.

[43] In the final decades of the sixteenth century, Tacitus was an historian of the court, attracting particular attention from the Sidney brothers, Henry Savile, and, to a lesser extent, the Earl of Essex. This engagement with the historian at court can only have been encouraged by the queen’s own study and translation of the Annales. There were a number of themes explored by Tacitus which spoke directly to the events and preoccupations of Elizabeth’s late reign, namely the question of the succession, the potential threat posed by rival claimants to the throne, and the suppression of libel. It seems reasonable to assume then that the queen found in Tacitus examples which not only complemented but perhaps even reinforced her approach to and method of rule, from highlighting the potential dangers of publicly acknowledging a successor to the suppression of slanderous tracts. The favour which Tacitus found at the Elizabethan court, however, was not to last. James I appears to have had little admiration for the historian, while the responses to Tacitus under Charles I were actively hostile. The following section considers Tacitus’s fall from favour at the Stuart court as well as the parallels drawn between Elizabeth’s reign and that of Tiberius by one of Tacitus’s fiercest critics, Edmund Bolton.

III. ‘Her times were a true copie of the times of Tiberius’: Edmund Bolton on the reign of Queen Elizabeth

[44] Though Tacitus had enjoyed the favour of Queen Elizabeth, he was met with greater caution under James I and Charles I, and, in certain quarters, with hostility. As part of a wider ‘Stuart antagonism towards Tacitus’, Alan Bradford points to comments made by James to the French scholar, Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), concerning the king’s ambivalence towards the historian (1983: 138; see Casaubon, 1656: 676–7). Casaubon himself had expressed his misgivings towards the study of Tacitus in the dedication to Henry IV, which prefaced his Latin translation of Polybius (1609): ‘what indeed could be more harmful to a prince, especially a young one, than the reading of the Annales?’ (Polybius 1609: Oiiv–Oiiir).[9] The fact that James was himself compared to Tiberius, and for less than flattering reasons, perhaps compounded Stuart distaste for Tacitus and his depiction of the emperor. In his History of Great Britain (1653), Arthur Wilson (bap.1595, d.1652) observed that ‘some parallel’d him to Tiberius for dissimulation’, while Peter Heylyn (1599–1662) in his Observations (1656) described James as ‘neglecting the affaires of State, and cares of Government, to hunt after pleasures; deserting the imperiall city, to sport himself at Raiston, Newmarket, and such obscure places (which were to him as the Isle of Capre to Tiberius Caesar)’ (Wilson 1653: 289; Heylyn 1656: 13–14; see Bolton 2017: 27). To this we might add what Bradford has identified as James’s support of, and possible contribution to, Edmund Bolton’s Nero Caesar, or Monarchie Depraved (1624), in which Bolton put forward the case that ‘No prince is so bad as not to make monarckie seeme the best forme of gouernement’ (Bolton 1627: sig. A3v). Referring to the king’s ‘sponsorship’ of Bolton’s project, Bradford suggests that ‘James wanted to set right the antimonarchist view of history that was gaining ground among his subjects along with the Tacitean revival; the mischief started by Lipsius, Savile, and Essex must be undone’ (1983: 147). Elizabeth’s translation of the Annales suggests, however, that the monarch herself had played no small part in legitimizing Tacitus’s status as an historian of the court. If James was indeed engaged in dismantling a Tacitean ‘mischief’, then it was a mischief which had been cultivated by the queen herself.

[45] Reflecting on Elizabeth’s reign some thirty years after the queen’s death, the antiquary and historian Edmund Bolton saw clear parallels between Elizabeth’s England and Tiberius’s Rome. Bolton drew his comparisons in a manuscript work entitled Averrunci, or The Skowrers (1629–1634), a vigorous critique of what he understood to be Tacitus’s gross misrepresentation of Tiberius. For Bolton, there was a pressing danger lest the ‘credulous reader poisned with those unjust preoccupations, and prejudices, sees little afterwards, or nothing in that Prince (not perhaps in any other Princes) but as through those false forestallings, and abusive interposals’ (2017: 75). Bolton’s treatise thus represents one of the earliest examples of the ‘anti-Tacitist movement’ in England, when Tacitus’s works came under greater scrutiny for their allegedly suspect political and moral values (Burke 1991: 489).

[46] Bolton had his own motivations in drawing parallels between the reigns of Tiberius and Elizabeth: if the late queen was praised for such conduct, then why not the Emperor Tiberius? Nevertheless, Bolton had lived through the latter years of the queen’s reign, even contributing ‘A Canzon Pastorall in Honour of her Maiestie’ to Englands Helicon (1600: sig. 4v), perhaps in the aspiration of royal patronage. As such, Bolton serves not only as a commentator on but also a witness to the most pressing national and governmental concerns of the late sixteenth century. By highlighting the parallels between these reigns, including the censorship of historiographical works and the question of the unsettled succession, Bolton offers a near-contemporary perspective of the queen’s rule in relation to the Annales.

[47] Touching on Elizabeth’s admiration for Tacitus, Bolton highlights those elements in particular for which ‘she might have some use in her roiall steerage’:

Queen Elizabeth was a very great Queen, a most learned, and wise, and a secund Julia Augusta, and it is not to be denied, but that the works of Cornelius Tacitus were held by her in high esteeme […] And why should they not? for her times were a true copie of the times of Tiberius, according to Tacitus his description of them, under whom the case of Germanicus Cæsar in the right of his wife Agrippina, was a pilotage in the case under her of an heir to the crown; quarrels, and warrs abroad were after that manner managed; delations, and depressions were familiar under the one, as under the other; and some verbal disparagements of Majestie were by publick authoritie made more terriblie punishable under her, then they were under Tiberius, the paines, and forfeitures for high treason, beeing laid upon them, and starr-chamber powr held to short, though erected by the prudent Henrie the seaventh; and these, and other courses of that Queens time, so farre as they were Tiberian, were caused perhaps through the necessitie of some circumstances, and considerations, with which her title, and state were inter-tangled, rather then effects of her own heroical disposition; as hapned to Tiberius. (Bolton 2017: 146)

[48] Ultimately, Bolton argues that the queen’s ‘estimation of the writings of Tacitus’ should not be taken as an endorsement of his histories in general (2017: 146). Nonetheless, both the queen’s enthusiasm for the historian and the parallels between her reign and that of Tiberius appeared obvious to Bolton. With ‘the case of Germanicus Cæsar’ and ‘the right of his wife Agrippina’, Bolton refers to Tiberius’s adoption of Germanicus and the weight lent to his claim to the imperial throne through the status of his wife, Agrippina, as the granddaughter of Augustus. That these circumstances apparently acted as a ‘pilotage in the case […] of an heir to the throne’ nods perhaps to the fact that Elizabeth was succeeded not by a direct descendent, but rather a cousin.

[49] Bolton’s allusion to ‘starr-chamber powr’ refers, as Patricia Osmond and Robert Ulery suggest, to the Star Chamber Decrees for Order in Printing of 1586 (Bolton 2017: 225). These ‘extraordinarily conservative’ Decrees stipulated that only Stationers and privileged printers were permitted to publish, and that printing was to be confined to London and to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Clegg 1997: 58). Intriguingly, Bolton also refers to the widening definition of the lex maiestatis under Tiberius, which, as we saw from the previous section, not only featured in the queen’s own translation of Tacitus, but was cited by the materials prepared in advance of Mary Stuart’s trial. Whereas these materials had appealed to the law to emphasise the essential distance between imperial Rome and Elizabeth’s England, this was, for Bolton at least, another key point of contact between the two. As Bolton argues, ‘some verbal disparagements of Majestie were by publick authoritie made more terriblie punishable under her, then they were under Tiberius, the paines, and forfeitures for high treason, beeing laid upon them’ (Bolton 2017: 146).[10] Bolton returns to Elizabethan censorship in his treatment of the Cremutius Cordus episode, as found in Book 4 of the Annales, which sees Cordus charged with maiestas (treason) for his writing a history of the Civil Wars (see Tacitus, Annales: 4.34–5). For Bolton, this had an obvious relevance to Elizabeth. As he explains, ‘some points, far short of those stinging ones in Cremutius, did cost, under Queen Elizabeth, [a] learned, wise, and laudable historian, imprisonment in the Towr of London during her life’ (2017: 174). Bolton refers here to Sir John Hayward (c.1560–1627) and his Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII (1599), copies of which were gathered and burnt after their publication, much like those of Cremutius Cordus (Cressy 2005: 366). According to Bolton, both the history’s dedicatee, the Earl of Essex, and its subject matter, the deposition of Richard II (1367–1400), brought Hayward’s work under suspicion (2017: 174). Francis Bacon referred to Hayward’s history in the Apologie (1604), where he recounts that the queen ‘asked me if I could not find any places in it, that might be drawne within case of treason’. Bacon replied that ‘for treason surely I found none, but for fellonie very many’, explaining that ‘the Author had committed very apparent theft, for he had taken most of the sentences of Cornelius Tacitus, and translated them into English, and put them into his text’ (Bacon 1604: 36). Bacon’s attempt ‘to take of the Queens bitterness with a merry conceit’ with an appeal to one of her favourite historians was unsuccessful, however (Bacon 1674: 9). The Attorney General Edward Coke (1552–1634) used Henry IV as evidence in the trial of Essex, and Hayward was imprisoned in the Tower in July 1600: ‘such were the affrights’, Bolton explains, ‘and jealouses of the later end of that Queens reign; so as none can condemn the times of Tiberius for Cordus, who applaud Queen Elizabeths for Heyward’ (Bolton 2017: 174–5).

[50] There is a certain Tacitean ambiguity in Bolton’s description of the queen as ‘a secund Julia Augusta’. Livia Drusilla (58BC–29AD), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, took the title ‘Iulia Augusta’ upon her husband’s death.[11] Having ‘played a role in the Augustan system which was unusually formal and conspicuous for a woman’, she would ultimately be deified during the reign of Claudius (Purcell 2003: s.v. ‘Livia Drusilla, b.58BC’). Tacitus’s portrayal of Livia, however, was far from complimentary. In the first book of the Annales, he implicates her in the deaths of Lucius and Caius Caesar, as we saw above, and even that of her husband, referring, as Elizabeth translates it, to her ‘feminyne weakenes’ and ‘wifes mischief’ (LPL MS 683: 1v, cf. Tacitus, Annales: 1.3–5). She is curtly summarized in some quarters of Rome as ‘Livia, oppressive mother to the state, grevious stepmother to the house of Caesar’, or, as Elizabeth puts it, ‘Livia heauy mother to common wealth, more grieuous stepdame to Cæsars howse’ (Tacitus, Annales: 1.10; LPL MS 683: 3v). For Bolton, as with Annibale Scoto, there was perhaps something of ‘Livia’s crafte’ to Elizabeth’s method of rule.

[51] In the address to the reader which prefaces Henry Savile’s translation of the Historiae and Agricola, the anonymous ‘A. B.’ had stressed the distance between Elizabeth’s England and Tacitus’s depiction of imperial Rome: ‘If thou doest detest their Anarchie, acknowledge our owne happie gouernement, and thanke god for her, vnder whom England enioyes as manie benefites, as euer Rome did suffer miseries vnder the greatest Tyrant’ (Savile 1591: sig. ¶3r). For Edmund Bolton, however, writing his critique of Tacitus some thirty years after the queen’s death, there were obvious parallels between Elizabeth’s reign and that of Tiberius. Whether Elizabeth was reading the Annales, as Bolton was, to ‘refine Tiberius from Tacitus’ and to ‘thresh him out of the husk with which that author covers him’, it is, without her own commentary, difficult to say (Bolton 2017: 154). Equally difficult to determine is whether Elizabeth was able to detect in Tacitus the same pro-republican bias as Bolton evidently could when he turned to the Annales under the reign of Charles I. What is clear, however, is that the queen’s reputation as a keen reader of Tacitus lasted long after her death, to the extent that Bolton felt compelled to address the queen’s enthusiasm for the historian in one of the most detailed anti-Tacitean treatises of the seventeenth century.


[52] In the final years of the sixteenth century, Tacitus attracted considerable attention at the Elizabethan court. The engagement with Tacitus demonstrated by the Sidney brothers, the Earl of Essex, and Henry Savile can only have been encouraged by the queen’s own reading and translation of the same. As with her English rendering of the Pro Marcello, Elizabeth found in the first book of the Annales the portrait of a ruler who unified a state exhausted by civil war. Perhaps even more so than her other translations, however, Elizabeth’s Tacitus speaks to the most pressing demands and debates of her late reign. While the unsettled succession loomed large in the court politics of the late sixteenth century, Elizabeth found in the Annales an historical narrative which underlined the potentially disastrous consequences of openly nominating an heir. So too in Tiberius’s denial of involvement in the execution of rival claimants to the throne there was something of the queen’s official response to the execution of Mary Stuart. In Tacitus, the queen thus found exempla which complemented and perhaps even informed her own understanding of statecraft.

[53] Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Tacitus was an historian of the queen and her court. The royal enthusiasm for Tacitus, however, did not survive Elizabeth. James I was ambiguous in his assessment of Tacitus and under Charles I, critical responses to the historian were actively hostile. It is no small irony then that the popularity which Tacitus enjoyed at the turn of the century had been fostered by the queen herself. Not only did Elizabeth receive a translation of the Historiae and Agricola by her perennial favourite, Sir Henry Savile, but she undertook her very own translation of the Annales, helping to cement his status in the late sixteenth century as an historian of the queen and her coterie. Elizabeth’s reputation as an enthusiastic student of Tacitus lasted long after her death, as Bolton’s comments in the Averrunci suggest. For Bolton, there were obvious similarities between Elizabeth’s England and imperial Rome: the question of succession facing both Augustus and Tiberius, the extension of the lex maiestatis to include charges of libel, and the suppression of revolts at home and further afield all found their equivalents in the queen’s late reign. It does not seem improbable to suggest that the queen herself was alert to at least some of these parallels, and was able to find in Tacitus echoes of her own approach to and method of rule. The queen’s study and translation of Tacitus thus suggests that, rather than acting as a strongly subversive force in her reign, as is sometimes suggested, the historian could also be read as supporting and even reinforcing the governmental status quo.


This research was undertaken through a Frances A Yates Fellowship held at the Warburg Institute. I owe a debt of thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful insights and comments, and to the editors of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance for the care and attention with which they prepared this article for publication.

[1] See David Womersley 1991; Paul Hammer 1994; Janet Dickinson 2012.[back to text]

[2] For Stuart antagonism towards Tacitus, see Alan Bradford, 1983.[back to text]

[3] ‘Quanto poi a Cornelio Tacito, mi parebbe di far troppo torto à lui, s’io lo leuassi dalla protettione de signori SIDNEI che singolarmente penetrano, & intendono la prudenza con egli hà scritto’. Manelli 1585, s.p.[back to text]

[4] For the queen’s linguistic prowess, see those chapters edited by Carlo Bajetta, Guillaume Coatalen, and Jonathan Gibson for Elizabeth I’s Foreign Correspondence: Letters, Rhetoric, and Politics.[back to text]

[5] For ‘libertas’ as used of the political status of a sovereign people, see OLD, s.v. ‘libertas’, 2.[back to text]

[6] For Elizabeth’s translation of ‘libertas’ as ‘libertie’, see LPL MS 683, fol. 16rv.[back to text]

[7] For the question of the succession in the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, see Susan Doran and Paulina Kewes (eds). 2014.[back to text]

[8] This fair copy of the letter addressed to the Mayor of London is preceded by a rough copy with correction and an endorsement in Burghley’s hand (SP 12/179, fol. 92rv).[back to text]

[9] ‘Quid enim Principi, præsertim iuueni, lectione Annalium esse queat pernitiosius’.[back to text]

[10] For Bolton’s understanding of the lex maiestatis and its treatment by Tacitus, see Patricia C. Osmond 2020, 607–11.[back to text]

[11] ‘Julia Augusta’ may also refer to Agrippina the Younger (AD15–59), eldest daughter of Germanicus and mother of Nero, who received the title ‘Augusta’ in the reign of Claudius.[back to text]



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Review Essay: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

Review Essay

Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink, eds., Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, exh. cat., National Gallery, London (London: National Gallery Company, distributed by Yale University Press, 2021), 304 pp., £40.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Chipps Smith

book cover image[1] On 12 July 1520, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) embarked on a year-long trip to the Low Countries. Accompanied by his wife Agnes and her maid Susanna, they voyaged down the Main and Rhine Rivers. Three weeks later they arrived in bustling Antwerp where they settled into rooms at the inn of Jobst Plankfelt. Dürer’s primary reason for the long journey was to obtain Emperor Charles V’s renewal of the annual pension that his grandfather and predecessor, Maximilian I, had awarded the artist in 1515. Yet Dürer lingered for another eight months even after the annuity was approved. As one of Europe’s most celebrated artists, Dürer was no ordinary traveller. The Nuremberg master produced an unprecedented record of this trip in the form of over one hundred extant drawings and paintings plus a remarkable travel journal. This text, known from two seventeenth-century copies, is part business account and part diary of whom he met, where he went, what he saw, and what art he made.

[2] In certain respects, Dürer’s travels to Antwerp went more smoothly than the plans for the London exhibition. The show was to open at the National Gallery on 6 March 2021 but due to the pandemic the new dates are 20 November 2021 to 27 February 2022. The emphasis of the exhibition and catalogue is, not surprisingly, on the Netherlandish trip since this show and the related exhibition at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen (see below) celebrate the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s visit to the Low Countries.

[3] The beautifully illustrated catalogue of Dürer’s Journeys offers a superb introduction to the artistic and textual evidence about the artist’s travels. In their joint opening remarks, Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink, the show’s organizers, justify concentrating on the Netherlandish journey since there have been numerous exhibitions and specialized studies about the artist’s Italian trips and about the critical importance of the city of Nuremberg for young Dürer’s career. The last major international exhibition about the Netherlandish trip was Albert Dürer aux Pays-Bas. Son voyage (1520-1521), son influence at the Palais des Beaux-Art in Brussels in 1977.

[4] Susan Foister’s essay (‘Dürer’s Early Journeys: Fact and Fiction’) provides brief yet helpful background about the artist’s Wanderjahre or journeyman sojourn in Upper Rhine between Strasbourg and Basel in the years between 1490, after completing his training with Michael Wolgemut in Nuremberg, and 1494, when he returned home to marry Agnes Frey. Foister discusses the theories about whether Dürer visited Venice (or just north Italy) in 1494-95 as well as his better documented stay in Venice from late summer 1505 to early February 1507.

[5] The catalogue is divided into five sections beginning with ‘Albrecht Dürer: Artist, Writer, Traveller.’ Andreas Beyer stresses travel as a means of self-discovery for the artist. He warns against thinking that we truly know Dürer’s character based on the wealth of autobiographical writings, self-portraits, and other personal works. Inspired perhaps by Conrad Celtis, Dürer actively engaged, both visually and textually, in self-fashioning. He was acutely self-conscious whether depicting himself as the Man of Sorrows (fig. 8) or recording the acclaim he received while abroad. Joseph Leo Koerner’s ‘Dürer in Motion’ portrays him as the ever-curious traveller whether encountering the ingenium of the creators of the Aztec objects that he saw in Brussels or his quest to view a gigantic whale that washed up in Zeeland. Koerner insightfully discusses the concept of mobilitas (mobility) less as it applied to the artist’s literal travels. Rather he discourses on the need for the mobility of mind, both in terms of ‘his curiosity and absorptiveness’ (p. 50), and the mobility of the artist’s hand that restlessly records what Dürer sees or imagines, such as how to pose St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child in nine different ways (cat. no. 17).

[6] Section II (‘Europe North and South’) follows Foister’s contribution on Dürer’s early journeys with essays by Till-Holger Borchert and Larry Silver on Dürer’s engagement with Netherlandish art and artists. Borchert surveys how Dürer’s portraits changed over his career. Since he arrived in Antwerp as a mature master, the portraits he encountered by Quinten Massys, Jan Gossaert, Bernaert van Orley, or Joos van Cleve exerted little discernible influence. While Dürer drew many lively likenesses while in the Low Countries, Borchert argues his painted portraits from 1519 on aspire to a reductive ‘timeless and classical appearance’ (p. 97). Although Dürer met most of the leading Netherlandish artists during his travels, he never encountered (or, at least, mentioned encountering) Massys, though he toured his house soon after arriving in Antwerp, and Gossaert. Silver discusses Gossaert’s frequent borrowing of figures and architectural motifs from Dürer’s prints. The Nuremberger even inspired Gossaert to make several engravings. While visiting Middelburg Abbey in Zeeland, Dürer noted in his journal that ‘Jan Gossaert has painted a great altar panel, not as good in terms of the modelling of the heads as in its use of colour’ (p. 103). This was one of his rare remarks about contemporary art.

[7] In section III (‘Court and City’), Dagmar Eichberger and Stijn Alsteens explore Dürer’s relations with Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries. Eichberger recounts the evidence culled from the Netherlandish journal about the artist’s encounters with Margaret in Brussels and Mechelen. Dürer cultivated Margaret and members of her court hoping to secure support for his petition to Emperor Charles V to renew his imperial annuity. He presented her with gifts of prints and a portrait of her father, Emperor Maximilian I, who had died in 1519. The fact that she disliked the portrait and never directly reciprocated with any payment or gifts to him disappointed the artist. Yet it seems she promoted his case. Dürer enjoyed his encounters with her court artists van Orley, sculptors Jean Mone and Conrat Meit, and goldsmith Marc de Glasere. Alsteens offers the intriguing hypothesis that a group of twenty related drawings (1521-22) for an elaborate Virgin and Child with Saints composition might have been planned for a painting project that Dürer hoped Margaret might commission. These include some exquisite figure studies done in black chalk on green ground paper, such as St. Apollonia (fig. 59), as well as a series of working pen and ink sketches for the horizontally-oriented composition. Alsteens proposes the woman, kneeling in the role of donor in a drawing now in the Louvre (cat. no. 63), wears a Netherlandish-type hood and widow’s dress much like that seen in van Orley’s Portrait of Margaret of Austria (cat. no. 57). Alsteens admits the evidence is scant yet the attention Dürer devoted to his unfinished project suggests he envisioned a patron of high rank.

[8] The four essays of section IV (‘The Visual Legacy of the Netherlandish Journey’) examine Dürer’s drawings. Christof Metzger observes that Dürer listed at least 140 drawings in his journal. He often included information about when, where, and why he made the sketches. Many were portraits but others show costumes, animals, landscapes, and objects that caught his attention. These may be considered stock for study and potential future use. The careful silverpoint drawings were mostly part of a bound sketchbook. A second sketchbook held pen and ink drawings. Based on the research that he did for Albrecht Dürer, his outstanding 2019 exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna, Metzger traces the subsequent provenance of the large portions of the artist’s estate to later collectors such as Willibald Imhoff (d. 1580) of Nuremberg, Cardinal Antoine Perenot de Granvelle, Emperor Rudolf II, and Sir Hans Sloane.

[9] Arnold Nesselrath presents a very thoughtful discussion of Dürer’s silverpoint sketchbook. He argues the artist purchased a commercially-produced, bound sketchbook with prepared ground for use with a silver stylus. Dürer refers to this as his ‘Büchlein’ or small book. 15 folios survive, now scattered among different collections, from this quarto-size book. Nesselrath suggests that since three sheets were still blank when Dürer returned to Nuremberg that the booklet likely consisted of four gatherings or 16 total folios. If so, then just one folio is lost. The drawings are occasionally mentioned in his journal. The first sketches were made while the artist, as a member of Nuremberg’s delegation, attended the imperial coronation of young Charles V in Aachen. It includes meticulous renderings of Aachen’s Rathaus and famous Carolingian church. Nesselrath sensitively explains the artist’s drawing practice, including how sketches of portraits or landscapes on the same folio were sometimes made months apart. Nesselrath, like most other scholars, laments the lack of drawings and/or journal descriptions by Dürer of contemporary art. In about 1515, Dürer and Raphael exchanged works of art. His Netherlandish journal reveals his continued interest in the Italian master especially after meeting Tomasso Vincidor, a former pupil of Raphael. Vincidor was in Brabant supervising the translation of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tempera cartoons into a set of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Dürer surprisingly never mentions seeing the full-size cartoons nor the tapestries then being woven in the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst.

[10] Sarvenaz Ayooghi and Heidrun Lange-Krach consider his drawings and watercolors of people, landscapes, and animals. They discuss Dürer’s special fascination with clothing, which ranges from chiaroscuro studies of fabric to Agnes wearing a Netherlandish dress to the exotic regional costumes of Livonian women (cat. nos. 73-4, figs. 99-101). The artist favored pen and brown ink for rapid figure sketches. Dürer was captivated by the live lions he encountered in Ghent (figs. 94-5). The authors do make the questionable claim (pp. 201-02) that Dürer’s expressive watercolor of a walrus (fig. 112) was not executed in Zeeland or Flanders but drawn during a stop in Strasbourg(!) on his way back to Nuremberg. The town is well south of any convenient route back to Nuremberg.

[11] Peter van den Brink investigates Dürer’s portrait drawings. The artist listed around 107 sketched portraits in his journal. About 80 survive. Many were made after a meal as presents to his hosts. When he portrayed other guests, he expected a gift in kind either of money or something else of value. There are several journal entries noting his displeasure at not being compensated for his labors. Van den Brink discusses the portraits according to their media: pen and ink, silverpoint, and charcoal or black chalk. Dürer developed a distinctive formula for the charcoal-chalk portraits in which the sitter is rendered in bust-length placed against a dark background. A thin uncolored strip at the top of the sheet is inscribed with the date, Dürer’s monogram, and sometimes the individual’s age. Van den Brink observes that with the exception of a few efforts by Lucas van Leyden that none of the other Netherlandish artists followed Dürer’s example of making independent portrait drawings.

[12] Section V (‘Albrecht Dürer and Martin Luther’) begins with Jeroen Stumpel’s argument that the so-called Lutherklage or Luther lament in the Netherlandish journal is not by the artist but also is not a forgery. Rather he claims the text was authored by Jacob Prost, prior of the small Augustinian community in Antwerp. It voices a passionate response to the current rumor that Luther was captured while returning from the diet of Worms (1521) and was perhaps dead. The passages stand out distinctly from the general contents and style of the journal. Stumpel posits that since Prost was then in Wittenberg taking his university examinations, he wrote the lament to his fellow brothers in Antwerp. Dürer, a Luther sympathizer, knew the prior and had dined at their house on several occasions. Stumpel assumes that Prost’s letter, written in Latin, was quickly translated into German and somehow Dürer obtained a copy. It would strengthen the argument if there was a detailed comparison of the language of the lament with Prost’s other writings including the prior’s account of his travails published in German in 1522. Since Dürer’s journal is known only from two seventeenth-century copies, Stumpel concludes the lament was inadvertently or intentionally inserted into the text. Stumpel also speculates the growing anti-Lutheran sentiment in Antwerp prompted the artist’s departure for home.

[13] Dana E. Cowen studies the eleven surviving drawings that Dürer prepared for the Oblong Passion. Between 1520 and 1524, the artist made sketches of the Last Supper, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Procession to Calvary, and Christ carried to his Tomb as he entertained authoring a fifth Passion cycle a decade after his last efforts. Cowen sensitively examines the different drawings as well as the challenges Dürer experienced while working in a horizontal format. She concludes by relating several drawings as models for the attributed Procession to Calvary (1527, cat. no. 109), perhaps Dürer’s final painting, which also exists in two later copies (figs. 138-39).

[14] Dürer’s Saint Jerome (1521, cat. no. 110) in Lisbon is the best known of his Netherlandish paintings. Astrid Harth and Maximiliaan P. J. Martens consider the history of this picture plus Dürer’s exquisite sketches of a 93-year-old man and other preparatory drawings on grey-violet grounded paper (figs. 144-48). Dürer created this picture for his friend Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada, the Portuguese trade secretary and, from 1521 to 1540, factor in Antwerp. It inspired numerous copies and variants by Netherlandish artists (cat. nos. 111-12, figs. 141-43). Scholars debate whether Quinten Massys or Dürer invented the composition of the saint shown in half-length seated at his desk with one hand resting on a skull. Harth and Martens give precedence to Massys based on his earlier portrait of Erasmus (1517). Yet their respective treatments differ as Dürer’s rather melancholic saint turns to address his memento mori warning directly to the viewer.

[15] Several of Dürer’s figural and landscape drawings dated 1520 to 1523 were reused as models for the unfinished engraved Crucifixion in Outline (cat. no. 115, fig. 154). The print’s attribution to Dürer has long been debated. With typical care, Giulia Bartrum untangles the issue as she sensibly argues that engravings, pulled from two separate and slightly different plates of this composition, were likely made by an Antwerp artist in about 1558-64. The scene is a pastiche assembled using different drawings by the Nuremberg master (cat. nos. 117-18, figs. 158-62). Many of these drawings may have been in the collection of Cardinal Granvelle who lived in Brussels. She suggests that the Crucifixion in Outline is a product of engravers working for Hieronymus Cock’s prolific publishing house Aux Quatre Vents in Antwerp.

[16] Foister, van den Brink, and their contributors are to be congratulated for their outstanding and much needed new examination of Dürer’s Netherlandish journey. By 1520, Dürer was an international celebrity who clearly enjoyed the acclaim. The textual and visual products of this trip, both by the Nuremberg artist and those whom he encountered, are unique for this period. Other masters travelled but none left such a wealth of information about who and what they saw or about their reception. Even though Dürer is quoted briefly in many of the essays, I wish his words were included more fully in the catalogue. Whether it is a simple remark about his dinner hosts or his self-satisfaction while overlooking Ghent from the tower of St. Jan’s church (later St. Bavo’s), his observations are as revealing as his art. Keeping Andreas Beyer’s apt warning in mind about falsely assuming we know Dürer’s personality, his words nevertheless are those of someone engaging with his contemporary world. Beyond certain legal records and miscellaneous documents, we lack the ‘voices’ of almost all sixteenth-century northern European visual artists. Most of the cited quotations from Dürer utilize Jeffrey Ashcroft’s translations from his herculean two-volume Albrecht Dürer: Documentary Biography (London: Yale University Press 2017). I wish that Ashcroft, a retired German literature professor at the University of Saint Andrews, or Heike Sahm, a noted expert on Dürer’s writings at the University of Göttingen, had been commissioned to discuss both the history and linguistic characteristics of the journal. This is a missed opportunity.

[17] The London exhibition is organized in partnership with the Suermondt Ludwig Museum in Aachen. From the outset, director Peter van den Brink and his colleagues intended to focus just on the Netherlandish trip. One of the highlights of Dürer’s journey was, of course, his three-week stay in Aachen in October 1520. As originally planned, the Aachen show was to open in October 2020, precisely five hundred years after the artist’s stay in this German town. The Aachen exhibition, entitled Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende (Dürer was here. A Journey becomes Legend), ran from 18 July to 24 October 2021 before the London premiere a month later.

[18] The Aachen catalogue, in recognition of the unique opportunity of this anniversary, is considerably more ambitious than the London version. This is not intended as a negative remark about the wonderful National Gallery catalogue, which in design and length conforms to the standards of most of the museum’s major publications. It will enjoy a huge audience. Dürer war hier, edited by Peter van den Brink, includes almost all of the content of the London version but much more. It is a massive volume with 680 pages, 427 figures, and a hefty 4.5 kilos weight. It is beautifully published by Michael Imhof Verlag (Petersberg). The coverage of the theme is more comprehensive with the inclusion of ten additional essays. English translations of seven of the ten texts, but without any illustrations, were posted on the National Gallery’s website once the show opened in London. Essays that appear in both volumes are often more thoroughly illustrated in the Aachen catalogue.

[19] Dürer war hier is organized around three themes: travel, art, and reception. Alexander Markschies discusses the art and artists that Dürer encountered in the Netherlands. Thomas Schauerte critically examines Dürer’s visit to Aachen as well as the documents associated with the renewal of the artist’s imperial annuity. Birgit Ulrike Münch provides a fascinating look at how nineteenth-century artists mined the contents of Dürer’s Netherlandish journal to create new themes, such as Pierre François Noter and Félix de Vigne’s Albrecht Dürer Visiting the Ghent Altarpiece (cat. 198; c. 1840; Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede). Using infrared and ultraviolet reflectography, among other tools, Georg Josef Dietz and Annette T. Keller reconstruct a scarcely visible sketch (fig. 157) Dürer made of the interior of a room with a chimney on the reverse of his silverpoint portraits of Paul Topler and Martin Pfinzing (fig. 127) in Berlin. Marina Langner discusses the Dresden and Bergamo copies after a lost Christ Carrying the Cross composition by or in the style of Dürer. Jaco Rutgers presents the intriguing history of the Large Calvary, a composition known from the Uffizi drawing (fig. 320) by Dürer’s workshop that was repeatedly replicated by Netherlandish artists. One exquisite painting (fig. 322), also in the Uffizi, by Jan Brueghel the Elder is documented in 1628 as a showpiece framed together with the drawing in the Medici collection in Florence. Dagmar Preising addresses the impact of Dürer’s prints on Netherlandish artists. Christiaan Vogelaar looks at the relationship between Lucas van Leyden and Dürer. Similarly, Ellen Konowitz demonstrates how the Nuremberg master, especially his Apocalypse series, inspired Dirk Vellert’s stained glass designs. Finally, Joris Van Grieken considers how Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings served as a catalyst for southern Netherlandish printmakers between 1520 and 1540. Collectively, these additional essays enrich our understanding of the Nuremberg master’s trip and the impact that he had on many Netherlandish artists.

[20] The two exhibitions include 264 objects by or related to Albrecht Dürer and his 1520-21 journey to the Low Countries. As frequently happens, not all works could be exhibited at both venues. The London show contains 116 items. More were displayed in Aachen. Thankfully, Peter van den Brink compiled a comprehensive listing of all of the objects (pp. 614-48). His detailed research on the provenance and bibliography of each work will prove especially helpful to future scholars. As the world starts to emerge, however haltingly, from the pandemic, these exhibitions of Albrecht Dürer’s art offer a feast for our art-starved eyes and ample delights for anyone willing to look very closely at what the Nuremberg master’s curious mind and skilled hand have created.

University of Texas, Austin

Editorial ~ Imagineering Violence: the Spectacle of Violence in the Early Modern Period

Imagineering violence:
The spectacle of violence in the early modern period

Karel Vanhaesebrouck and Cornelis van der Haven


[1] In ‘Visualizing violence’ Mark Hewitson describes how World War One brought about a genuine culture of violence. World War One was perhaps the first real mediatized war (with tabloid, twenty-four-hour headline news, journalistic sensationalism, etc.). In the build-up to the war, artists like Ludwig Meidner (Apocalyptic Landscape, Burning City, both 1912) and Max Beckmann (The Destruction of Messina, 1909 and The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912) had contributed to the development of new representational strategies, which were used to evoke the atrocities of war, while other artists idealized violence, struggle and warfare, the most poignant example of this cult being the manifesto of futurism published in 1909.

[2] Very soon, however, idealistic expectations fuelled by patriotism and economic concerns clashed with the reality of industrialised warfare: heroic images of the battlefield were in abhorrent contradiction with the horrors of lived experience. The violence of warfare, it became clear, was anything but heroic. It was purposeless, banal, useless, it turned history into a senseless, disorganised, chaotic and most of all pointless narrative, as it tragically demonstrated that humanity seemed to be prepared to destroy itself. Documentary photography brought reports on war without any embellishment, radically deconstructing the heroic rhetoric of military representations. Writers like T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land) and painters like Otto Dix (Der Krieg) translated this profound crisis of Western culture in haunting artistic languages, while Dada explored the fragmentation of reality, showing that all boundaries between reality, art and advertising seemed to have become conflated in a meaningless chaos of fragmentation.

[3] With World War Two and the Holocaust, the shared cultural experience of nihilism and existential crisis became even more apparent. European culture painfully acknowledged that no meaning whatsoever could be attributed to the cataclysm of war, and it saw itself confronted with the sheer meaninglessness of history. Night and Fog, the famous 1956 film by Alain Resnais, offers an intriguing case in point for our understanding of the complex relationship between historical reality, collective memory and the cultural representation of violence. The title of the film refers to ‘Nacht und Nebel’, the infamous 1941 directive of Hitler permitting deportation of anyone opposing the Third Reich (Stackelberg 2007: 286). These deportations took place in absolute secrecy, and the Reich had no obligation whatsoever to give any information. The name of the ordinance is in its turn a quite cynical reference to the Wagner opera Das Rheingold (1869), where it is a magic formula to make someone invisible (Culbert 2007: 259-260). Resnais’ film was commissioned by the ‘Comité de l’histoire de la 2e guerre mondiale’ to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the camps, and had a double goal: documenting the atrocities in all their cruel and gruesome details on the one hand, and commemorating the lived experience of these same events on the other. The film shows the industrialisation of evil, the rationalisation, technology and efficiency of warfare, but also the banality of evil. The text written by Jean Carol (a member of the resistance deported to a camp in 1943) and read by actor Michel Bouquet accompanies the haunting footage, describing the everyday life of torture, terror and humiliation.

[4] In the fifties and sixties Resnais’ film was criticized for its generalizing perspective on suffering under the Nazi regime, which seemed to homogenize victimhood. Fog and Night presents Germany as one big camp, in which all victims seem to be alike. Historical reality, however, was not as homogenous: of the non-Jewish deported people in France, 59% returned; of the Jewish people, only 3% returned. Only from 1970 on, historians and museum workers developed a specific memorial culture devoted to the Shoah. Both the Lanzmann movie Shoah (1985) and blockbusters like Schindler’s Liszt (1993) and La vita è bella (1997), played an important role in this shift.

[5] The reception history of Night and Fog provides us with a particularly revealing example of the tension between collective memory and collective imagination: collective memory of these horrors is impossible (because too traumatic) but the film provides communities with a collective imagination as it builds bridges between eye-witnesses who could not speak of the experience and those who escaped the experience. This complex relationship between lived or observed experience and its transmission (for whatever reason) is of course not new, nor is it exclusively linked to the Holocaust experience. In the early modern period religious wars ravaged the European continent. With the gruesome violence produced by these wars, the need for documentation and representation grew. Some wanted to prove the perversity of the enemy (think of the wide range of martyr books such as Le théâtre des crautés (1587) by Richard Verstegan or Antonio Gallonio’s popular Trattato degli instrumenti di martirio e delle varie maniere di martirizzare, first published in 1591 and widely translated), while others tried to reap economic profit by exploiting the spectacle of violence. Others still tried to contribute to a new memorial culture, aiming to foster community. More often than not these different attempts were criticized for various reasons, while at the same time being facilitated by a new infrastructure for cultural distribution (the book market, public theatres, journalism). But most of all they were all attempts to make the past live in the present of historical imagination, or to bring distant worlds of violence (like the battlefields) closer to consumers of news.

[6] An important principle in the early modern representation of violence was that of transmitting an experience of witnessing the described events at first hand. The baroque, bird’s-eye views of the battlefield produced in the second half of the seventeenth century, for instance, not only depicted the spectacle of war, but also enabled the onlooker to focus on close-ups of the performed violence, like a man-to-man fight, or certain atrocities committed by soldiers against citizens.

Figure 1a.  Coloured engraving of the Battle of Blenheim by Romeyn de Hooghe (full engraving and close-up): Zegen by Hoogstad op de Fransen en Beyersen door S.H: Marlbourg en Pr. Eugenius van Savoyen verkreegen (Amsterdam: Pieter Schenck, 1704). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Figure 1b. Detail from 1a, above.

Overwhelming spectacles of war were thus combined with detailed depictions of violence (Korsten et al. 2020). Secretly glimpsing the intriguing, horrific details of such depictions, however, can only be a source of enjoyment for the onlooker as long as he or she acts like a voyeur who is not involved in these acts and is unable to intervene in them. From the perspective of the onlooker and in contrast with fictional or symbolic violence, these representations that set out to show ‘real violence’ also raise moral questions, especially when seen from a current-day stance concerning photography and video recordings: are we actually allowed to see the pain and suffering of others? (Sontag 2003: 37-38).

[7] Harari (2008) has claimed that the early modern representation of violence was uncoupled for a very long time from the idea of ‘flesh-witnessing’, providing only factual knowledge that can easily be transmitted, but that seems to do without any references to the experience as such. This eyewitness perspective is determined by the gaze of the uninvolved onlooker who can look at an event in all its details, without taking part in it. According to Harari, this would link early modern experiences of looking at violence to a distinctively modern perspective: ‘The differentiation between eyewitnessing and flesh-witnessing is doubly important today, when so many people eyewitness war via live television broadcasts, without ever flesh-witnessing it’ (Harari 2008: 8). The early modern representation of violence, however, may contain emotional and experiential layers that we can only explore if we approach them from a historical perspective. De Boer, for instance, has shown that even the rational and factual description of the battlefield on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century siege maps helped build an emotional community between the civic buyer of such maps in town, uninvolved in military business, and war professionals who were flesh-witnessing the war events on the ground. She points to the fact that these maps (even those produced for the wider market) were also used for military business by, for instance, officers in the field. There are also affective layers involved in the reception of these kinds of representations that we today would not recognize as emotions, such as the ‘love for truth’ expressed by the very detailed description of the battlefield, its terrain and movements of troops (De Boer 2016: 214-218).

*   *   *

[8] The early modern period witnessed an explosion in the representation and performance of violence. In European cities, renaissance and baroque theatre staged gruesome and passionate plays, while in the streets, during religious festivals and public entries of sovereigns, state and church conjured up violent images of subjection and suffering. The book market added to this spectacle of violence, as the early modern period saw the development of an advanced material infrastructure for the production, distribution, consumption, and appropriation of such imagery. A fast-growing body of texts and prints registered violent episodes of the past and the present. The growing news market of pamphlets, newspapers and weeklies offered facts about public violence on a daily basis, based on a European network of information (Haks 2013: 14-16). All these publications enabled the public to study in detail the techniques used in battle, to torture martyrs, or to execute criminals. How can we explain this apparent fascination for violence? What effects and affects did these scenes aim to arouse? What relationships were evoked or enforced between the audience and the depicted or enacted scenes? What groups were depicted as violent, and with what specific violent practices and qualities were they associated?

[9] This special issue aims to analyse early modern techniques of representing violence and their transformations over time. Violence engages audiences in complex ways: it can fascinate or repulse, provide strong embodied experiences, exploit the curiosity and the desires of the public of consumers, create a breach with daily life, or turn reality into a stage. The different contributions to this special issue analyse the technical and performative aspects of the depiction of violence, whether in print or painting or on stage, in the anatomical theatre, on the scaffold, or elsewhere, questioning different regimes of representation ranging from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in various countries in Northern Europe.

[10] The idea of violence seems to have grown into a crucial theoretical and analytical problem in different fields of the humanities. Research on the historical and contemporary representation of violence covers a wide range of topics and questions, including the spectacle of violence and its aestheticisation, the problem of the beholder, our present-day obsession with the more-than-real and its historical roots in (early) modern European culture, voyeurism, sexual violence, and the complex history of trauma. Some of these studies investigate from different disciplinary angles the legitimacy (or, in most cases, the flagrant absence thereof) of the infliction of any kind of harm, whether physical or psychological, mainly focusing on different forms of violentia (illegitimate violence) (Schinkel 2009: 84; van Duijnen 2019: 37). Other authors analyze different forms of potestas, violence facilitated by state authorities; often inspired by the writings of Foucault on sovereign and governmental powers. Several contributions to this special issue explore the fundamental porosity between what is considered to be legitimate and what is not. Other contributions focus more specially on processes of mediation, such as the intertwinement of word and image, or the sensory experience of the sound of violence transmitted through words and imagery.

[11] In a recent article in History and Theory historian Penny Roberts observes a ‘violent turn’ in French historiography (Roberts 2017: 61). All of the questions addressed in this special issue, however, bring us back to a larger, fundamental question: what were the cultural, ideological and generic mechanisms behind the representation of violence in early modern Northern Europe? Each of the contributions in this special issue explores a different type of real or symbolic violence, each with a different performative impact, operating within a specific historical context. Some of the contributions, such as those of Thom Pritchard and Yannice De Bruyn, focus on memory culture and how perspectives on acts of war were shaped by political and religious interests. Other contributions more specifically pay attention to representational techniques as such, focusing on a specific type of violence, such as Michel van Duijnen’s article about judicial violence in early modern history prints, and Frans-Willem Korsten and Marijn van Dijk’s contribution about the sensory experience of sea battles in Dutch literature and the visual arts. Klaas Tindemans and Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen discuss how the theatrical representation of juridical violence and the literary representation of religious violence were shaped by the respective discourses of law and Protestantism in early modern England. The latter is focusing on Christian martyrdom, which is also true for Johan Verberckmoes, who wrote a contribution on the transcultural elements concerning child martyrs in Japan in the historical accounts of an Antwerp Jesuit.

[12] This special issue aims to contribute to a contextual approach to the history of violence in Northern Europe, through the analysis of specific case studies which operated within equally specific historical contexts. It is one result of a broader research project on the cultural representation of violence funded by the Dutch and Flemish Research Councils (NWO and FWO). Within the framework of this project we developed the concept of ‘imagineering’ (Korsten et al. 2020) to help us to analyse the complex intertwinement of cultural practices, cultural imagination and specific contexts. Imagineering refers (1) to imagination as it is used in representing other possible worlds, and (2) to engineering; that is, to the techniques employed and designed to do this — with technique indicating both the technical element of theatre and other public stages, and the broader possibilities of rhetoric, props and acting employed in such theatrical stagings. Imagineering describes a historical shift in which new techniques were deployed to make images speak to the public and to one another, with the aim of creating a shared space for cultural identity and memory. The authors in this special issue analyse a wide range of cultural practices that each in their own way contributed to the development of this new infrastructure, producing distinct historical selves through new collective cultural imaginations.

[13] The articles in this special issue combine research methods and approaches from literary studies, performance studies, visual analysis, cultural history, criminology and many other disciplines, but all of them share a similar cultural historical approach in which violence is always understood as part of a broader process of cultural representation and symbolization. Violence is always a cultural performance (Diamond 1996) and requires in that sense an anthropological approach. Moreover, the different articles show that violence is anything but a stable concept and that its nature, definition and performative impact are profoundly contextual and historical. Present-day conceptualisations of violence cannot just be retroactively transposed to the early modern period — the use of the term itself requires systematic historicisation.



Culbert, David. 2007. ‘Nuit et Brouillard (1995): Hanns Eisler’s Music and the Usage of Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion in German’, in Historical Journal of Radio, Film and Television, 27.2: 259-263

De Boer, Lisa. 2016. ‘The Sidelong Glance: Tracing Battlefield Emotions in Dutch Art of the Golden Age’, in Battlefield Emotions 1500-1800: Practices, Experience, Imagination, ed. by Erika Kuijpers and Cornelis van der Haven (Basingstoke: Palgrave), pp. 207-227

Diamond, Elin. 1996. Performance and Cultural Politics (London: Routledge)

Haks, Donals. 2013. Vaderland en vrede, 1672-1713: Publiciteit over de Nederlandse Republiek in oorlog (Hilversum: Verloren)

Harari, Yuval Noah. 2008. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Hewitson, Mark. 2017. ‘Visualizing violence’, Cultural History, 6.1: 1-20

Korsten, Frans-Willem, Inger Leemans, Karel Vanhaesebrouck, Cornelis van der Haven, Yannice De Bruyn and Michel van Duijnen. 2020. ‘Imagineering, or what Images do to People: The Spectacle of Violence in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic’, Cultural History (accepted for publication)

Macsotay, Tomas, Cornelis van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck. 2017. ‘Introduction,’ in The Hurt(ful) Body: Pain and suffering in early modern performance and visual arts, ed. by Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 1-21

Roberts, Penny. 2017. ‘French historians and collective violence’, History and Theory, 56.4: 60-75

Schinkel, William. 2009. ‘Biaphobia, state violence and the definition of violence’, in Existentialist Criminology, ed. by Ronnie Lippens and Don Crewe (London: Routledge), pp. 70-93

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Stackelberg, Roderick. 2007. The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany (London/New York: Routledge)

van Duijnen, Michel. 2019. ‘Printed images of violence in the Dutch Republic, 1650-1700’ (VU Amsterdam: PhD dissertation)

Offering Peace by Showing Violence: Jan Vos’s Amsterdam Charm Offensive

Offering Peace by Showing Violence:
Jan Vos’s Amsterdam Charm Offensive

Yannice De Bruyn


[1] The Siege and Relief of Leyden was undeniably the most popular play in the Amsterdam Theatre in 1660. Jan Vos embellished the original play by Reynerius Bontius with five spectacular tableaux vivants, and from its premiere on 30 March 1660 it pulled in impressive revenues. In this paper, I will show how Vos’s additions could have interacted with the political situation in Amsterdam at that time. Around 1660, the city was engaged in a charm offensive towards the Nassau family that included two public parades designed by Jan Vos. His adaptation of The Siege and Relief most likely had its own part to play in this diplomatic venture. The tableaux vivants especially were a source of political potential: I will show that they aimed to move audiences by means of a particularly violent imagination. Employing these emotions towards the glorification of William of Orange made Vos’s adaptation politically effective at a time when his descendants were being charmed by the city of Amsterdam. This paper offers a detailed analysis of the two most relevant tableaux vivants, tableaux that are both significantly violent and bend the narrative of the original play. The first, that opens the play, portrays the Dutch Revolt as a case of tyrannical suppression; the second elaborates on the dramatic climax with a fictional naval battle between State and Spanish armies.


Bringing the Leiden siege before the eyes of an Amsterdam audience

[2] The Siege and Relief of Leyden was a 1645 play by Reynerius Bontius performed each year in Leiden as part of the festival of 3 October commemorating the city’s relief. Its subject is the Spanish Siege of Leiden in 1573-74 and the resulting famine, death and discord in the city. A disastrous surrender is only barely avoided while the threat of violation is a constant element throughout the play. At last, in a case of divine deliverance, the State fleet manages to reach the city on the surging river water and the Spanish army retreats. The city’s resilience is finally rewarded with the right to erect a university. The play remained tied to Leiden until Vos brought an adaptation of it to the Amsterdam Theatre in 1660. His tableaux vivants added much to the play’s popularity, making it a true box office success and the third most popular play ever to be performed there.[1] More than one hundred printed editions of Bontius’s Siege and Relief were produced, generating a maze of textual variants. The 1660 Amsterdam performances came with their own publication of the revised playscript and a separate booklet with elaborate descriptions of the tableaux. Both these printed texts were for sale, probably even during performances.[2] In an advertisement for the première in the Opregte Haerlemsche Courant (23 March 1660), the publication is promoted as much as the performance:

In Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailie, on the Middeldam, was printed, and will be published, The Relief of Leyden: written by R. Bontius. Which will be shown in the Amsterdam Theatre Tuesday after Easter, and the next days. Embellished with many exquisite tableaux vivants, full of allegories, both before, during, and after the play. Made by Jan Vos. Never shown before now, or printed. Which will also be sold by aforementioned Lescailie. (my italics)[3]

The tableaux were clearly the main selling point, but we are lucky to know anything about them at all. Lescailje’s publication of a separate booklet with descriptions is a rare exception to the rule that tableaux vivants were very poorly documented, especially in the theatre (printed descriptions of tableaux performed during public festivities are more often extant). Usually, we are lucky if a playscript even mentions them, let alone gives a minimal description. The booklet is a magnificent source and the foundation for my analysis. However, it does not describe the actual performance of the play as a whole, about which we have little to no information.

[3] Each of the tableaux described in the booklet is made up of two or three sequentially revealed parts. Each of these parts is accompanied by six verses, possibly read out during the performance (Oey-De Vita 1984: 13; Albach 1987: 328). The five tableaux, all distinctly allegorical, have the following subjects. Shown before the play proper starts, the opening tableau concerns the umbrella conflict of the Dutch Revolt of which the siege and relief of Leiden formed a part. The first part shows the submission of the Netherlands by the Duke of Alba, while the second and third parts show the Spanish violation of citizens and the law. The timing of the following three tableaux is not indicated. The first part of the first tableau within the play shows Leiden’s population suffering hunger and death during the long siege. The second part shows the dawn of their resilience. In the first part of the second tableau within the play, the protagonists are the Plague and Discord. The second part concerns the restoration of Unity. In the third tableau within the play, presenting the relief of Leiden, the booklet describes the first part as depicting an elaborate naval battle between the State and Spanish armies, while the second part is about the euphoric reception of the relieving fleet in the city. Finally, in the tableau presented after the play’s conclusion, both parts revolve around the celebration of the city’s relief and the establishment of Leiden University.

[4] The addition of tableaux was undoubtedly Vos’s biggest adjustment to Bontius’s play. They fit his trademark sense for visual spectacle, which we see as much in his plays as in his work as director of the Amsterdam Theatre. Vos designed tableaux vivants to embellish existing plays, as enactments of poems he staged, and for public festivities at the request of the Amsterdam city council. Pleasing the eyes of his audience was motivated by commercial interest and by what he called the ‘poetics of utility’ (Geerdink 2014: 107-11). Throughout his extensive oeuvre, Jan Vos used powerful imagery for the audience’s moral betterment, and to promote the perspective of the city council and Amsterdam’s prestige in general (Geerdink 2014). These had been traditional functions of tableaux vivants since their earliest use in the Middle Ages. The revelation of ‘frozen’ compositions of actors remained popular in the Low Countries until well into the nineteenth century. Tableaux had a close connection to the visual arts and appeared in both public festivities and theatre plays. During the seventeenth century, their emotional and narrative roles adapted to major transformations in the theatre (Bussels 2019).

[5] Already Bontius’s tableaux vivants broke with tradition, in that they seem to have visualised the events that were discussed in the dialogue while it was taking place, thus remaining within the time and space of the plot (Bussels 2019: 90). Although they are merely referred to as ‘vertooningh’ in the playscript, the dialogue hints at their subjects as respectively hunger, discord, death, and eventually joy at the city’s relief, and the reception of William of Orange. Vos moved even further away from tradition by having each of his five complex tableaux made up of two or even three sequentially revealed parts or stages, and a newspaper advertisement for a later performance boasts of a number of more than one hundred actors.[4] This made interaction with the dialogue impossible. Unlike Bontius, Vos made his tableaux the point of focus so that they create their own, parallel narrative rather than being at the plot’s service. If the themes of the individual tableaux are looked at in relation to one another, they reveal a distinctive narrative arc. To an extent, this arc follows the highlights that had become embedded in Leiden’s cultural memory and that Bontius adhered to: the suffering from hunger, illness, and discord; agency lost and regained; and finally, survival and transcendence through the establishing of a university. However, Vos made two major changes that were crucial to the play’s potential to manipulate the political situation in Amsterdam in 1660. Firstly, he opened the play with a tableau on the Dutch Revolt. Secondly, he changed the dramatic climax to a fictional naval battle. Before exploring these violent tableaux and how their emotional effects could have supported the glorification of the House of Orange, I will take a look at the political context within which this glorification would have functioned.


An Amsterdam Charm Offensive Aimed at the Nassaus

[6] Although it had not been optimal before, the relationship between Amsterdam and the Stadtholder really dwindled when William II besieged the city in 1650. After that, any public demonstration of Orangism had been forbidden (Snoep 1975: 82-83). At the end of the 1650s, however, changes in international politics urged Amsterdam to rekindle its relationship with the Nassau family. After Cromwell’s death in 1658, things looked very different for young Prince William. He was related to the royal English House of Stuart through his mother Mary, Princess Royal, who was the daughter of King Charles I. William’s grandfather had been killed as part of Cromwell’s coup d’état in 1649, but with the reinstatement of the aristocracy it was his uncle, Charles II, who was appointed successor to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. To preserve its vital trade relationship with England, Amsterdam had to strengthen ties with the Nassaus despite being in the middle of the First Stadtholderless Period (1650-1672).[5] The city invited the family to public festivities and in 1659 welcomed Amalia van Solms with her entourage, and in 1660 Mary with Prince William. Both receptions included a parade of allegorical floats designed by Jan Vos. The parades were nearly identical, with the addition of several floats on English history in 1660. Vos made elaborate descriptions of the 1659 parade, which were published together with a series of wood prints (Vos 1659). A float carrying the representation of Unity was followed by floats representing each of the seven provinces, several generations of princes of Orange, and finally Gratitude and Amsterdam. Snoep’s reading of this allegorical ensemble is that subsequent generations of Orange princes had brought unity and peace to the Dutch Republic through military action. As such, the parades were a way for the city to express her gratitude to the princes for their service to the country and its people.[6] The addressees of this message were the citizens of Amsterdam as much as the royal guests. The display of ‘these invincible heroes’ was to imprint them with gratitude towards the House of Orange, at least according to the poem ‘Royal thanksgiving’ (‘Vorstelicke dancksegging’) that Constantijn Huygens dedicated to the burgomasters at the occasion of the 1659 parade (Snoep 1975: 86). However, as Geerdink writes, these floats exalted Amsterdam as much as they did the Nassaus (2014: 66).

[7] Only one day after watching the parade from the palace on the Dam, Mary and William were likely invited to attend a performance of The Siege and Relief with the tableaux by Jan Vos. On 18 June 1660, the Theatre’s cash register remained empty, an indication that on that date it was reserved for official guests of the city council.[7] In order to infer exactly how the play contributed to the charm offensive, I will now offer a close analysis of the opening tableau, and that performed at the play’s climax.


The Kneeling Netherlands: Allegory and Accusation

[8] The opening tableau is the first change Vos applied to the original play. While attending this play on the siege and relief of Leiden, the first thing Amsterdam audiences got to see was a gigantic tableau vivant on the Dutch Revolt. The opening tableau places everything that is about to follow in the context of the larger battle of the Dutch people against the Spanish crown. This differs from Bontius’s play, that simply refers to the Dutch Revolt as a sort of framework that makes the local situation more understandable. The Spanish violence in other cities is activated to explain the impossible position of the Leiden citizens, and to create empathy with their struggle intra muros. Vos, on the other hand, turned things around, making the situation at Leiden into an example of the Dutch Revolt and its consequences. With his opening tableau, he appropriated a local Revolt story into a national narrative, something that happened quite often throughout the seventeenth century, in the service of various political goals (Pollmann & Kuijpers 2013: 8; Pollmann 2008: 13). This appropriation provides an interpretative framework for the rest of the play.

[9] The intrinsically violent representation of the Dutch Revolt in the opening tableau was in no way new but rather a well-trodden path in all kinds of media. The three parts of the tableau move from abstract to concrete in sequential steps. The first part centres on Alba’s invasion and the vices he brings in his wake while subduing the Netherlands. The second part specifies the implications of this submission by showing the infractions of rights: forced entry, the destruction of freedom, and the mockery of justice. The third part elaborates on the violent effects of these infractions on Dutch citizens.

[10] Looking at the booklet’s description of the first part of the opening tableau, what strikes the reader is the sheer level of violence flooding the stage. Allegorical personifications such as Audacity and Violence are all involved in violent acts. The tableau freezes them right in the middle of threatening and invading, and it shows the effects of these actions on their victims: submission, fear, and flight. Their attributes — weapons, chariot, harness — are instrumental to this. In full, the first part of the opening tableau is described as follows:

The Duke of Alba, harnessed, shows himself on his chariot. War’s Destiny stands in the back. He is pulled by Vindictiveness and Bloodlust. Lust for Power holds the reins. The wagon is followed by Tyranny, Robbery, Murderousness, Counterfeit, Infidelity, Arson, Treason, Fear, Angst, and all the horrors. On the left side, Justice, Temperance and Unity are threatened by Violence, Ferocity and Discord with gag, wheel and sword. The Netherlands, that he [Alba] rides towards, are chained to one another by Audacity even though they kneel for him. The Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, Ijssel, Amstel, Vecht, Spaar, and other stream gods and goddesses are horrified by his arrival. Pallas appears before Freedom, who has several nobles and citizens with her, and advises her to flee. Prudence shows them the way.[8]

The description reveals the composition to be an enumeration of subscenes: the Duke of Alba on his chariot and all the vices that surround him; the kneeling Netherlands — probably a group of actors each representing one of the provinces, as was customary in the visual arts; the startled river gods; and Freedom fleeing with a group of nobles and citizens. Altogether, the group is too large and cohesive to suggest a traditional placement in the stage wall openings.[9] The performers were most probably placed on the proscenium, in a latitudinal juxtaposition of subscenes.[10] The chariot resembles the floats of the parades Vos designed for the Nassau entries of 1659 and 1660: the wood prints of 1659 similarly show wagons with a central figure, figures in the back, and others holding the reins. Whereas the wood prints show carriage horses, however, the chariot in this tableau is pulled by Vindictiveness and Bloodlust. Wagons are a central feature of the first and second tableaux within the play as well.[11]

[11] Central to the composition is the interaction between Alba and the Netherlands. Intuitively, one might interpret the relationship between them as one of domination. However, as all five tableaux are distinctly allegorical, understanding them goes beyond the figurative. In the tableau at hand, concepts of violence such as Murderousness and Tyranny are encrypted as human figures. Costumed, gesturing actors that perform as allegorical personifications make these abstract notions relatable and intelligible to the playgoers (Copeland & Struck 2011: 3-4).[12] It is safe to assume that most members of the audience immediately knew how to respond to an allegorical scene by trying to ‘read’ it for its ‘other-speak’, and that they mastered the literacy for it to varying degrees.[13] The following shows that this reading entails two vital steps. In order to decipher the encrypted meaning, one would have to first identify the individual personifications and then regard them in relation to one another.

[12] Identification of the personifications onstage would have been facilitated for those members of the audience in possession of the booklet. The descriptions offer a very detailed enumeration of the tableau’s characters, while the verses also point out several characters, such as ‘the furious Duke of Alba’ presenting himself on his chariot, and Pallas advising the people to ‘flee the pressing power’.[14] Another method of identification was through the great iconological standardisation in visual culture (Lin 2012: 72). The wide dissemination of a book such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) greatly added to the audience’s familiarity with the emblematic representation of allegories. The most popular of personifications must have been ubiquitous in the visual and decorative arts, parades, and the theatre alike (Kiefer 2003: 13-18). A Dutch translation of Ripa appeared in Amsterdam in 1644, and its influence on the theatre has already been shown.[15] It is very likely that Vos, too, observed these guidelines when designing his allegorical tableaux, for example, with ‘Geweldt’ (Violence), one of the many personifications that populate the opening tableau. The Dutch version of the Iconologia mentions ‘geweld’ twice. The word is first used in relation to ‘Violenza’, where it carries a sense of violation: ‘Violenza’ is shown as a woman killing a defenceless child with a dagger and cane (Pers 1644: ‘Violenza’). In the second use of the word, in defining ‘Impeto’, ‘geweld’ refers to the surge of passion that brings about assault, or the act of inflicting violence. We read that ‘Impeto’ looks like a semi-nude young man with a cruel and bold demeanour. Bracing himself with his sword drawn, he is ready to violently attack his enemy. His foaming mouth and covered eyes would show his divorce from reason. Iconologia’s character as a manual for the visual arts can be derived from the choice of words: this is how Impeto should be ‘painted’ (Pers 1644: ‘Impeto’).[16] Looking at actual prints or paintings depicting the character of Violence (as in the work of Jan Luyken), it becomes clear that even though these details are not rigorously adopted, there are still many similarities. Even when he is identified as ‘Violentia’ or ‘Vis’, we see a male figure whose posture communicates a readiness to strike and who is in possession of weapons such as torch, sword, mace and shield. His costume is often a harness with Roman influences, underneath which he is usually muscular and half-naked from the waist up.[17] That Vos went in the same direction with his character ‘Geweldt’ cannot be verified but seems likely. At least for tableaux vivants that were performed in public spaces, descriptions and/or prints always emphasised the attributes and costumes through which the figures could be identified (Snoep 197: 83; Kiefer 2003: 21).

[13] As a compositional technique, allegory derives meaning from the relationships between its constitutive parts.[18] Although already rich in meaning on their own, the tableau’s personifications should be read in relation to one another to unlock their full message. Even in the absence of a direct visual connection, the juxtapositional format prompts correlative interpretation (Kunzle 1973: 4; Groensteen 2012: 113). Apart from its internal coherence, allegory is also very much connected to the specific historical reality that it reflects on. If the audience failed to connect Alba and the Netherlands to the Eighty Years’ War, the allegorical meaning would be lost on them. There was little risk of that happening, however, for this link was ingrained in the original play’s subject matter and more than commonplace across media. Various sources had exploited the stereotype of Spanish cruelty, ‘the Black Legend’, for propagandistic purposes since the beginning of the Revolt. ‘Iron Duke’ Alba appeared very frequently as one of its most ruthless practitioners and even became its embodiment. There are at least twenty known paintings of the ‘tyranny of Alba’ (all post-1618), and numerous prints. Some bear a very similar composition to the tableau’s description of Alba facing the kneeling Netherlands.[19] Reading the tableau as an allegory of Spanish tyranny towards the Netherlands would therefore have been inevitable for contemporaneous audiences. The other subscenes in the composition contribute to this reading: there is the flight of Freedom, but also vices threatening virtues with weapons that were typical of the Black Legend (‘gag, wheel and sword’). Any contemporary audience would have had the cultural background to identify these personifications and read them in relation to one another.

[14] Vos’s tableau summarises the complex, eighty-year-long conflict in one strong image of illegitimate domination of perpetrator over victim.[20] By focusing on the interaction between two characters, this tableau turns the abstract and complex into something that the audience could relate and respond to. Tyranny was a strong emotional catalyst. Defined as excessive and unlawful use of power and force, and a stock feature of many plays, it typically functioned as an accusation.[21] Tyranny’s emotive potential is furthered by the verses that accompany the first part of the opening tableau:

The furious duke of Alba presents himself on his chariot.
The Netherlands are regrettably cut down.
The cruel and mighty do not refrain from bullying the people
Advised by Pallas, they flee the pressing power,
That has eyes, nor ears, for begging requests.
Angered kings are boundless in their vengeance.[22]

The abuse of power, violence without mercy or measure, and the rule of passions such as fury or vengeance — these were all familiar characteristics of tyranny (Bushnell 1990: 51).[23] Feelings of indignation are reinforced by assessments such as ‘cruel’ or ‘bullying’, or the suggestion that the Netherlands are ‘regrettably cut down’.

[15] The second and third parts of the opening tableau similarly support this emotive function by elaborating on what Alba’s tyranny entails. The second part displays forced entry, the destruction of freedom, and the mockery of justice. The third part shows the violent effects of these infractions on Dutch citizens. Specifically, the second part shows 1- the unlawful capture of citizens; 2- the farewell of the Governess Margaret of Parma, signifying the arrival of Alba; 3- the Blood Council seated behind a table filled with horrifying torture instruments; 4- the forced submission of cities, symbolised by the surrender of keys; and 5- the tearing-up of privileges.[24] Now, these subscenes take their traditional place in the stage wall openings. Judging by their description, Vos seems to have built on denunciative imagery that already circulated in visual culture.[25] Apart from indignation, the second part plays on feelings of horror: intense fear, dread or dismay.[26] The booklet specifies that the Blood Council’s assembly of torture instruments was meant to cause fear as much as pain in the detainee.[27] The third part of the opening tableau even calls for the explicit performance of ‘horrors’ (‘gruwelijkheeden’). We read that ‘after these pageants, one sees, after the opening of five new scenes, the beheading, hanging, strangling, burning of people, and other horrors.’ This line-up is paralleled in one of the accompanying verses: ‘they hang, they strangle, and burn by force of the cruel command.’[28] Again, these scenes are reminiscent of the iconic prints that were produced during the most violent phase of the Dutch Revolt.

[16] Altogether, the opening tableau is profoundly affective. This will prove significant, especially in relation to the climactic battle tableau that is Vos’s second narrative change. The emotional effects of horror and indignation achieved by the opening tableau serve as the foundation for the audience’s experience of the dramatic climax.


The Glorification of Military Violence

[17] The climax in the third tableau within the play was probably staged near the end of the play, following most of the dialogue and after the two tableaux on the Dutch Revolt, hunger and resilience, and the Plague, discord and the restoration of unity. Vos did not follow the generally accepted historical narrative here. Instead of divine deliverance, he staged a naval battle as the cause of the relief of Leiden. The booklet describes an elaborate battle between the State and Spanish armies in the flooded river:

The tritons, with the sound of their whelk horns, summon the sweet and salt waves. The north-west wind flies between heaven and earth, and helps the water rise, by blowing on it. The south-west wind urges, while floating over the meadows and fields, the streams through the breached dikes and docks, and makes them roar over land towards the city. The stream gods and goddesses, who were hiding in their mossy basins long before the rage of the Spanish army, are now seen to catapult themselves from the ground and bob on the waves. Here, the enemy burns several army camps, at the sight of the approaching fleet. There, State and Spanish [soldiers] cling to each other on board. Over there, they clash with one another in the water with rudder, spike and sword. Drowned warriors float everywhere.[29]

Reading this, we are left with many questions. How did Vos evoke the water running across the stage, for example? How did he represent the two ships and the numerous drowned warriors? Although Vos was very visually oriented, we should keep in mind that representational techniques were not necessarily all mimetic. Of particular importance in this scene are the tritons, who were a tried allegorical technique to signify ‘being on water’ (Lin 2012: 72). Other than that, most people would have been more than familiar with naval battles, as they had been a ubiquitous subject during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654). Dutch news markets had been flooded with descriptions and depictions of the naval battles that were characteristic of this conflict throughout its course (Spies & Frijhoff 1999: 527).[30] As such, playgoers had at their disposal plenty of tools to let their imagination fill in potential scenographic blanks, especially considering that many would have had access to the booklet with its descriptions.

[18] The audience’s experience of this heroic battle built on the opening tableau in two ways. Firstly, the violence against citizens and the horror and indignation it inspired now invested playgoers in a victory for the Dutch. Second, zooming out to the Revolt made the relief of Leiden necessary to the survival of the Dutch Republic as a whole. By staging a spectacular military fight on the water, Vos portrayed something that in reality never happened, placing the two rivalling camps opposite one another in a fight for victory. This would have made the relief much more exciting, eliciting feelings of elation and perhaps even cheering, and bringing about emotional relief in the audience. That the representation of violence between the soldiers did not aim to evoke the same emotions as the representation of violence against citizens has everything to do with framing. Rather than a case of power abuse, the violence has now turned into a necessity.

[19] As has been noted, Vos’s climax differs from the historically accepted narrative. The State fleet did fight the Spanish army in fortified villages near Leiden, and citizens engaged in skirmishes around the city throughout the siege. However, the actual relief was established when the Spanish army fled from the surging water. Vos’s climax also differs from the play text, which explains the surging water as an act of God in 1645 as well as in 1660 (Bontius 1645: vs. 1772-1824; Bontius 1660: 42-43). In the tableau, the hand of God is still made present through the actions of the — albeit pagan — stream gods, winds and tritons. His help is celebrated in the accompanying verses as well. However, by staging a spectacular final battle, Vos’s tableau clearly emphasises the role of human agency in the relief.[31] This turns it into a real victory, whereas with Bontius, the announcement of a God-given deliverance makes for something of an anti-climax. By staging the relief as a process rather than a given, active achievement rather than passive acquiescence, the tableau engaged the audience on a different level. The glory of the hard-won victory and the euphoria that it is bound up with could subsequently be associated with the heroes that are presented at the end of the play. Commander-in-chief William I of Orange (and before him admiral Louis Boisot) is received into the city and praised as a ‘heroic war hero’ and ‘God’s hero’. He is even compared to the invincible ‘knight of God’.[32] Notably, this praise is already present in 1645, and remains a part of the 1660 publication. However, the battle makes sure there is a solid emotional foundation for this glorification, all the more so because it builds on the opening tableau that, by zooming out to the Eighty Years’ War, implies that Orange is the saviour of the entire Dutch Republic and not only of Leiden. The text confirms this when Vander Does praises Orange for risking his life for the whole country (Bontius 1645: vs. 1947-51; Bontius 1660: 44). In 1660, furthermore, the text is abbreviated so that the play ends with praise of Orange and his departure to secure the Dutch people’s sovereignty. He states that, as long as the enemy is not defeated, he has no time to lose to go after them. All the characters that are present chant him farewell: ‘Orange fortune and hail, remain the winner in victory!’.[33] After the final scene, the prince makes another appearance in the closing tableau where he has Freedom, Holland and several provinces with him, suggesting that it is he who brings back freedom and unity.[34] Ending the play with Orange is yet another way to emphasise his importance.

[20] The combination of these interventions with the choice of a Revolt play is significant in relation to the political situation in 1660. The glorification of their progenitor reflected well on the Nassau family, especially as the military focus matched the preferred self-representation of subsequent generations of Stadtholders. It underpinned their claim to national leadership and had therefore been a frequent matter of disagreement with Amsterdam. As mentioned previously, Jan Vos performed as the city council’s spokesman on more than one occasion. Throughout his diverse oeuvre, the Nassaus only appeared when they were of interest to the burgomasters (Geerdink 2012: 63, 111-12, 119-20). If anything, the glorification of Orange in Vos’s tableaux for the Siege and Relief came directly from the city council. At the same time, the prominence of the State fleet in the final battle also added to the exaltation of Amsterdam herself. Especially during the First Stadtholderless Period, the Admiralty of Amsterdam exerted great power over the fleet (Spies & Frijhoff 1999: 144). This double focus matched the 1659 and 1660 parades’, praising subsequent generations of Orange princes while also adding to the glory of Amsterdam.



[21] When Prince William and his mother Mary responded to Amsterdam’s invitation to a reception in June 1660, they not only got to see a parade designed by Jan Vos, but most likely also a Revolt play that he embellished. Behind this invitation was an Amsterdam charm offensive towards the Nassau family. Now that William’s uncle had ascended the English throne, the city wanted to secure its trade relationship. Vos’s embellishments to The Siege and Relief consisted mainly of the addition of five allegorical tableaux vivants. This paper has argued how these could have contributed to the charm offensive. To begin with, their published descriptions suggest a genuine visual spectacle, which was Vos’s trademark. The tableaux create their own narrative, which differs from the plot of the original play in two significantly violent ways. Firstly, the opening tableau zooms out from the Leiden siege to the Dutch Revolt. Its allegorical composition can be read as an accusation: the Eighty Years’ War was a case of tyrannical oppression. Elaborating on the violent implications of this tyranny, the opening tableau aimed to evoke feelings of indignation and horror in the audience. These would subsequently have served as the emotional foundation for the climactic battle in the third tableau within the play, investing the audience in a victory for the Dutch. Here a composition showing violence between soldiers invites a different kind of emotional reaction than the torture of innocent citizens. Placing the two rivalling camps opposite one another in a fight for victory, Vos’s version deviates from both the original play and the historically accepted narrative. The elation, cheer, and emotional discharge bound up with the battle eventually benefit the military hero who is presented at the very end of the play: William I of Orange. Both tableaux place essentially violent subjects centre stage: the violation of citizens and a fictional naval battle. By exploiting the emotional potential of these acts of violence, the play had the potential to affect the political reality of its day. Glorifying their progenitor was one way to charm the Nassau family. The specific military focus was another: subsequent generations of Stadtholders loved to present themselves as military heroes as a source for their authority. However, typically for Amsterdam there was also an element of self-glorification: the focus on the State fleet added to the city’s glory as much as to that of Orange.

Universiteit Gent & Vrije Universiteit Brussel



[1] In 1660 alone, The Siege and Relief was performed no fewer than twenty-four times and its revenue was almost 1.5 times higher than the average. For the performances in 1660 (and beyond), see ONSTAGE, ‘Beleg en ontset der stadt Leyden’. For the revenues of all plays performed in 1660, see ONSTAGE, ‘Shows in 1660’. For the link between Vos’s tableaux and the play’s popularity from then on, see Hogendoorn 1976: 72. The play was performed until the mid-nineteenth century throughout the Dutch Republic and even in Hamburg (Bordewijk 2005: 20). For the popularity of The Siege and Relief in the Amsterdam Theatre between 1660 and 1772, see ONSTAGE, ‘The 50 most popular plays between 1660 and 1772’. [back to text]

[2] As a means of censorship, the theatre directorate commissioned publications for all the plays that were to be performed under their roof. Between 1658 and 1679, the official printer for the Schouwburg was Lescailje. It is very probable that these publications were sold to the audiences of the respective performances: at least, this practice is documented from 1670 onwards (Grabowsky 1995: 35-36; Smits-Veldt 1995: 216; Bordewijk 2005: 15). [back to text]

[3] ‘Tot Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailie, op de Middeldam, wert gedruckt, en sal uytgegeven worden, Het Ontset van Leyden: Gerijmt door R. Bontius. ’t Welck op de Amsterdamse Schouburgh Dingsdagh na Paesschen, en de volgende dagen, vertoont sal worden. Verheerlickt door veel treffelijcke Vertooningen, vol Sinnebeelden, so voor, in, als naer het Speelen. Gemaeckt door Jan Vos. Nooyt voor desen Vertoont, ofte Gedruckt. Welcke oock by den voorschre Lescailie alsdan sullen verkocht worden’ (Haerlemsche Dinsdaeghse Courant, no. 12 (23 March 1660), verso). [back to text]

[4] Although there is no way of knowing if the actual performance was as ambitious, the characters described in the booklet easily add up to one hundred: ‘t’Amsterdam, by Jacob Lescailje, op de Middeldam, werdt uytgegeven; het Belegh en Ontset van Leyden, bly-eyndent Treur-spel, door R. Bontius, met de Vertooningen door Jan Vos; en een Beschryvingh van de cieraden van het Toneel, met de Verklaringen der Zinnebeelden, gelijck het selve op Maendagh nae de Kermis-Weeck, zijnde den 28 September, en de drie volgende, op d’Amsterdamsche Schouburg, door meer als hondert Persoonen, sal gespeelt, vertoont en uytgebeelt werden, met Konst- en Vlieg-wercken, Perspectiven, &c.’ (Oprechte Haerlemse Dinsdaegse Courant, no. 38 (22 September 1671), verso). My gratitude goes out to Frans Blom for referring me to both advertisements. [back to text]

[5] Upon the Act of Abjuration (1581), the role of the Stadtholder was transformed from representative of the king to top civil servant of the United Provinces. While the executive power remained with the provincial States, frequent power struggles characterised their relationship to the Stadtholders. When William II died in 1650, the office was terminated until the start of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672 (Geerdink 2014: 64; Snoep 1975: 86). Contemporaries saw a parallel between the Dutch Revolt and the English Civil War and Restoration: hence from this perspective too it would have made sense to perform a Revolt play for the reception of members of the English royal family (Helmers 2015). [back to text]

[6] The parade in 1660 recycled the floats of 1659 and added several more on periods from recent English history (Snoep 1975: 85-87). [back to text]

[7] ONSTAGE registers the parade on 17 June 1660 (‘Thursday 17th June 1660’). On the performance of 18 June 1660, see ONSTAGE, ‘Friday 18th of June’. Snoep links the lack of revenue to the official character of the performance (1975: 172). State visits often included a visit to the theatre, a custom inspired by court etiquette. Most of the time, the guests would pay for the performance: only exceptionally were they treated by the city council. It was not uncommon for theatre performances for official guests to be part of a broader program (van der Haven 2008: 88, 90-91). [back to text]

[8] ‘Vertoont zich de Hartog van Alba, in ’t harnas, op zijn staatcywaagen. de Krijgsfortuin staat achter op. hy wordt van Wraakgierigheidt en Bloedtdorstigheidt voortgetrokken. de Staatzucht heeft de toom om te mennen. de Waagen wordt gevolgt van Dwingelandy, Roovery, Moordtdaadigheidt, Geveinstheidt, Trouweloosheidt, Stoockebrandt, Bedrogh, Schrik, Vrees, en alle gruwelijkheeden. Aan de slinke zy, worden Gerechtigheidt, Maatigheidt, en Eendracht, door Geweldt, Verwoedtheidt en Tweedracht, met strop, roer en deegen gedreigt. de Neederlanden, die hy [Alba] te moet komt rijden, worden, door de Stoutheid, schoon dat zy voor hem knielen, met keetens aan elkanderen geslooten. De Rijn, de Maas, de Scheldt, d’Yssel, d’Amstel, de Vecht, het Spaar, en andere Stroomgooden en godinnen, zijn voor zijn komst verbaast. Pallas komt by de Vryheidt, die verscheide eedelen en ingezeetenen by sich heeft, en raadt haar te vluchten. de Voorzichtigheidt wijst hen de wegh’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[9] In 1660, the stage model of the Amsterdam Theatre was still very close to that of the Rhetorician’s. The back of the proscenium was lined with a façade that had five openings, three bigger ones and two smaller ones. In the Rhetoricians’ theatre, such openings (the number varied) were a typical location for tableaux vivants (De Paepe 2012). [back to text]

[10] De Paepe has made reconstructions of the Amsterdam stage (1637-1665) that can be accessed freely on his website (3Dtheater.be: Erfgoed in beeld). According to this reconstruction, the proscenium of the 1637 Amsterdam Theatre was ca. 14m wide and max. 5m75 deep. Similarly, the description of Vos’s tableau suggests a latitudinal division across the stage, as it contains a spatial indication to Violence, Ferocity and Discord as ‘on the left side’ (‘Aan de slinke zy, worden Gerechtigheidt, Maatigheidt, en Eendracht, door Geweldt, Verwoedtheidt en Tweedracht, met strop, roer en deegen gedreigt.’ — Vos 1660: 3). Finally, frontality (as opposed to depth) was a known feature of the Rhetoricians’ acting style — one that was closely connected to the lighting possibilities of the theatre (De Paepe 2012: 352-53). [back to text]

[11] Wagons were often used by the Rhetoricians for open-air performances (van Dixhoorn 2009: 61; Elenbaas 2004: 291). [back to text]

[12] The double meaning is already encompassed in the literal meaning of allegoria, that is ‘other-speaking’. The Latin allegoria comes from the Greek allêgoria, a compound between allos (another, different) and agoreuein (speak openly) (‘Allegory’). [back to text]

[13] Lin defines allegory not simply as a means of representing situations that are difficult to stage, but as ‘one of the underlying cultural logics that shaped basic theatrical literacy’ (2012: 72). [back to text]

[14] ‘De woedend’ Alba toont zich op zijn staatcywagen. (…) Men vlucht, door Pallas raadt, voor ’t prangen van ’t Geweldt’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[15] The Dutch version of the Iconologia was published by the Amsterdam printer and publisher Dirck Pietersz Pers, who aimed at a broad audience with his translation (Van Dael 1995: 89ff.). [back to text]

[16] See ‘Impeto’ for the reference to painting (‘wort hy gemaelt’). [back to text]

[17] Among others: Jan Luyken, Violence Tramples the Vanquished (1706), etching (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.146357); Jacob de Gheyn (I), Theatre of Violence (1577), etching, 219 x 290 mm (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.446427); Anon., Love expelled by Envy and Violence (1575), engraving, 317 x 194 mm (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.446078) (all part of the Rijksmuseum collection). Kiefer (2003: 22) also mentions Philips Galle after Maarten Van Heemskerck, The Wretchedness of Wealth (1563), engraving, 235 x 170 mm (British Museum) (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1937-0915-423). [back to text]

[18] The reception of the Greek term allegoria in Latin produced a conceptual shift from ‘meaning’ to ‘speaking’. It now became a rhetorical technique that denoted a form of writing as well as reading (Copeland & Struck 2011: 4). [back to text]

[19] Even in 1660, stories of Alba’s tyranny continued to appeal to audiences, for example in an Amsterdam maze (Kuijpers and Pollmann 2013: 180; Urbaniak 2011: 34ff.; Pollmann 2008: 12). A famous example of such a similar composition is Willem Jacobsz. Delff (attrib.), Tyranny of Alba (c. 1622), engraving, 370 x 550 mm (Rijksmuseum) (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.336158) . For the ubiquity of explicit violence in printed images produced in the Dutch Republic between 1650 and 1700, see van Duijnen 2019. [back to text]

[20] As such, the opening tableau is much more poignant than an earlier publication of the play that also starts with a series of four tableaux vivants on the topic of the Dutch Revolt. In the Baron edition, the enumeration of Spanish horrors ends with the prospect of heavenly mercy, offering a conclusion rather than a re-activation of the Revolt material (Bontius 1659: fol. A4r). [back to text]

[21] Tyranny has different meanings, but they all revolve around the Greek etymology of an absolutist ruler who has come to his unlimited power unlawfully and who puts himself above the law in general (see ‘tirannie’ in De Geïntegreerde Taalbank, ‘tyranny’ in Merriam-Webster, and ‘tyranny’ in the Online Etymology Dictionary). [back to text]

[22] ‘De woedend’ Alba toont zich op zijn staatcywagen. | De Neederlanden zijn Godtsjammerlijk gevelt. | Wie wreedt en machtigh is, ontziet geen volk te plaagen. | Men vlucht, door Pallas raadt, voor ’t prangen van ’t Geweldt, | Dat oog, noch ooren heeft voor traanen, noch voor smeeken. | Getergde koningen zijn tomeloos in ‘t wreeken’ (Vos 1660: 3). [back to text]

[23] These are the characteristics of tyrants in plays such as Geeraardt Brandt’s De veinzende Torquatus (1645) and Guilliam van Nieuwelandt’s Jerusalems verwoestingh door Nabuchodonosor (1635). Tyranny also plays an important role in Vos’s first play, Aran and Titus, where it is defined as revenge beyond measure and beyond reason, and where the rule of passion eventually leads to the death of most characters (see Geerdink 2014). The tyrant was a well-known character type in early modern theatre (Keifer 2003: 12). [back to text]

[24] The placement in the stage wall is indicated in the descriptions: ‘after this tableau, five frames are opened’: ‘Achter deeze Vertooning, worden vijf verschieten geopent: in’t eerst van de drie grootste, dat zich aan de rechterhandt laat zien, is Speldt, de Rooderoe, met zijn knevelaars, bezigh met vangen van mannen en vrouwen. In ’t tweede, aan de slinkehandt, neemt de Hartogin van Parma haar afscheidt van ’t Hof. In ’t middelste zit de Bloedtraadt aan een taafel, daar een kleene galg op staat: het kleedt, om d’aangeklaagde, buiten pijn, schrik aan te jaagen, leit vol kluisters, kettingen, geesselroeden, stroppen, zwaarden, nijptangen, pistoolen, en allerlei pijn en-moordtuig. In ’t eerste van de twee kleene verschieten, ziet men verscheide Steeden de sleutels van haar poorten, aan de Spaansche Krijghshoofden, over leeveren. In het tweede worden de voorrechten, handvesten en vryheeden, in’t byzijn van de Staaten, aan stukken gescheurt’ (Vos 1660: 3r-v). [back to text]

[25] The unlawful capture of citizens is part of almost every composition by Frans Hogenberg and his contemporaries. The Blood Council seated at a table likewise knows many versions, although I have not found any where the table is filled with torture instruments, as in Vos’s description. Handing over the city keys is mostly depicted as a voluntary act, for example in Crispijn van de Passe (II), De stadsmaagd van ’s-Hertogenbosch overhandigt de sleutels van de stad aan Frederik Hendrik (1629), engraving, 141 x 370 mm (Rijksmuseum) (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.460243). However, rather than access to the city being offered freely, the presence of Spanish warlords in the tableau suggests that it is enforced. Finally, the tearing up of privileges plays a role in the aforementioned print The Tyranny of Alba, among other examples. [back to text]

[26] Konst believes the staging of horror was meant to elicit a brief but strong emotional response of disgust, bewilderment and flinching in the audience (Konst 1993: 208-09). [back to text]

[27]  See note 24, above. [back to text]

[28] The description reads as follows: ‘achter deeze Vertooningen, ziet men, naa ’t oopenen van vijf nieuwe verschieten, de menschen onthoofden, hangen, wurgen, verbranden, en andere gruwelijkheeden’. The verses read as follows: ‘men hangt, men wurgt, en brandt door kracht van ’t wreet gebodt’ (Vos 1660: 3v). [back to text]

[29] ‘Verdagvaarden de Tritons, door het geluit van hun klinkhoorens, de zoete en zoute baaren. De Noord-weste-wind vliegt tusschen hemel en aardt, en helpt het water door gestaadigh te blaazen, aan ’t zwellen: de Zuidtweste jaagt, terwijl zy over d’akkers en velden zweeft, de vloeden deur de deurgesteeken dijken en kaaden, en doetze langs het landt naar de Stadt toe bruischen. De Stroomgooden en Godinnen, die dus lang, voor ’t woeden van ’t Spaensche leeger, in hun bemoste killen verschoolen, ziet men nu van de grondt opschieten en op de baaren dobberen. Hier steekt de vyant verscheide leegerplaatsen, door ’t naaderen van de vloot, aen brandt. Daar klampen de Staatsche en Spaansche elkander aan boordt. Gins gaat men elkander, in ’t water, met roer, spies en deegen te keer. Overal dryven verdronken Krijgsluiden’ (Vos 1660: 6). [back to text]

[30] A beautiful example of a naval battle in print is Anon., Zeeslag bij Terheide (1653), etching, 295 x 370 mm (Rijksmuseum). Significantly, Vos was assigned by the Amsterdam burgomasters to design a series of allegorical tableaux at the occasion of the end of the Anglo-Dutch war in 1654 (Vos 1662: 601ff.). During their performance on the Dam, pamphlets were dispersed with descriptive texts and poems by Vos (Snoep 1975: 82). An earlier example of Vos’s interaction with this subject is his 1653 poem ‘Zeekrygh’, in which no gory detail is spared and that may well have been performed onstage (Geerdink 2012: 68). [back to text]

[31] This follows a trend in plays on the Leiden siege. By focusing on the city’s suffering from the plague and famine, Bontius’s play already highlights the human aspect of the siege more than his predecessor Jacob Duym (Meijer Drees 1992: 171). [back to text]

[32] ‘Manhaftigh Oorloghs Helt’; ‘gelijk den Ridder Godts’; ‘Godts held’ (the latter is exclusive to the 1660 publication) (Bontius 1660: 44; Bontius 1645: vs. 1947, 1958). [back to text]

[33] ‘Oranje luck en heil, blijft winnaer in victory!’ (Bontius 1660: 45). [back to text]

[34] ‘In de vertooning na ‘t spel Staat een brandent Outaar; aan de slinke zy vertoont zich Leiden, Mars, Stadtvoogt en Burgemeesteren; aan de rechte komt Prins Willem, die de Vryheidt, Hollandt en eenige Staaten by zich heeft. Hier wordt Leiden, voor haar geleede ellenden, het recht van de Hoogeschool opgedraagen’ (Vos 1660: 7). [back to text]



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Explaining Homicide: Medical Expertise, Representations of Violence, and the Demands of the Law in Early Modern Flanders

Explaining Homicide: Medical Expertise, Representations of Violence, and the Demands of the Law in Early Modern Flanders

Kevin Dekoster



[1] From the later Middle Ages onwards, legal authorities throughout continental Europe became increasingly interested in the use of expert witnesses in criminal cases. Influenced by Roman and canon law, both of which recognised the relevance of expert witnesses in the administration of justice, the inquisitorial procedure that developed and spread throughout the continent dismissed irrational modes of proof such as judicial ordeals and emphasised the rational investigation of the material evidence by the criminal judge. This implied an adherence to strict standards of proof that eventually required judges to consult experts in a growing number of cases (Crawford 2001: 1626-27; Porret 2010: 44-49; Watson 2011: 9-20). Given the broad applicability of medical knowledge to different types of legal cases and questions, ranging from physical injuries to sexual violence, witchcraft, and insanity, medical practitioners immediately became the most frequently consulted category of expert witnesses (De Renzi 2007: 316).

[2] As indicated by the hyphen, the history of medico-legal expertise can indeed be described in terms of expanding cooperation between legal authorities and the medical profession for the benefit of justice (Ruggiero 1978: 156-66). However, recent research has increasingly started to highlight the tensions between the demands of the law and the expertise that medical practitioners were either prepared or able to offer to the authorities (e.g. Landsman 1998: 460-61 & 486-87; De Renzi 2002: 224-25; Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293). Focussing on the medico-legal investigation of violent deaths in the early modern County of Flanders (a principality that essentially comprised the present-day Belgian provinces of West and East Flanders, together with parts of Northern France and the Dutch province of Zeeland), this contribution seeks to answer how both the preoccupations of medical practitioners and the requirements of the judicial authorities shaped the representation of violence within a forensic context.

[3] In order to explore the interactions and tensions between medical representations of violence and the demands of the law in early modern Flanders, this article will examine three aspects of the medico-legal system that was put in place throughout the county from the sixteenth century onwards: developments in the content of post-mortem reports, the use of medical evidence in criminal sentences, and the tensions between judges and experts that were prompted by the cautious empiricist epistemology behind medical representations of violence. But before we can delve deeper into these questions, it is necessary to discuss the emergence of the Flemish medico-legal system and the nature of the consulted source materials.

Medico-legal expertise in early modern Flanders: origins and practices

[4] While the consultation of medical experts in cases of violent death had been a routine feature of the administration of criminal justice in Northern Italy and parts of France since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, medico-legal expertise took longer to develop in Northern Europe, where it was only systematically adopted from the sixteenth century onwards (Porret 2010: 44-51; Watson 2011: 34-38). One of the regions that witnessed a particular ‘medico-legal turn’ in criminal proceedings during this period was the County of Flanders, where a steady stream of princely ordinances and edicts, writings of legal scholars, and compilations of customary law gradually enshrined the relevance of medical expertise in the investigation of suspicious deaths (Dekoster 2019: 128-61).

[5] For much of the sixteenth century, however, Flemish criminal judges conducted summary inspections of the bodies of homicide victims without relying on the expertise of medical practitioners.[1] On 9 July 1543, for instance, the bailiff and local judges of the parish of Eine (near the town of Oudenaarde) examined the corpse of a certain Inghel Vander Straeten, discovering three wounds on the body: a blow to the head, a wound in the left shoulder near the jugular vein, and a wound near the right eye, all inflicted by sharp instruments.[2] In the 1550s, the Flemish legal scholar Joos de Damhouder (1507-1581) exhorted judicial officials to consult medical practitioners when inquiring into violent deaths, drawing to a large extent on his own experiences as criminal clerk to the aldermen of Bruges. Furthermore, Damhouder was probably inspired by legal precedents within the Holy Roman Empire, where the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina — a code of criminal law proclaimed by Emperor Charles V in 1532 — required expert testimony by surgeons in homicides cases and that of midwives in cases of presumed infanticide. For this reason, the Carolina is considered a milestone in the history of legal medicine, the influence of which quickly transcended the borders of the Empire (Crawford 2001: 1623; Watson 2011: 20-22; Pastore 2017: 22). The first domestic normative texts on forensic post-mortems only started to appear from the final decades of the sixteenth century onwards. Two princely ordinances, proclaimed respectively by Philip II of Spain (1589) and his successors, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella (1616), made post-mortem examinations mandatory in all homicide investigations, while a 1626 ordinance by the Council of Flanders (Raad van Vlaanderen), the provincial judicial council of the county, required the presence of at least one properly trained and admitted surgeon at every post-mortem (Dekoster 2019: 134-38).

[6] Furthermore, the ordinances of 1589 and 1616 both required that whenever a homicide had taken place within their jurisdiction, the local judicial officers had to send — within a term of fourteen days — a copy of both the post-mortem report and the accompanying depositions of eyewitnesses to the provincial judicial council, in our case the Council of Flanders. A large number of these reports can still be found in the Council’s archives.[3] On the basis of samples taken from these archives, I have compiled a corpus of 128 post-mortem examinations of homicide victims — spanning the period between the 1540s and the year 1790 — that will constitute the backbone of the following analysis.[4] This material will be supplemented by court records (primarily post-mortem reports and criminal sentences) preserved in the municipal archives of the county’s three major cities: Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres.


Post-mortems and the representation of violence

[7] On 15 April 1561, the aldermen of the small rural parish of Moerbeke-Waas — situated to the north-east of Ghent — ordered a surgeon named Anthuenis De Brune to examine the body of Jan De Vogelere, who had been stabbed to death by Pieter De Brune the preceding day. In his report, the surgeon explained that he had discovered two wounds on the body: one above the right nipple, which he considered lethal, and a second one in the left leg, which was not considered lethal or dangerous.[5] This case is, in many ways, highly illustrative of sixteenth-century Flemish forensic procedures. While the aldermen in question no longer deemed themselves competent to examine the corpse without the assistance of a medical practitioner, the investigation remained of a very cursory nature. First, the term ‘autopsy’, as we understand it today, does not really apply to the examination in case, as no incision was made in order to examine the inner parts of the body. This almost exclusive focus on external marks of violence seems to have been a common feature of most sixteenth-century Flemish post-mortems, as the first opening of a body in the present sample of reports only took place in 1614.[6]

[8] Secondly, the inspection of Jan De Vogelere’s corpse is very illustrative of the way in which sixteenth-century medical practitioners represented the effects of violent crime. In his Practycke ende handbouck in criminele zaeken (Practice and Handbook in Criminal Cases, 1555), the jurist Joos de Damhouder advised legal officials and their medical ancillaries to ‘diligently consider all the victim’s wounds, blows, and injuries, and to faithfully record and write, which were lethal, which were not, and whether he died from his injuries or from another cause’ (Damhouder 1981: 104-05).[7] When comparing the observations of surgeon De Brune with Damhouder’s instructions, one can immediately notice the similarity in approach: De Brune only provided a short description of the location of the wounds, stating that the first was lethal and the second not. No attempts were made to offer a causal explanation of the link between the inference of the wound and the subsequent death of the victim, and even the criterion for distinguishing lethal from non-lethal wounds remains obscure.

[9] Damhouder’s instructions make clear that summary reports of this kind readily met the requirements of the law. As Marilyn Nicoud and Joël Chandelier have uncovered in their research on late medieval Bologna, judges were generally satisfied with a concise overview and classification (as either lethal or non-lethal) of the injuries observed on the corpse, which allowed them to initiate criminal proceedings and to characterise the severity of the violent act in question (Chandelier and Nicoud 2012: 155). Evidence from Flemish reports suggests that assessments of this kind were generally based on the extent to which the wounds in question penetrated certain vital parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, or liver.[8] In order to answer such questions, surgeons made use of tintijzers or probes, long and thin surgical instruments that were inserted into a wound in order to follow its trajectory, allowing them to make pronouncements on the depth of wounds and the possible penetration of vital organs without having to open one or more body cavities. In 1543, for instance, the surgeon Anthuenis Pygoesse inserted a probe into the head injury of Lievin De Brudegom, who had been stabbed by Jason Van Eede. When he withdrew the probe from the body, Pygoesse discovered that pieces of brain tissue had stuck to the instrument, leading him to the conclusion that the injury was lethal because it had penetrated the brain.[9]

[10] From the early seventeenth century onwards, a new approach to the representation of lethal violence can gradually be discerned. In 1633, the bailiff and local judges of the parish of Huise required a physician and a surgeon to examine the corpse of Adriaen Der Weduwen, who had been stabbed in the abdomen by Adriaen De Groote. The report is worth reproducing in full:

On the request of the honourable Adriaen Wandele, bailiff of Huise, we the undersigned sworn physician and surgeon have examined the dead body of Adriaen Der Weduwen, son of Joos, in whose corpse around the navel we have found a wound penetrating the cavity of the abdomen, with wounding of the omentum and cutting of many and diverse veins of the omentum and mesentery, which has caused a great effusion of blood in the abdomen, therefore we declare and attest that the aforementioned wound, which has been inflicted by a sharp cutting instrument, has caused the death of the said Adriaen Der Weduwen. In the presence of vassals and aldermen of Huise and court of Oplozer, 20 May 1633, below was written Joos Rekenaere, and somewhat further was written with a signature Adriaen Mas.[10]

While the experts in question did not explicitly state that they had opened the corpse in order to examine the damage to the abdominal cavity, it is nevertheless clear that they devoted more attention to the inside of the body than their predecessor in the 1561 case. Furthermore, the experts provided the authorities with a clear account of the trajectory of the murder weapon, which entered near the umbilicus, penetrated the abdomen, and damaged a number of important veins, resulting in a haemorrhage that caused the victim’s death. This focus on the trajectory of the murder weapon enabled them to create a ‘narrative’ of violence, in which a chain of causality was established between the infliction of a wound and the subsequent death of a victim.

[11] In this respect, dissection became the experts’ most important aide. While the corpses were only opened in 26% of the seventeenth-century cases encountered in the archives of the Council of Flanders, this almost doubled to 51.5% for the eighteenth-century cases.[11] However, as these numbers demonstrate, purely external examinations of the corpses of homicide victims continued to be undertaken until the very end of the eighteenth century.[12] When incisions were made, these tended to focus exclusively on those parts of the body where external evidence hinted at the presence of the cause of death. Complete autopsies in which the three major body cavities (skull, thorax, and abdomen) were opened remained extremely rare, even in the late eighteenth century.[13]

[12] Moreover, the traditional binary distinction between lethal and non-lethal wounds was gradually replaced by more elaborate analytical schemes, as early modern medico-legal theorists increasingly started to subdivide mortal wounds into those that were absolutely lethal and those that were only ‘accidentally’ lethal as a result of complications or neglect (e.g. Ludwig 1774: 105-17). The surgeon Joannes Carolus Huart (1715-1785) of Tienen, author of a comprehensive treatise on medico-legal reports, even used a tripartite scheme, dividing lethal wounds into categories such as ‘absolutely lethal’, ‘lethal by themselves’ (but curable), and ‘accidentally lethal’ (Huart 1794: 6-8), qualifications that were also used in actual forensic practice.[14] This obsession with degrees of lethality is clearly evidenced in eighteenth-century medico-legal handbooks, every one of which contained a comprehensive chapter in which all possible injuries to the human body were classified according to similar two- or tripartite schemes, usually following the a capite ad calcem (from head to toe) structure of contemporary anatomy textbooks (e.g. Devaux 1746: 30-199; Ludwig 1774: 150-94).

[13] How can we make sense of these changes in the ways in which medical experts represented the effects of violence? Two important developments in medical theory and practice should be taken into account, both of which took off in the second half of the sixteenth century. First, the publication in 1543 of Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica led to a gradual improvement of anatomical knowledge amongst Flemish physicians and surgeons, which undoubtedly influenced their forensic activities.[15] Armed with a more profound knowledge of normal human anatomy, the experts might have felt more confident to open bodies in order to examine their pathologies. Secondly, these developments in anatomical knowledge were accompanied by the publication of the first vernacular treatises devoted to the art of writing medico-legal reports. In 1575, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590) published a treatise on medico-legal reports that is genuinely recognised as the first vernacular work on legal medicine (Lecuir 1979: 231; Forbes 1985: 37). In 1592, Paré’s collected works were translated into Dutch by Carel Baten (ca. 1540-1617), the town physician of Dordrecht, and this made his forensic insights available to medical practitioners operating within the Dutch-speaking provinces of the Habsburg Netherlands (Paré 1592: 1082-92).[16] During the seventeenth century, Baten’s translation of Paré’s works was the most frequently consulted and most influential textbook on surgery within the Habsburg Netherlands (Van Hee 1990: 102). The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of an extensive body of vernacular medico-legal literature, consisting of a combination of original writings by practitioners operating within the Dutch Republic and the Habsburg Netherlands and translations of works by French and German authors.[17]

[14] Finally, changes in legal requirements should also be taken into account. In this sense, a comparison of Joos de Damhouder’s discussion of post-mortems with an eighteenth-century treatise on medico-legal autopsies, written by the Dutch jurist Johan Jacob van Hasselt (1717-1783), is quite revealing. While Damhouder was generally satisfied with a summary external examination by one or more surgeons (Damhouder 1981: 104-06), Van Hasselt required medical experts to open corpses and to properly explain to judges why a particular wound should be considered lethal or not. He therefore considered it necessary for judicial authorities not only to rely on the expertise of surgeons, but also to consult university-trained physicians as medical examiners (Van Hasselt 1772: 11-15).[18]


Medical evidence and judicial decision-making

[15] Joos de Damhouder provided a clear explanation for judges’ and experts’ obsession with the lethality of injuries. If the experts could demonstrate that the wounds inflicted on a homicide victim were not definitively lethal in themselves, but only became lethal because of negligence on the part of the victim or because of the incompetence of the medical practitioners who had treated him or her, the aggressor in question could only be prosecuted for assault, and not for manslaughter, which automatically excluded capital punishment (Damhouder 1981: 105-06). In 1589, for instance, the onderbaljuw of the city of Ghent demanded that Franchoys Van Lokeren be beheaded for having killed a certain Philips Van Heghelsem. Van Lokeren, however, maintained that the injury he had inflicted in the victim’s abdomen with a pike was superficial, and that Van Heghelsem had actually succumbed to an infectious disease. To prove this, he provided the aldermen of Ghent with a number of attestations that unfortunately are not preserved, but some of which were undoubtedly written by medical practitioners. The report of the autopsy conducted by a physician and three surgeons largely confirmed Van Lokeren’s allegations, and so the aldermen only sentenced him to perform a public penance and to pay a fine of ten guilders.[19] In 1640, the Council of Flanders made a similar ruling in the case of Jan de Loraine, who had used a candle to assault a fellow inmate in the prison of Kortrijk. As the head injuries in question were not judged to be lethal, de Loraine was sentenced to perform a public penance rather than receiving the death penalty.[20] The fact that medical practitioners considered the injuries not absolutely lethal could also be grounds for a defendant to obtain a princely pardon. Therefore, petitioners frequently referred to medical evidence in their pardon requests, and some even added attestations by surgeons and physicians to their petitions in order to strengthen their case (Vrolijk 2004: 220-25).[21]

[16] Because of the profound implications of the experts’ verdicts, criminal sentences in homicide cases extensively drew on medico-legal representations of violence when describing victims’ injuries. Consequently, many sentences either cite medical examinations or quote from them.[22] In the case of Francois Vander Meulen, who had stabbed Gheeraert Debbaut in the abdomen with a knife, the aldermen of Ghent even copied the entire medical content of the post-mortem report into the criminal sentence in order to demonstrate that the injury in question had caused the victim’s death.[23]

[17] A particularly interesting example of the inclusion of medical evidence in criminal sentences is the judgment pronounced by the aldermen of Ghent against Adriaen De Joode, who was suspected of having committed six particularly atrocious murders over the course of a decade. The aldermen readily cited from the medico-legal reports produced in the 1664 case against De Joode for the murder of the wool merchant Martinus Vander Brugghen and three members of his household. The sentence related how the killer attacked the twenty-five-year-old maidservant Christina De Scheppere with a hammer. The strike passed ‘through the substance of the brain, a blow so heavy that she fell to the earth, whose throat you furthermore cut with your knife, slicing her from the throat to the stomach, whereupon she immediately died’. With regard to the murder of her mistress, Joanne Livine Beernaert, the sentence mentions that ‘having hit her equally with your hammer […] on the head, and having cut her throat in a very inhumane fashion by inflicting ten murderous wounds with your knife, you let her wallow in her blood like an animal’.[24]

[18] What is particularly interesting about the sentence in question, is that the entire narrative of the murders of Adriaen De Joode was not only neatly written down on sheets of paper, but also a relatively large number of copies were printed, which suggests that the text was probably handed out, sold, or distributed during or after De Joode’s execution.[25] In this sense, the inclusion of medical details in the sentence had a clear function. Through a detailed description of the atrocities committed by De Joode, the judges aimed to legitimise the particularly cruel and severe punishment they had devised. First, Adriaen De Joode would be pinched six times with glowing irons, once for each victim. Afterwards, his body would be broken on a cross, and finally he would be burned alive. While the aldermen’s intention in publishing this sentence and including the medical details was probably to edify their subjects and to deter them from committing similar crimes, published sentences of this kind might also have satisfied the popular demand for sensational details on horrific and atrocious crimes, in this way closely imitating the notorious English murder pamphlets, which Carol Loar appropriately described as ‘the mechanism capable of generating the widest audience for medico-legal knowledge’ (Loar 2010: 486).

[19] In this respect, and to fully appreciate the early modern post-mortem report as a specific discourse on violence, one equally has to understand that a large number of medico-legal investigations were conducted in a (semi-)public context. Most post-mortems were conducted at the location where the body was found, or at least in a nearby house or tavern. Furthermore, the reports often explicitly acknowledge that the discovery of a dead body and its subsequent examination attracted a large number of bystanders, even when the actual post-mortem took place in a private home.[26] The (semi-)public nature of most post-mortems was due in part to the functional nature of the bystander’s presence. First of all, observers could often help the authorities identify the corpse in question.[27] Secondly, a crowd of local inhabitants constituted an interesting pool of potential witnesses to question about the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death. On a more symbolic level, conducting a post-mortem in a public location could also function as a ritual demonstrating the activity and (purported) effectiveness of the judicial system, allowing judges to make clear that they would thoroughly investigate every suspicious death.[28] In this sense, conducting a post-mortem — although situated at the start of a criminal procedure — might serve an aim very similar to the public execution of a criminal or the public pronouncement of a criminal sentence at the end of the same procedure.


Medico-legal empiricism and legal dissatisfaction

[20] Notwithstanding the clear advances in forensic practices and procedures throughout the early modern period, and despite the importance attached to medical evidence by Flemish criminal judges, contemporary judicial officials occasionally felt that medico-legal representations of violence still had their deficiencies. In 1723, the attorney-general (procureur-generaal) of the Council of Flanders requested permission from the Council to inquire into an assault on a lesser judicial officer from the parish of Baaigem, stating that the medical report sent to him by the local authorities did not clearly state the cause of the wounds in question.[29] When sending over an autopsy report to the attorney-general in 1783, the stadtholder of the Land and Castle of Beveren apologised for the fact that ‘the report does not fully seem to decide the cause of death’.[30]

[21] Looking more closely at early modern Flemish post-mortems, one does indeed notice that many autopsy reports seem to lack essential information. In many cases, in fact, it is not even possible to ascertain whether a person died a violent death or not by relying solely on the medical report. In 1653, for instance, two surgeons examined the body of a certain Tanneken Causmaeckers on behalf of the aldermen of Ghent. During an external examination, they found a number of contusions on her head. After removing the skull, the experts discovered a large quantity of blood on the dura mater, which they considered the cause of death. However, the surgeons did not give any opinion as to the probable origin of these wounds. As no depositions of witnesses survive for this case, it is impossible to ascertain whether Tanneken died following an accident (e.g. falling on stairs) or an act of violence (e.g. someone threw a stone at her or hit her with a stick).[31]

[22] While some judicial officials might have lamented the omission of crucial information from the reports, the experts believed they had clear reasons to do so. Their reticence touches on an essential aspect of early modern medico-legal epistemology, namely its strong empiricist nature. This implied that medical experts almost exclusively focused on what could be observed and experienced through the senses (with primacy accorded to the sense of sight), while trying to avoid speculative statements as much as possible (McClive 2012: 493-94). This epistemological outlook was certainly not limited to the medico-legal sphere. Focussing on eighteenth-century France, Toby Gelfand has convincingly emphasised the outspoken empiricist and experience-based approach of early modern surgery. From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, this empiricist attitude was increasingly shared by university-trained physicians, who traditionally had fewer objections against hypothetical reasoning (Gelfand 1980: 11, 138-39).

[23] This cautious empiricist epistemology found its most potent expression in the medico-legal handbooks of early modern France, which considered prudence (together with professional skill) to be the expert’s principal quality (Lecuir 1979: 242-243). The Parisian surgeon Jean Devaux (1649-1729), author of an influential handbook on the art of writing medico-legal reports, clearly echoed this empiricist outlook, stating that ‘a judicious surgeon is obliged not to say anything affirmative in his report concerning absent causes, pains, and generally anything that does not fall under the senses’ (Devaux 1746: 12).[32] Devaux’s colleague Nicolas de Blégny (1652-1722) suggested that surgeons should only testify on matters that are apparent to the senses and ought to avoid speculation on symptoms or phenomena that were only reported by the victims themselves (Blégny 1684: 33). Experts who deviated from the empiricist mantra of ‘voir et visiter’ by indulging in speculation could expect severe criticism from colleagues and the broader public opinion (McClive 2012: 489-503).

[24] The caution advised by the French authors found a clear counterpart in Joos de Damhouder’s enumeration of the principal qualities required of medical experts. According to Damhouder, a good expert ‘should not be too bold in uncertain cases’ (Damhouder 1981: 117).[33] The Dutch translation of Ambroise Paré’s treatise on medico-legal reports advised surgeons ‘to be very cautious and attentive […], as judges always base themselves on and act upon the observations of the physician or the surgeon’ (Paré 1592: 1082).[34] Furthermore, the empiricist nature of Flemish medico-legal expertise is mirrored in the most frequently used contemporary term for a post-mortem, aenschauw, which was derived from the verb aenschauwen, literally meaning ‘to see, to observe’.

[25] These statements by medico-legal theorists can also be corroborated with archival evidence demonstrating the reticence of Flemish medical practitioners when being asked to represent the effects of violent crime. First, the advanced state of decomposition of some corpses made experts extremely cautious to identify a possible cause of death. In 1738, two surgeons from the town of Warneton examined the body of fifteen-year-old Agnes Therese Cousin, whose corpse was found ‘covered with a very large number of worms because of the corruption of the said cadaver or corpse, which spread a great stench’. They then concluded that ‘as the said corpse is in such a state of corruption that none of its parts can be considered in their natural state, we declare that we cannot establish the cause of death’.[35] Likewise, when a physician and a surgeon were asked to examine the body of a female infant found in a bush, they explained that ‘as the principal external and internal parts were already eaten by birds or vermin, and partially rotten, they cannot judge whether the child was born alive or not’.[36] Secondly, medical uncertainty sometimes forced judges to grant suspects the benefit of the doubt. In 1645, the aldermen of Ghent sentenced Adriaenne Le Riche to a public whipping and a banishment of ten years instead of the death penalty because the experts who conducted the post-mortem of Niclaeys Moutton could not establish whether the stab wound inflicted upon him by Adriaenne had necessarily been fatal.[37] One of the reasons why Anthoine Papegay was pardoned for the homicide of Matheus Rondeel was the fact that the four surgeons involved in the case disagreed as to whether the injury in question had been lethal.[38]

[26] Cases such as these reveal the epistemological conflicts that could arise between judges and experts within the medico-legal arena. As Joël Chandelier and Marilyn Nicoud have argued, the law required precise and unequivocal responses that often clashed with the uncertain, prudent, and increasingly empiricist epistemology of medicine (Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293). According to Ian Maclean, conflicts between jurists and medical practitioners can be traced back to the fact that ‘medicine is shown to have a much laxer operative logic than law, reflecting its commitment to the theory of idiosyncrasy as opposed to the demands made upon the law by the need for a uniform application of justice’ (Maclean 2000: 256). In this sense, ‘the judge expects from the expert a clear-cut response that the medical expert is not always able to offer’ (Chandelier & Nicoud 2015: 293).[39]

[27] Early modern judges devised a host of strategies to circumvent the epistemological concerns of the medical profession. The Italian judge Antonio Maria Cospi (ca. 1560-1635) suspected that overly cautious medical experts were quite willing to exonerate killers by ascribing death to natural causes rather than violence and advised his colleagues to acquire a basic grasp of anatomy and pathology.[40] Armed with this knowledge, they could then question the experts on their observations and critically evaluate their conclusions (De Renzi 2002: 225; Pastore 2017: 23-26). Generally, Flemish judges did not exhibit a profound knowledge of medical and surgical teachings — in fact most of them did not even possess law degrees. Nevertheless, some legal officials demonstrated a clear desire to establish the cause of death by all means necessary, even if this meant putting pressure on experts or circumventing medical expertise altogether. When, in 1717, the physician and the surgeon who examined the corpse of Guillaume Pollé noted that it was no longer possible to discover any substantial marks of violence on the severely decomposed body, exhumed a week after the victim’s death when rumours of murder began to spread in the parish of Kemmel, the judges of the castellany court of Ypres circumvented this problem by questioning the neighbours and relatives who had seen and examined Pollé’s corpse prior to burial. Most witnesses testified that they had observed injuries around the victim’s throat and had seen blood around his nose and mouth, and thus the judges’ suspicions that Pollé had been killed by his wife’s lover were largely confirmed.[41]

[28] Other judges applied increasing pressure on experts until they delivered the desired answers. On 24 March 1675, the city physician and the city surgeon of Bruges examined the corpse of Jan Verstraete, lying in Saint John’s Hospital. Although they discovered a head injury that penetrated the cranium, the experts did not remark upon any alteration to his brain matter and concluded that death resulted from ‘a continual fever’. This response did not satisfy the local aldermen. Five days after the autopsy, the experts were separately summoned before the aldermen and asked whether Verstraete had died as a consequence of the wound. Both of them declared that the injury in question could not be regarded as the cause of death.[42] That early modern judges could be extremely tenacious in their attempts to establish causes of death is demonstrated by the case of Guillaume Sijs. More than seven years after Sijs’s death, the aldermen of Staden questioned the attending surgeon, Jacques Forret, to discover whether the head injury inflicted by Guillaume Reins had been the actual cause of the victim’s demise.[43] As demonstrated by the systematic references to medical evidence in criminal sentences, too much depended upon the verdicts of medical experts to allow any lingering doubts over the lethality of injuries.



[29] Drawing on a sample of post-mortem reports and other court records, this article has demonstrated how the emergence of medical expertise in Flemish criminal proceedings afforded new avenues for the pursuit of justice, while simultaneously leading to conflicts and misunderstandings between judges and experts. First of all, a remarkable evolution in the representation and explanation of corporal violence took place throughout the early modern period. While sixteenth-century post-mortem reports essentially offered summary descriptions of wounds and assessments of their lethality, largely based on the interpretation of external bodily signs, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a more elaborative approach to violent death. Experts attempted to explain how particular acts of violence could result in the victim’s death by opening the corpse in question, in this way uncovering the trajectories of wounds and creating a causal narrative of violent death. Both contemporary developments in anatomical knowledge and the appearance of the first vernacular treatises on the art of writing medico-legal reports, as well as changing legal requirements, had an important role in shaping the content of early modern medico-legal discourse.

[30] Secondly, medical representations of violence could have a profound impact on the punishments meted out to the accused. If at least one mortal wound could be discovered upon the victim’s corpse, there was little doubt that the suspect was indeed responsible for the death in question and therefore deserved a harsh punishment. When none of the wounds was considered definitively lethal, or if the experts disagreed on the lethality of the injuries, suspects were generally punished for assault rather than homicide and stood a fair chance of successfully petitioning for a pardon. Furthermore, the judicial authorities made avid use of medical evidence when communicating with their subjects about the prosecution of violent crime via the publication of criminal sentences in notorious murder cases. Therefore, the ways in which medico-legal information appeared in printed sentences and popular crime reports certainly merit a more profound examination, which might result in a renewed understanding of the interplay between medicine, law, and popular mentalities.

[31] Nonetheless, this marriage of medicine and the law was not always a harmonious one. Although the cautious empiricism of the experts might have been consonant with the epistemological concerns of early modern surgery, and to a growing extent also of theoretical medicine, it did not always match the requirements of the law, which demanded a clear-cut and definitive answer to specific medical questions. While early modern Flemish judges developed several strategies to deal with the reticent attitude inherent to medico-legal representations of lethal violence, the high number of deaths ascribed to ‘fevers’ and ‘internal diseases’ testifies to a deep-seated anxiety among medical practitioners concerning the far-reaching consequences of their expertise upon the lives of alleged suspects. This anxiety must have severely frustrated judicial officials whose primary intent was to catch killers and to bring them to justice.

Ghent University



[1] The same practice is documented for Amsterdam throughout large parts of the same century (Hallema 1963: 1922-30). [back to text]

[2] Rijksarchief Gent (RAG), Raad van Vlaanderen (RVV), no. 31105, inspection of the body of Inghel Vander Straeten, Eine, 9 July 1543. The same file also contains reports of similar examinations in the parish of Moorslede (1542) and the city of Bruges (1541). A bailiff or baljuw was an official, appointed by the prince or local lord, who was responsible for maintaining public order within a certain territorial jurisdiction. His judicial tasks included, among other things, tracking down and arresting criminals, collecting evidence, formulating criminal charges, and the execution of the criminal sentences rendered by local judges. Depending on the jurisdiction, the administration of criminal justice was entrusted to the local bench of aldermen, the main governing body of Flemish villages and towns, or a court consisting of vassals of the local lord. The bailiff and a deputation of members of the local criminal court were expected to be present at every post-mortem, even as medical practitioners gradually took over the actual examinations. [back to text]

[3] They can be found in RAG, RVV, no. 6828-7086 (inquests by subaltern courts) and no. 31105-31166 (post-mortem reports). Both series also contain medical reports concerning suicides, drownings, accidents, and cases of rape. The reports in question represent only a tiny fraction of all inquests into suspicious deaths undertaken by Flemish criminal judges during the early modern period. As both series were artificially created by twentieth-century archivists, it is not entirely clear why these specific reports have survived and where the others are, presuming that they are still extant. Most reports hail from a rural context, which is a welcome addition to the well-preserved registers of post-mortem reports of cities such as Bruges and Ghent. [back to text]

[4] The cases are spread over the three centuries as follows: twelve fom the sixteenth, fifty-four from the seventeenth, and sixty-two from the eighteenth century. As the amount of conserved material dramatically increases from the 1730s onwards, I have chosen to work with samples for the period 1730-1790, studying the reports for two years per decade. [back to text]

[5] RAG, RVV, no. 6855, inspection of the body of Jan De Vogelere, Moerbeke-Waas, 15 April 1561. [back to text]

[6] RAG, RVV, no. 6894, inspection of the body of Tanneken Van Damme, Nieuwpoort, 6 September 1614. However, Vrolijk (2004: 305-09) mentions a 1545 case in which three surgeons from the town of Harelbeke opened the head of a woman who had allegedly been killed by her husband. Internal examinations sporadically took place in Ghent, Bruges, and the castellany or rural district of Ypres during the second half of the sixteenth century, usually in particularly complex cases. Nonetheless, the large majority of forensic post-mortems conducted in these jurisdictions only involved an external examination. [back to text]

[7] ‘Ende neerstelick considereren alle zijn wonden, slaeghen ende quetsueren, ende die ghetrauwelick teekenen ende scriven, welcke doodelick waeren, welcke niet, ende of hy ghestorven es uuter quetseuren oft andersins’. [back to text]

[8] When inspecting the body of Jan Herwijn in 1617, the two surgeons involved discovered a wound in the middle finger of his left hand, which was curable, and a second one above the diaphragm. They considered the second wound lethal and incurable because it penetrated the victim’s stomach and liver: RAG, RVV, no. 31106, inspection of the body of Jan Herwijn, Bambeke, 19 August 1617. [back to text]

[9] RAG, RVV, no. 31105, deposition of the surgeon Anthuenis Pygoesse, Assenede, 25-26 June 1543. [back to text]

[10] RAG, RVV, no. 6914, inspection of the body of Adriaen Der Weduwen, Huise, 20 May 1633. The original Dutch text runs as follows: ‘Ten versoucke vanden eersamen Adriaen Wandele, baulliu van Huusse, es bij ons onderschreven gheswoeren medecin ende chieregin anschaut gheweest het doode lichame van Adriaen Der Weduwen, filius Joos, in wiens lichame ontrent den affel hebben ghevonden een wonde penetrerende tot inde hollenheijt vanden ondersten buijck met quetsijnghe vant omentum ende afsnijdijnghen van veele ende diversche aderen soo vant omentum alst mesenterium, waer door ghecauseert es gheweest groote huijtstortijnghe van bloet inden ondersten buijck, dienvolghende verclaren ende attesteeren dat de voornoemde wonde, d’welck gheschiet es met een serp snijdende instrument, ghecauseert heeft de doot vanden voorseijden Adriaen Der Weduwen. Actum ter kennisse van leenmannen ende schepenen van Huusse ende Hove van Uplosere den XXen meye 1633, onder stont gheschreven Joos Rekenaere, wat voorder stont gheschreven met een hanteecken ghemaeckt Adriaen Mas’. [back to text]

[11] These numbers might be underestimates, as I have only counted those cases in which the experts explicitly stated that they removed the skull or opened the thoracic or abdominal cavitiy. [back to text]

[12] For instance, when Judocus De Jaeghere was found dead in his bedroom, a physician and a surgeon concluded that he had been strangled by the burglars who had entered the house the night before. They reached their conclusion by relying exclusively on external bodily signs such as a dislocated larynx and wounds in the neck: RAG, RVV, no. 31164, inspection of the body of Judocus De Jaeghere, Lovendegem, 12 August 1784. [back to text]

[13] In 1783, a physician and a surgeon opened the skull, thorax, and abdomen of a certain Joannes Fobé, who had been hit on the head with a stone. The unusual thoroughness of this examination can probably be explained by the fact that the head injury was not considered absolutely lethal: RAG, RVV, no. 31163, inspection of the body of Joannes Fobé, Beveren, 28 May 1783. [back to text]

[14] In 1669, the surgeon Adriaen Monet declared that both the wound that Michiel Wostyn had received in his chest, penetrating the thoracic cavity, and the one on his back — which penetrated the stomach — were lethal, although only the latter was considered incurable: RAG, RVV, no. 31111, deposition of the surgeon Adriaen Monet, Keiem, 28 June 1669. [back to text]

[15] Surprisingly, the first vernacular treatise on Vesalian anatomy available in Flanders was not a translation of the Fabrica, but a Dutch version of the Historia de la composición del cuerpo humano of the Spanish anatomist Juan Valverde de Amusco (ca. 1525-1588), which was printed in Antwerp in 1568. While he ‘borrowed’ most of the anatomical plates in his work from Vesalius, the text itself was an original contribution from Valverde, whose prose is generally easier to understand than the ornate rhetorical style of Vesalius. Furthermore, Valverde corrected some of Vesalius’s mistakes (Okholm Skaarup 2015: 25 & 233; Van Hee 2000: 45). [back to text]

[16] Baten was actually born in Ghent, but fled the Habsburg Netherlands in 1586, shortly after the Fall of Antwerp. An English translation of Paré’s works appeared in 1634 (Loar 2010: 482). [back to text]

[17] A good overview of eighteenth-century medico-legal books and treatises that were written in, or translated into, Dutch is given in Siebold (1847: xiii-xiv). [back to text]

[18] Van Hasselt was probably inspired by the judicial practice of the provincial court in his native province of Guelders, which made similar recommendations in its correspondence with local judicial officers (Overdijk 1999: 78-80). [back to text]

[19] Stadsarchief Gent (SAG), Oud Archief (OA), series 214, no. 12, fol. 30v-31r, sentence of 31 July 1589, and series 218, no. 1, inspection of the body of Philips ‘Negenerschen’ [sic], 8 June 1589. [back to text]

[20] RAG, RVV, no. 8594, fol. 389v-390v, sentence of 7 July 1640. A public penance or amende honorable usually took the form of the condemned person appearing — bare-headed and on his knees — before the local judges, where he had to beg God and the judicial authorities for forgiveness for his crime(s). [back to text]

[21] Examples of such attestations can be found in SAG, OA, series 213, no. 8, documents regarding the petition for a pardon for Pauwels Luytens, 1643-1645, and no. 9, attestation of the surgeon Loys Vander Swalmen in the case of Loys Verschaffelt, 27 April 1644. [back to text]

[22] For instance RAG, RVV, no. 8594, fol. 48r-49r, sentence of 6 June 1598, fol. 211r-212r, sentence of 7 April 1629; SAG, OA, series 215, no. 1, sentence of 26 June 1643, and no. 7, sentence of 11 October 1735. [back to text]

[23] SAG, OA, series 214, no. 109, fol. 99v-101r, sentence of 27 May 1704, and series 218, no. 4, fol. 60r-v, inspection of the body of Geeraert Debbaut, 24 May 1704. Vander Meulen was beheaded and his goods were confiscated. [back to text]

[24] SAG, OA, series 215, no. 3, sentence of 2 May 1664. ‘Hebt de voorschreven dienstmaerte met uwen hamer ghegheven op haer hooft eenen soo swaeren slach, door de substantie vande herssenen, dat sy oock ter aerden viel, die ghy voorts met u mes hebt ghekeelt, emmers ghegheven eene steke inden hals, tot inde maeghe, daer van dat zy dadelick is commen te overlijden […], ende haer oock met uwen moort-hamer […] op haer hooft hebt ghebolt, ende met u mes met thien moordadighe wonden inden hals seer on-menschelijck ghekeelt, die ghy oock al oft sy hadde geweest eene beeste liet wentelen in haer bloedt’. The relevant post-mortem reports can be found in series 218, no. 2, fol. 84r-v, and series 219, no. 2. [back to text]

[25] The publication of criminal sentences and the rhetorical strategies and manipulations this involved are discussed in more detail in Franck (2009: 14-16). Concerning a similar case (a fivefold murder committed by two burglars) that took place about a hundred years later, a local newspaper announced that copies of the criminal sentence could not only be bought in Ghent, but also in print shops in Bruges, Ypres, Kortrijk, Oudenaarde, Sint-Niklaas, and Aalst: Gazette van Gendt, 5 December 1763. [back to text]

[26] For instance RAG, RVV, no. 6914, inspection of the body of Jan De Pau, Waarschoot, 28 November 1634 (which speaks of ‘the presence of many and various bystanders’), and no. 31151, inspection of the body of Pieterken De Mey, Sint-Lievens-Houtem, 24 March 1774 (post-mortem in a private home). [back to text]

[27] RAG, RVV, no. 31130, inspection of the body of Eugenius Arckens, Zwevegem, 20 May 1754; SAG, OA, series 218, no. 5, fol. 102r-v, inspection of the body of Lucas Everaert, Zelzate, 25 April 1724. [back to text]

[28] An interesting remark concerning the ‘spectacular’ nature of early modern post-mortems appeared in an eighteenth-century report produced on behalf of the aldermen of Ghent. When asked if he wanted to attend the post-mortem of a woman who had fallen from a watermill, situated on the border of the jurisdictions of Ghent and Drongen, the clerk of the parish of Drongen declined, stating that ‘it was not a nice spectacle to see’: SAG, OA, series 218, no. 7, inspection of the body of Anne Marie De Vos, 25 April 1764. The ‘spectacular’ nature of English coroners’ inquests, whose public character was even much more pronounced than that of continental post-mortems, is acknowledged in Butler (2015: 182). [back to text]

[29] RAG, RVV, no. 7024, attorney-general to the Council of Flanders, 16 November 1723. [back to text]

[30] RAG, RVV, no. 31163, Jacobus Rochus Joannes De Belie to the attorney-general, 6 August 1783. ‘Mits d’acte van aenschouw d’oorzaek van de dood niet ten vollen en schijnt te decideren.’ [back to text]

[31] SAG, OA, series 218, no. 2, fol. 86v, inspection of the body of Tanneken Causmaeckers, 29 May 1653. [back to text]

[32] ‘Un Chirurgien judicieux est obligé à ne rien dire d’affirmatif dans son Rapport sur les causes absentes, sur les douleurs, & généralement sur tout ce qui ne tombe pas sous les sens’. [back to text]

[33] ‘Dat zij in twijffelicke zaeken niet te stout en zijn’. [back to text]

[34] ‘Hier in moet hy seer voorsichtich ende wel toesiende wesen […] mits dat de Rechters haer altijt fonderen ende reguleren op het aengeven des Medicijns oft des Chirurgijns’. [back to text]

[35] RAG, RVV, no. 7037, inspection of the body of Agnes Therese Cousin, Warneton, 28 May 1738. ‘Couvert d’un très grand nombre de vers par la corruption dudit cadavre ou corps mort, qui répandoit une grande puanteur […], et comme ledit corps mort étoit tellement en corruption qu’aucune partie de son corps ne pouvoit être consideré dans leur essence, ainsi nous déclarons que nous ne pouvons aucunement juger de la cause de sa mort’. The victim’s corpse was found in a forest after she had been missing for a couple of days. The judges of the feudal court of Warneton suspected foul play and issued a public notice promising a financial reward to the person who could identify the purported killer. [back to text]

[36] RAG, RVV, no. 31129, inspection of the body of a female infant, Bornem, 25 February 1751. ‘Door dien sij bevonden hebben dat de principaelste partijen soo interne als externe, alreede door de vogelen ofte gedierten waeren op ge’eten, ende ten deele verrot, sulcx sij niet en connen ordeelen oft het soude geleeft hebben oft niet’. [back to text]

[37] SAG, OA, series 215, no. 1, sentence of 9 December 1645. [back to text]

[38] RAG, RVV, no. 31112, advice of the bailiff and aldermen of Steenbeke regarding the granting of a pardon to Anthoine Papegay, 12 March 1670. [back to text]

[39] ‘Là, le juge attend de l’expert une réponse tranchée, que le médecin expert n’est pas toujours en mesure de lui apporter’. The problems that the ‘divergence between medical and legal assessments of what constituted satisfactory proof of causation’ could pose in early modern rape cases are discussed in Stephan Landsman’s article on medical witnesses at the eighteenth-century Old Bailey (Landsman 1998: 460). [back to text]

[40] The same remark has been made by many historians working on early modern forensic practices (e.g. Vanhemelryck 1972: 369-370; Denys 2000: 99; Chaulet 2008: 318). [back to text]

[41] Stadsarchief Ieper, Kasselrij Ieper, series 8, no. C3, inspection of the body of Guillaume Pollé, Kemmel, 1 October 1717, and depositions of witnesses, 1-2 October 1717. The victim’s wife and her lover were sentenced to death in absentia. [back to text]

[42] Stadsarchief Brugge, Oud Archief, series 191, no. 5, fol. 135v-136r, inspection of the body of Jan Verstraete, 24 March 1675, and questioning of the experts, 29 March 1675. Ten years earlier, the same experts examined the corpse of a person who had purportedly broken a leg. However, they did not discover any fracture and were not prepared to give an opinion on the cause of death. The aldermen of Bruges then questioned the victim’s attending physician, who ascribed death to a fever: series 191, no. 5, fol. 68v-69r, inspection of the body of Pieter De Wispelare, 8 November 1665, and questioning of the physician, 10 November 1665. [back to text]

[43] RAG, RVV, no. 6935, deposition of the surgeon Jacques Forret, 27 October 1653. The surgeon was probably questioned in response to a petition for a pardon by the offender. He considered the injury not to have been lethal. A similar course of action was undertaken in a 1566 case, in which a number of surgeons were questioned regarding a homicide that had occurred seven years before, again in response to a request for a pardon (Vrolijk 2004: 334-335). [back to text]



Archival sources

Bruges, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 191, no. 5, register of post-mortem reports, 1655-1690

Ghent, Rijksarchief (RAG), Raad van Vlaanderen (RVV), no. 6828-7086, inquests by subaltern courts

Ghent, Rijksarchief, Raad van Vlaanderen, no. 8594, register of criminal sentences, 1585-1641

Ghent, Rijksarchief, Raad van Vlaanderen, no. 31105-31166, post-mortem reports

Ghent, Stadsarchief (SAG), Oud Archief (OA), series 213, criminal trial records

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 214, ‘books of crime’ (boeken van den crime)

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 215, criminal sentences

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 218, registers of post-mortem reports

Ghent, Stadsarchief, Oud Archief, series 219, post-mortem reports

Ypres, Stadsarchief, Kasselrij Ieper, series 8, no. C3, trial against Joris Calmein and Marie De Jonghe for the murder of Guillaume Pollé, 1717


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Violence Heard: The Ekphrasis of Sound from Thundering Sea Battles to Thick Silence

Violence Heard: The Ekphrasis of Sound from Thundering Sea Battles to Thick Silence

Frans-Willem Korsten & Marijn van Dijk


​[1]​ The study of violence has long been marked by the dominance of scopophilia, the love of the visual. There is a practical reason for this: sound could not be recorded until the late nineteenth century. In the case of the early modern period, the scopophilic emphasis is intensified thanks to the explosion of images that resulted from rapidly developing print techniques and the baroque fascination with visual representations (Van Duijnen 2019). In recent decades, however, more and more attention has been paid to the relevance of sound in our making sense of periods, situations and texts. Relatively few studies, though, pay this kind of attention to representations of violence, although there is ample reason to do so. Images and texts start to work differently, affectively, when sound is taken into consideration. This paper therefore attempts to focus on the sound of early modern violence, by considering the acoustic analogy to what in the field of texts and images has been defined as ekphrasis. Our argument is that in its transformation from a classical rhetorical concept to a modern literary concept, ekphrasis lost its voice, and, by implication, its sound.

​[2]​ We will develop our argument in four steps. First, we will define what we mean by ‘ekphrasis of sound’ and illustrate its relevance for the representation of violence. Second, we will focus on how ekphrasis of sound involves the imagination of space, both in terms of a source and of a surrounding. Third, we will deal with the symbolic aspect of ekphrasis of sound, since the experience of sound is different from the way in which sounds acquire symbolical meaning in texts. Finally, we will focus on representations in which sound acquires its force through forms of silence, as an expression of threat – and we note beforehand, here, that silence is not the absence of sound.

1. Ekphrasis of sound: vividness in the representation of violence

​[3]​ In a study titled Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice, Ruth Webb shows how modern definitions of ekphrasis deviate from its original use to describe a rhetorical concept. In modern literary criticism, ekphrasis is usually seen as a text or textual fragment that engages with visual art or that is considered in the competition between the textual and the visual in terms of paragone (Mitchell 1986, 1994). In the modern literary context, a few paradigmatic examples of definitions of ekphrasis are, as mentioned by Webb: ‘the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art’, or ‘the verbal representation of visual representation’ or even more basic ‘words about an image’. Yet according to Webb, a classical rhetorical definition of ekphrasis would be ‘a speech that brings the subject matter vividly before the eyes’ (Webb 2009: 1). When Caspar De Jonge (2016), building on Webb, dealt with ekphrasis in the context of rhetorical education, he pointed out two differences between the ancient rhetorical concept of ekphrasis and the modern literary understanding of the term. According to De Jonge, firstly, descriptions of objects or works of art are hardly ever mentioned in rhetorical exercises; they deal, rather, with descriptions of persons, events, times and places. Secondly, ancient rhetoricians focus on ekphrasis because of their concern with the impact on the recipients’ minds. Ekphrasis is aimed at how the reader or listener can somehow be turned into a spectator who feels present at the scene described (De Jonge 2016: 210).

​[4]​ What the classical rhetorical definition of ekphrasis shares with modern literary definitions, then, is the exciting intercommunication of speech and view, words and images, verbal and visual. Yet there are three pivotal differences. One difference is that literature concerns the written text, with its descriptions, that is mostly read in silence. The classical definition concerns the spoken word of orators who are listened to, operating rhetorically and, at times, theatrically. A second point is that the subject of classical rhetorical ekphrasis is not restricted to objects of visual art, as is the case in the modern definition. Instead, the subjects that were considered particularly appropriate had more dimensions than a mere silent object: they concerned people, events, times and places. The third difference is that the aim of ekphrasis was not the description in itself but the impact on the listener’s mind (De Jonge 2016: 209-210). The classical rhetorical term for this impact is, as De Jonge mentions, enargeia (ἐνάργεια) which can be translated as ‘sensory vividness’. It concerns the experience of any audience’s being, as it were, present at the scene. In recent studies this effect is also called ‘immersion’ (Allan, De Jong & De Jonge 2017).

​[5]​ Since description is not the purpose of ekphrasis, De Jonge points out that it is misleading to translate ἔκφρασις as such. He explains that the verb ἔκφρασειν means ‘complete telling’ or ‘complete showing’: the prefix ἐκ- expresses integrality, completeness and thoroughness. This, we will translate in what follows as an issue of detailed-ness, which has as its aim the vividness of a representation. The verb φράζειν, in turn, means ‘to communicate’ or ‘to tell’ and has, since Homer, a visual connotation, which links it to ‘showing’ (De Jonge 2016: 210). Yet this showing is again multi-sensory, just as people, events, times, and places are multidimensional and multisensory. If the aim is to evoke them as completely as possible one cannot only call upon the mind’s eye, but has to involve the mind’s ear as well.

​[6]​ If classical rhetorical ekphrasis wanted to turn the listener into a spectator, the subject matter that this spectator was supposed to behold could not be complete so long as sound was not in play. Perhaps the visual connotation of φράζειν in Homer caused a shift from more general scenes to a focus on specific objects considered fit for ekphrasis, to visual art. But if we move back to the original topics (people, events, times places), we have to assume that ekphrasis had an acoustic component. Perhaps this acoustic component has not been stressed in the Greek and Roman schoolbooks because it was self-evidently present in the voice of the orator. As stated earlier, in its transformation from a rhetorical to a literary concept, ekphrasis lost its voice. Yet in working by means of an ekphrasis, the orator presents a detailed story in a theatrical manner, evoking in its completeness a clear presentation for a listener, who is turned, as it were, into a spectator of the presented event. Accordingly, although visual terms dominate in relation to ekphrasis, its aim (enargeia) is not restricted to the visual. Sensory vividness implies all the senses and thus opens the door to the acoustic. The relevance for the representation of violence will be clear: sound is pivotal in not keeping violence at a distance but making it felt.

​[7]​ In the examples that follow, the mechanisms of this original definition of ekphrasis are at work, and in this context we aim to show that violence is very much a matter of sound, which may be self-evident. Yet more specifically, our aim is to argue that the bodily impact of violence on an audience may depend on its capacity to hear such sounds. To analyse this connection between sound and the impact of violence, we want to broaden the scope of classical ekphrasis by looking not only at text or spoken word, but also at images – images that work rhetorically. In all cases our definition of the ekphrasis of sound is that the level of detail in text or image contributes fundamentally to its sensory vividness, which in turn helps any audience to be, as it were, present at the scene. If ekphrasis of sound takes place in a written text, its words can turn the reader into a listener in whose mind sounds come to resound; by the same mechanism, images can turn the viewer into someone who is also open to aural perception.

​[8]​ We opt for the phrase ‘ekphrasis of sound’, here, as opposed to the existing terms ‘acoustic ekphrasis’ or ‘musical ekphrasis’. The latter is mostly used for the musical representation of an event, as in Tchaikovski’s Ouverture 1812, in which battle scenes between Russian and Napoleonic forces are represented by musical means. In line with the modern definition of ekphrasis, ‘musical ekphrasis’ is used to indicate that music is describing something else.​[1]​ ‘Acoustic ekphrasis’, meanwhile, is synonymous with ‘ekphrasis of music’, and is used to describe musical pieces or musical performances captured by language in a literary text. This is the acoustic equivalent of the modern idea of ekphrasis in which language is used to describe a visual work of art (Bernam 2004, Schirrmacher 2016).

2. Matters of detail: from description to telling it completely

​[9]​ Our definition of the ekphrasis of sound is a matter of detail, which is obviously a matter of scale. Consider a poem by the merchant and poet Johannes Six van Chandelier (1620-1695), a poem inspired by the unexpected operation of an instrument of violence: ‘On the cracking of my gun, against gunpowder’ (Op het barsten van mijn pistool, teegens buskruid). The poem informs us that the narrator was at sea when his gun backfired and missed his head by a hair’s breadth. The cracking of a gun is a multisensory experience with a strong acoustic component, evident in the word ‘cracking’ (barsten). Yet the description of the cracking gun, with the poet present in the cabin of a captain Blok, is so concise that it does not work as ekphrasis:

Daar ‘k hier, op zee, in Bloks kajuit,
Myn sakpistool loste achter uit,
Dat barstende in een klaaren donder,
Myn hoofd voor by schoot, tot groot wonder.
(Chandelier 1991: 569, ll. 89-92)

When here, at sea, in Blok’s cabin
I backfired my gun,
Which bursting in a clear thunder,
Missed my head by great wonder.​[2]​

The reader will form some kind of image and imagination of the sound of this event, but Six van Chandelier does not, by means of a detailed narration, make the reader or hearer as it were present at the occasion. The poem remains on the level of description.

​[10]​ In the opening lines, Six van Chandelier deals with the history of gunpowder and then hints at something that is of relevance in relation to ekphrasis of sound. He gives the example of Apelles, considered to be the greatest painter from classical antiquity (whose work is solely known via ekphrasis). Apelles’s paintings managed to render the roaring of thunder in such a way that viewers felt the urge to protect themselves against its violence.

Die Fenix, aller schildren wonder,
Houdt d’eer, hy ’t rollen van den donder,
Als die, uit dikke wolken, straalt
Met barstingh, zoo heeft afgemaalt,
Dat niemand, sonder lauwerieren,
Het oogh dorst wenden, naa die vieren.
(Chandelier 1991: 569, ll. 7-12)

This Phoenix, a wonder to all painters,
Holds the honour of having painted the rolling of thunder,
When it shines forth from fat clouds
With outbursts, in such a way,
That none, without laurels,
Dared to turn his eyes to those fires.

This example demonstrates how ekphrasis of sound might work through images. Apparently, Apelles’ painting caught the thunderstorm in such detail, completeness and vividness that the average viewer might experience the thunderstorm in all its dimensions, not only seeing the fat clouds but also hearing the rolling of thunder. Thus, the viewer is also turned into a listener, because the painter managed to paint ‘the rolling of thunder’.

​[11]​ One clear example of successful ekphrasis of sound, as the detailed textual or visual capturing of sound with vividness as effect, is the painting by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707), ‘The canon shot’ (Het kanonschot, 1680):

Figure 1. Willem van de Velde the Younger, ‘The cannon shot’, 1680, oil on canvas, 78.5 x 67 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-C-244.

The title already indicates that this picture has sound as its subject. The sea on the painting is almost completely flat, and its surface not only reflects the light, but would also form the most effective acoustic ground for reverberating sound. Wind and waves could attenuate or partly overrule the acoustic strength of the explosion, but the flat waters amplify the sound of the shot dramatically. An indication that this painting should be experienced acoustically is the fact that we do not see the side of the ship where the canon is actually fired. Only a little light from the canon’s flash is visible to the left side of the ship, but the actual explosion is not visualised. Instead, we see the cloud of smoke stretching out over almost the entire width of the painting, indicating the thunderous roaring of the canon over the still waters.

​[12]​ The picture captures something, here, that is an often-ignored aspect of sound. Whereas vision is immediate, sound takes time. Visually, the cloud is the remains of the canon shot. It is also an icon for the way in which sound appears and spreads itself through time. The cloud suggests both the immediacy of sound by means of the explosive, loud appearance of the shot – it bursts into the air in the very moment of its witnessing – and the difference between the immediate visual perception of the event of the shot and its acoustic delay. In this context, an acoustically meaningful accent in the painting is the presence of the gulls in the foreground near the water surface. Gull cries are piercing sounds that carry far over a flat sea. But in this painting the gulls are not only miniscule figures alongside the impressive war ship; their cries are also drowned out by the thundering shot of the canon. Their presence thus stresses the enormous impact of the sound that the picture captures. Another source of noise in the painting, contrasting with the stillness of the water, is the human voice, indicated by the dramatic gestures of the seamen on the pinnaces. Next to the human voice there is the sound of human activity. The warship is crowded with sailors at work, as is the pinnace to the left, the oars of which splash the water’s surface as if to move away from the thundering sound, further emphasizing the way the canon shot fills its environment.

​[13]​ Willem van de Velde the Younger captures sound in this picture to such an extent, in such detail and completion, that it turns the viewer into a listener, thus performing the ekphrasis of sound. The difference with Six van Chandelier is, then, the intensity of detail and completeness. Meanwhile, the image also presents us with a double quality of sound that makes it distinct from the textual or visual. Sound both has a source, and will surround the listener. It is this double capacity that is of relevance in the representation of violence.

3. The theatre of violence: surrounding sound and sound’s source

​[14]​ On the morning of August 10, 1653, the retired doctor and poet Jacob Westerbaen set himself to read and write in the quiet study of his estate Ockenburg. This estate was located about one kilometre from the coast near The Hague. However, his peaceful study was suddenly disturbed by violent sounds:

My grouwelt van den dagh, die niet en sal verouwen,
Doe ’t huylen in myn buyrt der brullende kortouwen
Quam stooren myne rust door ’t dreunen en ’t gedruys
Van myne vensteren en glaesen in myn kluys,
Daer ick my had geset te leesen en te schryven
Om in myn eensaemheyt den uchtend te verdryven.
Myn blyven was niet langh daer buyten het geschut
My seyde, komter uyt, wat meackt ghy in uw hut?
Kom, hoor en sie, so verre’ ghy oor en oogh kunt recken
(Westerbaen 1654: 94)

I am still horrified by the day, which I can never forget,
When the howling in my neighbourhood of roaring cannons
Came to disrupt my tranquillity by the thundering and rattling
Of my windows and their glass in the cell,
Where I had seated myself to read and write
To pass through the morning in loneliness.
My stay there did not last long since outside the guns
Told me: ‘Come outside, what are you doing in your cabin?
Come, hear and see, as far as ear and eye can stretch…’

Westerbaen here describes his experience of the last sea battle in the first Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654), as part of an extensive poem on his estate. The battle – called the Battle of Ter Heijde by the Dutch, and the Battle of Scheveningen by the English – started on 8 August near the coast of Wijk aan Zee, about 70 kilometres north of Ter Heijde. It was witnessed by audiences from the dunes along the coastline. As we learn from Westerbaen’s poem, the battle announced itself from a distance through sound that manifested itself close by, invisible sound waves rattling the glass. As a result, there are two sources of sound: one that has a direction but no pinpointed source, and one that is nearby and does have a source.

​[15]​ The sound waves from afar not only move the glass: they also move the narrator. The sound speaks to him, lyrically, and urges him to come out of his study and witness the violence. The poet climbs the dunes to join the audience:

Ick kom, en hoor en sie; het dondert op het waeter,
Het vinnigh blixem-vyer met grouwelijck geklaeter
Ging uyt een dicke wolck gedreven by der zee.
Ken’t Jupiter om hoogh, men kent beneden mee.
Als hy syn vlam laet sien en synen donder hooren
Geeft hy wat tusschen-tijds aen oogen en aen ooren,
Hier gaet het anders toe, het dondert even dicht,
Daer’s niet een oogen-blick dat dese buye swicht.
(Westerbaen 1654: 95)

I come and hear and see; it thunders on the water,
The fierce lightning fire with horrific splatter
Came out of a vast cloud rolling above the sea.
What Jupiter can do above, people can do down here too.
When he shows his flame and makes his thunder be heard
He gives some intervals to eyes and ears,
Here it goes differently, it thunders so densely,
There is not one instant that this storm relents.

Westerbaen describes both the auditory and visual aspects of the battle. In his comparison of the sound of the cannons with a thunderstorm, the rhythm of natural or divine thunder differs from that of human artifice. The battle’s thundering knows no rest, it is an incessant roaring. But the audience is given a break as the low tide draws the battling ships away from the coast:

Maer wind en ebbe nam het verder sien en hooren,
Die ’t oogh den roock ontvoer, en het geluyt den ooren,
Tot dat de vloed weerom, die nae de middagh quam,
Aen oogh en ooren gaf dat wind en ebbe nam.
(Westerbaen 1654: 95)

But wind and low tide took the seeing and hearing with them,
By taking the smoke from sight, and the sound from ears,
Up until high tide again, coming in the afternoon,
Returned to eye and ears what wind and low tide had taken.

This quote shows a fascinating play with the differences in distance that work differently on what can be seen and heard. At first not much more could be seen than a massive cloud from which the roaring canons resounded. And as the sight and sound of both are removed by the effects of low tide and wind, high tide brings sound and vision closer again.

​[16]​ One spectator who did not have such a break was Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693). Van de Velde, one of Holland’s most influential seascape painters (Prud’homme van Reine 2009), was employed by the States General to record the course of the battle, much like a reporter. He witnessed it from a small boat, called a galjoot, from which he made sketches. In elaborating these into pen paintings afterwards, Van de Velde has a habit of not presenting the scene from his own perspective, but instead inserting himself in the galjoot into the picture:

Figure 2. Willem van de Velde the Elder, detail from ‘The Battle of Terheide’, 1657, ink on canvas, 170 x 289 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-A-1365

This detail, in which one can actually see the pen in Van de Velde’s hand, is part of a scene from the battle of Ter Heijde. Van de Velde’s appearance in the small boat is part of a bigger picture, however, with the galjoot slightly to the left of centre, as seen below:

Figure 3. Willem van de Velde the Elder, ‘The Battle of Terheide’, 1657, ink on canvas, 170 x 289 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Object number SK-A-1365

Van de Velde artfully lifts up the perspective to a bird’s eye view (or that from a high dune), in order to show the immense proportions of the fleets, while at the same time showing himself, drawing in the small boat in the front. The painter and his company consequently come to function as a mise-en-abyme. They combine both the larger audience looking at this theatre of war and spectators inside the scene of war.

​[17]​ Another piece is a sketch that Van de Velde the Elder actually made in his galjoot at the battle of Ter Heijde. He probably worked out the details of the drawing afterwards, but his annotations made in the course of the battle are still visible at the top: ‘The last charge near midday being about two o’clock & Tromp lost his main topmast about midday’ (our translation).​[3]​

Figure 4. Willem van de Velde the Elder, ‘The Battle of Scheveningen, 31 July 1653: the last pass in the battle’, 1653, graphite & wash, grey, 228 x 363 mm, Royal Museums Greenwich, Object ID: PAH1713. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Available online at <https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/141660.html>.

Even though this drawing shows the battle from sea level, Van de Velde inserts another galjoot into the picture, on the far right this time, partly covered by a cloud of smoke. The small, fast and easily manageable galjoots were commonly used by war fleets for communication purposes (Daalder 2016: 86). This galjoot might thus have been there in the scene Van de Velde witnessed, but here it also functions as a reference to his own presence in a similar vessel, another mise-en-abyme.

​[18]​ In terms of an ekphrasis of sound, the sounds of violence are part of a larger soundscape. The sea is relatively tranquil, but still forms the keynote for everything that happens. The term keynote, or tonic, indicates a sound that forms the acoustic ground upon which other sounds present themselves (Murray Schafer 1977: 9-10). Other sounds constituting this ground include the wind, indicated by the movements of the clouds and flags and sails. In themselves the latter are not sounds of violence, although they are indices to it, just as the sounds of ships moving through the waters are indexical to it. That movement is indicated, here, by the ripples of the water at the front and sides of the ships. Sounds of violence are apparent in the sailors drowning to the left, or being rescued by the pinnaces that carry off survivors of ships that have already been destroyed, as we can see between the two ships on the left. Most prominent are the clouds produced by the thundering canons, with Dutch and English ships enmeshed in close range battles. These clouds confuse the perspective of the image, or, rather, make it very difficult to define the vanishing point. As a result, the eye has to roam. Acoustically speaking, this is an icon for the way in which sound surrounds. It has the capacity to engulf. Iconic, here, is the galjoot to the right – referencing the galjoot in which Van de Velde found himself – deprived of any perspective by a cloud of smoke.

​[19]​ If we compare the two reports of Westerbaen and Van de Velde on the battle of Ter Heijde it is clear that their different forms of focalisation result in a different capturing and rendering of sound. With Westerbaen, listening from a fixed point, the audience would hear the violent sounds increase and decrease with the tide, while the galjoot is inside the scene and is completely surrounded by the sounds that Willem van de Velde the Elder captures visually. The imagined reorganisation of a scene, either through images or words, allows for the pinpointing of the source of sound as coming from a distinct subject, or for a visual rendering of how sound surrounds. In both cases sound does not stay outside of the body. The essence of sound is that it may make windows rattle, that it can enter the body, that it may make bodies vibrate. In the experience of violence this is pivotal. Having dealt with matters of experience above, we now move to the question of what sounds may mean and the relevance of the ekphrasis of sound in that context.

4. The music of violence: symbolic sound

​[20]​ In the same battle of Ter Heijde, the ship of one of Holland’s most famous admirals, Maarten Tromp, lost its main topmast, and the admiral himself was killed by a sniper. On the occasion of his funeral, Johannes Six van Chandelier wrote a poem that describes the battle and mourns his loss:

O! Petten, wat een naar gehuil
Loeit, op uw strand, uit Nereus kuil.
De donder, en de blixemmynen,
Aan ’t braaken, uit tweehondert pynen,
Halsstarrigh anderhalven dagh,
Om Engelands of Hollands vlagh,
Saam strydend, konnen ’t hart des kykers,
Des Scheevlingers, en Beverwykers
Zoo niet, met schrik, beklemmen, als
De neerlaagh van dien strydbren hals.
(Chandelier 1991: 604-605)

Oh! City of Petten, what dismal howling
Lows, on your beach, from Nereus’ pit.
The thunder and lightning mines,
Spewing from two hundred pines,
Stubbornly, for one and a half days,
For Holland’s or England’s flag,
Mutually battling, could no viewer’s heart,
Of Scheveningen or Beverwijk peoples,
Oppress as much with fright, as
The defeat of this combative man.

In contrast to Westerbaen, Six van Chandelier was not part of the audience that witnessed the battle. His invocation of the city of Petten is based on an erroneous pamphlet claiming that the battle started near the coast of Petten on August 8, while it actually started about 35 kilometres to the south near the coast of Wijk aan Zee (Chandelier 1991: II.631). Yet the theatricality of the event is captured again by describing its audience: the people are summoned from Petten, Scheveningen and Beverwijk, all coastal towns. In our analysis the description is again not detailed or complete enough for an ekphrasis but stays on the level of description. Yet the passage does point to another level of analysis: described sounds acquire a symbolic function.

​[21]​ The sea is represented as a pit from which a howling sound wails (loeit) over the beach. ‘Loeien’ (to wail) is a verb that refers to sounds that are heavy, deep, long-stretched and consequently have a howling character. In Dutch, the verb is used to indicate the sound of cows, storms, large fires, and human beings in agony. In his evocation of a ‘dismal howling’, Six opens with exactly the same word (gehuil) that Westerbaen used to start his description of the sound of the sea battle: ‘the howling (huilen) of the roaring cannons’. In describing the explosions as resonant howling sounds, the two authors give a metaphoric voice to them that connotes pain. In relation to this there is a double loaded word that calls for attention in Six’s poem: ‘pines’ (pijnen). In Dutch this denotes not only pine-trees, indicating the material of which ships were partly made, but also ‘pains’. The word thus conveys the pains suffered by those on the ships, but also the pain suffered by the ships themselves, built from pine trees, signifying either cries of pain or the snapping sounds of cracking wood. And there is yet other pain involved. In his lament for admiral Tromp, Six van Chandelier states that all the horrific sounds spreading over the beach of Petten could not frighten the audience as much as the news of the death of their admiral. The painful sounds he evokes metonymically indicate another kind of pain: the hurt done to a nation fighting under one flag.

​[22]​ If Six stayed on the level of description, without enough detail to pull the reader or listener into the scene, let us now move to Holland’s greatest poet, playwright and writer of occasional poetry: Joost van den Vondel. His lament over Tromp’s death proves him to be an expert in using the ekphrasis of sound while giving symbolic meaning to actual sounds of violence. The passage below may make clear what the difference is between Six’s description, and this one, as a matter of ekphrasis of sound.

Laet zich Europe niet verwondren,
Alscheen de weerelt te vergaen,
Toen, uit den Noortschen Oceaen,
Dat oorloghsonweêr op quam dondren,
En baldren over duin, en strant,
Een’ halven dagh, en noch een’ heelen;
Tweehondert dryvende kasteelen;
De bare zee in lichten brant;
De barstende salpeterwolcken,
En d’elementen altemael
Gelost van ‘t zwangere metael,
Op ‘t vlack, daer twee vermaertste Volcken
Te water, boort aen boort geklampt,
Hun’ wellust schepten, in ’t vernielen
Van eicke ribben, mast, en kielen,
En menschebeen, tot stof gestampt;
Dat moortgeschrey, en yzerbraecken;
De doôn en levenden, gemengt,
Gebraên, verdroncken, en gezengt;
Dat weerlicht, blixemen, en kraecken;
Zoo veel gewelts heeft altemael
Gezweet om HARPERTS te beschreien,
En ‘t lyck en d’uitvaert te geleien
Van Hollants Grooten AMIRAEL;
(Van der Vondel 1931: 581)

Let Europe not wonder,
Although the world seemed to perish,
When, from the northern ocean,
The storm of war came thundering,
And rolling over dune, and beach,
For half a day, and yet another one;
Two hundred floating castles;
The naked sea on fire;
The bursting clouds of nitre,
And the elements all together
Released from pregnant metal,
On the floor, where two famous nations
In the waters, clenched board by board,
Sought lust, in the destruction
Of oak ribs, masts, and keels,
And the bones of men, stamped to ashes;
That murderous crying, and spewing iron;
The dead and the living, mixed,
Baked, drowned, and burned;
That lightening, flashing, and cracking;
So much violence has all together
Sweated to bemoan HARPERTS,
To accompany the corpse and funeral
Of Holland’s great ADMIRAL;

Here, the lyrical subject first evokes the violence dramatically, appealing to all the senses, and above all to the ear. Just as with Westerbaen, the theatre of war announces itself by sound spreading over the dunes and beaches. Then the actors enter the stage, a massive cast of two hundred floating castles setting the sea on fire. Vondel makes his audience feel and hear the human bones mashed to ashes, smell the clouds of nitre and the roasted flesh of those who could not escape the fire, even taste the smoke, the ashes and the salty water. And even when sight is lost as the actors vanish behind clouds of smoke or below the water surface, the sounds of screams, cannons and cracking wood still prevail. Then the lyrical subject suddenly transforms his role from being more of a theatrical director to being a composer or musical conductor who translates the sounds of violence into music. The description of the musical accompaniment of Tromp’s funeral is a pun on the middle name of the admiral: Maerten Harpertszoon Tromp. The cacophony of violence has come to accompany harps that sing to the admiral on his last journey.

​[23]​ A similar process takes place in a triumphal song (‘Zegezang’) that Vondel wrote for another, even greater admiral, Michiel de Ruyter, on his victory at the Four Days Battle (June 11-14, 1666) during the second Anglo-Dutch war. Here the musical element is even stronger; or simply dominant. First Vondel thematises the difference between fact and fiction. The ancient poets wrote about heroes at sea, about the sailors of the Argo passing through the Symplegates to fetch the golden fleece or Perseus killing the sea monster, but these were all ‘lies’, fictional stories. Instead, Vondel will sing praise of a real event. Yet after claiming just this, Vondel clothes the battle as unrealistically in a classical way by presenting an audience of mermaids and mermen and the god Mars ascending from the heavens. The mermaids and mermen are not just watching a performance, they are singing, and thereby fulfil the role of the choir, which formed the link between the dramatic act and the audience in classical drama. Mars is the theatrical deus ex machina entering the scene to designate the winner. The drama Vondel thus presents becomes a musical drama conducted by De Ruyter; the battle is presented as a brilliant composition from his hand, supported by the hand of God:

Waer voerde oit RUITER zoo rechtschapen
In zijnen schilt het eêlste wapen,
Voorzichtigheit en krijghsbeleit,
Het oogh in eene hand van boven,
In ‘t midden van dien gloênden oven,
Gesterkt van Gods almogenheit.
Dees’ zeehelt gaf de maet en wetten
Aen zoo veel stemmen van trompetten,
Kartouwe en donderbussse, in een,
Als naer de zangkunst hecht geslooten,
En rolde, op korte en lange nooten
Den oorloghsgalm op ‘t water heen.
Meerminnen meermans Tritons hooren
Den bas en bovenzang der koren
Van Mars, gesteegen in de mars,
Die met de koningsvlagh quam daelen
Al juichende, op de zeekooraelen
In ‘t houte en ysre krijghsgekners
En twijfelen der oorloghskansen.
Nu zwijgen d’oude harnasdanssen.
(Van der Vondel 1937: 212-213)

Where did ever a RUITER carry so honestly
In his shield the noblest blazon,
Foresight and war strategy,
The eye in one hand from above,
In the middle of that glowing oven,
Strengthened by God’s almightiness.
This sea hero gave measure and rules
To so many voices of trumpets,
Kartaws and blunderbusses, together,
Like the well-composed art of song,
And rolled on shorter and longer notes
The sound of war over the waters.
Mermaids and mermen’s Triton’s horn
The bass and soprano voice of choirs
Of Mars, high up in the mast,
Who came down with the king’s flag
Rejoicing, in the sea chorales
In the wooden and iron grinding of battle
And contingencies of war.
Now the old harnass-dances remain silent.

De Ruyter is conducting the orchestra of war, then, and Vondel symbolically shifts the sound of war to another domain by turning it into the triumphant music of victory and by structuring the battle as music. Meanwhile, he makes De Ruyter do exactly the same thing we saw Willem van de Velde the Elder do in his pen drawing of the enormous fleets at the battle of Ter Heijde. The focalising eye is lifted up to the level of a bird, or a god. It is thus creating an overview of, and giving structure to, an otherwise completely chaotic situation, while at the same time being present in the scene, in the fire of its oven, with its smoke clouding the eye.
5. Liminal silence: anatomy’s threat

​[24]​ Whereas in war scenes the sounds of violence are explicit, abundantly present and dominant, there is also a sound of violence in silence. We turn, finally, towards the silence of violent horror, or rather to two different forms of silence that are meaningful in differing ways. In ‘The Sovereign Ear: Handel’s Water Music and Aural Historiography’, Sander van Maas analyses sound and the organ that perceives sound, the ear, in its relation to the historical and political origins of political sovereignty. His most important partner in dialogue is Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Écoute’.​[4]​ There, Barthes develops a distinction between hearing and listening, analogous to the difference between looking and seeing. As Van Maas puts it:

In keeping with Nietzsche, who dubbed the ear ‘the organ of fear’ and saw a close connection between the art of music and the dark of night, Barthes’ representation of listening insists on the experience of insecurity and on acts of vigilance as points of gravitation that pull listening back, as if they were the dark matter of the ear. The history of listening would appear to resonate with the idea of sovereignty and its others (surveillance, control), including the experience of threat and violence.  (Van Maas 2018: 159)

The quote alludes to a passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudice of Morality in which the term ‘dark’ denotes a characteristic of the ear, as an outer organ with an inner cavern, or a spiral inward towards the darkness through which sound penetrates the head and thereby the body. Nietzsche’s aphorism is a short one, which also notes that ‘in bright daylight the ear is less necessary’ (Nietzsche 1997: 143). It is in the dark, whether the dark of night or of caverns or cells, that human beings listen, in order to register what is ‘out there’. Van Maas aims to analyse the relation between violence and the dark, on the one hand, and the relation between violence and silence, on the other. If the ear is the organ of fear, of insecurity and vigilance, this is not because of what it already hears, but because of what it listens to, of what is to come, unexpectedly, and if not unexpected, then feared.

​[25]​ If the relation between violence and silence concerns this element of the threat of what is to come, then silence in relation to violence consequently has a double characteristic. In the sound of silence, it is the sound of coming violence that is imminent. Or the sound of silence is what theologist Burcht Pranger defined as liminal sound: ‘a realm of pure possibility’ (2018: 230). In the context of violence, this comes down to a feeling of ‘anything may happen’, even if this anything is what one already feared. This double or liminal quality of silence is evident in the following image, taken from Govert Bidloo’s Ontleding des Menschelijk Lichaams (Dissection of the Human Body) from 1690.

Figure 5. Gerard de Lairesse (drawing) and Abraham Blooteling and Pieter Stevens van Gunst (engravers), ‘Engraved Plate no. 70’, in: Govert Bidloo: Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, 1690, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda. Photo credits: NLM.

Bidloo was a trained doctor who became a famous anatomist, as well as a poet and playwright. In close cooperation with the artist Gerard de Lairesse, he published this impressive book of the entire anatomy of the human body, male and female. We are here concerned with table 70, a dissection of the left hand and lower part of the arm. Though the picture suggests nothing but silence, since the act of dissecting has already passed, the image resonates with several reminiscences and possibilities of sound.

​[26]​ Whereas on other plates the instruments of dissection that helped to cut or saw the body are shown, in this case the instruments shown function predominantly to keep things apart, with the uncanny result that the tendons are put under tension. There is one needle at the bottom that pierces the middle three fingers to show the tendons running to the fingertips. The instrument to the right consists of three parts, with one larger comb being kept in place by two pins in order to show five tendons: two for the index finger, one for the thumb, and one for the middle and ring finger each. The compass-like instrument to the left, meanwhile, is to separate and keep in place the two tendons running to the middle finger and index finger. The resulting image very much resembles a stringed instrument. Whereas previously we saw a sea battle that could be read and heard as a musical piece, here we have a body part that can be read (and listened to) like a musical instrument. The sounds that this silent image suggests are both harmonious and chilling, however. The sounds of dissection, on the one hand, fall under the frame of anatomy in their attempt to show the harmony inherent in the human body. On the other hand, the sounds capture precisely the practical consequences of anatomy: the perhaps soft but also sharp sounds of dissection, in accordance with the title of the volume: Ontleding – that is, ‘dissection’.

​[27]​ The notion of silence as a liminal sound appears to be inapplicable here if we read it in terms of what Pranger defined as ‘pure possibility’. The dissection, after all, has already taken place; the violence has already been enacted. Yet as Jonathan Sawday (1996) argued, the very manifestation of dissection and anatomy in so-called anatomical theatres across Europe was a clear sign of sovereign power. As Sawday states: ‘The anatomists traced the handiwork of God in each body brought to them, and thus reaffirmed the monarch’s power over the bodies of people’ (191). In this light the theatres posed an implicit threat to all subjects, a threat of what might conceivably happen to them. In this context, the silence of the images is indeed a liminal silence, in that it shows the thin line between subjects being able to live their lives and being subjected to torture and dissection. This liminal silence is captured, here, by tendons put under tension. That tension not only announces the possibility of their snapping, but also embodies the threat that keeps subjects in tension. They could be taken apart in a similar way. The pins and compass that are pinned in the wood connote the threat of other sounds, moreover, of things being hammered into subjects, pinning them down, both literally and acoustically.

6. Thick silence: bodies enslaved

​[28]​ In the context of violence, liminal silence is a silence of threat and fear. No actual sounds are textually or visually present, but they are suggested. Such a silence is different from, though contiguous with, the silence that is the result of a violence that affects live bodies in the present. We will define the latter silence as ‘thick silence’ in what follows. Such a silence is central to some of the situations described by Rebecca Parker Brienen in her study of representations of the Brazilian situation under Dutch colonial rule. As she notices, there were fairly few representations showing the real violence that characterized the lives of enslaved people. Yet the few representations we have show their ‘miserable existence’, driven together in ‘pathetic, huddled groups’ (Brienen 2006: 136). Such groups are conveniently absent in the following image, made by Pieter Nason in 1666, of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679). As governor, he was responsible for the development of the transatlantic slave trade by the Dutch (Emmer 2005), the impact of which has been the topic of fierce debates in recent years (Fatah-Black & Van Rossum 2016).​[5]​

Figure 6. Pieter Nason, ‘Portrait of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen’, 1666, oil on canvas, 232 x 171 cm, collection of National Museum in Warsaw, Accession number M.Ob.527 (187142). Photo credits: Krzysztof Wilczyński/NMW.

Johan Maurits was nicknamed the Brazilian due to his conquest of parts of Brazil. The prince is shown here in the costume of the protestant Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of which he had become Grand Master (or ‘Herrenmeister’) in 1652. Defined for some time as a humanist or enlightened prince in Europe and Brazil, Maurits’ reputation is currently being re-assessed. Susie Protschky, for instance, has criticized previous scholars for ‘minimizing the despotic traits’ of Maurits during his time as WIC governor (2011: 160).

​[29]​ Before going into the sounds that are suggested by visual means here, there are different silences apparent in the figure of Johan Maurits and the figure to the left, who is generally defined as a ‘page’, an ‘edelknaap’ or noble boy. The same young man appears slightly differently in a painting from 1675, which shows an iron ring around his neck that suggests he is enslaved. He is represented here as a sign of Maurits’ wealth and power. The enslaved adolescent points with the index finger of his left hand to a region on the map of Brazil around the Brazilian-Portuguese city of Recife, which was accompanied between 1630 and 1654 by the newly built Maurits-city on the opposite side of the river, next to the fortress. The young man’s right hand holds a compass that suggests the map is not finished, or that the city still needs to be designed and built. The fortress that should defend it is already standing, however.

Figure 7. Pieter Nason, detail from ‘Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679); known as “the Brazilian”’, 1675, oil on canvas, 134.5 x 107 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Accession number SK-C-1653. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

It is telling that the young man’s mouth, in contrast with that of Johan Maurits, is slightly open, as if he is about to speak. (This is more clearly visible in the second version of the painting.) As a consequence, the image connotes two forms of violence, a violence that is characterized by two forms of silence. With regard to one such silence, the concept of ‘epistemic violence’ was introduced by Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak in her study Can the Subaltern Speak? and was derived from the Foucauldian notion of the episteme, the historical dominant that produces the kinds of knowledge that define a period with its systems of power, and that allows some subjects a voice while denying one to others. The half-open mouth of the young black man suggests he is about to speak but is not allowed to do so. Johan Maurits’s silence is of another order. His silence expresses the resoluteness of power that enabled him to design and build a fortress, or to capture the slave trading posts of El Mina and Luanda (off the coasts of Ghana and Angola respectively) from the Portuguese.

​[30]​ Maurits brought with him artists and scholars to study and chart the people, animals, plants, and landscapes of what was already redefined by the Portuguese as ‘Brazil’. It is this convoy of artists and scholars that has allowed Maurits to be defined as a humanist or an enlightened prince. Most of the artists and scholars that Maurits took with him, however, would make charts, images and reports from which the violence of colonisation, conquest and slavery was absent, or only hinted at. In this context, the compass scratching or drawing on paper evokes a perhaps humble sound, but a sound of epistemic violence nevertheless. Still, the violence involved is not only epistemic. There is also the physical violence suggested by the cannons and cannonballs at the bottom right of the first painting, and the armour that is temporarily laid down.

​[31]​ Zacharias Wagener (1614-1668) was one of those travelling with Maurits who did not mind reporting on the violence. In this he was ‘largely unique’, as Brienen notes in her study on the artists travelling with Johan Maurits; especially the more famous Albert Eckhout (Brienen 2006: 134-37). Wagener is described by others as ‘a watercolor painter of limited talent, yet an excellent investigator of the social life in Recife during the Dutch occupation’ (De Carvalho & De Biase 2016: 50). Perhaps the phrase ‘social life’ is rather euphemistic here. Below we find an aquarelle he made of the slave trade as it took place in practice, in this case in Jew Street, a major street in the Brazilian-Portuguese city (De Carvalho & De Biase 2016: 44-64). The street took its name from the fact that Jewish traders, who in previous years had been chased out of Portugal to find refuge in the Dutch Republic, had now followed the Dutch to Brazil (Teunissen 2012; Davis 2016).

Figure 8. Zacharias Wagener, ‘Slave market in Jews Street Recife’, ca. 1641, in Thierbuch, drawing no. 106, © Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo credits: Herbert Boswank.

One of the most prominent features in a first impression of the image, also noted by Menachem Wecker (2016), is the difference between the distinguishable, individual traders and the homogenous masses of black bodies. In terms of sound, the painting offers a clear acoustic space with individuals conversing with one another, greeting one another, and perhaps also quarrelling with one another. Then there are sounds of violence the painting evokes, with a man raising a stick against a small group of captives at the left end; the seller in the left foreground ordering the enslaved figure for sale to raise their hands in order to be better assessed by a trader; the soft sound made by the figure crawling in the sand at the right below, who is perhaps being ordered by the man in the centre to join the group with the small children in the front. But apart from these sounds of either friendly, business-like or violent human interaction – the experience of which is a matter of reading the expressions and gesticulations of the depicted people – there are two more sounds present in the scene which are distinct yet intrinsically connected. These are the sounds of the masses of black bodies and isolated, at the upper right end of the street, of the small black child playing a flute.

Figure 9. detail from Zacharias Wagener, ‘Slave market in Jews Street Recife’, ca. 1641, in: Thierbuch, drawing no. 106, © Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo credits: Herbert Boswank.

​[32]​ The sounds made by the big groups to the left and in the background are indeterminable. When one zooms in on the image, the mass of bodies consists of individuals tightly packed together. Still, they form one mass as opposed to the individuated figures at the front. The massed bodies packed together may suggest a murmuring, but not a conversation. The most probable reading in this case, however, is that the groups are sitting there in silence. Opposite the large group of slaves on the left sits a small flautist. In contrast to all the interactions between individual figures in the scene, nobody interferes with this child. Not only is the autonomous position of this almost insignificant figure striking, read acoustically it is almost overwhelming. The piercing sound of the small flute must dominate the entire acoustic space, resonating against the bare walls of the newly built houses, coming from all sides, surrounding the listener. This dominant sound is not coming from the traders: the flautist is one of the black people, connected with the masses of black bodies sitting in silence. We propose to read the flautist in line with Mieke Bal’s example of the nail and the hole in the wall on Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Both the nail and the hole, indicating where previously a nail had been, are small, almost insignificant details in a picture that can pull the viewer into a radically different reading. This is how Bal describes this effect: ‘The nail and the hole, both visual elements to which no iconographic meaning is attached, unsettle the poetic description and the passively admiring gaze that it triggered, and dynamize the activity of the viewer. Whereas before the discovery of these details the viewer could gaze at the work in wonder, now he or she is aware of his or her imaginative addition in the very act of looking’ (Bal 1991: 4). In this case the little flautist at the back points to a reading where the audience is invited to imagine more specifically both the sounds in the foreground and the silence in the background.

​[33]​ Though the violence depicted remains more or less at a distance, visually speaking, it is the heavy sound of silence that may come to surround the listener, that may enter their head and body. This sound of silence becomes a sound of violence that captures the true horror of what is going on, precisely through the juxtaposition with the friendly conversations and market-place bartering, which are accompanied throughout by a silence filled with a fear not of what is to come, but a fear of what is. The flute is giving a voice to those who are not allowed to speak, a wordless expression in music. The silence at stake is distinct from the liminal silence we have seen operative in anatomy. In this case, the people depicted sitting here have long histories of violence behind them, of being captured, sold, and put into the belly of the boat (Glissant 1997: 6). They have experienced sickness and death, to then enter a radically new world in which they will be traded again. The silence here is not liminal, in terms of an opening, but is rather filled with horror. Inspired by the term ‘thick description’, coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), and in opposition to liminal silence, we want to call this ‘thick silence’.

​[34]​ When Geertz developed his ideas in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) he was working as an anthropologist and developing a method that wanted to provide an alternative to colonial and modern modes of studying others for the sake of instrumental knowledge. Geertz’ principal contention was that people could not and should not be studied from an outside, but by a scholar within the given situation, and that attention should be paid to reports by peoples themselves, that made clear how they experienced things. It concerns an attitude, then, that one can adopt. In a sense the entire method of Geertz consisted in a method of concentration on detail and context, on the expansion of attention, and, as a consequence, on scholarly or descriptive delay. This is in line with our definition of the ekphrasis of sound, which needs detail in order to make the audience present in the scene, not in a moment of quick attention, but in a mode of involvement. If experiences are to be somehow shared, they have to be sensed, transmitted and received in order to be felt and understood, which takes time. If we translate ‘thick description’ into ‘thick silence’, then, this implies a similar attitude of concentration, expansion, and delay. Though the image itself is silent, it is filled with diverse sounds, including the sound of silence. It therefore invites a detailed reading in terms of an ekphrasis of sound. It not only invites the eyes to roam, but also invites the ears to listen. The Wagener watercolour, consequently, is not something to be looked at as a testimony to violence. If the scene is to be felt and understood, all those looking at it will have to become listeners, who are willing to sense the silence, who are willing to be receivers of what is transmitted through this silence, and who will take the time to be with this silence and feel its density. ‘Thick silence’ is a silence packed with the close range, actual, immediate and multisensory threat of violence. Listening to it, being with it, may be uncomfortable. Still, it is necessary, as it can make us sense what the situation was in which these people found themselves, captured by the violence that surrounded them.

Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society
Erasmus School of Philosophy



​[1] Other examples include Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting, or Schoenberg’s Pelléas and Mélisande, in which music comes to describe poetry (Bruhn 2000, 2008).​[back to text]​

​[2] All translations are ours: note that the translations given do not aim to be literary, but rather to enable the reader to follow the lines and connotations of the original texts as much as possible​.[back to text]​

​[3] In the original: ‘de Leste charsije tegenover [altered from ‘ontrent’] de Middach sijnde ontrent 2 urren [altered from ‘de Vier urren’] & verliet tromp de groote steng ontrent middachs’. See Royal Museums Greenwich online collection: <https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/141660.html>.​[back to text]​

​[4] The essay was originally published in 1976, in collaboration with psychoanalist Roland Havas; see Barthes 1992.​[back to text]​

​[5] The famous Mauritshuis in The Hague, named after this prince, has been working over recent decades towards a reconsideration of the figure of Johan Maurits. This has resulted in ‘shifting perceptions’: see Mauritshuis 2019.​[back to text]​



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‘Vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’: The Cultural Afterlife of the Valtellina Crisis in the Early Stuart Imagination

‘Vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’:
The Cultural Afterlife of the Valtellina Crisis in the Early Stuart Imagination

Thom Pritchard

1. Introduction

​[1]​ A distant Alpine valley to the northeast of Milan may seem an unlikely location to have been of much concern to the inhabitants of the Stuart kingdoms. From at least the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the Valtellina had been a ‘volcano of political, linguistic and religious instability’ thanks to its role (both literal and metaphorical) as ‘one of the cross-roads of European politics’ (Parker 1979: 193). Forming a horse-shoe above Lake Como, it occupied a key strategic position, connecting northern Italy to routes into central and northern Europe. The concessions granted at the Peace of Lyon (1601) following King Henri IV of France’s victory in the War of Saluzzo had deprived Spain of a corridor to move her troops north to the Franche-Comte and the Netherlands beyond, while also taking away France’s access to Italy through Savoy. Subsequently, both states looked towards the Valtellina as the passageway to restore their interests: the French secured military exclusivity with the valley’s Protestant Grison overlords, while the Spanish retaliated by building a fort to guard the southern entrance to the valley and by fermenting revolt and sectarian violence among the Catholic majority. This culminated in July 1620 in the slaughter of around 600 Protestants, and a pro-Spanish takeover. The ensuing crisis would draw in Spain, France, and the Papal States, and threaten to spill the Thirty Years War into the Italian peninsula.[1]

​[2]​ At the bloody onset of the war, British attention would come to be focused on the rapid deterioration of militant Protestant causes, most notably the crushing of the Bohemian Revolt at the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620, and the loss of the Palatinate when Spanish troops stormed Heidelberg in 1622. Perhaps as a result, the reactions of the Anglophone public sphere(s) to the persecutions of the Protestant Grisons have been critically neglected by cultural historians. However, news of the violence in the valley circulated throughout Europe, and events in the Alps were seared into the consciousnesses of those anxiously observing the triumphs of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. As this essay will demonstrate, the Valtellina came to haunt the early Stuart political imagination despite its apparent peripherality, not only as a strategically important locale, but also as a gruesome exemplar of the cruel ambitions of the Spanish Habsburgs and their alleged pursuit of universal monarchy.

​[3]​ Jacobean subjects would initially learn of events in the Valtellina primarily through the medium of cheap printed news. Yet the printed afterlife of the slaughter of the Grisons metamorphosed significantly over time, as the news-book accounts of atrocities, troop movements, skirmishes and diplomatic intrigues transcended their apparently ephemeral character and were woven into martyrologies, providential narratives, and even reasons of state. Through polemic the ghosts of Grison priests would cry outrage, from heaven the deceased Tudor dynasty would discuss the significance of the slaughter, and the presence of Spanish troops behind the bloodshed would implicate the Habsburgs in diabolical designs. Though spatially distant and seemingly politically remote from the complexities of Stuart foreign policy, the Valtellina crisis came to be deployed to highlight the precariousness of Protestantism, and to encourage a long-awaited war with Spain. Over the following decades the crisis would transition into a cultural memory, a stark warning of the potential for sectarian civil war influenced by foreign powers. So pervasive was this sensation that over a decade later, at the onset of the British Civil Wars, the persecution of Protestant Grisons would be cited as a gruesome example of Catholic cruelty in an updated Acts and Monuments. Its inclusion there, decades after the death of former Marian refugee John Foxe, attests to the enduring desire within the fractured Protestantism of the Stuart Kingdoms to identify with the plight of co-religionists in Europe.

​[4]​ This fascination with the Valtellina was not an insular phenomenon, but the product of a pan-European flow of information. Perceptions of the Valtellina crisis were shaped not only by reasons of state from the Grison canton, but also by discourses from France and the Republic of Venice. Through translation these polemics contributed to the shaping not only of immediate reactions to the crisis, but also of its cultural afterlife for decades after. The very translation of Catholic French and Venetian treatise and reasons of state into English, and their subsequent deployment within the polemic of even staunch Protestants, challenges the notion that anti-Catholicism in the Stuart kingdoms was a homogenised entity. Instead, in the context of dramatic Protestant defeats by the Spanish Habsburgs, an atmosphere of vociferous anti-Spanish hysteria sought to incorporate the Hispanophobic writings of European Catholic authors into the uneven strata of the Stuart public sphere(s).

2. Printing the Providence and Persecution in English and Scottish News

​[5]​ Before we discuss the avid Jacobean consumption of news from the Valtellina, we need to explore the diplomatic and religious stressors unleashed by the Bohemian Revolt. At the onset of the Thirty Years War, French diplomats had ‘thrown their weight behind a negotiated solution to the Bohemian revolt and had helped neutralise a large part of the Protestant support for the Palatine Elector’ (Parrot 2011: 141). The Habsburgs, however, interpreted these movements as ‘an indication of political weakness and division within France’ (141). Spanish troops would therefore opportunistically occupy the Valtellina, strengthening the corridor between the Habsburgs in Lombardy and the Habsburg Austrian lands (141).

​[6]​ The opportunity was presented by the eruption of fierce sectarian conflict in the Valtellina between the Protestant Grison overlords of the valleys and the local Catholic population. As Peter Wilson explains in his account of the slaughter (2012: 381-382) the Bohemian revolt had stirred tensions within the valley, and the ‘radical Calvinists’ who controlled the Grison Canton had sent troops to support Frederick in Bohemia. The Spanish governor of Milan would respond by conspiring with the Catholics of the Valtellina, using Capuchin monks as intermediaries, and by sending Spanish troops to the south of the valley. The Catholics attacked before the Grisons were ready and perpetrated fifteen days of ‘holy slaughter’, massacring four hundred Protestants by July of 1620; a counter attack by 1,500 Swiss Protestants routed the Catholics and proceeded to destroy Catholic churches, only to be checked by Spanish troops. In an attempt to maintain influence in the Italian peninsula, representatives of Louis XIII began a series of deliberately well-publicized talks with Savoy and Venice, culminating in the Treaty of Lyons in February 1623, which envisaged an army of 40,000 to expel the Spanish. However, neither France nor Spain wished for open war and instead they accepted papal mediation, with papal troops replacing the occupying Spanish forces (382). A decade later, French and Spanish troops would continue to fight over this vitally important valley, keeping the Valtellina as a major topic of European news.

​[7]​ Even before this episode, the Valtellina was not unknown to the Stuart popular imagination. Andro Hart, the ‘most successful and important Scottish book merchant and book importer before the Restoration’, with extensive literary links to the continent (Mann 2004), reported upon a natural disaster in the Grison Alps in 1618, using as his source a translation of a Parisian copy of an earlier Milanese report. In Newes from Italie: or, A prodigious, and most lamentable accident Hart provided a providential interpretation of the destruction of Pleurs, a ‘whollie Popish’ city (1619: 5). Hart related how an earthquake, ‘some windes vnder the ground’, sent a fatal landslide upon the city, killing ‘two thousande soules’, an act of wrath upon the Catholic inhabitants which calls ‘to remembrance another Sodome’ (6).

​[8]​ Only months before the outbreak of sectarian violence, arriving from the Grison cantons through translation and printed in London in 1619, The Proceedings of the Grisons detailed the fragile condition of the religious and civic liberties of the Grisons in the face of Catholic fifth columnists and Spanish interference. Although since ancient times God had granted the Grisons the ‘most precious jewell’ of ‘the libertie of our Church and Commonwealth’, these gifts were threatened by internal discord thanks to the machinations of a ‘tyrannizing faction’ who plot with ‘forraine States’ and fortify their settlements with ‘men and munitions’ (Anon 1619: B1R- C1V). In opposition to the Grison Protestant overlords, the Catholic faction exploit the topography of the valley, ‘keepe the passages, throwe downe the Bridges’, beseeching foreign military support in order to ‘drawe a civill Warre upon his owne Countrey’ (C2R). The anonymous translator solemnly hinted at the strategic significance of an imminent escalation: the Grisons ‘stand in the gates of Italy, as firme as the Mountaines wherein they live, against any forraine force whatsoever’ (1619: A1V). Within this polemic there is, however, a marked unease over the execution of the Catholic priest of Sondrio, Nicolo Rusca, by the Grison authorities. Responding to rumours ‘spred abroad by some false Calumniators, that this Rusca was tortured’ and subsequently died of his afflictions, the Grison authors go to great lengths to stress the legitimacy of his execution: he ‘shewed himself a Rebel’, ‘hindered the free course of preaching the Gospell’, and plotted the murder of a Protestant preacher (H1r-H2r). As will later be observed, the death of Rusca would be later employed by Spanish polemicists to frame the Grisons as the aggressors rather than the victims of the crisis.

​[9]​ Following the outbreak of violence in July 1620, news of the massacres would arrive through European letters and proclamations, translated and disseminated into pamphlets, with snippets of news of the trouble in the Alps bundled into bulletins reporting the wider continental turmoil. Reports of violence in the Valtellina can therefore be located within a vast corpus of pamphlets frantically furnishing a domestic audience with news of the tribulations of continental Protestantism during the disastrous onset of the Thirty Years War. In a landmark study of London’s News Press and the Thirty Years War, Jayne Boys explores London’s fledgling news-book industry, where from October 1622 news from abroad was ‘channelled into a series of licensed weekly periodicals run by a syndicate of five publishers’, before being distributed across England, supplying the anxious ‘English middle classes’ with news (2011: 8). These news publications quickly travelled across an ‘impressive distribution network’: over 400 London news periodicals published between the onset of war and the Treaty of Westphalia have survived (8). Nor was this news consigned only to the literate middle class: it was also disseminated orally, synthesised into ballads, sermons, and plays.

​[10]​ London’s position as an epicentre of news is exemplified by Coppies of Letters Sent from Personages of Accompt Unto Divers Personages of Worth in London, printed on 22 June 1622, wherein ‘Doctor Welles and Others’ provided a synthesis of European events, ranging from the Palatinate to the ongoing crisis in the Valtellina. ‘For three weeks word came from Valtellina’, the editor(s) reported, relating how the forces of the Habsburg Archduke of Austria Leopoldus ‘had also put the Valtellines to the sword [showing] for them and their Religion (…) such crueltie, as the like hath not bin heard of’ (Welles et al. 1622: 2). However, the editors perceived that providence was at work, and gleefully related how the next week brought news of a remarkable feat of divinely inspired female fortitude and gender subversion leading to a dramatic reversal for Leopoldus. The dispatch describes how at a ‘towne called Bunfen’, around ‘fiftie men’ and ‘many women, […] putting themselves into men’s apparrel, slew at severall times two thousand Papists’ (2). This sensational tale of Samson-like strength is ‘accounted here as a worke and a wonder of God’ (2).

​[11]​ Increasingly sensationalised reports of this violence travelled across the Jacobean kingdoms. That same year, John Everard recorded sightings of fantastical meteorological phenomena in Cornwall, comparing them with haunting preternatural reports from the Valtellina in an eschatological narrative entitled Somewhat vvritten by occassion three sunnes seene at Tregnie in Cornewall. In relations like Everard’s, we can glimpse the beginnings of the metamorphosis of the Valtellina crisis, from letters regarding skirmishes to events which correlated with wider metaphysical developments. In an apparent occurrence of a parhelion, or sun dog, the inhabitants of Tregnie were stunned by the appearance of ‘three Sunnes, of equall lustre and brightnesse’; stranger yet are reports from the neighbouring county of Devon, that ‘did as much affright the eares of men, as this did their eyes’ (Everard 1622: 10-13). Here, witnesses heard an auditory battle in the sky, ‘unusuall cracks or claps of thunder, resembling in all points, the sound of many Drums together’; they identified the distinct sounds of beating Charges, sometimes Retreats, sometimes Marches (…) many volleyes of Small-shot (…) volleys of Ordnance’ (13).

​[12]​ Everard offered no definitive explanation for the preternatural wonders. Instead, he abruptly turned his narrative to the ‘massacres committed by the Papists upon the persons of more than 400 Men women, and children, of the Reformed Religion, in the Valtellina’, ‘examples of cruelties and inhumanitie’ which occurred two years past (15). Everard claimed to omit the worst descriptions of the massacres, focusing instead on the eerie occurrences before and after the slaughter, as reported by an ‘eye-witnesse’ (16). In May 1620, two months before the slaughter, sentinels standing watch one night in the steeple of the church in Sondrio had heard ‘a great murmuring and noyse, as if it had been of many people, earnestly reasoning […] about some great and serious matter’ (16). The astonished sentinels then saw ‘a great light’, emanating from the church and heard the church bell of its own accord toll ‘ten times’, as if ‘giving an Allarme’ (16). Following the massacres, ‘in the Churches which were formerly used by them of the Reformed Religion’, disembodied voices cried ‘Woe, woe unto you, vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’, and in the church where the priest Antonio Bassano was decapitated by ‘rebellious and seditious Papists’, the bell tolls ‘without any mans hands, at the time that the Sermon was wont to be’, and the spectral voice of Bassano is heard (18-19).

​[13]​ Given the general abhorrence of Protestant preachers at ‘heathenish’ attempts to predict the future through the interpretation of strange portents (Walsham 1999: 168), Everard’s apparent reluctance to provide explanations as to the implications of the phenomena is to be expected. However, from the inclusion of the apparitions in the Valtellina, several conclusions could be formed in the ambiguous space left by Everard’s apparent refusal to provide explanation. Could the witnesses to the battle in the sky in Devon be hearing the battles raging in the Palatinate or the Valtellina valley, in a miraculous case of hyper-contemporaneity? Or, instead, does the battle in the sky over Devon offer a stark warning of the dangers faced by domestic Protestants, just as the bells tolled, moved by unseen hands, to warn the Grisons of Sondrio of imminent slaughter? Everard believed that the Anglican Church had been deceived by Catholicism, and would a year later, in 1623, be imprisoned for his opposition to the Spanish Match; despite the protestations of Francis Bacon and Lord Verulam for his release, James I would retort, ‘Who is this Dr Ever-out you come so oft about? his name shall be Dr Never-out’ (Allen 2004).

​[14]​ Given Everard’s anxious preoccupations, the inclusion of the Valtellina can plausibly be seen as a warning. Indeed, through nature, ‘signs and portents’ of the apocalypse could be revealed: the comet of 1618 heralded momentous events, and phenomena such as parhelia were ‘considered to be an omen of horrible sufferings to come’, of wars and famines linked to the imminent second coming (Cunningham & Grell 2001: 76-79). From the sixteenth century onwards, accounts of apparitions of armies fighting in the skies were disseminated across Europe, vividly represented on broadsheets, such as those of a vision seen over Rome in 1580, of a clash between Turkish and Christian soldiers (80). As Cunningham and Grell note ‘identical visions of armies involved in eschatological battles were repeatedly reported in most of Protestant Europe’, with some claiming that these visions had been witnessed in several locations (81-82).

​[15]​ Furthermore, eschatological apparitions could provide a profound source of comfort despite the menacing warnings of judgement and slaughter. In fashioning some semblance of a moral victory, these preternatural events could reassure beleaguered Protestants that providence would restore justice, fulfilling what Alexandra Walsham describes as the ‘imperative to establish God’s positive endorsement of that community and creed’, an essential factor in even ‘crudely polemical providentialism’ (1999: 241). In these reports of the suffering of the Grisons, divine intervention is at hand. For example, when a ‘host of armed men’ are seen ‘comming downe from the Mountaines’ in Sondrio, before abruptly vanishing, the people below flee, ‘for feare of the divine punishment’ (Everard 1622: 19). This heavenly host, like the disembodied voices who cried for justice, or the slaughter of Leopoldus’s troops by the Grison women related by Welles and his contributors, attests to a providential interpretation of events amidst the desolation of Protestant defeats.

​[16]​ News would continue to flow through the arteries of Europe’s news networks to London, providing regular updates on the Valtellina crisis, as the valley threatened to dramatically expand the scope of the Thirty Years War southwards. From 1624 onwards, the syndicate of London news printers was succeeded by a ‘partnership of the stationers Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne who continued approximately weekly periodical publication’ (Boys 2011: 8). This prolific partnership provided regular updates on the Valtellina. Take for example, a report published on the 4th October 1622. ‘Post letters of Italy come from Venice’ related a grim situation in the Valtellina, ‘for there is nothing but killing and intercepting of passages among the Grizons’: soldiers are reported to be mobilising in Switzerland, ‘an army of seven thousand […] resolved to defend their countrey against the usurpation of strangers’ (Butter & Bourne 1622: 5). Despite talk of peace between the Duke de Feria and ‘Switzers’, and the arrival of ‘severall Embassadours from France, Venice’, the Duke de Feria, Leopoldus of Austria, sends his troops to forage the ‘Valleys of the Grisons, as farre as Tiroll’, stealing cattle, and increasing his forces so as to ‘subjugate that Countrey wholly to the use of the Spaniard’(6).

​[17]​ The conclusion from the Serene Republic is bleak: ‘the Spaniard will have no Peace, but are resolved to continue the Warre’, so that ‘his Armies may passe from Millan into Germanie, without interception’ (6). With the arrival of the ambassadors, we can see not only a preoccupation with the suffering of Grison Protestants, but a wider concern regarding the international implications of this violence. Both these preoccupations would be fuelled by translated reasons of state. Although Catholic, the polemics of the anti-Spanish Bons Français faction at the French court and the Venetian lawyer and prelate Paolo Sarpi would be eagerly translated for a domestic audience.

​[18]​ One such pamphlet, The favorites chronicle, a translation of Chronique des Favoris by François Dorval-Langlois Fancan (1576-1628), is indicative of the need not only to report upon the conflict in the Valtellina, but to shape perceptions of it. Fancan entered the services of Richelieu in 1617 and has been praised by Victor Tapie as ‘one of the most brilliant controversialists who ever lived’ (1975: 145). Fancan was a polemicist who held a ‘hatred of the Spanish’, ‘sympathy with the Huguenots’, and ‘an extreme Gallicanism’ (Church 1972: 116-17). For Fancan, religion was irrelevant to the struggle in the Valtellina: Spain merely cloaked their designs of ‘territorial aggrandisement’ with religion (Church 1972: 117).  Fancan began his address by requesting his readers to consider ‘the Tragedies that are acted upon the Theatre of this World’, before invoking a paranoid Hellenistic metaphor:

Whereupon our neighbours (having Argus eyes) being alwayes vigilant, and never sleepe, and with their spectacles continually beholding our proceedings (…) they advised with themselves that a civill warre in France would fall out well to the purpose, to be a meanes for them to attaine to the end of the Germane revolts, and of the usurpation which they pretended to make upon the Palatinate, Inlliers and Valtellina. (Fancan 1621: 1-4)

​[19]​ For Fancan, a Spanish occupation of the Valtellina was a sinister prospect. If Spain held the Valtellina, not only would France’s prestige and influence in the Italian peninsula be weakened, but Spain could move troops from Milan northward with far greater ease to either hereditary Habsburg lands, or to the Low Countries, since the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch Republic had expired. English anxieties would be stoked following the failed Protestant uprising in the Valtellina in 1622, when Spanish troops brutally suppressed resistance and tightened their grip on the valley (Parker 1979: 197). This prompted Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice, to lament a ‘terrible moment’ which enabled the Spanish to move men from Milan to Dunkirk. Wotton’s fears were confirmed in 1623 when 7,000 men marched northwards through the Valtellina (Parker, 1979:197). The remarkable successes of Spain at the onset of the Thirty Years War stirred cultural memories amongst English Protestants of the Marian persecution, of atrocities committed against the Dutch Rebels, of the Armada, and of the gunpowder plot orchestrated by former soldiers of the Army of Flanders. Therefore, for many, peace with Spain during the height of Protestant tribulations on the continent was not just a betrayal: it could plausibly sow the seeds of ruin for Protestantism in the Jacobean kingdoms.

​[20]​ The 1624 Votivæ Angliæ petitioned James I to draw England’s sword for the restoration of the Palatinate from the treacherous Spanish monarchy. Authored by the multi-lingual writer and merchant John Reynolds, who was based in France from 1619 (Grudzien 2004), this polemic argued that the French king had been lulled by ‘the Syreen tunes, and the charmes of Spayne’ to wage a ‘sacrilegious Warre against his owne Protestant subject’ (Reynolds 1624a: B4r). During this slumber, Spain seized the initiative. Addressing James and employing the language of rape, Reynolds explains how ‘Spayn recovered the Valtellina, and deflowered the Fortes of the Grisons’, whilst Gondomar ‘lull’d your Majestie asleep’, and seized the Palitinate also (B4r). Reynolds thereby compared the Spanish monarchy to ‘the Cyclope Polephemus’ who ‘devoured his passengers one after another’, as the ‘King of Spayne eated upp whole Countries and Provinces’ (B4r). The implications are menacing: are the Jacobean kingdoms be devoured next?

​[21]​ The same year, Reynolds’ Vox Cœli, Or Newes from Heauen was printed in London by William Jones. Originally written in 1621 in opposition to the Spanish match, according to Reynolds its publication was delayed because King James’s affection for Spain would have created hostile conditions for its reception (Colclough 2005: 110). 1624 was a markedly different context. As Cogswell demonstrates in The Blessed Revolution, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Spanish Match and the mobilisation of men and opinion towards war, 1624 would witness ‘a flood of anti-Catholic literature’ reflecting the ‘revolution in political attitudes’ (1989:302). In its form, it self-consciously imitates Thomas Scott’s reworking in his Nevves from pernassus of Trajano Boccalini’s rhetoric in Raggauagli de Parnasso (Colclough 2005: 109). It imagines a regal meeting in heaven of the Tudor dynasty, who proceed to discuss the lamentable events befalling Europe. Surprisingly, even Queen Mary I is present, admitted to heaven in spite of her persecution of Protestants due to the ‘prayers of the protestants’, and begrudgingly entreated to join the conversation of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Prince Henry because Mary ‘knew many secrets of Spaine’ (Reynolds 1624b: 3-4).

​[22]​ Talk quickly turns to the Valtellina. Henry VIII concludes that ‘if Grisons at any time lose the Swissers friendship’, then they will part ‘with their liberties and their lives’ to the Spanish (23). Although Elizabeth I admires the Grisons ‘warlike’ defiance, her brother Edward VI agrees with their father that tragedy awaits: ‘I feare the Grisons will buy their peace […] with teares of blood’ (23). In imagining the Tudor dynasty discussing contemporary strife, Reynolds is throwing down a gauntlet to James I, urging him to heed the advice of his glorious Protestant predecessors (and of that lost hero of England, his son Prince Henry, upon whose shoulders so much militant expectation was placed) and pursue war with Spain.

3. Translating Paolo Sarpi’s Valtellina to Influence Stuart Foreign Policy

​[23]​ Venice had also been watching the unfolding crisis near its borders with grave concern. Whilst mobilising her own forces in preparation for war, her writers condemned the illegitimacy of Spanish operations. These condemning reasons of state would through translation be appropriated to support the bellicose revolution in the foreign policy of the newly enthroned King Charles I. Through posthumous publication following his death in 1623, the Venetian prelate and all-round Renaissance man Paolo Sarpi provided Stuart subjects with another virulently anti-Spanish narrative of the Valtellina crisis. Sarpi ‘was at the centre of a vast scholarly and political web’: John Milton would later praise him as ‘the unmasker of the Council of Trent’ for his history on the council (Vivo 2005: 36). The 430 letters which survive him are evidence of his vast pan-European correspondence network. Of particular note are the 45 letters from Sarpi to William Cavendish, the Earl of Devonshire, which survive as translations by the earl’s secretary Thomas Hobbes: written under pseudonyms and referring to Sarpi only in the third person; they highlight the risks Sarpi faced when writing to recipients who were not Catholic (38).

​[24]​ In the 1625 posthumous translation of The free schoole of warre, using the Dutch Revolt(s) as a starting point, Sarpi undertook a survey of European statecraft. Considering the cross-confessional allegiances which undermined any conception of a unified Catholic Christendom, and turning his attention to the international implications of the Valtellina crisis, Sarpi wrote:

 the crowne of France hath for a long time entred into league with the Protestant Switzers, with mutuall articles of defence; with the Grison Protestants of Rhetia, unto whom that Crowne is to giue ayde ordinary and extraordinary […] alliance and confederation with the Protestants of Germany […] an annual summe of money of twenty five thousand Crownes to the Common wealth of Geneva […] hath defended the same against Savoy and Spaine, who are Catholike Princes. (1625: 26)

For Sarpi, the union between Rome and Spain had resulted in a series of plots, often instigated by the Jesuits, ‘Bloody, Trecherous, and Insidiarie persons’ (9). In 1618, Venice had been gripped by fears of a Spanish conspiracy: fearful of a possible Spanish assault upon the Republic, many Venetians ‘expressed with great intensity the opposition of a free, Republican Venice, to an intolerant, tyrannical Spain’ (Martin 2007: 232). It is significant that Sir Nathaniel Brent and William Bedell’s translation of The free schoole of warre appeared in 1625, the year of the debacle of the expedition to Cadiz: this suggests it may have been intended to support the necessity of a raid to cut the purse strings of the Spanish Habsburgs. As Cogswell notes, whilst the ‘vindication of English honour’ and ‘ulterior motives may well have been behind the bellicosity of Charles and Buckingham […] no evidence suggests that their concern about Habsburg expansion was insincere’ (1989: 66). Cogswell also observes that the Secretary of State Edward Conway, cited the seizing of the Valtellina, alongside Spanish triumphs in Bohemia and the Palatinate, in what can be seen as the ‘seventeenth century equivalent of the domino theory’ in which the United Provinces and England could be victims of this chain reaction (70).

​[25]​ The translation of Hispanophobic polemic from Venice not only served to create the impression of a pan-European echo of revulsion at Spain’s years of victories, but also sought to fashion the semblance of a community of states whose very survival depended on their opposition to Spain. Secretary Conway had envisaged an anti-Habsburg confederacy, uniting Catholic ‘Venice, Savoy and France’ with Protestant ‘Denmark, Sweden, the United Provinces and England (Cogswell 1989: 70-71). Under Conway’s plan the sheer size of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs’ possessions would be an ‘Achilles heel’ and force them to fight a war across several fronts: ‘the French, Savoyards and Venetians would strike the Valtellina passes’, whilst the Danes would assist German Protestants fighting in the Empire, and the English and the Dutch would wage a naval war (Cogswell 1989: 71). However, in 1625, the long-anticipated war with Spain resulted in a failed expedition to Cadiz, and promised subsidies to support Christian IV of Denmark hampered the Danish intervention into Germany. Worse was yet to come for hopes of an anti-Spanish dynastic alliance.

​[26]​ By the late summer of 1627, England and France were at war following another Huguenot rebellion, ‘and cheap corantos, readily available in the bookstalls around St Paul’s Cathedral, reported weekly on the fighting’, some publications even going so far as to question ‘the way in which the king and the privy council were running the war’ (Thompson 1998: 653). Confronted with the dispersion of potentially seditious literature, Conway tasked his servant Georg Rudolph Weckherlin (1584-1653) with censoring these publications (654). Weckeherlin would later sanction a translation of Palo Sarpi’s A discourse vpon the reasons of the resolution taken in the Valteline (hereafter referred to as A discourse), an ‘anti-Spanish diatribe’, evidently translated to fuel ‘national hatred of Spain’, and ‘to encourage further Parliamentary support for England’s wars’ (670). It is here that we can see a distinct transition in the way in which the Valtellina was represented in English language polemic.

​[27]​ By 1627 a fragile peace resided in the valley. Although French troops had arrived in the Valtellina at the end of 1624, even opening fire upon troops marching under the papal banner, tensions had been lowered by the Treaty of Monzon in 1626: both France and Spain had agreed upon the restitution of the Grisons, with the condition that only Catholicism be practiced in the valleys (Church, 1972: 105-06). With the easing of tensions, and the events of the Holy Slaughter now seven years old, the injustices inflicted upon Grison Protestants would be employed as a polemical example of the cruelty of the Spanish Habsburgs, warning against peace with Spain. Conrad Russell noted that, with the gargantuan costs of Caroline foreign policy from 1626-28, and the failure of the expedition of the Duke of Buckingham’s expedition to relieve Huguenot La Rochelle, some at the Parliament of 1628 expected Buckingham to make peace with Spain (1979: 323-29).

​[28]​ Addressing the Parliament of 1628, the ‘Translators’s Epistle to the Commons House of Parliament’ prefaces a translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse. The translator, described only as ‘Your humble Seruant Philo-Britannicos’, spewed forth abuses of the Habsburgs. The bibliographical notes of Early English Books Online state that the translator was the diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, a suggestion which opens an intriguing possibility. Roe served as ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople from 1621 to 1628, during which time he encountered the Prince of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen. Roe envisaged that the Palatinate might be restored by Bethlen attacking from the south whilst the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, attacked from the north (Strachan, 2004). What is unmistakable is the endeavour to remind Parliament of the usurpation of the Valtellina, challenging any voices who advocated ceasing hostilities with Spain in order to concentrate on a French war. Roe praised Sarpi for opening ‘the eyes of all Princes’ to a Habsburg ‘secret project of Universall Monarchy’; surveying the world for Spanish abuses, Roe echoed Sarpi in claiming the ‘Valtellina [was] possessed under the colour of Religion’, the latest illegality in a list that included the usurpation of India and the seizure of the Palatinate (Britannicos 1628: 5)

​[29]​ Any overt mention of the failed 1625 expedition to Cadiz is omitted, as is the failure of Buckingham to relieve La Rochelle. Instead, the translator advises continued and imminent action against the Habsburgs:It is Time onely that will macerate England, when without traffique and exchange, and that especially of Germany, our owne treasure must be exported to pay forraine Armies’ (29). In a closing line, a sensation of temporal urgency is reinforced, imploring Parliament through print, ‘It will be time to be thrifty in the members and particulars, when the Head and the whole State is safe’; the alternative is serve: ‘And if you deferre untill a lingring warre hath exhausted you’ (29).

​[30]​ Following Britannicos’ urgent preface, the translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse on the occupation of the Valtellina was printed. Posthumously published in English, a full four years after Sarpi had died, Roe brought back the ghosts of persecution past as a dreadful past precedent to caution against any truce with Spain. Curiously, at the onset of Sarpi’s A Discourse, the Venetian had included a piece of pro-Habsburg polemic called The Manifest: Wherein the Reasons of the Resolutions lately by them taken against the tyranny of the Grisons and Heretiques, bringing the claims of Catholic resistance theorists to light before proceeding to unravel and deconstruct their legitimacy. As we have seen, while slaughtered Grisons found a cultural afterlife in Protestant polemics, becoming martyrs in the landscape of providential memory, a similar phenomenon had been underway within Catholic polemic, fashioning the victims of Grison rule into Catholic martyrs. The Manifest can be seen amongst a corpus of anti-Grison polemics, such as the 1621 Kurtzer vnnd warhaffter Bericht deß KelchenKriegß (Short and truthful relation of the war on chalices), a German language broadside depicting Grisons as iconoclasts and devil worshippers.

​[31]​ Anti-Grison polemics such as these endeavoured to justify armed resistance to radical Calvinists. The fact that Sarpi dedicated time and ink to devaluing their validity attests to a subtle Venetian anxiety stemming from favouring the cause of French backed Grisons Protestants over Spanish backed Catholic rebels in the Valtellina. The events which inspired anti-Grison justifications can traced back to the immediate prelude of the slaughter in 1620. When in 1618, some of the leaders of the valley’s Catholics objected to Grison support for Venice against Ferdinand of Styria, a radical Protestant preacher named George Jenatsch led an army into the Catholic areas, arresting and torturing two Catholic leaders and expelling fourteen more (Parker 1979: 195). This incident was used in The Manifest, wherein the victims of this incident are glorified as martyrs of the Catholic Church, their deaths providing a sanguine justification for armed rebellion:

Nicolo Rusca Arch-Priest of Sondrio, a Priest of most innocent life, and a true Martyr of Christ, tormented and put to death, with all cruelty, and possible infamy, without any other fault, then being a good Catholique, & a priest. Now these Iniuries and Cruelties hauing necessitated some Catholique Communities, to seeke redresse of so many euills, vsing their vtmost force. (Anon 1628: 36)

​[32]​ Indeed, the anxiety surrounding the accusations of torture behind the demise of Rusca can be glimpsed within the Grison version of events in the 1619 Proceedings of the Grisons. Sarpi then proceeded to lampoon The Manifest. Its allegations ‘hath giuen great scandal to all wise men, who easily do comprehend from whence, and why it was put to the Presse’ (1628: 39). Employing the metaphor of concealment and darkness, a similar device used by Fancan in anti-Spanish/ anti-Jesuit polemic, Sarpi stated that whilst The Manifest endeavoured ‘to wrap up in darknesse; I have thought it an act of Iustice’ to bring it ‘to light, that truth’, unless ‘it become deceived with a false appearance of Pietie and Religion’ (4). For Sarpi the danger of lies and concealment are potentially diabolical, ‘the Devill, a perpetual enemy of Princes well enclined, useth oftentimes to transforme himselfe into an Angell of light’ (40). In a moment of urgency Sarpi implored Phillip to consider the results of religious persecution against heretics across Europe: ‘a consideration worthy of many teares’ (68). ‘Poore Germany, into what state is it reduced?’, ‘Flanders too had been ruined’, and now, the Valtellina sits precariously like a powder keg: ‘the present warre against the Grisons prove not a fire of faith and religion, in all Italy’ (68-69). Phillip’s ministers have been corrupted by the designs of Satan, ‘The Deuill hath prepared the wood, the Ministers of your Majesties have kindled the flame’ (69). This image, of religious war as a flame, spreading from country to country, is perhaps the most paranoid of Sarpi’s discourses, yet it resonates with pan-European literature and the many scattered perceptions of a contemporaneous world in a state of combustion. In a further attack upon The Manifest, Sarpi exonerates the Grisons, who ‘have not tyrannised their Subjects, neither concerning Religion, nor in the politike life’, instead ‘Tyranny’ was ‘treacherously induced by the Ministers of your Majestie’, the Catholic rebellion not a voluntary act, but one compelled by manipulation of the ‘present Governor of Millan’ (74).

​[33]​ Reprinting Sarpi’s A Discourse on the Valtellina reminded Parliament of both the fragile balance of power, of the states and valleys which narrowly held back Spanish ascendency, and also of the sombre accusation that behind Spanish policy were diabolical machinations. For many Stuarts the onset of the Thirty Years War was not just a dynastic conflict, but an apocalyptic unfolding where the forces of the antichrist threatened universal Protestantism. Sarpi’s Valtellina was appropriated to reinforce this world-view. By employing the legal discourse of the deceased Sarpi on the subject of Grison Protestants who had died almost a decade before, we can glimpse the beginnings of an enduring cultural afterlife in English language polemic, a vital transition from contemporary events, to past precedents and cultural memories.

4. The Memory of Grison Martyrs on the Eve of Civil War

​[34]​ The persecution of the Protestant Grisons would continue to haunt the imagination of Stuart Protestants. As the 1630s dawned, their macabre deaths were not merely consigned to reasons of state to be debated and argued by politicians and diplomats, but immortalised in martyrologies for the wider community to remember. In 1632, the great behemoth of the English martyrology and contributor to English Protestant identity, John Foxe’s (c.1516-1587) Acts and Monuments, would be given a seventh volume, printed by Adam Islip, Foelix Kingston, and Robert Yong. Amongst its additions, was the 108 page A continuation of the histories of forrein martyrs from the happy reigne of the most renowned Qu. Elizabeth,  presenting a newly updated martyrology, starting with the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It featured the ‘famous deliverances of our English nation’, the 1588 Spanish Armada and the 1605 Gunpowder plot, before finishing with ‘the barbarous cruelties exercised upon the professors of the Gospell in the Valtellina’ in 1621. It is striking that this  addition was reprinted and included in the 1641 edition. With the British Isles sliding into bloody civil war, the graphic examples of continental persecution offered a stark warning. The martyrs of the Valtellina would, to echo Pierre Nora, evidence the fact that memory is ‘vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being dormant and periodically revived’ (1989: 7). In 1641 the ghosts of Grison martyrs were summoned to warn of sectarian possibilities.

​[35]​ In addition, the ‘Grison Lords’ are the ‘Soveraigne Magistrates’ of the Valtellina, and for merely practicing their religion, were persecuted by murderous Catholics. Violence erupted at a Protestant Church in ‘Boalez’, where a ‘multitude and concourse of the papists in that place in Armes’ beat to death Protestants with staves, setting in motion a slaughter, ‘where the rage and fury of those murderers grew unto that height’ (99). The attempts of the Grisons’ council to organise a garrison are in vain, as ‘barbarous and wicked fellowes’, both ‘domestique’ and ‘forraine’, arrive with malicious intentions’ (100). With the arrival of Spanish troops, slaughter ensued:

Protestants, who without feare or suspicion of any practise against them, came out of their houses into the streets to see what the matter was, were suddenly shot and most cruelly murthered in the place. Others by force entred into the houses of the Protestants, drew them out of their beds, and without any compassion slew all they could meet withall (100)

Distinct parallels begin to emerge with reports of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, where Protestants are pulled from their beds and slaughtered like cattle in the street. Accounts of the 1572 massacre had been included in the 1610 edition of Acts and Monuments: as Mark Breitenberg notes, this edition ‘may well have been in response to the tumult surrounding the Gunpowder Plot and to the increasing tide of puritan opposition’(1989: 384). With the inclusion of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, ‘James could hope to rally his own divided nation against an inveterate English enemy’ (384-85). In a scene which strongly echoes  the murder of the Huguenot hero Admiral Coligny, in 1620 the Grison Governor of Teglie, ‘seignior Andrea Enderlin of Kublis in Prettigonia, a Gentleman of great worth, very singularly learned, and skilful in many languages’, is strangled to death before being thrown from the window down into the street below, where his corpse ‘was so beaten and bruised, that you could not know him’ (Anon 1641: 58). In the account of the night in 1572, realising that his murder is at hand, Coligny commends his soul unto God, moments before he is slaughtered, and his naked body is defenestrated down upon the bloodthirsty mob below: ‘mockes of the multitude’ trample their trophy; his mutilated corpse is so disfigured and bloody that ‘his visage could not be discerned’ (59).

​[36]​ Such parallels are unsurprising, by 1610, and indeed by the date of these additions in 1632 and 1641 respectively, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had been ingrained into the cultural memory of European Protestants. As Judith Pollmann notes, communicative memory, the testimonies relayed by survivors of an atrocity or other significant moments, could transition into cultural memory, especially through the medium of cheap print, a phenomenon which early modern contemporaries were conscious of (2017: 169). Although Huguenot refugee communities in London and Norwich could have provided access to eyewitness testimony, the dispersion of cheap print was pervasive, inspiring polemics and plays, for instance Anne Dowriche’s The French Historie (1589) and Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (1593). The 1572 massacre looms large in the cultural memory as a bloody warning of the dangers of sectarian civil war. Its sheer pervasiveness in Anglophone polemic over fifty years later cannot be understated.

​[37]​ As Susannah Brietz Monta states, ‘most simply, the martyrologist’s task is to show that the lives and deaths of particular witnesses confirm the beliefs they held’ (2005: 11). In order ‘to shape reading communities’ which celebrate the martyr, accounts ‘proposed that the cause, not the death, makes the martyrs’, as evident with Foxe’s emphasis on the conscience of the martyr (11-12). Here in this martyrology of Grison Protestants, the victims are afforded no opportunity to profess their faith before the persecuting authorities, or allowed the option to recant. The martyrdom is brutal and operates outside of the judiciary, in fact in many cases, it is the respectable agents of the Grison religious and civic administration who are being butchered. However, as with Foxe’s martyrs of the early Reformation, names and biographical details are included, thereby enhancing the sensation of a personal connection to the victims. The Protestant martyrs imitate Christ’s crucifixion, ‘having recommended their soules to God, they were most cruelly slaine’ (Anon 1641: 101), and their killers enact, to borrow the language of Mikhail Bakhtin, a bloody rendition of the carnivalesque, beheading the local priest and mocking his extinguished authority:

They cut off Bassoe’s head, and carried it into the Church, and fixed it upon a pole in the pulpit where before time he was wont to preach, saving with all disgrace and scorne, Come downe Basso, thou hast preached long enough already. (Anon 1641: 101).

It is plausible that the mutilation of pitiful Bassano was based on accounts disseminated in the early 1620s, for example, in Everard’s inclusion of the persecution of Grisons into his preternatural narrative; ‘the rebellious and seditious Papists’ decapitate Bassano, mount the head on the pulpit and ‘cryed vnto him, Cala a basso, Basso, cala a basso, c’hai predicato assai, &c. that is, Come downe, Basso, come downe, thou hast preached long enough’ (1622: 19-20).

5. Cultural Afterlives

​[38]​ The events of the Holy Slaughter and the subsequent crisis had, over the subsequent decades, transitioned into an enduring cultural memory for those who only witnessed the violence through the medium of print. When compared to the vast corpus of literal, visual and oral responses to the horrors and atrocities of the Thirty Years War, the sheer endurance of the Valtellina crisis within English language polemic is remarkable. The massacres of the early 1620s were employed to warn of the horrors of sectarian violence on the continent, and to propel Caroline foreign policy against the Spanish perpetrators. Later, in 1632 and 1641, the massacres served as a stark exemplar of the danger of fifth columnists, and of civil war instigated by Catholic neighbours in league with foreign powers.

​[39]​ The massacres in the Valtellina inspired enduring cultural memories, which, to echo Jan Assmann, ‘preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its perceived unity and peculiarity’ (1995: 130). Cultural reminders that Protestant brothers and sisters in the Alps and across Europe were being persecuted for their shared faith. Warnings that Caroline Protestants might suffer the same terrible fates if recusants aided by Spain put plot into action. It contributed to confessional identity through a polemical binary juxtaposition between Grison victim and Spanish soldier, persecuted and persecutor, Protestant and Catholic. As Philip Benedict notes, ‘confessional identity and confessional rivalry were powerful antidotes to historical amnesia’, the recollection of violent events committed by a hostile group ‘reminded members of the community of the importance of continued vigilance’ (2013: 113).

​[40]​ Memory, especially the memory of persecution, was never neutral. To Stuart Protestants who had lately witnessed the Bishops Wars and heard the wild, amplified rumours of the massacres of the Irish Rebellion, the warnings of the Valtellina would have been further evidence of the potential for Catholic insurrection, aided by the Spanish monarchy, to set the world aflame. Just as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was commemorated, the Valtellina massacres were transformed and remembered, fed by fledgling news-books and fantastical preternatural reports. Such was its significance that foreign reasons of state were translated into English to shed light on the crisis, and it was appropriated to apply pressure upon respective Jacobean and Caroline foreign policy to resist suing for peace with Spain. Its inclusion in an updated Acts and Monuments, alongside the Gunpowder Plot and the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, attests to its transition into a semi-canonical event which evidenced the sufferings of God’s true church. The fashioning of the Grison Protestants into martyrs necessarily also fashioned them into confessional brethren, knowable by their names, professions and the torments they suffered: members of a spiritual community that transcended physical flesh and spatial distance, reinforcing a Protestantism pan-European in its scope.

​[41]​ Through translation and print polemic, the events of this distant alpine pass continued to be evoked almost twenty years after the onset of bloodshed in its valleys. Remarkably, Catholic polemicists such as Fancan and Sarpi had contributed to this process, in a curious by-product of their anti-Spanish reasons of state. Through translation and re-appropriation, their words transcended mountain ranges and linguistic and confessional boundaries. The cultural afterlife of the violence in the Valtellina is not only evidence that early Stuart subjects avidly followed the Thirty Years War even within theatres where few of their compatriots fought, but that even Swiss-Italian Protestants from a distant alpine valley would be remembered by generations of Stuart Protestants alongside the hallowed echelons of the Marian martyrs.

University of Edinburgh



I would like to thank Patrick Hart, Lynsey MacCulloch and this special issue’s editors for their insightful support in revising this article. I would also like to thank Ilaria Grando and James Loxley for their structural suggestions, as well Henri Hannula and Simon Mølholm Olesen, brilliant sounding boards for this article with whom I shared an office at the University of Leiden. I also acknowledge the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities for funding my PhD.

[1] The Canton of the Grisons, or Graubünden, was formed by a federation of the three Swiss leagues, located to the south-east of what is now Switzerland. In other contemporary sources, they are referred to as Rhetians on account of the name of the Roman provinces. In the early seventeenth century, the majority of Grisons were Calvinists, and had jurisdiction of the Valtellina valley to the south of their canton, which connected their lands to the Italian peninsula below. The crisis this article explores can be located in the broader context of the conflict of the Bündner Wirren (1618-1639), which is examined in greater detail in Randolph Head’s Diplomacy in the Grisons: Social Order and Political Language in a Swiss Mountain Canton 1470-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). [back to text]


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The Displacement of Violence: Measure for Measure, Legal Discourse and Violent Imagery

The Displacement of Violence:
Measure for Measure, Legal Discourse and Violent Imagery

Klaas Tindemans


[1] Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure premiered, probably, during the summer season of 1604. On 26 December 1604, it was performed by the King’s Men at the Palace of Whitehall: this was the first time, under James I’s reign, that a new Shakespeare play had been performed at the King’s Court. The play itself adapts the plot of an earlier romance, Promos and Cassandra by George Whetstone – a play with a clear message about the sanctity of law and order – to deconstruct certitudes underlying any legal order or any concept of sovereignty: the comedy is turned into a ‘problem play’. Duke Vincentio of (an imaginary) Vienna leaves his town and appoints Angelo as a temporary replacement. But Vincentio disguises himself as a friar and watches closely how Angelo governs the city. The real reason for his departure is his own assessment of himself as a weak ruler, frustrated at not being able to enforce the severe laws of the city. He knows that Angelo is a strict administrator of the law – and proud to be so. Angelo immediately enforces rules against sexual license, particularly against sex out of wedlock, even if for decades these rules had fallen into complete disuse, thanks to Vincentio’s laxity (as he himself suggests). Claudio and Juliet love each other passionately, and Juliet has become pregnant. This is indeed physical proof of an infringement of the law, and in Angelo’s eyes it leads linea recta to the death penalty for Claudio.

[2] With his first appearance on stage, Angelo, the deputy Duke, reveals his personal concept of law. He embraces a ‘legalist’ notion of the law, seen as a command to strict adherence to the rules – a warning for lenient judges – and an unqualified belief in the efficiency of legal deterrence. The reply by his counsellor, the old Lord Escalus, is subtle but ineffective, at least at this point in the story.

Angelo: We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey
And let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Escalus:              Ay, but yet
Let us be keen, and rather cut a little,
than fall, and bruise to death.  (2.1.1-7)

From a dramaturgical point of view, Angelo’s statement about legality confirms his reputation as a political and moral ‘hard-liner’, all too eager to avoid (or to suppress) any possible mistakes, in the administration of justice, during his replacement of the Duke of Vienna. The Duke, incognito, observes that Angelo acts true to his reputation. A couple of observations can be made when closely reading these lines. Firstly, Angelo’s severity and Escalus’s reply are formulated in rather violent terms – ‘birds of prey’, ‘terror’, and Escalus’s reaction repeats this imagery – ‘cut a little’, ‘fall’ (in the transitive sense, as in ‘felling a tree’), ‘bruise to death’. Secondly, the conversation takes place in a courtroom, so a link could be established between (theatrical) space and the weight of the words/images. The law is thus confirmed, by the administrator of the law himself, as a violent and protean instrument of sovereign power. But the wording of their legal-theoretical convictions might not be convincing proof of the violent nature of their ideas. However, the discussion touches a much more fundamental problem, which will be at stake until the end of the play: the identity of two political personae, i.e. the sovereign, who establishes and embodies the law, and the judge, who interprets and applies the law. This identity will result, both for Angelo, in his proposal to Isabella, and for the Duke, when he finally unveils himself, in the (plausibly) excessive use of (non-)pardoning. The legal figure of sovereign pardon is structurally exceptional to any rule of law, as it suspends both the abstract rule and the concrete, actual judgment (Meyler 2019: 15).[1]

[3] Measure for Measure is a play about the law, or more precisely, about the forensic-rhetorical embedding of the law and, most importantly, about the inherent and actual violence of the law. As the play develops, this problematic comedy becomes a theatricalized status quaestionis about the intertwinement of law and violence in the early 17th century, in England and elsewhere. It might be meaningful to try to dissect this relationship between law as a set of orderly principles and the violence, repressed or not, implied in its enforcement – and to acknowledge the role theatre and drama could have played in this ambiguous relation. That is the ambition of this article.


A dramatic issue of legal theory

[4] As Jody Enders asserts, the ‘outbreak’ of violent imagery in the early modern era went hand in hand with important developments in forensic rhetoric. Procedural and discursive tools became more prominent, at the expense of proof by physical means, such as torture. In her study of the Medieval theatre of cruelty, Enders claims that classical rhetoric – closely following the manuals of Quintilian, on the one hand, and torture, on the other, reached a point of contradiction: as strange as it may seem today, a rhetorical legal argument had to be corroborated by a statement obtained by torture – as a divine confirmation. This untenable ambiguity could only be solved by the ‘theatricality’ of legal procedure: law re-enacts theatrically, one could say, the violent societal breach caused by a crime, with non-violent means and devices, i.e. with the ‘dramaturgy’ of procedure (Enders 1999: 38-62). Lorna Hutson, in her study of law and mimesis in Renaissance drama (Hutson 2007), develops further the dramaturgical techniques the theatre experimented with. She claims that several experimental dramaturgical devices actually contributed to the ‘discursive turn’ in legal matters and specifically in forensic rhetoric. The ‘tricks’ of early modern legal rhetoric, as used in actual legal procedures, were supposedly coined in the theatre and tested, on stage, for their efficiency. A more specific analysis of Shakespeare’s dialogues by Quentin Skinner confirms this, on the level of the dramatic text itself (Skinner 2014). Late Medieval and Renaissance theatre thus provided a testing ground for ‘cleaning’ the courtroom of overly violent experiences and images, in favour of a new regime of truth. Or, more precisely: theatre juxtaposed a slowly secularizing (rational) idea(l) of the law, on the one hand, and a legal-political system based upon theatrical violence (torture, public execution), on the other, in order to prove, deliberately or not, their logical incompatibility.

[5] These observations imply a significant shift in jurisprudence. They are, of course, related to the Foucauldian understanding of secularisation and transformation of Western society according to a biopolitical paradigm. The aforementioned developments in criminal justice are part of a larger movement, of a gradual displacement of violence in legal – and especially jurisdictional – contexts. Control of the body becomes a matter of political economy; bodies are perceived as workforce and have to be protected as such: productivity and accumulation will prevail, during the centuries to come (Foucault 2001a: 210). But the very open and perceivable contrast between the abundant imagery of physical violence, in performance and elsewhere, and the parallel and gradual evacuation of actual violence from the forensic stage – courtroom, execution place, etc. – deserves special attention, as an aspect of this larger process. Could we speak indeed of a ‘theatrical turn’ in early modern legal discourse, and how does it relate to the representation of violence, in the early 17th century, in general? The sheer existence and the dramaturgy of Measure for Measure as a ‘courtroom drama’ might already be an indication. The question is whether this shift redefines the relationship between violence (as a physical reality) and law (as an official monopoly on violence) as they are present in the public domain. But there is also an underlying issue, regarding the foundation of legal-political authority in the age of biopolitics. In his courses of 1978 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault explains how political authority shifts from souveraineté to gouvernementalité – his terminology. Souveraineté has a very precise meaning for Foucault: it characterises an authority that is nothing more and nothing less than an end in itself. The sovereign’s goal is the maintenance of power over his territory, on the sole condition that his subjects respect the laws and, more generally, the order of things God imposed on mankind (Foucault 2001b: 645). Gouvernementalité, in contrast, aims at the subjects of authority, and creates an institutional framework, an apparatus and eventually a bureaucracy to deal with their ‘common wealth’ (Foucault 2001b: 655). This shift affects deeply the ‘self-fashioning’ of the prince, as the character of Duke Vincentio indicates, and, consequently, the degree (and the nature) of violence used in exercising his self-fashioned authority. Or, as Jürgen Pieters suggests, the incapacity of both rulers (Angelo and Vincentio) to shift from one notion of authority to another, from souveraineté to gouvernementalité, frustrates them. Shakespeare’s imaginary Vienna figures then as a ‘transit zone’ for the validation of power relations (Pieters 2003: 202). Is this frustration expressed symptomatically in an eruption of (symbolic) violence, new and different from Medieval forensics? A violence inherent in this ‘biopolitical’ transformation of the notion of legality?

[6] Measure for Measure offers some answers to these questions, by exemplifying if not exposing this violent theatricality of the law itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented, in marginalia on the title page of his own copy of the play, that Measure for Measure was ‘the most painful – say rather, the only painful – part of [Shakespeare’s] genuine works. The comic and tragic parts equally border on the [. . .] disgusting [and] the horrible.’ (Coleridge 1961: 102) The play offended both his sense of justice and his image of women (Geckle 1967: 71-73). Measure for Measure deals, as plenty of Shakespeare’s comedies do, with surreptitious or repressed sexual violence, but it is remarkable that it frames the unwanted consequences of this behaviour, implicitly or openly, in a forensic or legal discourse, thus transforming physical aggression into a discursive battlefield. A legal discourse operates as a surrogate for actual images of violent debauchery. The contrast with the explicit violence in some of Shakespeare’s history plays and, most of all, his tragedies, is obvious. It begins with the outrageous bloodthirstiness (rape, mutilation and cannibalism) and spectacular nihilism of Titus Andronicus, and culminates in the complete existential destruction of King Lear and Macbeth. In Measure for Measure, however, the protection of the patriarchal order, supposedly the motive for (political) violence as imitated in these tragedies (Cohen 1993: 1-9), motivates the protagonists as strongly as their belligerent and murderous counterparts.


Shifts in Renaissance legal discourse

[7] Jody Enders suggests that during the Renaissance Western European jurisprudence was faced with a profound ‘epistemological crisis’, both in theory and in practice (Enders 1999: 36). The resurgence of classical rhetoric, from Aristotle to Quintilian, could be seen as an effort to overcome this impasse. Five elements are distinguished in rhetoric, in judging its effectiveness: inventio (discovery or invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and pronunciatio (speech). The teaching of classical rhetoric was a pillar of a higher education in the Renaissance. Handbooks concentrated on inventio and dispositio, with inventio most extensively discussed (Skinner 2014: 4). From Aristotle onwards, rhetoric dealt primarily with forensic issues. This is not surprising, since the unfolding of arguments and the assessment of their credibility and veracity steer the process of determining the legal outcome of a conflict. The term ‘evidence’ itself has its origin in rhetoric: the Latin evidentia denotes the brilliance, the clarity of an argument, but its (English) meaning has shifted to (preferably written) legal proof (Hutson 2007: 25). In Medieval law, evidence in criminal law was based on torture: even voluntary confessions had to be confirmed by torture because authorities believed that only physical humiliation produced reliable truth. But the observation, reappearing during the (early) Renaissance, that the classics were interested in the specifics of forensic rhetoric had put this assumption under pressure. The facts underlying a trial had to be represented in a different way, in order to know them and, more crucially, to qualify them within a framework of authoritative rules, within a legal framework. Physical extraction – in its most literal sense – of the truth by testing the resilience of the tortured was warranted by the infinite mercy of God. But humanist scholars, apart from their moral repulsion from deliberate affliction of pain, wanted to discover the legally relevant truth represented in court, through mimetic devices. The theatre, says Enders, provided the literal stage to make this transition from actual pain to mimesis (Enders 1999, 156-157). And this mimesis, in the form of theatrical narrative, becomes the essence of inventio. Several ‘mystery plays’ of the late Middle Ages had already tried to represent, albeit more in an allegorical than in a mimetic way, the theme of ‘justice and mercy’, which can be seen as the final objective of the improved inventio of sixteenth-century forensic rhetoric. In plays about the repentance of the biblical Mary Magdalene, for example, the mercy of Christ – and the confirmation of his supreme sovereignty – is shown as an exemplum of the ‘new law’, the merciful law, overruling the ‘old law’, the Mosaic law of implacable revenge (Cox 1989: 162-63).

[8] It is clear that torture, as a theologically sound device to find forensic truth, raised rational doubts, and these doubts contributed to a profound discursive shift in jurisprudence and thus in the representation of violence in early modern Europe and in England in particular. However, historical contingencies also played their part. The Reformation in England caused radical transformations in the administration of law, both in its institutions and in its application. One decisive example of this shift was the changed rationale of punishment itself. The rejection of purgatory by the reformed Church of England obliged judges and juries to change their dogmatic legal attitudes, since the provisional character of even capital punishment disappeared. A human judgment was conclusive now; it became impossible to postpone a final judgment, based upon divine providence, until the afterlife. Without purgatory, human authorities had to assess the exact relationship between guilt and punishment, intentionality had to be judged, and the perspective of the final reckoning had to be evaluated by (human) peers. In other words, legal procedures were radically secularised, and all remnants of divine intervention, such as the holiness of oaths or the forensic value of ordeals gradually disappeared (Hutson 2007: 268-75). On an institutional level, concerning the division of competence between common law jurisdiction and ecclesiastical courts, the Reformation had even more far-reaching consequences. Theological disputes were transferred to debates over the division of legal competences, such as family law, property law and penal law. In most cases this resulted in a secularisation of law, in a generalisation of trial by lay jurors, and in a new balance, mainly in private law, between common law – based on custom, parliamentary statute, and the case law of the King’s Bench – and equity – based on the case law of the (independent) Court of Chancery (Burrows 2002). To put it in general terms: jurisdiction could not rely any longer on a divine judgment, in the afterlife – not because it would not be valid any longer, but because it had become ‘unknowable’, by lack of an authoritative theological instance. The vicar of Christ, the Pope, had vanished from the scene.

[9] As opposed to the centralizing tendencies on the continent, especially in France, early modern England seemed to refuse a centripetal dynamic of jurisdiction grounded in a unified sovereignty as embodied in kingship. English society developed a relatively mild system of ‘participatory justice’ at grassroots level, notwithstanding the theoretical strictness of common law visible in an extensive variety of capital crimes and modes of capital punishment. This choice was also inspired by loss of confidence in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Hutson argues that Foucault’s thesis about the theatricalized distance between monarch and subjects, embodied in the infamous ‘spectacle of the scaffold’ (Foucault 1975: 36-72), has to be adapted here to a different, less ‘Catholic’ dynamic in England. The English judicial system, probably mirroring the fragmentation of Protestant communities, congregations and denominations, preserved its decentralised and ‘multipolar’ character (Higgins 2012: 274). Bernadette Meyler, however, nuances Hutson’s account of a ‘francocentric’ Foucault (Meyler 2019: 55-57). She mentions Foucault’s comment on the writings of Sir Edward Coke, who served as James I’s Attorney-General and member of the Privy Council, but was openly critical of the King’s absolutist self-image. Foucault subtly demonstrates how the (continental) ‘natural right’ idea of a modest king, not deified, not absolutist, and counterbalanced by his people, is historically constructed by Coke. The fragmented character of English law might then be in line with Coke’s (anti-French) apology for a more egalitarian legal and political regime, as it was supposed to have existed before the Norman conquest of 1066 (Foucault 1997: 91-92). Moreover, Meyler says, Coke’s construction of a pre-Norman genealogy of ‘common law’ was intended to curtail James I’s desire to occupy the judicial arena. This trope, Meyler notes, appears in Measure for Measure (Meyler 2019: 63).

[10] On the other hand, Hutson rightly argues that the subsequent transfer of this spectacle from the public scaffold to new genres of dramatic theatre (revenge tragedy, city tragedy, romance/comedy, and even some court masques), is not, or not in the first place, a visual mimesis, as Foucault suggests, but primarily an imitation of forensic rhetoric, in which plots are constructed as inventio and dispositio, and the audience is put in the position of lay judges. Many spectators did indeed participate in popular jurisdiction, in that jurisdictional quality. Early modern playwrights were often well trained in jurisprudence or even professionally active in the judiciary, so they were aware of the audience’s familiarity with forensic proceedings and that knowledge influenced their narrative constructions. This consciousness had a clear impact on (the complexity of) their dramaturgy (Hutson 2007: 68-69), and Measure for Measure demonstrates exactly this. The use of forensic rhetoric in Elizabethan comedy was also embedded in plot structures and figures of speech borrowed from Roman classical comedians, such as Plautus and Terentius (Hutson 2007: 213). Intellectually, this was an excellent exercise for playwrights, since the sheer improbability of most comic plots had to be resolved by ingenious rhetorical devices. These classical examples thus functioned as a framework for the discursive working through of profound societal changes. They were also helpful to overcome an epistemological crisis deepened by the urgent need to redefine the connection between secular and spiritual authorities, almost from scratch.


Improbable plot and ambiguous closure

[11] James’s succession, in 1603, to Queen Elizabeth I, who had consolidated the Reformation in the Church of England, happened at a crucial moment during a far-reaching societal transformation. Christened a Catholic, James converted easily to Protestantism, but his political position remained unstable, as a number of conspiracies, such as the Bye and Main Plots (1603) and the Gunpowder plot (1605) show (Croft 2003: 51, 64). With a view to his ascension to the English throne, in 1599, James reprinted his essay Basilikon Doron, a warning to his infant son Henry about the dangers threatening the divine right of kings. He advises him to seek a middle ground between the strictness of authority and well-tempered mercy: ‘for justice (by the law) giueth euery man his owne : and equitie in things arbitrall, giueth every one that which is meetest for him’ (Craigie 1944: 166). In 1604 Shakespeare writes and produces Measure for Measure, with the new King as one of the spectators. A hybrid comedy about justice and mercy, and about the societal and political system that creates a provisional balance between them, the play might be qualified as an experiment in forensic rhetoric. And the outcome, in the disenchanting final scene, is a major display of discursive violence.

[12] The last act shows the release of the sinner Claudio, the exposure of Angelo as a sexual predator, and the forgiveness of his victim, Isabella. The multiple marriages cross many lines of class and morality, bringing together citizens and social misfits, puritans and libertines, true lovers and forced partnerships. But this final scene deviates nevertheless from any conventional closure in Jacobean comedy, not in its anecdotal improbabilities (four simultaneous marriages, recovered virginity, a general atmosphere of reconciliation and (apparently) unqualified joy) – similar improbabilities occur in As You Like It and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but in its utter lack of enjoyment or conviviality (Higgins 2012: 290).

[13] The concluding words of the Duke are symptomatic in their ambiguity: ‘So bring us to our palace, where we’ll show | What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know’ (5.1.535-36). ‘Behind’ has, in Shakespearean usage, two opposite temporal meanings: to come, thus pointing to the future, or to leave, referring to a definite past. This single ambiguous word is reinforced by another use of ‘behind’, ten lines earlier, when the Duke says to Escalus, his loyal counsel who tried to tame Angelo’s rigour: ‘Thanks, good friend Escalus, for thy much goodness | There’s more behind that is more gratulate’ (5.1.525-26). At least three interpretations are possible here. When ‘behind’ points to the future, it remains highly uncertain whether this will be a hopeful future, where mercy and equity – not in the English legal sense but as principled moral justice – are able to reform and redeem a society with all too rigorous rules, or whether this future means the instalment of a different, ‘biopolitical’ regime of truth based upon uncontrolled access to information (‘that’s meet you all should know’). But if ‘behind’ refers to a past – a recent past, under Angelo’s regime – then the Duke’s congratulation of Escalus could suggest some regret about the failure to repress sexual license or, more generally, an awareness of the ‘epistemological crisis’ in the legal qualification of certain social practices (Funk 2012). These last two interpretations could reveal the ambiguity of the Duke’s disguise to make an almost ‘totalitarian’ point. If the ruler can watch his subjects incognito, control over behaviour is limitless. The Duke’s position is comparable to the performance of the king in Henry V, who, likewise incognito, discusses with a simple soldier the meaning(lessness) of war, thus exposing the private’s candour to his royal mercy. The inherent violence of this position is quite obvious (Cohen 1993: 68).

[14] The legal point crucial to Shakespeare’s plot is the value of betrothal, of the promise to marry before the actual wedding rites take place. As over 30 % of the brides in England around 1600 were pregnant on their wedding day (Hayne 1993: 5), it is clear that Claudio and Juliet made no exceptional case by English standards. Although this was a capital crime, ecclesiastical courts judged leniently, and simply asked for a swift wedding to formalize the family. Shakespeare, however, constructs different narratives about these betrothals. Measure for Measure tells one story (actually more than one), in contrast to the betrothal in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, where the audience witnesses the love affair with its own eyes (Hayne 1993: 4-5). Dubious testimonies confirm betrothals, or are simply invented, such as Lucio’s, and the normative tightening of common social practice – just as premarital sex was common, so was prostitution, which was even tolerated by the Church from the late Middle Ages (Mazo Karras 1989: 403) – thus points to more theoretical problems of jurisdiction and justice. Two of these issues require more substantial reflection: the question of undecidability, or the inherent impossibility of reaching a ‘just’ decision; and the political meaning of mercy, taking into account the aforementioned ‘short circuit’ in the validation of sovereign authority (Pieters 2003, 202), embodied in the act of pardoning. This analysis might reveal the structurally violent nature of the law in early modernity (or, for that matter, at any time), and the reasons a discursive representation is preferred over horrid spectacle, at least in this case.



[15] When the Provost in Measure for Measure says to the hangman Abhorson – a fine Shakespearean compounding of ‘abhor’ and ‘whoreson’ – that the whoremonger and petty criminal Pompey will help him, the executioner protests: ‘A bawd, sir? Fie upon him, he will discredit our mystery’ (4.2.26). While in early modern English ‘mystery’ also has a less ‘mystic’ connotation – it can also mean ‘skilled trade’, it refers too to a property of the law that escapes mere rationality. Pompey’s reacts ad rem:

Painting, sir, I have heard say, is a mystery; and
your whores sir, being members of my occupation,
using painting, do prove my occupation a mystery.
But what mystery there should be in hanging, if I
should be hanged, I cannot imagine. (4.2.34-38)

Pompey, one imagines, considers the commodification of lust, the ‘business model’ of prostitution, a mystery as big – and as doubtful – as the execution of prisoners. The painted faces of his whores contribute to the erotic theatricality they should embody, just as the public scaffold should create the certainty that justice is not only done, but also seen to have been done. But for the hangman, who is acting here as the popular representative of a legal system, this mystery might go deeper. In Force de Loi, Jacques Derrida compares the ideal judge with a calculator, but in the real world he is never such a mechanical device and he never will be (or should be). Legal language guarantees, of course, a certain iterability in this discourse – similar causes are adjudicated according to similar rules, but between rule, qualification and adjudication, between abstract norms and actual facticity, unbridgeable gaps appear all the time, making every decision unique. A decision in an individual case can never guarantee justice, either in particular or in general, because the ‘spectre of undecidability’ haunts the action of judges and jurors: they cannot not decide once and for all, the sense of contingency is overwhelming. Every single judgment oscillates between this paralysing ‘spectrality’ and the prohibition of denial of justice or non liquet, which has a long legal history (Rabello 1974). Justice and legality cannot coincide, and their detachment should remain a mystery (Derrida 1994: 51-52), as a promise of justice, eventually (Laclau 1995: 90). Angelo, in his jurisdictional capacity, prefers to deny these gaps in the most direct way, after Isabella’s logically remarkable supplication and rhetorically surprising inventio, as she gives a strong example of the constructivist argument:

Isabella: I have a brother is condemn’d to die;
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
Angelo: Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function
To fine the faults, whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (2.2.34-41)

[16] ‘Every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done’: this phrase captures the quintessence of Angelo’s concept of law, which comes down to a pleonasm. The law is the law is the law, to echo Gertrude Stein, meaning here that the contingencies of a social practice – legally qualified as sexual license – are annihilated in favour of a pure reference to the rule, as if this social practice is itself intrinsically motivated by its (non-)conformity to the rule. The letter of the law functions as a criterion of truth, and legal discourse is founded on an autonomous regime of truth: the law knows what ‘really’ happens, and the truth-value of this knowledge is beyond dispute (Defoort 1994: 54-55). In a certain sense, this idea of the law also has a theological undertone: every sin, every trespassing of the law is already known by God, and human law is but a mere recognition of divine justice (Meyler 2019: 49). But to put it again in more secular terms, the unconditional substantive rule – the prohibition of premarital intercourse, in this case – resists a (pragmatic) tendency to be embedded in conditional rules of application (Derrida 1994: 81-82). Derrida refers here to Walter Benjamin, who distinguished between two forms of legal violence, ‘law making violence’ (rechtsetzende Gewalt) and ‘law preserving violence’ (rechtserhaltende Gewalt) (Benjamin 1965: 43-46). Angelo demonstrates throughout the play how the merger of the two forms of legal violence leads to a blatant contradiction. Or worse: for Benjamin the lack of distinction comes down to the denial of the rule of law itself (Benjamin 1965: 45). If a rule based upon so-called natural law or natural morality is treated as a positivistic proscription – which means that its denotative meaning (‘the letter of the law’) is absolute and that no connotation or contextualisation of the rule is accepted – then the ‘foundational violence’ of that so-called natural rule erupts in all its enormity. The last act of Measure for Measure appears a futile effort to contain that violence through a typically comic device: a plurality of marriages, most of them likely to be unhappy, as the lack of enjoyment announces.


The performance of mercy

[17] Apart from satisfying the dramaturgical necessity of solving the Duke’s intrigues, the strange dénouement in the last act has a remarkable mimetic significance. As a performance text, it imitates and, at the same time, displaces an important event at the beginning of James I’s reign: the public mercy shown to certain well-known courtiers accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the king. But as a staging of public confessions, the improvised courtroom in ‘a public space near the city’, as the stage direction says, refers to the same jurisprudential shift, with its quest for redefined roles for secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as mentioned above. In late 1603, four lords, including the notorious political maverick Sir Walter Raleigh, were arrested for treason in the so-called Main and Bye plots. Although evidence was scarce, they were condemned to death by beheading. The process turned the despised Raleigh into a popular hero, due to his struggle with Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke, known as an unscrupulous prosecutor. When the outcome of the process became clear, James I mounted his own spectacle, as actor, director and playwright (Bernthal 1992: 250). He appeared to be unmoved by interventions on Raleigh’s behalf, by the Privy Council and by Raleigh’s wife, although he had already decided for himself to pardon three lords – but not Raleigh. He even signed the death warrants and sent them to the sheriff, but at the hour of execution sent a messenger to delay the beheading, because the condemned were ‘ill prepared’. He changed the order of executions, thus making one of the lords believe that his fellows were already killed. James I finally granted the three lords pardon, and, most theatrically, he delayed Raleigh’s execution indefinitely, raising the possibility of a full pardon (Bernthal 1992: 252-53). For the contemporary audience, the similarities between Duke Vincentio’s intervention in Measure for Measure – he organizes some kind of mock trial – and the behaviour of King James I, a few months earlier, must have been self-evident. But the analogy goes further. During this scene, the delicate balance between strict legality and generous fairness (equity) is completely overthrown by a demonstration of power by the Duke. To achieve his goals, that is, to restore his sovereignty – or more precisely, sovereignty as he conceives it, – he has to use the law in an almost ridiculous way, and he does so by using this typical device of comedy: multiple marriages. It is hardly believable that such a performance would be convincing for a learned audience, most of them with training in rhetoric, most of them actual witnesses to the anticlimax on the scaffold involving four lords narrowly escaping beheading.

[18] Shakespeare situates Measure for Measure in a vaguely Catholic setting, in an imaginary Vienna where the presiding figure is a Duke disguised as a friar. This allows him to cast doubt on the true intentions of all the characters, but particularly the Duke, who eventually uses his frock to gain access to the chaste lady, Isabella. His figure is hardly compatible with justice and mercy (Burks 2003: 75-77). But while his tricks are hardly convincing from a moralistic point of view, something else happens. Renaissance drama differs from the mystery plays most importantly in its mimesis of individual characters, rather than allegorical figures. In the longue durée, this points in the direction of a growing interest in individualisation, psychology and gradual embourgeoisement of the gentry. And it also marks the shift, as mentioned by Enders, from a legal focus on actual physical pain – as a device that provides forensic evidence – to mimesis or forensic narrativity (Enders 1999: 156-57). But here the reference to the Raleigh trial allows Shakespeare to turn individual confessions – relatively weak legal evidence, but an occasion for rhetorical brilliance or evidentia – into (the imitation of) a publicly relevant event, with ritualistic connotation and even magnificence. During the rearrangement of secular and ecclesiastical jurisdictions with the Reformation, final verdicts – high treason to begin with, but spreading over local jurisdictions – were often accompanied by public confessions, the ‘last dying speeches’, which became almost autobiographies (Sharpe 1985: 150-51). Angelo confesses at the end of the final scene, in a concise fashion, but the whole last act – or even the whole play – could be seen as a ‘last dying speech’ of perverted authority, a confession of political and more specifically forensic impotence. Or, as Steven Mullaney suggests, Measure for Measure, seen as a comprehensive performance, establishes and criticizes simultaneously the order of things, by its imitation of the provisionally suspended unhappy outcomes for several characters – Angelo, the embodiment of ‘naturalistic positivism’ in the law, in the first place (Mullaney 1988: 108). But what goal does this performance, staged by the Duke, as he unveils himself, actually serve? In a short, explicatory scene with Friar Thomas, Duke Vincentio offers the reasons for his strange scheme involving authority and the law. He confesses that he is torn between two ideas of law enforcement, and he uses very different metaphors: the cruelty of the lion, the predator, and the carefulness of the family man:

We have strict statues and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip:
Even like an o’er-grown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up to the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d: so our decrees
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead.    (1.3.19-29)

[19] While the lion might refer to Foucault’s paradigm of souveraineté – violent power for its own sake – or Machiavellian self-preservation, the ‘fond fathers’ are pedagogues: for them violence is restrained, a mere deterrent, and as rulers they belong to the paradigm of gouvernementalité (Pieters 2003: 202-03). After the ‘experiment’ with Angelo, Duke Vincentio might have realised the untenability of his mixed metaphor of a biting lion and a fond father, but he adds one last gratuitous demonstration of unchecked sovereignty, in letting Isabella believe her brother has actually been executed, before making a ‘governmental turn’ by arranging the marriages:

Isabella:     O, give me pardon,
That I, your vassal, have employ’d and pain’d
Your unknown sovereignty.

Duke:           You are pardon’d, Isabel,
And now, dear maid, be you as free to us.
Your brother’s death, I know, sits at your heart:
And you may marvel why I obscur’d myself,
Laboring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost.   (5.1.383-91)

The shift of the Duke from a ‘sovereign’ to a ‘governor’ might perhaps not be too convincing, at first sight, but the multiple marriages reveal more than just a comedy cliché. Duke Vincentio reclaims his authority by creating – in the microcosm of the play – a ‘conjugal society’. This is the term John Locke uses, at the end of the seventeenth century, to define marriage and to criticize the analogy between a divine right of kings and marital patriarchy on biblical grounds (Lupton 2014: 147).[2] But the method he has used to enforce the ‘most biting laws’ of Vienna has unleashed unexpected energies. Julia Reinhard Lupton compares this outcome to a tragedy that, in a completely different historical context, also interrogates the foundations of the political community: ‘[T]he marriage rituals that had solemnised Antigone’s symbolic reintegration into the city, but only through death, will here take centre stage in the play’s final act, with its invitation to four weddings and no funeral. In both plays, defiance as wilful de-affiliation is the cut or interval around which a new modality of the political can emerge’ (Lupton 2014: 143).[3]


Conclusion: rhetoric as symbolic violence

[20] Measure for Measure eventually shows the disintegration of authority in a society that in its own structures deals ambiguously with the threat of disorder, and the concluding restoration of the Duke as supreme ruler and merciful judge translates this development into a performative discourse (Dollymore 1994: 75-76). His strategy of disguises and tricks does not result in a firmer establishment or justification of authority. It results in an exposing of discursive violence, and it does so thanks to a complex inventio and, in the final act, dispositio. During the Duke’s ‘absence’, Isabella, the chastest character of all, devises with the Duke an elaborate rhetorical scheme, by feigning her surrender to Angelo’s lust: a deceitful plan, only to be matched by the hypocrisy and mendacity of Angelo himself (Skinner 2014: 89-91). From Angelo and Isabella’s first confrontation, she perceives the authority of the deputy as a harsh reality. Indeed, when Isabella threatens to reveal his indecent proposal to others, his reply is simple:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, th’austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state
Will so you accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report,
And smell of calumny. (2.4.153-58)

Isabella’s reaction (‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this | Who would believe me?’ (2.4.170-71)) is truly desperate at this point, but in the next act, immediately after this outcry, the scheme to confront Angelo with his paradoxical lusts – sexual perversion and legalist authoritarianism – is set up by the Duke.[4] The rejection, by a disgusted Isabella, of Claudio’s suggestion that she should give in to Angelo’s blackmail, can be seen as a misleading interruption of a narrative inventio, of an ingenious construction of evidence. In fact, the plot blurs the Aristotelian distinction between ‘inartificial proof’ – bare facts – and ‘artificial proof’ – persuasion by speech (see Aristotle 1926: I.2.2). The facts take place, Angelo sleeps with Mariana, thus confirming the betrothal, but a shrewd rhetorical bypass leads this inartificial proof to artificial (rhetorical) evidence: Angelo thinks he has slept with Isabella, and she uses his ignorance to accuse him before the Duke, with all the pathos – a form of artificial proof, says Aristotle (Aristotle 1926: I.2.5) – needed (Skinner 2014: 94-95):

O worthy Prince, dishonour not your eye
By throwing it on any other object,
Till you have heard me in my true complaint,
And given me justice! Justice! Justice! Justice! (5.1.23-26)

The Duke, who set up the trick in his disguise, can now openly play his role as the final judge. And the informed audience is witnessing this forensic-rhetorical construction from within: the transition from torture, as a device warranting factual (inartificial) proof through physical violence, to carefully staged ruse, warranting persuasive (artificial) proof through indefensible delusion – or symbolic violence.

[21] In 1546, the poet Anne Askew was tortured and burned for heresy. According to Calvinist historiography, she was the first English woman to ask for a divorce on explicit religious grounds (d’Aubigné 1879: 274-83) and, in a certain way, she symbolised the fear of transgression that went along with the Reformation, but the event had its antecedents in centuries of witch-burning. As the submission of women to men was first and foremost a patrimonial relation – woman as a possession of man – any assertiveness on her part threatened the ‘natural’ order, especially when it was vocal: ‘Silence, the closed mouth, is made a sign of chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to woman’s enclosure within the house’ (Stallybrass 1986: 127). The nuclear family – Anne Askew had left her husband – became more and more the ideal of a social system in general. This pattern is recognisable and will indeed be confirmed, philosophically, by Locke’s line of thought about the ‘conjugal society’ (Locke 1993: 153-63). Consequently, sexual deviance was a threat to this idealised family and had to be disciplined. Individual acts of sexual license could release divine vengeance and result in the destruction of the societal order, which also explains why sexual and marital discipline were repressed so severely with the increasing influence of Puritanism. Sexuality as such was not dangerous, but the societal instability caused by deviance was an obvious threat. The uncanny sensitivity about the presumed risks of sexual deviance in this society – consistent with the household culture of the gentry – is translated, in Shakespeare’s time, into a different legal regime and into a gradual removal of legal violence from the public domain, but as an actual threat it continues to exist. Angelo’s mistake might be that he doesn’t understand this shift from providential authority to biopolitics, or, in the words of Richard Wilson, ‘political techniques [swinging] away from the ritual of death towards the administration of life’ (Wilson 1993: 122). But the Duke figures it out, and his extraordinary masquerade illustrates the ‘theatrical shift’ – a combination of shrewd rhetoric, visual sophistication and situational surprises – towards a regime of ‘soft’ legal violence, neatly covering up the foundational impasse of his sovereignty, which was too openly illustrated in Angelo’s behaviour.

[22] So, with three out of four marriages being enforced, the Duke’s concluding construction of new households might mirror a (rather uneasy) model for an authoritarian state, based upon surveillance of its citizens. The Duke acts like a spy, trying to inform himself about the workings of deviance, hardly attempting, as a prince, to reconcile social and moral differences. The hypocritical severity of Angelo is not repressed or rejected; it is treated as a reactionary fantasy, an interpretation which, in a milder but more effectively disciplined form, is confirmed by the Duke. His temporary abstinence from the administration of the law results in a society that pretends to be no longer doubtful about its truth regime and the sources of its sovereignty. ‘What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know’, as the Duke concludes, not exactly knowing the nature of justice in his regime. At least for the time being, adds Shakespeare, silently.

Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & RITCS School of Arts



[1] Meyler refers to Jacques Derrida’s analysis of the theatrical character of pardoning, especially after collective, societal trauma (Shoah, Apartheid), as having ‘the traits of a grand convulsion – dare we say a frenetic compulsion?’ (Derrida 2000: 105)[back to text]

[2] Lupton refers to John Locke’s anti-patriarchal position regarding the relationship between husband and wife (Locke 1993: 153-60).[back to text]

[3] The ‘de-affiliation’ Lupton refers to is Isabella’s sustained refusal to give up her chastity for the life of her brother, exactly the opposite of Antigone’s decision to die for her deceased brother Polynices. But Antigone has also ‘de-affiliated’ herself from the rest of her family.[back to text]

[4] A paradox indeed, and not a contradiction: Angelo’s duplicity is the kind of ‘perversion’ Jacques Lacan hints at in his essay ‘Kant avec Sade’, in which he analyses the difficulties Immanuel Kant has in reconciling a ‘pleasure principle’ with an ethical system (and attitude) based upon pure reason (Lacan 1966: 765-90).[back to text]



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Stoned, Slain, Sawn Asunder: Violence, Consolation and the Meanings of Martyrdom in Early Modern England

Stoned, Slain, Sawn Asunder: Violence, Consolation and the Meanings of Martyrdom in Early Modern England

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen


[1] The Book of Martyrs (1563), compiled by John Foxe, was one of the most important books published in early modern England, second in significance only to the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer for the religious culture of the period – although it was also four times as long as the Bible (King 2006: 1).[1] It was widely read – or rather, read from – in public places such as schools, libraries, cathedrals and parish churches. Frequently reprinted during the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, the Book of Martyrs offered a hugely influential narrative of collective, Protestant English identity as having been forged in the experience of persecution and martyrdom during the reign of Mary I (1553­-1558) and as grounded ultimately in the sufferings of the early Christians.[2] Its readers were invited to see themselves, and their communal history, in the tales and images of the gruesome violence visited on the Marian martyrs of the 1550s – to feel that these tales and images told them who they were.

[2] The Book of Martyrs is obviously centred around the extreme physical violence inflicted on martyrs, represented both textually and in a large number of vivid woodcuts (see figures 1 and 2, below). Well known examples are the graphic accounts of the executions of William Gardiner and John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, both martyred in 1555. As one of the torments endured by Gardiner, his torturers forced a linen ball with an attached string ‘unto the bottome of his stomacke,’ which they then pulled up, ‘pluckyng it to and fro through the meate pipe’ (Foxe 1570: 1543). When Gardiner is finally executed, he is tortured in a similar manner, being lowered into the fire and pulled up again: ‘Then was ther a great pile of woode set on fire underneath him, into the which hee was by little and little let downe, not with the whole body, but so that his feete onely felt the fire. Then was he hoysted up, and so let downe agayne into the fyre, and thus oftentymes pulled uppe and downe’ (Foxe 1570: 1544). The account of John Hooper’s execution culminates in the following description of his dying moments: ‘he knocked hys brest with hys handes untill one of his armes fell of, and then knocked still with the other, what tyme the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, untill by renewyng of the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand did cleave fast in knockyng, to the yron upon his brest’ (Foxe 1570: 1684).[3]

Figure 1. The torture of Cuthbert Simpson. John Foxe, Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church (London, 1576), p. 1952 [1925]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

Figure 2. Bishop Bonner scourging a prisoner. Actes and monuments (1576), p. 1963 [1936]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

[3] In its preoccupation with martyrdom, then, early modern England placed the experience of violence at the heart of Protestant identity, with the representation of that experience occupying a central place in its textual and visual culture. As Cynthia Marshall has observed,

the Acts and Monuments can be understood as itself a monument to […] a moment when developments in technology, literacy, and religious politics made it possible for a massive textual detailing of physical suffering to occupy the imaginative screen of English readers. (Marshall 2002: 90)

Yet martyrdom in early modern English culture was also a remarkably elastic concept, that referred not only to martyrdom of blood – being persecuted and physically tortured, and eventually dying for one’s faith – but that was also applied to various forms of affliction and suffering. This becomes especially clear if we examine the confluence between discourses of martyrdom on the one hand and discourses of consolation on the other. One important feature of early modern, and especially seventeenth-century English Protestant culture was the emergence of a substantial and widely read body of consolation literature, in which members of the Protestant clergy instructed their flock in the art of suffering, offering them a set of narratives for attaching meaning to and dealing with affliction.[4] Protestant consolation writers took a capacious approach to affliction, addressing a wide gamut of suffering that ran from persecution to physical illness, financial setbacks and spiritual doubt. This last form of affliction presents an especially dominant topic in consolation discourses, with consolation writers casting their readers as burdened by a sense of sinfulness and as suffering from profound doubts about their own salvation, and as therefore in need of pastoral consolation.

[4] This preoccupation with consolation can be traced back to the very beginnings of Protestantism.[5] Martin Luther saw late medieval theology as failing to console Christians in their sense of sinfulness – and therefore as falling short of its pastoral responsibilities – in that it burdened them with the impossible task of contributing to their own salvation. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone, he wrote in On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), offers a form of consolation superior to that offered by Roman Catholic theology: ‘whose heart hearing these things will not melt for very joy, and waxe ravished in love of Christ, having received so great a consolation? to the which love hee can never possibly attaine by any lawes or workes at all’ (Luther 1579: 37). Luther, in other words, defined Christians as sufferers in need of consolation. This consolation revolved around a relinquishing of soteriological agency: those burdened by an awareness of sin can take consolation from the idea that their salvation is effected solely by Christ.

[5] Early modern English culture saw an enmeshing between the concepts of consolation and martyrdom. First, consolation became central to notions of martyrdom, with martyrs being defined by the consolation which they find in God and in each other. While divine and interpersonal consolation are also touched upon in the Book of Martyrs itself, it is especially prominent, as I will show below, in an important spin-off of Foxe, Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs (1613). Second, consolation writers urged readers to construe their own various afflictions in martyrological terms — with an acute sense of sin, for example, presented as a kind of mini-martyrdom. Such a correspondence between martyrdom and doubts about one’s salvation was facilitated by the fact that in Cotton, martyrs themselves are presented as suffering from spiritual anxiety, finding divine consolation only at the very last – often when they have been tied to the stake already, the fire that will kill them already lit. In this way, different notions of Christian suffering – centred on the experience of persecution and violence or, for example, on the sense of sin – converged into a single narrative in which the most private, inward and the most public forms of affliction became intertwined, and in which consolation served as a pivotal term. For Cotton, what unites his readers with the Marian martyrs whose suffering he recounts is that both suffer spiritually and that both ultimately find consolation in God.

[6] On the one hand, this led to a downplaying of the importance of physical violence in definitions of Protestant identity, and to a less prominent representational role – both visually and textually – for violence. As we will see, physical violence plays only a limited role in Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, in which martyrdom revolves more centrally around the experience of spiritual anxiety and consolation. At the same time, however, consolation writers – including Cotton – drew on the language of martyrological violence in their meditations on other forms of affliction, such as illness or spiritual despair. The intertwined discourses of martyrdom and consolation, therefore, present an intriguing form of imagineering violence, evoking physical violence in relation to a wide gamut of Christian suffering. In this way, the violence inflicted on martyrs came to serve as a template for understanding Christian suffering more widely. Consolation literature suggests that to read about the violence inflicted on martyrs, and to gaze at images of that violence, was simultaneously to read about and to gaze at one’s own inner turmoil, or one’s own physical ailments, as well as to find consolation amid that turmoil and amid those ailments. The spectacle of religious violence was translated, in other words, to the most inward spiritual experiences, turning the inner life itself into a scene of violence and persecution. While the violence of literal, physical martyrdom diminished in representational prominence, therefore, the language of violence continued to play a crucial role in early modern understandings of what it meant to be a Protestant.

[7] This, I argue, also helps us understand why the idea of martyrdom possessed such cultural longevity in early modern English culture. In an important sense, what Alfred Rush terms ‘martyrdom unto blood’ had already ceased to be a reality for Protestants by the time it came to occupy a central place in concepts of national Protestant identity. With Elizabeth I’s succession, Protestantism had become the state religion, and it now fell to the Elizabethan regime to persecute religious others – most notably Catholic clergy (see Knott 1993: 88-126, and Jenkins 1986: 52, 56). As Protestantism became the majority faith in the early seventeenth century, Protestant martyrdom became increasingly remote. Yet martyrdom’s expiration date could be deferred indefinitely by turning martyrdom into a flexible, adaptable concept – by reimagining the violence inflicted on martyrs as present in all forms of Christian affliction.

[8] Such a reimagining of the meaning of martyrdom was not an early modern Protestant invention. As Alfred Rush explains, ‘actual martyrdom’ or ‘martyrdom unto blood’ diminished in importance when the age of persecution came to an end, with monks, for example, coming to be seen as the spiritual counterparts of the early Christian martyrs (1962: 574; see also Malone 1950). St Augustine insisted that martyrdom consisted not in the first instance around the undergoing of physical violence, but in bearing witness to Christian truth, stating, in a well known dictum, that ‘martyrem non facit poena sed causa’ [‘it is not the suffering but the cause that makes a martyr’] (Rush 1962: 574). In a sermon on martyrdom, he defines martyrdom in strongly spiritual terms similar to what we find in Cotton:

Sed nemo dicat: Non possum martyr esse quia non est modo persecutio. Non cessant temptationes. Pugna et corona parata est. […] [T]entatur anima christiana et propitio Deo vincit et facit magnam victoriam, nemine vidente, in corpore inclusa; pugnat corde, coronatur in corde sed ab illo qui videt in corde.

[Let no one say: I cannot be a martyr, because there is now no persecution. Trials are never lacking. The battle and the crown is prepared. […] The Christian soul is tried and, with the help of God, it conquers and wins a great victory; this it does enclosed in the body, with no one as its witness. It fights in its heart, it is crowned in its heart, but by Him who sees into the heart.][6]

[9] Yet even if seventeenth-century English Protestants were not the first to re-imagine martyrdom in spiritual terms, their idea of spiritual martyrdom acquired a new urgency and resonance for them as a fledgling religious majority whose historical connection to martyrdom of blood became ever more tenuous. Indeed, the Book of Martyrs itself evinces an awareness of its own belatedness, while at the same time offering a solution to this problem. Foxe realizes that physical martyrdom is no longer available to his readers, yet encourages them to understand martyrdom in more capacious terms: ‘if we can not willingly put of this lyfe, yet let us not bee slow to amend and correct this same: and though we can not dye with them in lyke martyrdome, yet let us mortify the worldly and prophane affections of the flesh which strive against the spirit’ (Foxe 1570: 1542). Approximately a century later, Richard Allestree found himself facing a similar problem. In a sermon on James 4.7 (‘Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you’), preached on 17 November 1667 before Charles II, he contrasts the ‘Persecutions […] of the primitive times of Christianity’ with his own martyrdom-free, late seventeenth-century present: ”tis not death to be a Christian now’ (Allestree 1684: 172). He even fears that the Christians of his own time would not stand the test of martyrdom ‘if God should raise a Dioclesian, come to tempt us with the fiery trial’. Only a degraded form of martyrdom is open to them, in which they fall victim not to prosecution but to their own sinful inclinations: they are ‘Martyrs […] to nothing but [their] Passions and [their] lusts‘ (1684: 172), or, as he puts it in his highly popular devotional work The whole duty of man (1657), ‘the Devil’s Martyrs’ (1657: 153). Yet in the same sermon, he also redefines the ‘fiery trial’ of martyrdom in broader terms, reading the ‘fiery darts of the wicked’ of which St Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:16 not only as ‘Persecutions‘, but as referring to ‘Calamities of any kind’ (1684: 171). In a 1665 sermon on Luke 2:34, he characterises the early Christians as ‘Apprentises of Martyrdom’ who were ‘call’d for sufferings’ in a broad sense that incorporates not only persecution but also ‘Poverty and Scorn’, as well as a renouncing of the ‘Pomps and Vanities of the World’ (1669: 203, 205, 203).

[10] In what follows, I will examine how such a broadening of martyrdom was made possible in part by linking martyrdom to the idea of consolation. In addition to Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, I will draw on the following works of religious consolation: the popular The sick mans salve by Thomas Becon (1511-1567), first published in 1560 and reprinted eleven times, in various editions, before 1600; the much obscurer The oyle of gladnesse (1631) by the Sussex rector Robert Allwyn; Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689), an example of Durant’s broader consolatory oeuvre that went through three editions during the mid-seventeenth century (Burns 2004); and Balm of Gilead by Joseph Hall (1574-1656), first published in 1646 and reprinted four times between 1650 and 1660. Naturally, these form only a small selection from the large body of consolation literature published in the period, but they do shed light on an important strand in early modern English conceptions of martyrdom, suffering and consolation that can be discerned throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, and across a broad spectrum of Protestant writers, from conformist to Independent.


Martyrdom and Consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs

[11] We find a useful starting point for understanding the malleable meanings of martyrdom in early modern England in one of the most important spin-offs of Foxe: Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, a drastically reduced, affordable pocket edition – ‘Reader’s Digest style’, in Patrick Collinson’s words – of the Book of Martyrs, first published in 1613 and reprinted eight times throughout the seventeenth century (Collinson 2002: 384). It does without woodcuts, and offers condensed martyrs’ narratives that largely omit, for example, the interrogations recounted in Foxe, focusing instead on the martyrs’ last moments. Thus, while Foxe offers a lengthy and vivid account of the various stages of John Hooper’s martyrdom, Cotton’s abridged version – the very first tale in the Mirror – opens with Hooper ‘being brought unto the place where he should suffer’ and moves on swiftly to ‘the day before his Martyrdome’ (Cotton 1615: 1-2).

[12] The Mirror of Martyrs contains an appendix that consists of two consolatory letters by the martyr John Bradford (c. 1510-1555), prominently advertised on the title page as ‘full of sweet consolation for all such as are afflicted in conscience’. Rather than focusing on physical martyrdom per se, these letters address the ‘godly sorrow which the feeling and sense of sinne worketh in Gods children’ (Cotton 1615: 389). The second letter is advertised as ‘most comfortable for all to read that are afflicted or broken hearted for their sinnes’ (Cotton 1615: 409). Since Cotton, in his epistle to the reader, presents his entire ‘Mirrour’ of Foxe as offering ‘sound comfort’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A8v) to its readership, Bradford’s letters of consolation provide an important key to the reworking of martyrdom in the Mirror of Martyrs more broadly. In linking martyrdom — on its very title page and in its paratextual matter — to the suffering caused by contrition (the sorrow over one’s sins to which Cotton refers), the Mirror suggests that the meaning of martyrdom can extend beyond ‘dying for one’s faith’. Spiritual anxiety, too, can make one a martyr, potentially serving as an entry ticket into the community of the afflicted to which martyrs also belong.

[13] Indeed, this link between martyrdom and spiritual anxiety is one important reason why Cotton sees his martyrs’ tales as a source of consolation for those afflicted by spiritual doubts. As he writes in the Epistle Dedicatorie, it is

very behoofefull for the afflicted, carefully to observe, what distresses, the particuler members of [the Church], hath been brought to; thereby to know and discerne, that they suffer not alone, but that in their suffrings they have had, and have, many companions, suffring with them. (Cotton 1615: sig. A4v-A5r)

Cotton casts his readership as ‘afflicted’ in a generalized sense, without specifying the precise ways in which they are afflicted. In this way, he hails his readers as belonging to a broad, transhistorical and diverse community of sufferers, inviting them to map their own suffering on to the agonies undergone by Protestant martyrs, and to read whatever suffering they themselves are experiencing as part of the larger history of affliction which Cotton evokes. Indeed, Cotton admonishes his readers to see even St John the Baptist as their ‘Brother and Companion in tribulation’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A5r), eliding in this way any temporal distinction between the reader’s own present, the more or less recent Marian persecutions, and the very earliest Christian martyrdoms: all co-inhabit a perpetual present, defined by the ever-recurring experience of Christian suffering. It is also in this sense that the Mirror of Martyrs can be seen as a devotional work: it offers its readers an interpretative framework for experiencing spiritual anxiety in an appropriate manner – by construing it as a species of martyrdom, and therefore as a form of suffering in which God always offers comfort.

[14] The importance of consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs is underscored by the martyrs’ narratives themselves, many of which hinge on the idea of consolation. This consolation follows certain recurring patterns: martyrs console themselves through the sheer strength of their faith, but they also console each other, comfort other fellow-Christians, or write consolatory letters to their family. Alternatively, they are consoled in their suffering by the Holy Spirit. Shortly before his martyrdom, John Hooper consoles a blind boy, insisting that God ‘hath given thee another sight much more precious; for he hath endued thy soul with the eye of knowledge & faith’ (Cotton 1615: 2). The martyr Lawrence Saunders (d. 1555) is described as experiencing intense consolation, both spiritually and physically, during the ordeal of his first interrogation. Consolation comes to him as an intensely physical experience that involves his entire body, arguably counteracting the physical violence inflicted on him: ‘he was so wonderfully comforted, that not only in his spirit, but also in body he received a certaine tast of that holy communion of Saints; whilst a most plesant refreshing issued from every part & member of his body unto the seat of the heart, & from thence did eb and flow too and fro unto all the parts againe’ (Cotton 1615: 19-20).

[15] In many cases, the martyrs need consolation because, faced with an imminent, violent death, they are in spiritual despair, thinking themselves incapable of bearing their suffering, or fearing about their fate in the afterlife. This, indeed, is what they have in common with Cotton’s spiritually anxious reader. For example, Robert Glover (d. 1555) harbours intense doubts about his salvation and seeks comfort from his friend Augustine Bernher (d. 1565), a reformed preacher born in Switzerland who comforted many Marian martyrs in their final hours (Wabuda 2004). Glover is described as suffering from ‘dullnesse of Spirit’, a condition dreaded by many early modern Protestants:[7] he ‘felt his heart […] lumpish and heavy’, which rendered him ‘full of much discomfort to beare the bitter Crosse of Martyrdome’ and afraid that ‘the Lord had utterly withdrawen his wonted favour from him’ (Cotton 1615: 23). Bernher reassures him that ‘the Lord in due season would satisfie his desire with plentie of Consolation, whereof hee sayd hee was right certaine and sure’ (Cotton 1615: 24). Bernher’s words of consolation are initially ineffective, the comfort which Glover longs for postponed until the very last moment, ‘as we was going to the stake’. Yet the consolation which he eventually experiences is all the more spectacular: ‘sodainely hee was so mightily replenished with the comfort of Gods holy Spirit and heavenly joyes, that hee cryed out clapping his hands to Austen saying these wordes, hee is come Austen, he is come, hee is come’ (Cotton 1615: 25; ‘Austen’ is Augustine Bernher). Thomas Hudson undergoes a similar spiritual crisis when he is bound to the stake. His fellow-martyrs attempt to console him, but to no avail: ‘he was compassed […] with great dolour and griefe of mind, not for his death, but for lacke of feeling the comfort of the holy Ghost, the comforter’ (Cotton 1615: 84). After Hudson prays intensely, God ‘at length according to his mercies old sent comfort, and then rose hee with great joy, as a man new changed even from death to life’ (Cotton 1615: 84). In a narrative pattern also present in other tales in the Mirror, consolation is initially deferred but ultimately offered — spectacularly and exhilaratingly.

[16] The martyrological tales in the Mirror of Martyrs offer exemplary tales of suffering and consolation. Cotton’s pocket martyrology defines Protestants both by their suffering and by the consolation which they seek and find, both in God and in each other. In consoling each other, moreover, Cotton’s martyrs serve as figures of the Mirror itself, geared as it is towards consoling its readers. Just as the martyrs figuring in the Mirror of Martyrs need and receive consolation in their torment, the reader is consoled in her spiritual trials. Protestant identity is not located exclusively in the experience of physical martyrdom per se but rather in the spiritual torments and soteriological doubts felt by Cotton’s readers.

[17] In Cotton, this broadening of the meaning of martyrdom, and the related centrality of spiritual consolation, produces a diminished emphasis on physical violence. Visual representations of violence are altogether absent from the Mirror, while verbal descriptions of violence are generally terse and generic, and shorn of details. Alice Binden’s death at the stake is summarized as follows: ‘she was bereaved of life by the terrible fier’ (Cotton 1615: 117). The account of John Lambart’s violent death is slightly more elaborate but nevertheless concise and restrained compared to what we find in Foxe: ‘John Lambart having his nether parts consumed with fire, lifting uppe such hands as hee had, and his fingers ends flaming with fire, cryed to the people, None but Christ, None but Christ’ (Cotton 1615: 26). Cotton’s focus is more strongly on the spiritual trajectory which his martyrs go through: the spiritual anxiety which they feel eventually lifted by a consolation that enables them to die joyfully. The death of James Baynam is a case in point:

as hee stood at the stake in the midst of the flaming fire, which fire had halfe consumed his armes and his legges, he was heard to speaker these words, O ye Papists. Behold ye looke for Miracles, and heere ye may see a Miracle, for in this fire I feele no more paine then if I were in a bed of down; but it is to me as sweet as a bed of Roses. (Cotton 1615: 31-32)

As we have seen, ‘sweet’ is a term strongly associated in Cotton (but also in numerous other devotional works of the period) with the effects of consolation: God’s spiritual comfort renders even the most extreme physical torment pleasurable.

[18] Yet while the language of physical violence is far from dominant in Cotton’s martyrology, it is not, of course, entirely absent, and in fact insinuates itself into unexpected and revealing contexts. For example, in the second of his two consolation letters appended to the Mirror of Martyrs, John Bradford informs the ‘faithfull woman in her heavines and troble of mind’ (Cotton 1615: 409) to whom he is writing that she is ‘of Gods corne’ and that she should therefore not ‘feare […] the flayle, the fanne, millstone, nor oven. You are one of Christs Lambs: looke therefore to be fleeced, halled at, and even slaine’ (Cotton 1615: 418). Bradford’s initial metaphor of grain-winnowing and bread-baking, in which violence is implied, morphs into an explicit vocabulary of physical violence in ‘halled at, and even slaine’. The primary meaning of ‘to hall’ [i.e. ‘haul’ or ‘hale’] listed by the OED is ‘to pull or draw with force or violence; to drag, tug’ (OED, s.v. ‘haul, v.’, 1a.), and the term was frequently evoked in relation to the Passion of Christ (as it is in Cotton), as well as persecution and martyrdom more broadly. A 1614 translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s De interiori domo seu de conscientia aedificanda describes Christ as ‘haled to the slaughter’, while in a 1610 translation of St Augustine’s City of God, Christian bishops are ‘haled unto martyrdome’ (Clairvaux 1614: 149; Augustine 1610: 16). Robert Barclay’s An apology for the true Christian divinity (1678) describes Quakers as being ‘beaten, whipped, bruised, haled, and imprisoned’ (Barclay 1678: 363). As we have seen, Cotton’s martyrology evinces only limited interest in the physical torments inflicted on martyrs, foregrounding instead their spiritual pain and subsequent consolation. Yet this moment suggests something subtly different: Bradford here invites his addressee to read the spiritual pain from which she suffers as synonymous with the physical violence of martyrdom. What Bradford understands to be Satan’s spiritual assaults – ‘Let Satan rage against you’ (Cotton 1615: 419) – come to be understood in physical terms. Martyrdom, on such a reading, is no longer an experience one reads about or gazes at (for example, by reading and gazing at the narratives and woodcuts in Foxe), but which takes place inside the turmoil of one’s own inner, spiritual life.


Affliction and Martyrological Violence in Protestant Consolation Literature

[19] We also encounter this dynamic in other early modern devotional works, and especially in the large body of consolation literature of the period. Thomas Becon’s popular Sick man’s salve is a case in point. Written in dialogue form, it can be usefully seen as a Protestant reimagining of the medieval ars moriendi tradition, with a strong emphasis on the promise of redemption through Christ as a source of solace in the hour of our death (Baker House 2004). Becon sees the spiritual agonies from which his readers might suffer on their deathbed as a ‘trial of your faith’; a form of ‘agony’ from which God will ‘deliver’ them: ‘for the nature and property of God is to wound, before he healeth: to throw down before he lifteth up: to kil before he quickneth’ (Becon 1631: 242). The reader’s spiritual trials, as well as the physical ailments that precede death, are bracketed in this way with the more general suffering which all Christians must undergo. In an illuminating passage, Becon initially presents the reader’s affliction as a far cry from the pains of martyrdom, cataloguing the physical tortures visited on the early Christian martyrs as the gold standard of all human pain:

some were devoured with wilde beastes, some burnt with fire unto ashes, some broiled unto death upon hote coles, some slaine with the sword, some hanged upon gibbets, some pierced to death with arrows, some beaten to death with stones, some boiled, some rent in peeces with hot burning iron hookes, some racked, some drowned, som cruelly murthered in prison &c. Who is able to declar the moste bitter pains, and grievous torments which they gladly & willingly suffered on their bodies for the glory of God, and the fruition of his majesty? If yee consider of these thinges wel, you shall easly finde, that the paines which you now suffer, are nothing to be compared unto the most bitter and intolerable tormentes, which the men of god suffred. (Becon 1631: 208-209)

Yet Becon adds that ‘not withstanding if you abide these light paines joyfully, patiently & thankefully, you shall moste certainly enioy and possesse that heavenly kingdome, which they have already obtained’ (Becon 1631: 209). Paradoxically, therefore, the passage ends by drawing the reader’s suffering once again into the orbit of martyrdom: while the pains of illness and deathbed despair are much lighter than the pains of martyrdom, their soteriological efficacy is identical. Martyrdom is at once remote and within reach. Illness ultimately does function as a scaled-down form of martyrdom, the pains it brings echoing the greater violence inflicted on martyrs.

[20] A similar dynamic is at work in Robert Allwyn’s The oyle of gladnesse (1631), a collection of three sermons written to offer consolation to all those who are ‘swallowed up with over much heavinesse’ – that is to say, who suffer from the spiritual anxieties that form a recurrent concern in the consolation literature of the period (Allwyn 1631: 3). Allwyn urges his readers to ‘take pleasure […] in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in Persecutions, and anguish’ (Allwyn 1631: 33), and to trust in ‘the Spirit, who is most copious of his consolation in the fierie tryall’ (Allwyn 1631: 34). Allwyn’s readers, in other words, are to embrace suffering as an integral part of Christian identity, and Allwyn seems to make no hard-and-fast distinctions between persecution and other forms of affliction. The phrase ‘fierie tryall’, employed by Allwyn to encapsulate the meaning of affliction, has strongly martyrological overtones, as becomes clear from the Richard Allestree sermon discussed earlier in this article, and as is underscored by the title of the anonymous The fierie tryall of Gods saints (1611), a kind of pocket version of the Book of Martyrs similar to the Mirror of Martyrs. The link with martyrdom is further underlined when Allwyn writes, in a context that addresses affliction in general, that God ‘remembreth our soules in trouble, he compasseth us about with songs in the prison, hee administreth matter of joy’ (Allwyn 1631: 34, italics added). Again, martyrdom and religious persecution provide a template for understanding the nature of Christian affliction more broadly, including spiritual turmoil.

[21] We encounter such broadening of martyrdom throughout the first half of the seventeenth century. The consolatory treatise Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689) is a pastoral work that aims to offer consolation to ‘weak Beleever[s]’ (Durant 1662: sig. A3) – that is to say, to those who are having trouble believing in the promise of salvation. For Durant, suffering and consolation are the pillars of Christian identity. He rapturously describes Christ as a ‘Sea of love to comfort all those that cordially obey the gospel’ (Durant 1662: 4), while also seeing the Christian life as marked by suffering, informing his readers that ‘Because you fear to sin, You are not of the world, and you are therefore hated by the world. Christ hath freed you from the evil of the worlds pollution, and therefore it follows you with the evil of its persecution‘ (Durant 1662: 146). As this quote suggests, Durant sees all Christian suffering, including the suffering caused by a weak faith, as somehow touched by persecution. As a result, he employs the language of martyrological violence to understand the meaning of Christian affliction in general:

Christ is the supervisor of all your sufferings; whether thy sufferings are, or shall bee cruel mockings, bonds, stoning, sawing asunder, &c. what kinde soever, Christ is to order it, not thy foes. And he will see what suffering will best suit thee, and thy strength. Some (saith the Martyrologie, Heb. 11) were stoned, others sawn asunder, some slain with the sword, others wandred, &c. Christ orders all your sufferings. Hee tels Peter by what death he should glorifie him, Joh. 20.19. And so for quantity Christ orders all; Thou tellst my wanderings, &c. Psal. 56.8. He means his wandrings while persecuted […] not a step more, than Christ would, did David wander. Beleevers, you shall not weep a tear, nor bleed a drop, nor bear a stripe more than Christ will number out. (Durant 1662: 165)

The passage contains various references to Hebrews 11:29–40 – referred to here as ‘the Martyrologie’ – which celebrates the power of faith and lists the torments which the faithful have suffered throughout history, and which, Durant suggests, they will continue to endure in the future: ‘They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Hebrews 11:37).[8] Even the problem of weak belief by which his readers are burdened, Durant maintains here, can be understood as a tailor-made form of violent martyrdom, adapted by Christ himself to their specific needs and abilities. The notion that Christ manages all human suffering in this way is a key ingredient of Durant’s consolatory message.

[22] The languages of consolation and martyrological violence also converge in Joseph Hall’s consolatory tract The balme of Gilead (1646). Like Clement Cotton, Hall sees martyrdom as revolving around the consolation which God offers martyrs even in the most extreme suffering. It is also this consolation which makes martyrs into role models for all suffering Christians:

How many with the blessed Martyr Theodorus, have upon racks and gibbets found their consolations stronger then their paines? Whiles therefore the goodnesse of thy God sustaines, and supplies thee with abundance of spirituall vigour and refreshment answerable to the worst of thine assaults, what cause hast thou to complaine of suffering? (Hall 1646: 108)

This passage occurs in a section on ‘Comfort against Temptations’ (101), and for Hall, temptation constitutes a spiritual assault readily understood in terms of physical violence. Indeed, like other Protestant consolation writers of the period, he captures the suffering that forms the hallmark of the Christian life in images of physical wounding and scarring:

A wound received doth but whet the edge of true fortitude: Many a one had never been victorious if hee had not seene himselfe bleed first; Look where thou wilt, upon all the Saints of God, mark if thou canst see any one of them without his scarres: Oh the fearfull gashes that we have seen in the noblest of Gods Champions upon earth […]! (Hall 1646: 115)



[23] I have attempted to demonstrate the conceptual inter-traffic between the lexicons of martyrological violence and consolation in early modern English Protestant culture. In Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, the experience of consolation – often deferred but ultimately offered in abundance – is the hallmark of the true martyr, while consolation writers drew on the language of martyrological violence as a template for understanding a broad range of Christian suffering, with spiritual anxiety playing an especially dominant role. On the one hand, this convergence of consolation and martyrdom meant that notions of martyrdom came to revolve less strongly around physical violence and its graphic representation, and more centrally around the experience of spiritual consolation. We have seen such a mechanism at work in the Mirror of Martyrs. On the other hand, consolation writers came to understand other forms of afflictions, such as spiritual anxiety, physical illness or the temptation to sin, in terms of the literal, physical violence of martyrdom. In this way, the Christian’s troubled inner life became a theatre of violence and persecution, with for example the ‘temptations’ of which Joseph Hall speaks in the Balm of Gilead figuring as ‘fearfull gashes’. According to consolation writers, what all Christians – literal martyrs or not – have in common is that they eventually find divine consolation in their pain.

[24] The language of violence in Protestant consolation literature also possessed an additional resonance. Consolation discourses framed the sweetness of consolation as the prerogative of true Protestants, and cast religious others as marked by disconsolation – consolation being actively withheld from them by God. Consolation writers evoke, for example, ‘the ungodly’ who ‘pine away in their iniquitie’, while the ‘true of heart’ experience ‘joyful gladnesse’ ‘even in the most disconsolate time’ (Allwyn 1631: 25). Joseph Hall refers to ‘heathen soules’ (Hall 1646: 23) who are deprived of divine consolation. ‘What joy and comfort can there be in poperie?’, Thomas Stoughton wondered in 1598 (Stoughton 1598: 71). In 1603, George Downame, writing on the occasion of James I’s accession to the English throne, equated the ‘consolation of all true Christians’ with the ‘confusion [i.e. the overthrow and destruction] of Popery’ (Downame 1603: sig. A4r). ‘[I]ts no solid comfort, that the Catholik amuses himself with, in believing his Church that guides him to be infallible, if really she be not so: for if it proves in effect to be otherwise, he will come short of his imaginary comfort,’ wrote the anonymous author of The unerring and unerrable church in 1675 (I. S. 1675: 73).

[25] This also meant that consolation writers saw the suffering of religious others as pure, never-ending and unrelieved, a state of affairs evoked in vividly physical terms by the clergyman Nicholas Lockyer (1611–1685) in his description of the spiritual agonies felt by ‘ungodly men’:

Christ will not know thy soule in adversity, which art a disobeyer of him. As hee would not let Dives [the rich man in the parable of Lazarus; Luke 16:19-31] have a drop of water to coole his tongue, though in unutterable torments, where many Oceans would not in the least measure have quenched the flames; so neither will he afford thee the least drop of consolation in thy greatest extremity; though thou cry Lord, Lord, and cut thy flesh in the fervency of thy spirit like Baals Priests, to prevaile; yet shalt thou be sent empty away. Nay Christ will be so farre from being a Comforter to ungodly men when in misery; that Hee will adde to their outward misery, inward misery. When thy body is in distresse, Christ will awaken thy soule, that now lies asleep, and set thy conscience gnawing within thee, which will be greater torture then if thou wert rackt in every limbe. (Lockyer 1644: 30-31)

The torments and disconsolateness suffered by ungodly men are here equated with extreme and unremitting physical violence. This is not the violence of martyrdom but rather the violence rightfully visited on the wicked. If martyrs are tormented by other human beings but consoled by Christ, the wicked are tormented by Christ and therefore remain unconsoled. While consolation writers invited their readers to imagine martyrological violence as their own, and as taking place inside their own, non-martyred selves, they imagined the violence inflicted on abject religious others as taking place in an alien realm.

Leiden University



[1] For an authoritative recent study of Foxe’s martyrology, see Evenden & Freeman 2011. [back to text]

[2] For an influential analysis of the nationalist significance of the Book of Martyrs, see Haller 1963. In presenting martyrdom as a core ingredient of Protestant identity, the Book of Martyrs both took part in and helped to shape a much wider, European martyrological discourse (for an insightful overview, see Gregory 2001). Notable examples are the six-volume Historien der Heyligen Ausserwölten Gottes Zeugen, Bekennern und Martyrern (1555-1557), compiled by the Lutheran minister Ludwig Rabus (1523-1592), and Jean Crespin’s Livre des Martyrs, printed in Geneva in seven editions and under a variety of titles, between 1554 and 1570 (see also Tucker 2017). In the Low Countries, De historien der vromer Martelaren (1552) by the Dutch Reformed minister Adriaan van Haemstede (c. 1525-1562) became a canonical Protestant martyrology, reprinted numerous times until well into the eighteenth century.[back to text]

[3] Both accounts are discussed in Marshall 2002: 85-87 and 97.[back to text]

[4] For a number of the central tropes in early modern Protestant consolation discourses, see Dijkhuizen, van 2018.[back to text]

[5] For consolation as a defining aspect of early modern Protestantism, see also Rittgers 2017.[back to text]

[6] St Augustine, Sermo 328.9 (‘In natali martyrum’),
https://www.augustinus.it/latino/discorsi/ discorso_468_testo.htm>. The translation is from Rush 1962: 575-76.[back to text]

[7] See for example Ryrie 2013, who sees early modern British Protestant culture as revolving around a quest for intense, deeply felt spiritual experiences and a related dread of spiritual apathy or indifference.[back to text]

[8] For a useful analysis of martyrdom in Hebrews 11, see Henten, van 2010: 359–377.[back to text]



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_____. n.d. Opera Omnia. <https://www.augustinus.it/latino/index.htm>

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‘The very best history book, decorated with 1,191 curious copper plates’: Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as an inventory of execution prints

‘The very best history book,
decorated with 1,191 curious copper plates’:
Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as an inventory of execution prints

Michel van Duijnen


[1] In 1626, some companions of the French nobleman Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, count of Chalais, made a decision that would have grave unintended consequences. For conspiracy against the French crown, Talleyrand-Périgord had been sentenced to death by beheading. His companions, however, hoped to turn the tide by intimidating the headsman. Surely enough, the executioner failed to show up on the day of justice. Unfortunately, rather than dodging his fate, the nobleman was now subjected to the nerves of an unexperienced stand-in. From amongst the prisoners in the city of Nantes, a simple shoemaker was selected to fulfil a task that required a skilled executioner. The first blow of the Swiss sword failed to behead Talleyrand-Périgord. Four blows followed, all to no conclusive effect, except for prompting a harrowing ‘Jesus Mary!’ from the count. Dropping the sword, the shoemaker took up a butcher’s cleaver and took another 29 blows to finally sever the count’s head.

[2] This ‘very rare and horrible’ (seer seldsaem en ellendigh) story was recounted in the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck, extended, edited, and translated from German by the Dutch polymath Simon de Vries (De Vries 1698: vol. 1, 1115-16). However, it is not so much the gruesome story itself — barely half a page long — that stands out. Rather, it is the accompanying print of the botched beheading (figure 1). The etching by Jan Luyken shows the agony in the count’s face and his gruesomely maimed neck, as well as the shoemaker’s panicked stare. All around the scaffold onlookers react in shock, treated to a form of violence that goes far beyond the accepted ‘clean’ single-stroke beheading that was the privilege of the highborn.

Figure 1: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord by an inexperienced executioner, 1626 (no title), 1698, etching 10,9 x 15,3 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1115. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1409.

[3] The print of Talleyrand-Périgord is exceedingly rare in showing in very explicit terms a botched execution, a theme not readily portrayed in the early modern period (van Duijnen 2018: 185). To my knowledge, it is also the only surviving early modern image that claims to portray this specific historical event. These unique qualities raise a number of questions concerning the production of the image. Why, for instance, did a printmaker from Amsterdam make a unique rendering of this gruesome beheading — some 70 years after the execution in question? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the nature of the Dutch print industry at the turn of the seventeenth century; for while the image of Talleyrand-Périgord was very much unique, it did not exist or function within a vacuum. Instead, the print spoke to a broad horizon of violent images produced in the Dutch Republic at this time. Already within the chronicle itself, one could find dozens of images that showed all manner of executions — providing the reader with a veritable inventory of judicial violence. In turn, the explicit prints found in the chronicle related to all kinds of other execution prints readily found in all manner of books produced in the Dutch Republic, ranging from martyrologies to histoires tragiques and exotica, as well as profane and sacred histories (Schmidt 2015, van Duijnen 2018).

[4] Within this essay, I want to address just one of the many questions raised by the aforementioned execution print: that of the place of printed images of judicial violence within the book market of the Dutch Republic. In doing so, I wish to contextualize the explicit execution prints found in Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as the exponents of a commercial infrastructure, specifically the booming market for expensive illustrated books in the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic (Kolfin 2011: 31; Rasterhoff 2017: 159-160). Here, the combined efforts of Dutch publishers, writers, and printmakers to create attractive illustrated books provide a striking example of what Michael Hutter has described within the context of the creative industries as ‘familiar surprises’: thematic variations that combine the ‘thrill’ of the new with the ‘comfort’ of the familiar (Hutter 2011: 4). As I will argue here, the diverse nature of the execution prints newly added to the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck allowed for violence to be presented as a theme in and of itself: one not solely bound by political or religious polemics, but aimed also at the production of spectacular and marketable illustrations for expensive folio books.[1] Through this particular lens, I will try to shine some light on the question of how the execution of a French nobleman in 1626 ended up as subject matter for an Amsterdam printmaker some 70 years later.


The 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck

[5] The 1698 edition of Gottfried’s chronicle was the result of 70 years of somewhat erratic accumulation, going back to the first volume of the first German edition of the book published in 1630. Though the chronicle is named after its writer, Johann Ludwig Gottfried, it has been suggested that the author’s name served as a pseudonym for Johann Philipp Abelin (Hoftijzer 1999: 40). Already in its earliest incarnation, the work stood out for its high quality illustrations; printed in Frankfurt am Main, the work included no fewer than 329 prints produced by the famous Mattheus Merian the Elder. It is thus not surprising that an artist like Rembrandt is said to have had a copy in his possession, identified in this case as a ‘High German book of war scenes’ (Golahny 2003: 77). The chronicle would go through a number of German reruns, before being translated and published in Dutch in 1660 by Jacob van Meurs, who added a number of low quality prints to this extended translation (van Meurs 1660). According to Paul Hoftijzer, the Amsterdam publisher Janssonius van Waesberge received a privilege for a new Dutch edition on 15 December 1672, yet no publication ever came out of this venture (1999: 40).

[6] In 1698, a new and extended Dutch edition of Gottfried’s chronicle in three parts (one part from the creation of earth up until the year 1576, and two parts covering the continuation of the chronicle by De Vries from 1576 to 1697) was published by the Leiden-based Pieter van der Aa. The polymath Simon de Vries had extended the chronicle to run up to the Peace of Rijswijk of 1697, and gave to the book his own typical flair by filling it with endless successions of wondrous anecdotes, strange accidents, violent shakeups, natural disasters, and monstrous births (Baggerman 1993: 129-133). For this extended section, Van der Aa commissioned Jan Luyken and his son, Casper Luyken — some of the most productive and famous book illustrators at the time — to produce 227 new illustrations (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. 1, 356-382).[2] The work now included an impressive series of prints, ranging from the early seventeenth-century Merian works, to the simple Dutch etchings added mid-century, and ending with the impressive addition of the 1698 Luyken prints (which were all in-text images). As a result of this archaeology of images, Pieter van der Aa could boast that his publication included no fewer than 1,191 ‘curious copper plates’.[3]

[7] Apparently, the first run of the extended chronicle had been a great success (Hoftijzer 1994: 40), and for a second publication round in 1702 he took out a number of advertisements in Dutch newspapers that played on both the extensively illustrated nature of the chronicle and his clientele’s ‘fear of missing out’. The chronicle, the advertisement stated, was an enormous success, ‘the very best history book in Dutch’, and reprinted on popular demand. All who would now ‘subscribe’ (intekenen) for a copy of the chronicle would get it for the ‘old’ price of the first run, the considerable sum of 35 guilders and 5 stuivers — a full month’s wages for most artisans (Kuijpers 2015: 406). Yet supply was limited, and everyone who missed the boat would have to cough up the high new price of 45 guilders.[4] In another advertisement, Van der Aa warned that 156 books had already been sold, and only 160 pieces left at the old ‘low’ price.[5] Even this second print run must have sold well, as Van der Aa published a thorough French reworking of the book in 1703, which included 171 of the newly made Luyken prints (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. I 356).

[8] The number of images purportedly included in the book shifts somewhat throughout the different advertisements of 1702. In one case, Van der Aa claimed a total of 1,191 printed images. Another advertisement for Van der Aa’s publication counted 1,091 prints, advertising the book as including ‘503 curious brown copper plates of the most prominent histories and 588 imagining the illustrious men etc [i.e. portraits]’ (503 curieuse bruyne kopere Platen der voornaamste Historien, en 588 de Doorlugtige Mannen enz. verbeeldende).[6] Regardless, the number of illustrations was impressive, and the publication included at least 500 images ‘of the most prominent histories’ — which were often simply very violent histories.

[9] Van der Aa primarily marketed the chronicle in terms of the number of images that were included in the book — trying to pull in prospective buyers through the sheer abundance of illustrations. Yet the illustrations themselves show that variety was an equally important characteristic of the large corpus of images, especially when it came to the portrayal of judicial violence. To further explore this aspect of variety, I will examine a number of executions included among the 227 images produced by Jan and Casper Luyken, and show how the subjects for these illustrations were largely based on internal variety rather than on the political, religious, or historical relevance of the executions themselves.[7] Depicting a diverse collection of victims, perpetrators, and execution methods, these images connected to one another first and foremost through their portrayal of a varied repertoire of explicit judicial violence and their place within an expensive and thoroughly marketed ‘coffee table book’ avant la lettre.[8]


The execution prints in Gottfried’s chronicle

[10] While the prints in question provide enormously rich material that can be approached from a number of angles, the focus here is primarily on the variety of subjects addressed within the category of judicial violence. This section discusses 16 prints that can broadly be classified as execution prints — images foreshadowing an execution, showing an execution in process, or portraying the concrete results of capital punishment. For the purpose of this essay, I have categorized these prints into four sets that each highlight a different aspect of the visual diversity portrayed by Jan and Casper. Together, these images exemplify the conscious effort that has been invested in making each of these execution prints a unique illustration in its own right. In this way, each print offers the ‘thrill’ of something new, while simultaneously falling in line with the broader ‘expected’ theme of judicial violence.

Figure 2: Jan Luyken, Persecution of Protestants in the Low Countries, 1574 (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 425. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1375.

[11] The first selection of prints concern (in)famous executions from recent history: illustrations that are first and foremost related to the importance or iconic nature of the victims in question. Such images could connect to historical episodes central to Dutch history writing, such as the popular theme of the persecution of Protestants by the Spanish Crown in the Low Countries (figure 2), and the contested execution of the Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in 1619 (figure 3).

Figure 3: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1619 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.2 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 863. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1394.

Other execution prints related to foreign political events well known in the Dutch Republic. One such case is the beheading of the Naples revolutionary Masaniello (figure 4), whose short-lived reign was widely used as an example of the dangers of mob rule (Meijer-Drees, 1993).

‘Figure 4: Casper Luyken, The head of Masaniello carried around on a pike, 1647 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 203. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1458.

A more recent victim of political strife is found in the form of the hanged English Jesuit William Ireland (figure 5) — a victim of anti-Catholic fervour in neighbouring England. Essentially, these are all images that one might more or less expect in a work that claims to provide an extensive world history up to the year of 1697, and they are often clearly placed within a political or (Reformed) religious context by the accompanying text by De Vries.

Figure 5: Jan Luyken, William Ireland and John Grove hanged and quartered in London, 1679 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1133. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1527.

[12] Other images, however, are far harder to reduce to the iconic, religious, or political. In the second set of images, all cases deal with some form of beheading. When it came to the removal of heads, Jan and Casper portrayed an uncanny amount of detailed diversity. The images here range from a more common composition such as is found in the execution of two French duelists (figure 6), to the unique print of a convicted Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution (figure 7).

Figure 6: Casper Luyken, French duelists François de Montmorency-Bouteville and François de Rosmadec beheaded, 1627 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1151. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1413

Figure 7: Jan Luyken, Imperial officer Cronsbruck executed in Mainz, 1691 (no title), 1698, etching 11 x 15,6 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1403. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1566.

The aforementioned print of Talleyrand-Périgord shows the explicit unfolding of a botched beheading, whereas the final image of two Spanish noblemen portrays a beheading by knife — advertised in the accompanying text as a ‘rare [form of] beheading’ (figure 8) (De Vries 1698: vol. II 228). In these cases, I would argue, the specificities and explicit nature of the violence portrayed already overshadow both the identities of the victims (foreign and often noble) and their crimes (which are never depicted); instead, it is the potential for varied imagery that underlies the choice of these particular subjects as illustrations.

Figure 8: Casper Luyken, Beheading of Don Pedro de Silva and Don Carlo di Padiglia in Madrid, 1648 (no title) 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 229. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1460.

[13] The third set further plays on the category of rare or unorthodox execution methods, taking the theme to the very extremes. One such image concerns the story of a man executed by sending him bound on a stag into the wilderness to die (figure 9). According to De Vries, the man must certainly have committed a heinous crime to deserve such a severe and cruel punishment, a punishment which, we are told, was supposedly not uncommon in Germany (1698: vol. II 923). Another image shows the execution of a number of anonymous arsonists in Prague who are made to suffer a ‘most gruesome punishment’: forced to run around poles surrounded by small fires, with hot oil thrown on them the very moment they stop moving (figure 10) (De Vries 1698: vol. I 532-533).

Figure 9: Casper Luyken, Man bound on a stag sent into the wilderness, 1666 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 923. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1504.

Figure 10: Jan Luyken, Arsonists burned in Prague in 1583 by a slow burning fire (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.6 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 533. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1379.

Even more explicit is the print illustrating execution by dismemberment of two men in the Ottoman Empire (figure 11), whilst yet another print shows the French consul in Algeria turned into a human cannonball (figure 12). All of these images focus almost exclusively on the unorthodox execution methods described. For instance, the only thing to be said about the stag-bound man is that his crime is probably very grave, yet the man remains anonymous and his crimes unknown. Very little text is dedicated to the Prague arsonists, with most of the words describing the workings and the gruesome nature of their punishment, whereas in the case of the Ottoman men, the extreme violence inflicted is presented as just one example of the many cruelties purportedly practiced in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to the cases from the first set, the victims and their crimes are now secondary to the execution methods themselves, and their potential for spectacular and varied imagery.

Figure 11: Jan Luyken, Sultan Murat IV has two men dismembered for buying and selling tabaco, 1630 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1057. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1405.

Figure 12: Jan Luyken, During the French bombardment of Algiers, the French consul is loaded into a cannon, 1683 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1089. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1522.

[14] The final group of images continue along the lines set in the previous three sets. It includes a recent political criminal in the form of the Cossack rebel Stenka Razin, bound on a cart and paraded around just before his execution (figure 13). A massacre of Protestant making is shown in Swedish forces hanging German farmers during the Thirty Years’ War (figure 14).

Figure 13: Jan Luyken, Stenka Razin and his brother brought into Moskow for their execution, 1671 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1700, vol. II, p. 667. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1482.

Figure 14: Jan Luyken, Farmers executed by the Swedish army in Häsingen (Hésingue), 1633 (no title), 1698, etching , 10.9 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1015. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1404.

Further playing upon the theme of the Orientalist despot is found in the print of Safi of Persia, portrayed here as showing his sister the heads of her executed children (figure 15). Finally, there is the ubiquitous foreign minor nobleman, now in the form of the Swedish baron-pirate Gustav Skyte — unorthodoxly executed with an arquebus (figure 16).

Figure 15: Jan Luyken, Shah Safi of Persia shows his sister the heads of her executed children, 1632 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1065. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1406.

Figure 16: Jan Luyken, Gustav Skyte executed by arquebus in Jönköping for piracy, 1663 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 785. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1490.

[15] While each of the images discussed here connects to themes of religion and politics in one way or another, their place in the book in relation to one another seems to rest partly on the need for a varied repertoire of violent images. In a way, the diversity of the images even turns judicial violence into a theme of its own. The prints portray a wide variety of victims and perpetrators: Catholic, Protestant, French, Turkish, noblemen, commoners (all, however, are male). Yet more importantly, they also visualize a wide variety of execution methods, ranging from firing squads to elaborate stag-powered punishment. Even within the most prominent category, that of beheadings, no image is quite like the other, with botched executions and unorthodox beheadings providing unique visual interpretations of early modern judicial violence. In this respect, these images cannot be reduced only to their political or religious significance. Rather they should equally be understood as attractive book illustrations that were an essential part of the expensive book series published by Van der Aa: as marketable images of violence. This thematic approach to judicial violence partly explains why so much effort has been invested in the unique portrayal of the different executions present in the book — regardless of the fact that many of the victims were either obscure noblemen or anonymous criminals. It is their unique and violent deaths that warranted their selection for illustration, rather than their crime, motive, or victimhood. Within this context, a Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution becomes a far more interesting topic than any visualisation of the workings of high politics. De Vries himself underlined this approach by stressing the ‘rare’ nature of many of the executions in the accompanying text, implying that only those cases sufficiently strange or wondrous, rather than historically significant, were included in his magnum opus.

[16] Through the examples given here, I hope to have shown how the diverse array of images of judicial violence in Gottfried’s historical chronicle can be approached from the angle of the work’s production and marketing. Those executions selected for illustration primarily shared one aspect, namely their relation to one another as thematically similar, yet visually distinct. In this sense, the combined efforts of publisher, writer, and printmaker to produce a marketable illustrated book reduced the legacy of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord to the horrific unfolding of his execution: as one impression amongst a series of unique images of judicial violence.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam



[1] For an approach that favours a political reading of images of executions, see Carrabine 2011; for a religious approach, see Puppi 1991. [back to text]

[2] For concise overviews of Jan Luyken’s career and personal life, see van Eeghen 1992 and Veld 2000. [back to text]

[3] Amsterdamse courant (Amsterdam: Otto Barentsz Smient), 16 February 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:010707707:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[4] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[5] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 12 January 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011110894:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[6] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702,
<https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[7] For the role of visual variety from the perspective of Dutch seventeenth-century art theory, see Weststeijn 2002: 199-200. [back to text]

[8] Such expensive and extensively illustrated books were a niche particular to the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic print market: see van Nierop 2018: 71. [back to text]



Baggerman, Arianne. 1993. Een drukkend gewicht: leven en werk van de zeventiende-eeuwse veelschrijver Simon de Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi)

Carrabine, Eamonn. 2011. ‘The Iconography of Punishment: Execution Prints and the Death Penalty’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 50: 452-464

Golahny, Amy. 2003. ‘Rembrandt’s World History illustrated by Merian’, in History in Dutch Studies, 14, ed. by Robert B. Howell and Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor (Lanham: University Press of America), pp. 73-84

Hoftijzer, Paul. 1999. Pieter van der Aa. Leids uitgever en boekverkoper 1659-1733 (Hilversum: Verloren)

Hutter, Michael. 2011. ‘Infinite Surprises: On the Stabilization of Value in the Creative Industries’, in The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy, ed. by Jens Becker and Patrik Aspers (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 201-220

Kolfin, Elmer. 2011. ‘Amsterdam, Stad van Prenten’, in Gedrukt tot Amsterdam. Amsterdamse prentmakers en -uitgevers in de Gouden Eeuw, ed. by Elmer Kolfin and Jaap van der Veen (Zwolle: Waanders), pp. 11-57

Kuijpers, Erika. 2015. Migrantenstad: Immigratie en sociale verhoudingen in 17e-eeuws Amsterdam (Hilversum: Verloren)

Meijer Drees, Marijke. 1993. ‘The Revolt of Masaniello on Stage: An International Perspective’, in From Revolt to Riches. Culture and History of the Low Countries 1500-1700, ed. by Th. Hermans and R. Salverda (London: Centre for Low Countries Studies), pp. 281-291

Puppi, Lionello. 1991. Torment in Art: Pain, Violence, and Martyrdom (New York: Rizzoli International Publishers)

Rasterhoff, Claartje. 2017. Painting and Publishing as Cultural Industries. The Fabric of Creativity in the Dutch Republic, 1580-1800 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)

Schmidt, Benjamin. 2015. Inventing Exoticism. Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Van Duijnen, Michel. 2018. ‘”Only the strangest and most horrible cases”: The Role of Judicial Violence in the Work of Jan Luyken’, Early Modern Low Countries, 2.2: 169-197

Van Eeghen, Isabella Henriëtte. 1992. ‘Jan Luyken (1649–1712) and Caspar Luyken (1672–1708)’, in Le Magasin de l’Univers. The Dutch Republic as the centre of the European book trade, ed. by Christiane Berkvens-Stevelinck, H. Bots, Paul G. Hoftijzer, and Otto S. Lankhorst (Leiden: Brill), pp. 129-142

Van Eeghen, Pieter, and Johan Philip van der Kellen. 1905. Het werk van Jan en Casper Luyken, 2 vols. (Amsterdam: Frederik Muller & Co.)

Van Meurs, Jacob. 1660. Joh. Lud. Gotfridi Historische chronyck : vervattende de gedenkwaardighste geschiedenissen voorgevallen van’t begin des werelts tot op’t jaar (Jacob van Meurs: Amsterdam)

Van Nierop, Henk. 2018. Life of Romeyn de Hooghe 1645-1708: Prints, Pamphlets, and Politics in the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)

Veld, Henk van ‘t. 2000. Beminde Broeder die Ik vand op ‘s werelts pelgrims wegen. Jan Luyken (1649–1712) als illustrator en medereiziger van John Bunyan (1628–1688) (Utrecht: De Banier)

Vries, Simon de. 1698. Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […], 2 vols. (Leiden: Pieter van der Aa)

Weststeijn, Thijs. 2002. ‘Schilderkunst als “zuster van de bespiegelende wijsgeerte”. De theoretische status van het afbeelden van de zichtbare wereld in Samuel van Hoogstratens Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst’, De Zeventiende Eeuw, 18.2: 184-207

Cornelius Hazart and a connected history of executed Christian Japanese children

Cornelius Hazart and a connected history of executed Christian Japanese children

 Johan Verberckmoes


Introduction: exemplary children

[1] ‘Watching the many Christian children of Europe who sadden their parents or leave them in need, is it not a disgrace that a nation of the furthest corners of the world, previously barbaric, has to teach the Christians of our countries what affection they should show to their parents?’ (Hazart 1667: 107). In a history book on the persecution of Christianity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan, the Antwerp-based Jesuit Cornelius Hazart (1617-1690) considered Christian Japanese children to be an illuminating example for their peers in Europe.[1] Explicitly comparing Christian proselytizing and a duty of parental obedience to moralizing interpretations of the emotional effects of children’s actions, Hazart also connected Japan and Europe as cultural entities. The Jesuit considered both as classrooms within which children were prominent teachers of dutiful Christian behaviour.

[2] For Sanjay Subrahmanyam, connected history is a method for finding similar actions and symbols in cultures without a priori choosing a dominating referent (Subrahmanyam 1997). I apply this concept here to examine the role Japanese and European children played as the focus for a contested Catholic religion. That contestation was violent and gruesome in Japan. In Catholic Europe, on the other hand, the Catholic religion triumphed, yet Jesuit apologists worried about the persistent danger of families being lured into impiety, or worse, Dutch Calvinism. In what follows I first sketch the contours of the persecution of Christians in early modern Japan and its textual and visual news coverage in Europe, including in relation to Japanese child martyrs. Then I analyse how the ‘making of emotions’ (pathopoeia) impacted European representations of Christian martyrs in Japan, and in particular the ways in which children were instrumental in this management of emotions. In the third section I demonstrate that in his Church History of the World, and specifically with relation to Japan, Cornelius Hazart created a connected history of Antwerp and Japan as two regions under siege of a common enemy. In the case of Japan, Dutch (and, to a lesser extent, English) Calvinists, enhanced, according to Hazart, the persecution manoeuvres by the shogun, while in northern Europe the Catholic religion was surrounded by Calvinist states. According to Hazart’s apologetic interpretation of history, children were perceptive observers of this transoceanic struggle. The last section of this essay covers two exceptional engravings in Hazart’s history of Japanese children being killed and martyred. The conclusion reflects on the limitations of our knowledge from the Japanese side of the role of children as transmitters of a lived religion to subsequent generations, a role in which, according to Hazart, many European children failed miserably and Japanese children excelled.

[3] By the latter half of the sixteenth century, Christianity had spread extensively among the native Japanese population, including among local leaders (the daimyo), mainly but not exclusively in northern and western Kyûshû (Vu Thanh 2016). Although the establishment of the Tenshō embassy to the Christian Pope and kings in Europe in 1582 received much international attention (Hazart 1667: 63-73), the persecution of Japanese Christianity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Boxer 1951: 308-361; Higashibaba 2001: 141-160) generated an endless stream of broadsheets, books, engravings, paintings and theatre performances in early modern Europe (Cordier 1912). In 1587 and again in 1596-7, regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, while unifying the country, prohibited Christianity. In February 1597 in the Jesuit stronghold of Nagasaki, an international incident sparked by rivalry between Portuguese Jesuits and Spanish Franciscans forced Hideyoshi to act (Hall 1994: 364). Twenty-six Catholics, most of whom were Japanese laymen, were executed by crucifixion and pierced through with spears. This spectacular execution produced an immediate response in Catholic Europe, prompting martyr narratives referring to the death of Christ at Golgotha (Lach 1965: 708, 717; Laures 1957: 68). From 1614 the shoguns introduced new edicts against Christians, forcing them to renounce their religion or emigrate. Prosecutions led to the torture and executions of a documented four thousand Christians (Mullins 2015: 6). Only a few dozen of these were European missionaries. News about fresh Japanese martyrs enthralled Catholic Europe and frightened Dutch and English traders keen on establishing relations but unsure about Japanese intentions (Rietbergen 2003: 80). From 1633 on, and even more rigorously from 1641, the bakufu central government closed off the country from foreign trade, except via the small Dutch settlement on Deshima, but local Christianity continued underground (Mullins 2015; Nogueira Ramos 2019).

[4] After the 1597 Nagasaki incident, the violence engulfing Japanese Christianity was conveyed to European readers in graphic detail in Jesuit annual letters, increasingly illustrated with engravings of the martyred. This myopic propaganda focused almost exclusively on the European missionaries, although exemplary Japanese Christians were from the start added as additional arguments to prove the success of Christianity on the islands. However, these very same persecutions were not given any attention in Japan itself, notwithstanding the country’s vibrant print and visual culture (Berry 2006). After all, although crucial to Christian Portugal and Spain and despite its relative success on Kyûshû, Christianity was a marginal phenomenon in a newly reorganized Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (Omata Rappo 2016). The situation was totally different in Europe, where Catholicism was struggling to reinvent itself after a prolonged struggle with Protestantism. In the course of the seventeenth century Japanese martyr stories increasingly mattered in Europe as proof of a global Catholic religion (Hsia 2018). The work of the missionary to China Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628) signalled a decisive shift in the European Catholic imaginary. Trigault documented a huge compendium of Japanese martyrdom, first edited in Latin in Munich in 1623 and the following year translated into French, gaining a wide audience (Trigault 1624). Although outright propaganda for the Christian Church at home and elsewhere, Trigault’s work slightly but significantly shifted the emphasis from European missionaries as martyrs in Japan to include Japanese converts as victims of their persecuting government. Moreover, Trigault helped to forge European visual perceptions of the violence of persecution against Japanese Christians by having an engraving inserted at the beginning of each of his five books. On one of these, during a group execution of Christians an eleven-year-old Japanese boy christened James (‘Jacques’), summoned by his mother to look to the sky, runs to her in the flames and dies (see Figure 1). This visual and narrative representation stirred affections, and the reworking of these emotions epitomized the connection between the European propaganda of Christian martyrs and the agency of Japanese Christians.


Figure 1. Nicolas Trigault, Histoire des martyrs du Japon depuis l’an 1612 jusques à 1620, composée en latin par le R. P. Nicolas Trigaut,… et traduite en françois par le P. Pierre Morin (Paris, 1624), p. 146: courtesy of @Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

[5] However, an expansive European iconography on Japanese executions emerged only after 26 September 1627, when Pope Urban VIII beatified the twenty-six Christians crucified in Nagasaki thirty years earlier (Omata Rappo 2017). Jacques Callot, Raphael Sadeler II and other engravers produced full-page engravings showing the victims suffering on their crosses, praying spectators, and determined hangmen thrusting spears into the martyrs’ sides. The humiliation of the Christians and their bodily mutilation at the hands of their torturers was answered by the devotional admiration of their followers, who directed their eyes to heaven where the newly martyred were supposed to join God in his glory very soon. This iconography reproduced the eikastic representation of European martyrs over many centuries, who had died persecuted by either the Romans, heathen rulers, or sixteenth-century Calvinist authorities (Gregroy 1999; Lestringant 2004). Children were unusual but not absent in this imaginary of eternal martyrs (Lynch 2016).

[6] Moving beyond the apologetic reading on torture and execution, historiography on the early modern circulation of knowledge has integrated these stories about martyred Japanese into broader views on Japanese culture (Schmidt 2015). On the one hand, in religious propaganda Japanese victims were represented with identical physical features to the missionaries (Omata Rappo 2017). Indeed, even when lavish attention was given to Japanese victims, the references were usually exotic and made little reference to specific Japanese customs and attitudes. While the number of publications on Japan in Europe continued to rise in the course of the seventeenth century, Japan’s distinctiveness was blurred by homogenizing European cultural circuits that created a ‘pleasingly exotic’ world (Schmidt 2015: 14-16). The workshop of the Dutch Republic was instrumental in bringing about this universal exotic, and in that context it needs to be emphasized that Dutch knowledge of Japan extended far beyond missionary propaganda. The Antwerp Jesuit Cornelius Hazart was sharply aware of this.

[7] It was no coincidence that Hazart started the first volume of his four folios Church History of the World with an extensive chapter on Japan, lavishly illustrated with a dozen high-quality engravings (Hazart 1667; Sommervogel 1912: 185-186; Cordier 1912: 379). Besides producing a voluminous history book, Hazart had also preached in the Antwerp Ignatius church on the topics he explored in his book (Hazart 1667: a4r). The finest printers of the day in Antwerp, including Adriaen Lommelin, Hendrik Herregouts, Justus van Egmont, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, and Gaspar Bouttats visualized the horror scenes of the martyred that were the ultimate goal of Hazart’s Japan chapter.[2] For the Antwerp Jesuit, Japan’s Christianity was not mere history but living actuality, and the Japanese martyred, including a number of small children, were proof of that. Copying the engraving from Trigault’s work of the small ‘Jacques’ running into the flames to die alongside his mother, the engraver Bouttats hugely enhanced the dramatic effect of the scene (analysed in more detail in the section ‘Performative child martyrs’ below). In this way, through its multimediality, Hazart’s Church History of Japan of 1667 did more than contribute to a homogenizing exotic view on Japan: it gave its martyrs, including the children, active roles in shaping the Christianity of his day and in the future.

[8] As for its content, Hazart’s history was not very different from what his polemical nemesis, the Dutch Reformed preacher Arnoldus Montanus (1625-1683), did when discussing the persecution of Christianity in Japan in his book, first published in 1669 (Montanus 1670; Schmidt 2015: 210-213). Their explanations vary, but the substance is the same: a pile of individual stories of Japanese families, including small children happily meeting their death as good Christians (Montanus 1670: 212-13, 222-24, 253-73; Hazart 1667: 84-87, 93-184). Both graphically portrayed the atrocities committed against families, including children, in a country far away. Whether the intended effects on European audiences in the latter half of the seventeenth century differed from those on Japanese audiences (more difficult to reach out to), needs further scrutiny. My hypothesis is that Cornelius Hazart unwittingly explored the transcultural margins of collective acts of violence committed in Japan, in particular with respect to children, whom he also in the European context considered in positions of (moral) risk. Hazart borrowed his method from his numerous sources, the martyrologies that crafted the stimulating of emotions through horrific stories of persecution.


Constancy or apostasy

[9] The executions of Japanese children and their families were inscribed in a pedagogic and catechetic logic that greatly mattered to Hazart as a Jesuit. Since the late sixteenth century, Jesuit authors inspired by Justus Lipsius had applied the latter’s neo-stoic thinking to the plight of persecuted missionaries. The European textual and visual representations of martyred Christians, wherever on the globe, were embedded in narratives with spectacular features and enthralling acts of violence. However, not one victim was represented as going to his violent death without showing deep joy and intense satisfaction in his possible resurrection as a good Christian. The formula had been honoured by Christian tradition since late Antiquity and assumed that every Christian dying at the hands of a persecutor proved his right to be among the righteous on the day of salvation, and far surpassed in spirituality his opponent, who acted from revenge, self-interest or envious pettiness (Gregory 1999). Qualifying the end result as ‘constancy’ (‘standtvastigheyt’) and ‘steadfastness’ (‘kloeckmoedigheyt’), Hazart explicitly subscribed to the stoic working of the mind. This was an emotional process that symbolically tied together victims and audiences. Obviously, in seventeenth-century Tokugawa Japan, sticking to your Christian faith was dangerous, but so was apostasy because that could generate further inquiries from the authorities about the potential presence of other Christians among your family or friends. For Hazart, Japan was a special case of transcultural significance as relentless persecution there was matched by the persistence of the Catholic religion. This caused an emotional dynamic among European Christians that was slightly different from a homogenizing exotic. Moreover, as Japan’s martyrs were popular themes on the Jesuit stage, the different rules of the theatrical performance of constancy enhanced the variations of that specificity (Omata Rappo 2019).

[10] The emotions at work in the early modern Christian martyr stories more generally can be understood as pathopoeia, a crafting of emotions, as practised by the painter Rembrandt, for instance (Dickey & Roodenburg 2010, 309-311). Features of this were a kinetic sense of the body (‘Jacques’ running into the flames), the possibilities of posturing (his mother alerting him to direct his eyes to heaven), and empathy (the supporting Christian audience around the consuming fire). I argue that the active components of pathopoeia gave specific possibilities to the representation of the violence against Christians as it was practised in early modern Japan. Clearly, this pathopoeia was modeled with a stoic intention in mind, namely the peacefulness of the Christian dying for his faith, as little ‘Jacques’ convincingly demonstrated. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the horror of persecution as a succession of emotional stages ending in stoic resolve was a European viewpoint. Perceptions of the violence perpetrated on persecuted Christians were different in Japan (Elison 1973), but will not be discussed here.

[11] First of all, historically as well as in Christian propaganda writing such as Hazart’s, the violence committed against those legally persecuted because of their Christian religion affected the entire Japanese society from daimyo to sex worker. Christian martyrdom in Japan produced heroes such as daimyo Takayama Ukon (1552-1615), Christianized as Justus Ucondonus (Mullins 2015: 41; Vu Thanh 2016: 375-79). His portrait engraving (see Figure 2) shows turbulent military fighting in the background, while the calm leader peacefully embraces the Christian cross (Hazart 1667: 51 facing). In this way the artist skillfully avoided the huge paradox that every Christian writer on gruesome persecution faced: how to reconcile shocking details of bodily torture and execution with the desired stoic happy ending? Not by coincidence, Ukon was in that respect an icon of Japanese Christianity in seventeenth-century Europe, because he was not executed but went into exile for his religion. This was a straightforward solution to the paradox of representing anti-Christian state violence. The regent confronted Ukon with a clear choice: commit apostasy or go in exile. He chose the latter and died peacefully as a Christian in Manila. This avoided representations of bloodshed and killing. This may be a major reason why the narrative of the steadfast Christian Justus Ucondonus was extremely popular in the seventeenth century, and the subject of theatre plays (Franck 1663; Laures 1957), including in the Habsburg Netherlands (Proot & Verberckmoes 2002).

Figure 2. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p. 51: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[12] Nevertheless, although not a victim of physical violence, Ucondonus was still a pathopoios, a crafter of emotions. His story of exile for his religion in 1587 involved anger and pressure from regent Hideyoshi’s court and Buddhist priests, on the one hand, and sympathetic advice from his saddened friends, on the other (Proot & Verberckmoes 2002: 32-33). Indeed, the elaborate narrative of daimyo Ukon, as Hazart also wrote it down (Hazart 1667: 51-56), hinged on an emotional performance of laughter, tears and sighs by Ukon, his officers and his kin, and outrageous reactions by his opponents (Verberckmoes 2005: 921-923). When hearing about his exile, the children in his family reacted as joyfully as all the other family members when they heard that he had been constant in his faith (Hazart 1667: 54).  Analytically, heavenly bliss is presented as the right reward for Ukon, because he practised pathopoeia ending in stoic resolve not to give up Christianity. Seneca and Lipsius described how stoic peace of mind was achieved in successive emotional stages, and their ideas were integrated as central commonplaces into Jesuit education (Büttner & Heinen 2004: 32-33, 59-60, 207, 224; Dickey & Roodenburg 2015: 151-76). First came the ictus or primus motus, the unavoidable first emotional blow. For Ukon this happened when he learned from regent Hideyoshi that he had to give up his Christian religion, so very dear to him. The narrative split up the emotions and assigned the chaotic response of the primus motus to Ukon’s opponents. The regent was drunk and full of rage after having received false accusations against Ukon from treacherous Buddhist monks. At the same time, Ukon immediately showed himself in full command of his reason. He did not give in to the chaos of the ictus as could be expected. This suggests a stoic reworking of the passions on behalf of the hero. But the narrative includes a second split in characters to suggest that Ukon was nevertheless emotionally deeply affected by the regent’s decision. When he had assembled his loyal army officers (who were also Christians) to explain to them his decision to choose exile, he was interrupted by ‘the many tears and sighs’ of his officers (Hazart 1667: 54). To prove their sadness, they cut off their ponytails (at the time an exotic marker of Japanese custom). Ukon quieted them and assured them that those who wanted could keep their position and hide their faith and that those who wanted like Ukon himself to be known as Christians could join him in exile. In that sense, Ukon practised through the behaviour of his officers what Seneca and Lipsius had labeled a praemeditatio or mental evaluation of the instance of the ictus with the goal of mastering its impact. With the restrictive Japanese circumstances in mind, Ukon used the two options of professing the faith or keeping such profession secret to protect their communities and families as alternatives for his officers. Throughout his ordeal, Ukon is represented as manifesting the last stage of the stoic pathopoeia, in which the hero lives according to his natural condition, as Seneca had phrased it. For a Christian this came down to the unquestionable conviction that the only choice was following God. But the other actors in the story, his superiors as well as his army officers and his family members, including small children, represented the successive stages from the ictus of possible conviction through praemeditatio of the different options to the firm conclusion of steadfastness as Ukon’s natural condition as a Christian.

[13] The distribution of the consecutive emotions over different protagonists was a practical solution to the problem of representing violent persecution. The unnatural rage of the regent was followed by the ictus also affecting and saddening his friends, but in the final analysis and reworking of these passions Ukon is shown as resorting to stoic acceptance of the test that God had made him undergo. On the stage this allowed for credible scripts. For example, reciting the lines of ‘barbaric frenzy’ (‘barbarische raesernije’; Hazart 1667: 147) of those persecuting Christians across the globe was advisable to stir emotions among the audience, as were tears of departure and theologically motivated tears of redemption. All of these were good solutions to avoid representing physical violence.

[14] As argued, rather than being static and merely moralizing and proselytizing, the stoic reworking of the passions fully depended on a skillful pathopoeia, a crafting of the emotions necessary to create the steadfastness of the believer (Heinen 2009). Crucial to understanding the position of the Japanese martyred in the great scheme of Christian resolve is recognizing that martyrdom in Japan extended across the entire social spectrum and affected all age categories. Take lower-class Japanese women performing stoic steadfastness, of which Hazart also provides examples. Incidentally and without explicitly acknowledging it, Hazart implicitly endorsed the large presence of active women among Japanese converts through his choice of these examples (Ward 2009). For instance, an eighteen-year-old Catholic woman in Osaka, forced by a ‘heathen’ to be a sex worker, defended herself ‘with her fists and teeth’ against possible clients (Hazart 1667: 59). This was the ictus stage, and the unrestrained, ferocious bodily action of the woman was in this case commensurate with her low social position. No one expected civilized moderation of behaviour from a sex worker. But, she was a stoic Catholic in heart and soul, which made the contrast between the ictus and the mindful stages even more dramatic than in the case of Ukon: when ‘her owner’ dragged her to the gallows ‘on a shameful and stinking place’ and threatened to kill her with a sword, she did not give in and refused to renounce her faith (Hazart 1667: 59). The outcome, problematic in terms of the story’s theatrical possibilities, was that the next day she presented ‘her tender neck’, and her head was cut off with one blow (Hazart 1667: 59-60). Indeed, martyred women such as these never made it to the Jesuit stage.

[15] It is useful at this point to compare the stoic pathopoeia of European making with the Japanese view on the position of Christian religion in the seventeenth century. The key issue in Japan was apostasy. That is what the shogun pressed for and adjusted his persecution policy towards. When Ukon and little ‘Jacques’ refused to commit apostasy, their credentials as good Christians were transculturally confirmed. Among local communities in Japan, when someone renounced their faith, suspicions arose among the authorities that others in the village and the family must be Christians too. When looking for Christian families, local government investigated seven generations for men and four generations for women (Higashibaba 2001: 158). So, villages collectively denied being Christians (Nogueira Ramos 2019: 17). Presumably unaware of these actual practices, but significantly for the characterization of Japanese martyrdom, Hazart picked up on this theme to explore further the emotional dimensions of pathopoeia among the martyred. For instance, in 1619 in Nagasaki, a Christian woman was distressed that her husband had renounced his Christian faith while in prison. ‘With godly zeal’ she went to the prison and blamed her husband for his weakness (Hazart 1667: 60-61). With anger (‘cholere’) he pushed her and declared he would not eat what she had brought him. As an answer, she told him she no longer respected him as her husband. At home she took the furniture and told her little son that she wanted to live with Christ rather than with a perjured man. With tears in his eyes the little one followed her. When the man was released from prison, he found that nobody respected him any more, neither Christians nor others, and in the streets mud and stones were thrown at him. When he rented a room from a non-Christian, that person changed his mind and ‘with his feet pushed him out of the house’. The house owner then offered to support the wife, but also added that had she renounced Christianity as her husband had done, he would have treated her worse than he had him. This extended ictus of incomprehension full of expressive emotions led to the right stoic conclusion that the husband had misjudged his own situation and turned himself into a pariah.

[16] In short, for a connected history of pathopoeia among Japanese Christians in the seventeenth century, apostasy was a key feature. Apostasy only led to unwanted violence, as the historical context in the latter half of the seventeenth century confirmed when entire villages turned to an underground Christianity that hid itself from the authorities. When apostasy was rejected, the kinetic use of the body was a major technique in representing the atrocities connected to refusals to renounce the faith. This is where Japanese children as actors of pathopoeia proved most effective. Hazart tells how Augustus, a Japanese military officer and Christian who did not commit apostasy, was beheaded, as was his twelve-year-old son a few days later, for the same reason. Both died with peace of mind, Hazart recounts, but when the head of the young boy was placed in front of his body to please the attending shogun who had ordered the execution, the dignitary was actually distressed (1667: 59). In this distress the shogun showed that he possessed no stoic mind, unlike his victims. This and many similar testimonies suggest a deep, transformative exploration of the emotional impact of torture and executions among the Christian communities and missionaries in Japan on European audiences. Hazart linked this pathopoeia of the martyred to a current political issue of Dutch threats against Catholic interests worldwide and thus gave the martyred children a context beyond notions of exotic otherness in Japan. This is exactly the next step in my argument.


A connected history of persecution in Antwerp and Japan

[17] In the course of writing his apologetic global history of Catholic religion, and alert to history as well as recent news, Cornelius Hazart read the signs of the times in the most recent version of the annual Jesuit Japan letters available to him, reporting on the years 1658 to 1661 (Hazart 1667: 182). Yet again, many Christians had been tortured and killed, and this proved to Hazart that the Catholic religion was still alive on the Japanese islands. For the Jesuit such news fostered hope of a relaxation of the edicts against the Christians. In the meantime Jesuit missionaries waited in nearby Tonkin and Cochinchina (Vietnam) to return to Japan and ‘give it as many thousand Christians as there were inhabitants’ (Hazart 1667: 182). That intention would never be realized, yet Hazart was already sure whom to blame: Dutch Calvinists. In the previous section I argued that the presentation of Japanese martyrs, including children, to European audiences involved elaborate stimuli of emotional transformation for proselytizing purposes. This was part of a trans-European Jesuit strategy of performing emotions to win hearts for the global Catholic cause (Haskell & Garrod 2019). The globalizing world was an intricate part of that strategy, and in this section I explore how closely connected Antwerp and Japan were in this respect. The aim is to show that for Cornelius Hazart Catholics in both places faced very similar threats against their religion. Hazart pursued this strategy in the context in Catholic Europe of the increasing significance of Japan as an exemplary Christian country in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

[18] For Hazart, Dutch Calvinists were the trait d’union between Antwerp and Japan. The Jesuit ended his chapter on Japan with several ordinances from the Dutch East India Company (VOC), illustrating their tactics of complying with Japanese policies to safeguard their economic interests and trade relations. According to these ordinances, the safest way to stay alive was by showing inward piety and not displaying any outward signs of Christianity, such as psalm books, meetings or prayers (Hazart 1667: 182-83). This suggests that Dutch observers were quite well informed about the actual practices of hidden Christians in Japan, who disguised any symbols of their faith (Higashibaba 2001: 159-60). But, in not openly professing their Christian religion in public, Hazart alleged, the Dutch had actually raised more suspicions about Japanese Christians among Japanese authorities. From this I hypothesize that Hazart opened up a transcultural dimension to his readers (and listeners below the pulpit). Seeing the Dutch at work as pragmatic traders who were not keen on demonstrating their Christian faith created for Hazart a direct link between Japan and his city of Antwerp. That is what this section will explore, while it also aims to substantiate the specific role of children in crafting emotions.

[19] For Dutch traders in Japan, as well as for Japanese people suspected of being Christians, the litmus test under the Tokugawa regime was apostasy. As the VOC ordinance implied, any Dutch trader ought to be careful when asked if he was a Christian. Hazart used this ordinance to denounce what was for him Dutch deviousness at work in Japan.  From Mandelslo’s famous account of travel to the East, Hazart quoted a traveller to Japan on a Dutch ship in 1646, who when asked if he was a Christian had answered: ‘no, but a true Dutchman’ (‘rechte Hollander’) (Hazart 1667: 183; Mandelslo 2008: 36). The traveller had done this in accordance with the rulings by the VOC on how to safeguard uncertain trade relations with Japan (Cullen 2003: 36-39). Theologically, ‘true’ here has the connotation of the right religion, which was for the traveller Calvinism. However, in Hazart’s reading, the ‘no’ was an answer of apostasy, and in the logic of Tokugawa persecutions of Christianity, where apostasy generated investigations, such apostasy threatened local Christian communities the Dutch might have been in contact with. Moreover, Hazart accused the East India Company of preferring pragmatism over Christianity. Ordinances such as these were proof to the Jesuit that Holland’s Calvinists used all possible means to keep their trade privileges with Japan. According to Hazart, by negating Christian religion, the Dutch simply complied with the edicts of Japan’s rulers and thus contributed to further persecutions of Christians. Unsurprisingly, Hazart’s interpretations of these East India Company regulations differed greatly from those of his nemesis, the Dutch Calvinist Arnoldus Montanus, who emphasized their caution in a volatile political environment (Montanus 1670: 222-24).

[20] In a characteristically powerful metaphor that gave his history’s prose momentum, Hazart compared the cruelty of Dutch Calvinists to ‘a foaming sea that had broken the dykes’ and pushed the raging shogun and his daimyo to extend the persecution of Catholics to all their territories (Hazart 1667: 143). Several times Hazart returned to this argument throughout his chapter on Japan. In this, he recycled sixteenth-century debates over intolerable Calvinist practices against Catholics and vice versa, and built on a century of suspicion and vicious hatred among Christians (Crouzet 1990). In that respect Hazart was the unfruitful polemicist and memory forger who clung to ancient rivalries (van der Steen 2015: 266-68; Van Gennip 2014). On the other hand, in doing so, Hazart put Catholic Antwerp’s interests first and created an implicit bond between two distinct parts of the globe where Dutch Calvinists, motivated by economic gain, infringed on the interests and convictions of local Catholics. Until the centennial remembrance festivities in 1685 of the reconquest of Antwerp by Alexander Farnese, and even beyond, Antwerp Jesuits denounced Dutch Calvinism as a threat to the Habsburg state and Catholic religion (Begheyn 2009).

[21] Having preached in its Jesuit church for several decades and been active among the city’s sodalities, Cornelius Hazart dedicated the first volume of his Church history to the Antwerp civil government, eliciting their continued support for the Catholic religion. The representation of the ordeal of his fellow citizens of Antwerp as protagonists in his book encouraged them to persevere, Hazart explained. For instance, the Dominican friar Ludovicus Flores (c. 1570-1622), born in Antwerp and dying a martyr by fire, had not only overcome ‘inhuman Japanese tyrants’, but in his martyrdom had also triumphed over the cruelty of Dutch Calvinists, who ‘to the ends of the world had tormented [him] more than beastly’ (Hazart 1667: A4r). This phrasing explicitly compared the exotic cruelty of the Japanese to the even more malicious cruelty of the Dutch that Antwerp audiences were supposedly familiar with. Thus Hazart made Dutch Calvinists akin to the authors of atrocities in the Far East. This suggests a transcultural reading of the emotional narratives of Japanese martyrs for Hazart’s Antwerp audience.

[22] Born in Antwerp around 1570 as Lodewijk Frarin or Frorijn, Ludovicus Flores accompanied his merchant parents to Spain and to Mexico. There he became a Dominican. He went to the Philippines in 1602 and on 5 June 1620 travelled from there to Japan on a ship of the Japanese captain Joachim Hirayama-Diz. A Dutch vessel intercepted the ship and took Flores and his companions to the Dutch factory at Hirado (Firando). There he became a prisoner of the Dutch from 4 August 1620 to 5 March 1622, the day on which he was handed over to the daimyo of Hirado. On 19 August 1622 Ludovicus Flores was burnt at the stake in Nagasaki (Boxer 1951: 342-45). Hazart compared his martyrdom to that of another Antwerp-born citizen, captain Louys Pieterssen, who had suffered ‘the same cruel torment’ [as Florin] in Japan in 1623. They withstood their tribulation as courageously as the proverbial Roman Scaevola, who held his hand in a fire until his flesh was consumed (Büttner & Heinen 2004: 59-60). Hazart presented the martyrdom of the Dominican Flores in Japan in 1622 as an enlightening patriotic vignette on the deviousness of Dutch Calvinists and English Puritans. Flores literally means flowers or roses and refers to the rosary of Dominican spirituality. In the 1660s this was an emblem of global importance to Catholicism, exemplified in the beatification of the Dominican of the Third Order, Rose of Lima, in 1667, and her sanctification in 1671. Such spiritual examples fired the policy of the Spanish empire to sustain its global ambitions amidst increasing competition from the Dutch and the English in the Americas and Asia. Antwerp was still the natural extension of the Spanish Habsburg strategy, and Ludovicus Flores was yet another pawn in this power game.

[23] Time and again in his narrative Cornelius Hazart denounced Calvinist violence, which in his view topped Japanese cruelty. Persecution at the hands of heathens was somewhat tolerable, Hazart contended, but Calvinists who pretended to be Christians enhancing barbaric cruelty in Japan was absolutely intolerable (1667: 116). For the Jesuit, the Dutch had betrayed Flores and his fellow travellers to the shogun and therefore were betrayers of their own compatriots. For the shogun the Dutch and English distrust of Catholics was very welcome, as it suited his own ends, Hazart explained. Moreover, while Catholics openly won souls in the far corners of the world, the Dutch called themselves Hollanders in Japan and never Christians, Hazart alleged, referring to the VOC regulations. While in the Netherlands the Calvinists showed off and boasted (‘stoeffen’) of being Christians, in Japan they dared not. In the long section detailing the martyrdom of Ludovicus Flores, Hazart added torture to his accusation of Dutch treason. A letter that Flores had written from Japan to Manila in May 1622 detailed how Dutch traders had made him suffer. Flores mentioned hiding below deck under leather hides for a day and a night and nearly suffocating, in order not to be seen by the Dutch sailors entering his ship. In Hirado the Dutch threw him into a dark pit under the earth without daylight for thirteen days. Finally, because he never wanted to reveal to the Dutch that he was a Catholic friar, they tortured him on the rack and left him half-dead (Hazart 1667: 142). In comparison, Hazart’s source, Orfanel’s Historia ecclesiastica (1633), lists even more Dutch torture, for instance, when Flores was forced to drink so much water that he nearly fainted and suffered cardiac and intestinal troubles for an entire month (1633: 148r). Cut and pasted from Orfanel, Hazart’s account also kept the format of Flores’s letter as a first-person narrative that described his despair, fear and cold. The Jesuit used the rhetorical device to enhance the historical authenticity of his accusation of Dutch treason.

[24] However, in Hazart’s view, children were the most effective witnesses of unjustified Dutch betrayal in the tense context of Christianity in seventeenth-century Japan. He used the story of an Italian killed in Nagasaki for his faith to demonstrate once again the exemplary value of children. Camillus de Constanzo, Hazart recounts, was a nobleman and soldier from Calabria, who found himself in 1622 in Nagasaki awaiting execution in the presence of a substantial crowd on land as well as on boats on the nearby sea. When he saw many Dutch and English among the audience, Constanzo, who had learned Dutch when serving in the Spanish army in the Netherlands, blamed them in Dutch for their errors and their ‘small courage’ for not admitting they were also Christians although legally obliged to do so by the Japanese authorities. Constanzo added that they should rather follow the example not only of European Catholics, but also of Japanese Christians whose own children behaved more courageously than did the Calvinists (Hazart 1667: 153).

[25] Hazart’s last argument for the Dutch as akin to co-authors of the gruesome persecutions that took place in Japan pointed to the performative details of the torture and executions of Christians. Strikingly, Hazart selected some of the most graphic acts of violence in his history from two Dutch chronicles on Japan authorized by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), François Caron’s Description of Japan and Reyer Gysbrechts’s History of Martyrs (Rietbergen 2003: 20-21, 90, 164). The catalogue of horrors was impressive and located excessive violence in an exotic Japan: pouring boiling water over bodies that were stuck in dry peat, branding a cross on the forehead, hanging bodies upside-down in a pit with a cross cut in the head to make the blood flow (ana-tsurushi), elaborate piles of wood to make sure that bodies were suffocated and roasted rather than burnt, young women thrown naked into large tubs full of snakes ‘that intruded into their bodies in all secret places and filled them’ (Hazart 1667: 147-52; compare Montanus 1670: 268). These were the kind of details Hazart refrained from when quoting Jesuit letters. Yet, when relying on Calvinist authors Caron and Gysbrechts, he included the most disturbing documentation of torture. And although Hazart was usually reticent about nudity (Schmidt 2015: 210-211), when borrowing from Caron’s and Gysbrechts’s descriptions of unwanted intrusions into female bodies, Hazart suggested that Calvinists indulged in such horrific detail to a much greater extent than his Catholic sources did.

[26] Hazart’s reading of cultural difference resulted in a remarkable resemblance between the ‘inhuman’ Japanese and the ‘beastly’ Dutch Calvinists. Both terms denoted a perceived moral deficiency, but in practice the rules and actions of the Dutch in the later seventeenth century seemed to imply that they were crucially involved in heightening tensions for the remaining Catholics in Japan. Detailed torture added to that accusation. In contrast to Dutch untrustworthiness Hazart posited heroic faithfulness among Japanese Christians, the main actors among whom were young children.


Performative child martyrs

[27] For Hazart Catholic children functioned as the most exemplary martyrs. Their stoic presence of mind in the most frightful circumstances was arguably one of the most effective features of his propaganda when propagating a pathopoeia of those who did not renounce their faith. His approach was not original, though, and was embedded in a baroque culture exploring the dramatic effects of grave bodily harm done to children (Haskell 2013). From a global missionary perspective, children were a preferred target audience for the catechism because they, in turn, taught their own parents more effectively than any missionary (Clossey 2008). So too did the Japanese child martyrs, but as that happened in a context of horrendous persecution, the pathopoeia was more performative (Mochizuki 2014). Although less fit for dramatic presentation on the stage, the child martyrs were given a prominent place in two engravings that Hazart or his publisher Cnobbaert commissioned to illustrate the chapter on Japan. These are exceptional visual testimonies. I place these two engravings alongside further textual evidence in Hazart about the actions of Christian Japanese children during persecution.

[28] Overall and unsurprisingly, Japanese children were represented by Hazart as being as joyful in meeting their death as any other Christian. An illustrious example is the appropriately named six-year-old Ignatius, dressed in a golden cloth and with a lovely face, who drew everybody’s attention when walking around a huge pyre of burning Christians. Even when five or six chopped-off heads fell flat before his feet, his colour didn’t change, nor did it when his mother was executed before his eyes. In the end Ignatius uncovered his neck, fell to his knees and stretched his tender little neck to receive the final blow (Hazart 1667: 146). The shock and awe of such performance modeled the child as a hero possibly out of touch with this world.

[29] Thus, while never forgetting his catechetic and pedagogic approach, Hazart also conveyed through the stories the doubts that befell Japanese Christian families during persecution. In some cases, children did not want to become martyrs and ran away. For the Jesuit, these cases allowed him to illustrate the parental guidance and authority deemed necessary for naïve children. In the case of Catholic children running away, their own parents brought them back to the fire and the sword, pleaded eternal joy, and they died together (Hazart 1667: 148). Stones were hung around the necks and bodies of a family of five in preparation for their being thrown into the water, but the youngest, six years old, resisted the ordeal. The executioners asked the parents if they wanted to save their child, but they answered that they wanted him with them and so he was also thrown into the water (Hazart 1667: 151, compare Montanus 1670: 262). Remarkably, Hazart used only his Calvinist sources, Caron and Gysbrechts, to quote such hesitations by children. Hazart implied with this that Calvinists were not easily convinced that children would stick to their Catholic faith and were unduly worried about the strictness of Japanese parents towards their own children.

Figure 3. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p. 151: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[30] Dutch hesitations about the constancy in their faith of Christian Japanese children were further discredited by a dramatic and original engraving inserted into Hazart’s book (Figure 3; Hazart 1667: 151). The caption of the engraving refers to the drowning of seventeen Japanese Christians in Nagasaki in 1627. At least three children are seen being taken by executioners on board a ship to be dumped into the sea. The head of one child is already under water. The print does not explicitly indicate in image or text whether or not this happened against the will of the children, although the struggle seems to suggest so. At any rate, dramatic posturing and performative action take centre stage in the engraving and represent stoic pathopoeia as a real struggle.

Figure 4. Cornelis Hazart, Kerckelycke historie (1667), vol. 1, p.134: courtesy of the Laures Kirishitan database, Sophia University, Tokyo

[31] Arguably the most self-assured Japanese child martyr was the little ‘Jacques’ already mentioned, splendidly portrayed in another finely executed engraving (Figure 4; Hazart 1667: 134). The scene is copied from Trigault, but the dramatic action is enormously enlivened and the supportive Christians have disappeared. Instead, Jacques’ kinetic movement dominates the picture. The caption describes ‘eight worldly Japanese Christians burnt alive on 8 October 1613’ including ‘a small child running by his own will into the flames to his mother’. In a dramatic staging, the fiery flames encircle the legs of the child as well as the mother. A Japanese man wearing a tress fans the flames with a bellows. The engraving faithfully follows the details of the accompanying text. The public burning took place in a temporary house, built for the occasion in a valley outside the city of Arima, on wooden pillars and with a roof of straw and reed, and surrounded by a palisade of wooden stakes. Thus the victims were only half burnt before the roof and the entire building began to burn. When the cords detaining her were consumed by the fire, Magdalena, one of the victims, took a pile of glowing coals with both hands and put these on her head as a crown. And when the cords tying him had been burnt, the child, Jacobus, ran through the flames to his mother (Hazart 1667: 136). Filial love, love of God, and the desired stoic peace of mind to die a martyr were all visually assured and exemplified by a particularly strong-willed young child. For the educated Antwerp audience for whom Cornelius Hazart wrote this history, the pedagogic message was that Japanese Christian parents taught their children how to die as good Christians without fear (Hazart 1667: 158-9). This connected an imagined dramatic performance directly to the family values that Catholics supposedly upheld and for which Japan was a shining example.

[32] Throughout his history book, Hazart accumulated examples of Christian Japanese children committed to their Christian religion, suffering graphically and bodily for it. A child of five bared his neck, fell on his knees and told the executioner to kill him, but not to take away his rosary (106). Children were beheaded and their dead bodies cut to pieces (131-34), they had their throats slit in bed (134), they were cut into small pieces while carrying their dolls (158), had their heads split together with their parents (159-60), and were put into pits dark as graves together with their mothers as torture (163-64). On 9 December 1603, Joanna, Agnes, Magdalena and her son, seven-year-old Ludovicus, died nailed to crosses and were pierced with a lance; ‘first Ludovicus was pierced and while the lance was still warm and wet with his blood his mother was pierced with the same lance’ (129). On 3 March 1614, in Meaco, an under-commissioner took seventeen women and children and put each in a sack, with only their heads outside the sacks. The sacks were closed tightly so that they could not move. He put the sacks on top of one another so that those at the bottom suffocated. The sacks stayed out all night under the sky in the biting cold among the roaring winds and under the snow that fell in large flakes. Another night the men experienced the same fate and this continued five days, but all to no avail; nobody gave up their Christianity (113). Voluntary child suffering was thus a prominent rhetorical tool for Hazart and one that distinguished the Japan mission from many others.


Conclusion: a connected history of persecuted Japanese children

[33] The phenomenon of children voluntarily enduring torture and death, such as documented in Hazart, has been interpreted as exotic violence perpetrated by Japanese tormentors (Schmidt 2015: 211). I would rather suggest that the representations of child martyrs hint at a transcultural sensitivity for the pedagogic virtues of children as effective guardians of Christian constancy. We lack precise information about contemporary Japanese opinion on Christian children dying under persecution. However, the persistence of underground Christian communities, in which apostasy was taboo because it generated further investigations by the authorities, suggests that Japanese children were forced to remain silent about their Christian convictions (Harrington 1993). Nonetheless, they followed their parents to their death, as many testimonies confirmed. Moreover, in early modern Japan families increasingly structured society (Berry & Yonemoto 2019). So there are some reasons to assume that when Hazart compared the constancy of Japanese Christian children to the unreliability of seventeenth-century European children, Japan was not chosen accidentally.

[34] Subrahmanyam’s concept of connected history enables us to identify analytic resemblances between cultures. The specific case of a Catholic child and its education in an uncertain context preventing it from openly practising the faith allowed the Jesuit Cornelius Hazart to present his readers with three transcultural forms of exemplary behaviour on behalf of children. First, the pathopoeia of an ictus because of threat and torture followed by a reworking in the mind to undergo suffering created successful stoic martyrs. Although ‘previously barbaric’, Christian Japan was for Hazart the proof that this emotional dynamic was universal. Moreover, as many Christian Japanese children suffered heroically, Japanese Christianity was exemplary to the rest of the world.  Japanese children showed affection for their parents by voluntarily finding their death in a burning fire (Ruiz de Medina 1993).

[35] Second, in comparing Japan to Antwerp as two regions in which Calvinists stirred public opinion against Catholic religion, Hazart explicitly connected children’s pedagogy to societal change. He did so because his history book on the global Christian church was also a plea for the immediate future. The 1660s were a time of heightened power shifts in the Far East. Until the 1670s, Portuguese was still the working language for external contacts in Japan (Cullen 2003: 61). Dutch supremacy in the Deshima factory was established, yet Castile and Portugal had not given up hope entirely of restoring their former influence, or establishing new ones (Valladares 2001: 82-91). Moreover, Japan feared Chinese intrusion (Cullen 2003: 40). At the time, the Jesuit Chinese mission at the emperor’s court was becoming highly successful (Golvers 2017), stimulating hope that Japan might also be reentered by Catholic missionaries. This volatile political context prompted Hazart to end his first volume with a sarcastic note of encouragement to the Dutch traders ‘to fill their ships to the board with profit, on the interest of the many souls that Catholic teachers had won, while you will not utter one word on Christian religion’ (Hazart 1667: 482; compare 92). This was, in a nutshell, his main argument about the threat of violence in the Far East that might prevent new conversions in Japan.

[36] Third and not least, the unusual and spectacular iconography of several martyr engravings prominently featuring children turned Hazart into a protagonist in a culture of spectacle and representation promoting Catholicism. The performative acts of child martyrs kept Japan in the news as a territory where new struggles were fought for dominance within Christianity. For Hazart Dutch Calvinists only added fuel to the fire by remaining active in Japan, where persecution of Christians by the authorities persisted. Child victims like little ‘Jacques’ were in Japan presumably cherished in the silence of the family household, whereas in Europe their spiritual stoicism was the subject of stunning visual and oral propaganda. This difference shows that there are indeed clear limits to the connected history of geographically divergent audiences dealing with child killings.

KU Leuven



[1] I consulted an exceptional copy of Hazart’s Kerckelycke historie (vol. 1), with coloured engravings: a digital facsimile can be found in the digital archive of Sophia University, Tokyo, at https://digital-archives.sophia.ac.jp/laures-kirishitan-bunko/view/kirishitan_bunko/JL-1667-KB3-492 (last consulted 27 November 2020). I thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of this issue for constructive comments that helped shape the final version, and all members of my early modern history research group at KU Leuven for critical comments on an earlier version. [back to text]

[2] ‘Short Title Catalogus Vlaanderen’ (STCV), 3112644. The STCV is a bibliographic resource of the Flemish Heritage Libraries that lists books printed in Flanders before 1801, with an emphasis on the seventeenth century: see ‘STCV. De bibliografie van het handgedrukte boek’ (Bibliography of the Hand Press Book), <stcv.be>. [back to text]



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Editorial ~ Recovering the Communities and Margins of Early Modern Scotland

Editorial: Recovering the Communities and Margins of Early Modern Scotland

Laura I. Doak and Rebecca Mason

​[1]​ This special issue of the Journal of Northern Renaissance examines the history and cultural production of early modern Scotland through consideration of its ‘communities’ and ‘margins’. These are notions that permeate the literature but have not yet been explored either individually, as analytical categories, or, until now, together as a defined theme. For this period, historians have frequently conceived of unique, Scottish communities, yet marginality is also ever-present. Work on pre-modern Scotland must negotiate unique tensions between communal Lowland identities and a Gaelic-speaking Highland ‘fringe’. Equally, it must also address a longstanding awareness that Scottish events, ideas, and experiences during this period have often been marginalized within ‘British’ and European narratives. The application of a theme specifically addressing community and marginality, therefore, holds obvious significance for early modern Scotland.

​[2]​ Moving past debates on the manifold meanings and theoretical conceptualizations of ‘community’ and ‘marginality’, recent scholarship on early modern Europe has demonstrated the benefits of using these seemingly disparate, but more often interconnected, concepts to examine pre-modern society.​[1]​ The following essays all benefit from these insights and adopt differing approaches to the overall theme. Before moving on to individual contributions, however, it is necessary to establish their historiographic context by synthesizing the most recent literature touching the communities and margins of early modern Scotland.

* * *

​[3]​ The history of early modern Scotland has often been told via the study of its regional, geographic communities. Often, this approach has been employed to frame socio-economic investigations of a particular burgh or region, such as Allan Kennedy’s recent study of the urban community in late seventeenth-century Inverness (2014).​[2]​ But local communities have also been used to examine broader concerns. Kirsteen MacKenzie, for example, has used a study of one particular burgh, Glasgow, to reflect upon ‘the politics of transnational authority’ (2016: quotation taken from title). J.R.D. Falconer has also examined the role that misbehavior played in defining social space in late sixteenth-century Aberdeen by focusing on the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the burgh’s community (2013: 3). Increasingly attention is turning to analysis of multiple localities to better understand the history of Scotland as a whole. Chris Langley has used what he termed to be the ‘different rhythms and necessities of Scottish communities’ as a lens to study the interaction of conflict and nation-wide religious practice between 1638 and 1660 (2016: 1). Most recently, Alasdair Raffe has made extensive use of regional archival material to place local communities at the heart of a bigger, political narrative of Scotland’s experience during the 1688 – 1690 revolution (2018: especially 106-130). Research on the Scottish diaspora and the creation of communities of Scots abroad has also highlighted Scotland’s bleak involvement in the transatlantic slave trade (Devine 2015; McCarthy and Mackenzie 2016). The importance of Scotland’s communities to an understanding of its pre-modern history is thus a well-established concept.

​[4]​ The Scottish Highlands is a region that has been conventionally considered as both geographically distant and culturally distinct. As Alison Cathcart has noted, Gaelic-speaking areas, the Gàidhealtachd, in particular are discussed as ‘a realm apart’ (2006: 1). Such conceptualizations imagine the Highlands to be both internally cohesive and universally marginalized within a bigger Scottish polity, perfectly illustrating Scotland’s contradictory relationships with the notions of community and communal boundaries.​[3]​ Yet closer scrutiny also re-asserts the ambiguity of these concepts. No rigid boundaries existed between Gaelic and Scots or English-speaking regions (Withers 1984: 32, 37). No clear-cut lines can be drawn between the Highland’s political, religious, or cultural identities (Macinnes 1996: 56-87, 123-125). Cathcart’s own work, focusing largely on the sixteenth century, has helped to establish that ‘local, regional, and national politics in Scotland were inextricably intertwined’ across any Highland line, and anything north of such a perceived or imagined margin was wrought with ‘sub-divisions’(2006: 28-29, 209).​[4]​ Among work responding to this, Allan Kennedy has continued the re-integration of ‘the periphery’ into the political center through a study of Highland parliamentary commissioners (2016; 2017). Importantly, Martin MacGregor has also established how the advancement of the Campbells of Argyll, during the late medieval and early modern periods, relied upon their successful negotiation of cultural, as much as, political frontiers, once again illustrating the diverse permeability of what has often been assumed as an immovable boundary (2012: 121, 152-153).

​[5]​ The influence of the so-called cultural turn on the historiography of pre-modern Scotland​[5]​ has led to an exploration of social groups and divisions defined by cultural, rather than geographic delineations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the benefits of this approach are clearly visible in work examining cultural production. For example, Jamie Reid-Baxter has discussed the literary creation and poetic expression of a communal spiritual identity in eastern Fife (2017a; 2017b); an exploration that he has further developed in this present volume.​[6]​ Other analysts have even used literary works to explore the boundaries and tensions between different groups.​[7]​ Research on Scottish music and composition during the early modern period has revealed how Scottish songs and ballads were written and performed outside Scotland by musicians of other countries who had ‘Scotland in mind’, further pushing the boundaries of who can be considered a part of a Scottish community, or who, in fact, existed on the margins.​[8]​ A similar approach has also been taken to discuss discernible intellectual communities in early modern Scotland.​[9]​

​[6]​ Yet the extent to which pre-modern Scotland as a whole can be considered as a ‘national community’ must also be contemplated. Interpretations differ over which communal idea or ideal could prove capable of unifying the kingdom, largely dictated by individual scholars’ chronological and topical concerns. Jenny Wormald, in her seminal Court, Kirk, and Community, deployed the term thematically to imagine an emerging sense of Scottishness alongside a transforming monarchy and reforming church (2001). For Margot Todd, a Scottish community was both a more definable and notably less political entity; constructed through the cultural and religious transformation of the Protestant Reformation (2000; 2002).​[10]​ Laura Stewart, meanwhile, working on the mid-seventeenth century, has written of a new and revolutionary national community created almost self-consciously through the countrywide swearing of both religious and political allegiance to the reforms envisaged by the 1638 National Covenant (2018: 8-9, 221-222, 304).

​[7]​ However, work by those researching Scots and Scottish interests lying outside the dominant representation of Scotland at that time – be that courtly or covenanted – illustrates the opacity of any national ideal. Where one scholar constructs the idea of a community, another explores its consequential but often permeable boundaries. Jane Dawson’s examination of John Knox and other Protestant Scots in sixteenth-century Geneva forms a clear example. Geographically exiled but spiritually and culturally unified, these men and women perfectly illustrate the duality of both community and marginality to many early modern Scots (2010). Equally, however, they also prove the changeability of these labels, with Knox returning from exile to help fashion the Reformed Scottish community written of by Margo Todd and others, noted above. Parallels are also visible in the clusters of trading and dissenting Scottish émigrés based within Atlantic colonies, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe, during the seventeenth century.​[11]​ Depictions of any national, Scottish community, or social marginality, are arguably thus best considered as momentary representations. But this is not to leave either without analytical value. Indeed, it is arguably the moments of change and permeability within the inextricable co-existence of community and marginality that render the theme addressed by this edition as most rewarding. These are the moments that illustrate the realities and intricacies of pre-modern life in a way that is often otherwise unreachable.

​[8]​ The value of this collection’s multi-faceted theme is also illustrated by recent work on Scots who were marginalized from wider from society but still resident within national bounds. Criminality, for example, could incur marginalizing punishments like ‘horning’ or transportation, but Elizabeth Ewan’s recent work on the use of banishment in fifteenth-century burghs has emphasized the permeability of such social boundaries (2018: 238).​[12]​ This point is further supported by recent work on Scotland’s poor who, although quite obviously constituting a significant proportion of the overall population, are frequently conceptualized as marginalized from broader society; conventionally discussed as religiously disciplined or politically disenfranchised subordinates. John McCallum, for instance, understands the poor as socially connected to the wider community through charity, both within and without parish church structures (2012: 110; 2014; 2018). This is a claim also echoed by Chris Langley, albeit the community enthusiasm for poor relief was often strained by ongoing warfare in the cases he examined (2016; 2017).

​[9]​ The contribution that women made to many different aspects of Scottish society have been rediscovered and recognized. Narratives of women transgressing societal norms have permeated historical discourse, with much focus on how marginalized women attempted to navigate their subjugated status within the community. Julian Goodare’s work on Scottish witch-hunting has shown how those women who were suspected of witchcraft were compelled to defend their behaviour before their local communities and courts (2013).​[13]​ Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman have also revealed how women who failed to adhere to social and moral norms faced imprisonment, or even banishment (1989; 1998a; 1998b). John Harrison has shown how the scold’s bridle, a Scottish implement attached to the town’s courthouse and jail (Tolbooth), was used to forcibly silence transgressive women, while serving as a constant reminder to those passing of the dangers of operating on the margins of the community (1998).

​[10]​ Yet whilst often collectively marginalized within a patriarchal society, Scotswomen willing and able to negotiate their gender and status within their own communities appear ubiquitously in contemporary sources. Research undertaken by Michael Graham and Alice Glaze has uncovered evidence of women giving and receiving charity within the kirk-sanctioned poor relief system, as well as policing their neighbours’ behaviour and defending their own (Graham 1999; Glaze 2016). Mairianna Birkeland has shown how women protected their church and religion during times of violence and dissent, with this active participation considered as community-sanctioned during times of social upheaval (1999: 45-48). Additionally, Cathryn Spence has uncovered how women in early modern Edinburgh were closely involved in cultivating credit and debt networks with their neighbours, and established themselves as formidable, respected members of their local communities (2016). The ambiguous position of women thus symbolizes the interconnected shades of marginality and community in early modern Scottish society.

​[11]​ Whether implicitly or explicitly, however, the wider field of Scottish history has continued to relegate women to the margins of historiography. Despite the expanding volume of new research, some corners of Scottish history still consider women’s history to be a distinct area of study that has limited relevance for mainstream history. Moreover, women’s history is repeatedly linked to ‘women’s issues’, such as sex or the family, whereas men’s history continues to be associated with political, intellectual, and theological issues. As well as dominating the field of women’s history, gender historians have also undertaken the laborious task of uncovering men’s history through a gendered lens. Lynn Abram’s and Elizabeth Ewan’s 2017 book Nine Centuries of Man – which traced the stereotypes of the medieval kilted warrior to the modern-day ‘hard man’ – provided a much-needed exploration on the diverse range of the multiple and changing forms of masculinities in Scotland from the medieval to modern period. Much work still remains to be done, however, to synthesize women’s history and gender history within the wider field.

 * * *

​[12]​ Our contributors seek to challenge some fundamental assumptions about the communities and margins of early modern Scotland by providing new perspectives and uncovering some neglected voices. The over-arching goal of this collection is to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which the communities and margins of pre-modern Scotland intersected within wider discourses concerning the formation and reformation of national identities during a period of pronounced social, political, and religious upheaval.

​[13]​ The first two articles within this collection, by Julian Goodare and Jamie Reid-Baxter, use literary sources as starting points for their exploration of early modern Scotland’s communities and margins. Goodare investigates narratives of witches’ prophecies, drawing distinctions between these paranormal prophets and the prophecies they made, which themselves reflect the cultural range within which Scottish witchcraft can be understood. Goodare shows how prophetic witches can be perceived as brokers between elite and popular culture; the surviving written narratives are predominantly elite in origin, but ordinary Scots also told stories of the downfall of prominent men through popular ballads and oral culture. Additionally, Goodare also notes that the charge of ‘witch’ was a label applied by those within the community, such as an aggrieved neighbour, to those operating on its fringes. Meanwhile, Jamie Reid-Baxter’s article grows from the study of two Scottish ministers’ tracts on dying a Christian death, written in 1596 and 1631, and considers how their authors’ relationships with their congregational community, or experience of its peripheries, impacted upon comprehension of mortality as the most physically marginalizing facet of early modern life. Both Goodare and Reid-Baxter use prose and poetry to explore the construction of communal identities and societal margins.

​[14]​ Contributions from Andrew Lind and Laura Doak both address the societal fissures caused by the mid-seventeenth-century covenanting revolution, archipelagic civil war, and overthrow of the Stuart monarchy. Exploring the ideological contours of community divisions in civil war Glasgow, Lind challenges the idea that the Scottish burghs were bastions of support for the Covenanting movement during the 1640s and 1650s, and contends that Glasgow was, in fact, ‘deeply divided’ and home to a strong Royalist faction. Lind’s study of Glasgow’s diverse political and religious factions highlights the dangers of interpreting allegiance solely through official records and offers a new perspective on Glasgow in the civil war period. Meanwhile, Doak’s analysis centres upon the construction of a communal, covenanting identity after the 1660 Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Using a micro-historical analysis of two prominent and extremist female covenanters of the early 1680s, Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie, Doak demonstrates how these transgressive women played an active role in constructing and disseminating a collective, militant identity on the margins of Scottish society, which was itself united by a communal sense of purpose and radical belief.

​[15]​ Jamie Kelly examines the early modern Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), an organization whose mission was to establish a network of charity schools in the Highland region to provide basic religious instruction and literary education to remote communities. While the established historiography tends to present the run-up to the Society’s foundation as a something of a crucible for Gaelic, following which SSPCK members conspired to exclude Gaelic from formal education, Kelly demonstrates that the picture is far more complex than previously realized. Although the organization depicted the Highlands as spiritually and educationally desolate, Kelly reveals that many – if not most – Highland districts had already contained a school for decades before the Society’s establishment. Furthermore, these schools prioritized instruction in English and Latin, with very little evidence suggesting that Gaelic was part of the curriculum; this suggests that while English functioned as a literary medium for Scottish Gaels, they continued to speak Gaelic as their mother-tongue. Overall, Kelly’s article demonstrates that the society’s initial hesitance to enforce a language policy on the ground reflects how the treatment of the Gaelic language continued to be dictated by local conditions and the attitudes of individual schoolmasters.

​[16]​ Finally, Andrew Bull investigates the Scottish musical community in London after the parliamentary union of Scotland and England in 1707. Focusing on James Oswald, a dancing tutor from Dunfermline who later became court composer to George III, Bull contends that networks of Scots resident in London aided one another in navigating their marginalized status and forged a distinctive community. Bull also analyses the marginalization of Scottish national music within a wider ‘British’ musical landscape. Linking the othering of Scottish national music as belonging to an ‘ancient’ past, Bull convincingly argues that the genre was seen as ‘Highland’ in origin and thus by the London elite as ‘uncivilized, barbaric, and reliant upon a natural state of being instead of achieving civility.’ In joining with Kelly’s exploration of Scotland’s post-1707 position on the discursive periphery of a newly minted ‘British’ polity, Bull thus completes this edition’s exploration of community and margins as entwined themes in the history and cultural production of early modern Scotland.

​Dr Laura Doak is the current Charlotte Nicholson Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on popular engagement and political communication in seventeenth-century Scotland. She is also ECR Editorial Fellow for History: the journal of the Historical Association.

Dr Rebecca Mason is the recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Glasgow. She is a historian of women, property and law in early modern Scotland.


​[1] For a discussion of the theoretical concepts and debates surrounding the idea of community, and its margins, see: Alexandra Shepard and Phil Withrington and, ‘Introduction: communities in early modern England’ in A. Shepard and P. Withrington, eds., Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) 1-15. See also: Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 5-7; J. L. Stevens Cranshaw, ‘Introduction’ in A. Spicer and J. L. Stevens Cranshaw, eds., The Place of the Social Margins, 1350 – 1750 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017) 1-18.​[back to text]​

​[2] See also Claire Hawes, ‘The urban community in fifteenth-century Scotland: language, law and political practice’, Urban History, 44, 3 (2017) 365-380. For an older but still relevant example, see also: T. C. Smout, ‘The Glasgow merchant community in the seventeenth century’, Scottish Historical Review, 47 (1968) 53-71.​[back to text]​

​[3] See Caroline Bingham, Beyond the Highland Line: Highland History and Culture (London: Constable and Company, 1991), 13-16; I. D. Whyte, Scotland’s Society and Economy in Transition, c.1500-c.1760 (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1997), 94-114; R. A. Dodgshon, From Chief to Landlords: Social and Economic Change in the Western Highlands and Islands, c.1493-1820 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 7-15.​[back to text]​

​[4] For similar arguments addressing Highland diversity see: J. E. A. Dawson, ‘The Origins of the ‘Road to the Isles’: Trade, Communications and Campbell Power in Early Modern Scotland, in R. Mason and N. Macdougall, eds., People and Power in Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992) 96; Aonghas MacCoinnich, Plantation and Civility in the North Atlantic World: The Case of the Northern Hebrides, 1570-1639 (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015), esp. 3-11.​[back to text]​

​[5] For a discussion of the cultural turn’s impact upon Scottish historiography more generally see: Karin Bowie, ‘Cultural, British and Global Turns in the History of Early Modern Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013) esp. 39-44.​[back to text]​

​[6]See also, J. Reid Baxter, ‘Rethinking the Melvillians: the Poetic Spirituality of the East Neuk of Fife, 1580 – 1620’, paper at The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies Conference 13 January 2017 (University of St Andrews) [available online at: https://scottishhistoryconference2017.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/beyond-the-conference/media-and-resources/].​[back to text]​

​[7]See W. Michalski, ‘Creating Knightly Identities? Scottish Lords and Their Leaders in the Narratives about Great Moments in Community History’, in A. Pleszczynski, J. A. Sobiesiak, M. Tomaszek, and P. Tyszka, eds., Imagined Communities: Constructing Collective Identities in Medieval Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2018) 154 – 178; A. Steenson, ‘Writing Sonnets as a Scoto-Britane: Scottish Sonnets, the Union of the Crowns, and Negotiations of Identity’, Medievalia et Humanistica 41 (2016) 195-210.​[back to text]​

​[8] R. Fiske, Scotland in Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), quotation at ix. See also D. Johnson, Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1972, 2003), esp. 3-19; J. Purser, Scotland’s Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing, 2007); J. Reid Baxter, ‘James IV and Robert Carver: Music for the Armed Man’, in Medieval and Early Modern Representations of Authority in Scotland and the British Isles, eds. K. Buchanan and L. Dean with M. Penman (London: Routledge, 2016), 235-252.​[back to text]​

​[9] D. Allan, Virtue, Learning and the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), 29-78; A. MacDonald and K. Dekker, eds, Rhetoric, Royalty, and Reality: Essays on the Literary Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, (Leuven, Paris and Dudley MA: Peeters, 2005); R. Carr, Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 73-101; D. McOmish, ‘A Community of Scholarship: Latin Literature and Scientific Discourse in Early-Modern Scotland’, in S. J. Reid and D. McOmish, eds., Neo-Latin Literature and Literary Culture in Early Modern Scotland (Leiden: Brill, 2016) 40 – 73.​[back to text]​

​[10] For a similar discussion see: K. P. Walton, ‘Scotland’s “City on a Hill”: The Godly and the Political Community in Early Reformation Scotland’, in M. J. Halvorsen and K. E. Spierling, eds., Defining Community in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 247-265.​[back to text]​

​[11] Ginny Gardner, The Scottish Exile Community in the Netherlands, 1660 – 1690: ‘shaken together in the bag of affliction’ (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2004); A. Grosjean and S. Murdoch, eds., Scottish Communities Abroad in the Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2005); S. Murdoch, Network North: Scottish Kin, Commercial and Covert Associations in Northern Europe, 1603 – 1746 (London: Brill, 2006); D. Worthington, ed., British and Irish Emigrants and Exiles in Europe, 1603-1688 (Leiden: Brill, 2010); E. Mijers, ‘Between empires and cultures: Scots in New Netherlands and New York’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 33:2 (2013) 165-195.​[back to text]​

​[12] Scotland’s royal burghs can be considered as largely self-determined communities, see: E. Patricia Dennison, ‘Urban Society and Economy’ in B. Harris and A. R. MacDonald, eds., Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation, c.1100-1707, ii (Dundee: Dundee University Press in association with the Open University in Scotland: 2007) 146.​[back to text]​

​[13] See also J. Goodare, L. Martin, J. Miller, eds., Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland, (New York, 2008).​[back to text]​


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Witchcraft and Prophecy in Scotland

Witchcraft and Prophecy in Scotland

Julian Goodare

Introduction: Prophecies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

​[1]​ In Scotland between about 1370 and 1690, numerous narratives told of prophecies made by ‘witches’ or witch-like prophetic women. This article examines both the prophetic witches themselves and the prophecies they made. The main protagonist of most stories was a male political figure who sought a ‘response’ from a witch or witches; the prophecy was embedded in a narrative of his downfall.

​[2]​ Let me begin with the most famous prophecies said to have been made by Scottish witches: those in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Although Macbeth is known today as ‘the Scottish play’, it is of course an English play, and is also fiction. My concern in this article is with Scotland and with non-fiction. However, Shakespeare provides a useful point of entry to the subject.

​[3]​ Macbeth narrates two relevant sets of witches’ prophecies. Early on, the witches tell Macbeth that he has become Thane of Cawdor, and that he will be ‘king hereafter’ (Shakespeare 2015: 141 (I.3, line 50)). Macbeth initially disbelieves, but, when he finds that the prophecy about Cawdor has come true, he realises that the ‘king hereafter’ prophecy will come true also – and hastens to bring it to pass.

​[4]​ Later, the witches give Macbeth a second set of prophecies, about his defeat and death. They conjure up apparitions that tell him that ‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’, and that

Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him (Shakespeare 2015: 241-242 (IV.1, lines 79-80, 91-93)).

Macbeth believes the prophecies, later saying:

I will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,


But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,
Brandish’d by man that’s of a woman born (Shakespeare 2015: 283, 292 (V.3, line 60; V.7, lines 13-14)).

​[5]​ Shakespeare got this material (indirectly) from Scottish chroniclers giving non-fiction accounts of Scottish history, and his prophecies illustrate the structures that I shall be analysing. Shakespeare streamlined the story’s prophetic characters, even though he made the story much longer than his sources. In the Scottish accounts, and in Holinshed who used these accounts and from whom Shakespeare derived the bulk of his material, the first set of prophecies (about becoming king) was made by three weird sisters – fate women – who were not stated to be witches and who were probably not human, while the second set (about his defeat) was made by a separate witch or witches.

​[6]​ This article focuses on prophecies that were ascribed to witches or witch-like prophetic women. It will already be apparent that this will raise questions about the nature of a witch, about the status of witch-like figures for whom the sources do not use the word ‘witch’, and about whether these figures are human or not. It will also raise questions about the nature of prophecy, since the sources do not always use the word ‘prophecy’ for the predictions that they narrate. I shall come back to the Scottish Macbeth story, but Shakespeare brings out the main types of prophecy that I want to discuss.

Two Types of Narrative Prophecy

​[7]​ Narrative prophecies are embedded in narratives told in the past tense. They should be distinguished from ordinary written prophecies, which are not part of a narrative; they just sit, waiting for someone to solve the puzzle or identify the event to which they refer. The fulfilment of one of Nostradamus’s prophecies, though it may confirm his reputation as a sage, does not constitute a single narrative leading from him to the fulfilment. Numerous prophecies of the Nostradamus type circulated in Scotland, some distinctively Scottish like those of Thomas the Rhymer, others international like those of Merlin (Riordan 2020; MacDonald 2013; Moranski 2004; Lyle 2007: 18-26). There were also orthodox religious prophecies, mostly made by prophetic ministers (Todd 2002: 391-399). Related to these were scholarly studies of Biblical prophecies, particularly the vision of the future in the Book of Revelation (McGinnis & Williamson 2010; Thornton 2006). Such prophecies are only indirectly relevant to narrative prophecies.

​[8]​ The two principal characters in narrative prophecies are the prophet and the recipient of the prophecy. This article is concerned with the witch as prophet. But, for most of the stories themselves, the interest falls mainly on the recipient. The prophet is not always identified explicitly, but the recipient always is. The prophecies in these narratives are not like weather forecasts, usable by anyone; they affect, and are addressed to, a specific person or persons.

​[9]​ There are two types of narrative prophecy, with two distinct routes to the prophecy’s fulfilment. Fulfilment of the prophecy is an essential ingredient of the story of a narrative prophecy; as Richard Stoneman puts it, ‘Oracles in stories always come true’ (2011: 11). But they come true in different ways. The two types may be called inexorable and enigmatical. The Macbeth prophecies form good examples of these; the first set is inexorable, the second is enigmatical.

​[10]​ With an inexorable prophecy, the recipient is told clearly, but they either don’t believe it at all, or they think that they can get round it. The princess will prick her finger on a spindle, though her parents think they can get round this by destroying all the spindles in the kingdom. The wooden horse will be the ruin of Troy, though the Trojans think it’s a gift. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and then king. The inexorable prophecy makes its dramatic impact through the hearer’s disbelief in it. Shakespeare’s Macbeth initially says:

to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor (Shakespeare 2015: 143 (I.3, lines 73-75)).

Only once Macbeth discovers that he has been made Thane of Cawdor does he conclude that he will also become king – ‘the greatest is behind’ (Shakespeare 2015: 146 (I.3, line 118)). In some ways, this prophecy is a variant, because it is a favourable prophecy for the recipient; inexorable prophecies are usually unfavourable. Inexorable prophecies add dramatic interest to a narrative for the readers or hearers.

​[11]​ So the trajectory of the inexorable prophecy can be summarised as follows:

1. The prophet makes an inexorable prophecy to the recipient.
2. The recipient reacts with disbelief, or with insufficient belief, to the prophecy. They either dismiss the prophecy entirely, or they try to get round it. Meanwhile they prosper in the short term.
3. The prophecy is fulfilled.

​[12]​ An enigmatical prophecy, by contrast, operates not through the hearer’s disbelief, but through dual meanings embedded in the prophecy itself (for the term see Thompson 1955-58: no. M305). There is a false meaning on the surface, which the recipient believes, and a true but hidden meaning, which the recipient discovers when it is too late. Macbeth believes that the prophecies about his downfall make him invincible. Disbelief forms no part of the narrative structure.

So the trajectory of the enigmatical prophecy is:

1. The prophet makes an enigmatical prophecy to the recipient.
2. The recipient believes in, and reacts to, the surface meaning of the prophecy. Meanwhile they prosper in the short term.
3. The hidden meaning of the prophecy is fulfilled.

Both inexorable and enigmatical prophecies function, dramatically speaking, as tales told after the event. The inexorable prophecy has to be fulfilled. The enigmatical prophecy impresses us when the surface and hidden meanings have been revealed. Neither kind of prophecy can be left hanging, waiting to be fulfilled. Indeed, it may be only after its fulfilment that we can be sure which kind of prophecy it was – though alertness to the narrative structure may enable us to see what’s coming next through the way in which the recipient reacts to the prophecy.

​[13] ​In both types, there may be an additional episode at the beginning of the story. Before the prophet makes the prophecy, the recipient may ask her or him a question. Narrative prophecies are rarely ancient; they are usually made in the recipient’s lifetime, or even just a day or two before their fulfilment. The recipient who seeks to know his or her fate is a common character in these narratives. Alternatively, the prophet may confront the recipient with an unsolicited warning. Either way, the prophet’s qualifications for their task are likely to be relevant. As we shall see, many of these prophets were witches or witch-like figures.

Sources and Methods

​[14]​ The principal sources for the main part of this article are Scottish narrative accounts of the past. Chronicles in narrative form are first found in Scotland in the late medieval period, and shade gradually into ‘histories’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Mason 2006). Most take an interest in prophecy until the later seventeenth century. The following survey covers most instances of narrative prophecies involving witches.

​[15]​ The survey takes in, not only prophecies and other such predictions attributed explicitly to witches, but also those attributed to witch-like figures. Similarities and differences between witches, weird sisters and other such figures are important. There was a fluid vocabulary available to designate such figures, so the actual word ‘witch’ is not necessarily crucial to the analysis. A distinction can be drawn between words designating people who were always bad, such as ‘witch’, and words designating people who might be bad or good, such as ‘divineress’ (Goodare 2016: 17-19). There was a similarly fluid vocabulary available to describe prophecies. As we shall see, some writers wrote explicitly of ‘prophecy’, but others wrote of ‘divination’, or described a prediction as a ‘response’. This fluidity of vocabulary will be discussed further below, but it should be considered as subsidiary to the structural patterns revealed by a survey of these various narratives.

​[16]​ The survey includes narratives presented as true. In principle, explicitly fictionalised narratives (as with Shakespeare) are excluded. In practice, though, the boundaries are blurred (cf. Roberts 1996). Many narratives believed to be true were shaped like narratives known to be fiction. Conversely, fictional narratives were also shaped like true ones, though that is less directly relevant here. The narrative itself possessed the power to compel belief and to shape action.

​[17]​ Witches, by and large, were assumed to be human. However, some beings described as ‘witches’ may in fact have been non-human folkloric figures (Goodare 2016: 133-135). Some of the prophets fall into this non-human category – notably the ‘weird sisters’ (‘weird’ meaning ‘fate’), who were not described as witches before Shakespeare. Some of the prophets had non-human aid; orthodox Christian prophets received foreknowledge from God, while, in demonology at least, human witches enlisted the aid of the Devil (though the Devil was usually held to lack genuine foreknowledge). Finally, the gender of the prophet could be significant. Most of those convicted of witchcraft were female, but there was a male minority – 15 per cent in Scotland (Goodare 1998). There was a similar preponderance of females among the prophets in the narratives that follow. Moreover, in the narratives, all the actual ‘witches’ who were given a gender were female. Comparing them with other female prophetic figures can be rewarding. To a survey of the narratives containing these figures we now turn.

Witches’ Prophecies in Chronicles and Histories

​[18] ​The earliest prophecies relevant to this study come from John Barbour (c.1330-95). In his epic poem celebrating King Robert Bruce written in the 1360s, Barbour related two enigmatical prophecies. The first concerned the Scottish king’s great enemy, Edward I, who had ‘a spyryt that him answer maid’ – a demon, rather than a witch-like figure (Barbour 1997: 161 (book 4, lines 201-20)). Barbour then added a long account of a similar prophecy given to Earl Ferrand of Flanders by his mother, who was a ‘Nygramansour’ and raised ‘Sathanas’ to foretell his fate (Barbour 1997: 165 (book 4, line 242)). The Devil was still involved, but so was a female necromancer. Both prophecies turned out badly for the recipients.

​[19]​ Andrew of Wyntoun (c.1350-c.1422), who completed his chronicle of Scotland in about 1420, gave the first recorded account of the Macbeth prophecies (Farrow 1994). Macbeth was a real Scottish king (r. 1040-57) who featured prominently in histories. In Wyntoun’s time, he was seen as a significant king from whom the current royal line did not descend; it was important to the pedigree of later monarchs that they descended from Malcolm III (r. 1058-93) and his queen, St Margaret. Macbeth was portrayed negatively, as a usurper.

​[20]​ According to Wyntoun, Macbeth saw ‘thre werd sisteris’ in a dream; they prophesied to him that he would become Thane of Cromarty, Thane of Moray and then king. The story implied that he initially disbelieved: it was only when he received these two thanages that ‘Than thocht he nixt for to be king’. Macbeth himself was apparently ‘gottin on selcouth wiss’ (in an extraordinary manner), for his father was ‘a deuill’, who told his mother that ‘na man suld be borne of wif / Off power to reif him his lif’. Wyntoun was not committed to this tale of Macbeth’s parentage, however; ‘I wait nocht’ (I know not), he said, whether that story was true (Andrew of Wyntoun 1903-14: IV:272-281). Finally, Wyntoun related the Birnam Wood prophecy, but without giving it a provenance – Macbeth’s enemies simply knew that he ‘trowit ay in sic fantasy’ (always believed in such fantasy) (Andrew of Wyntoun 1903-14: IV:298-299).

​[21]​ So far, then, the prophets shown to us by Barbour and Wyntoun are a female necromancer, the three ‘weird sisters’ – evidently not human – and the Devil. The first of these might be a witch, though the word is not used. However, the rise of the intellectual idea of the witch during the fifteenth century would lead to increasing attention being paid to witchcraft (Bailey 1996; Kieckhefer 2006). It is thus significant that narrative prophecies in Scotland begin to be attributed more clearly to witches during this period.

​[22]​ Our next prophecies come from a contemporary Latin account of the assassination of King James I, in 1437, which survives in a translation by the English scribe John Shirley (c.1366-1456). The assassination was foretold by two prophecies, one of which came from a possible witch. The king was about to cross the Firth of Forth, on his way to Perth, when he was warned by ‘a womman of Irland, whiche clepid herselfe a sothesaiere’ that ‘and [i.e. if] yee passe this watur ye schulle neuyr turne ageyne onlyve’. The king was astonished, especially since he had ‘redde it in a prophesie that in the selfe same yer the kinge of Scottes schuld be slayn’. He crossed the water nevertheless, encouraged by one of his knights who told him that the woman was a ‘drunken foole’. Reaching Perth, James encountered another of his knights who was nicknamed the ‘King of Love’, and told him that ‘It is not long agoone sithe I redde a prophessie in a olde booke, that I sawe howe that this yere schulde a kinge be slayne in this lande’; he warned the nicknamed knight to take care, since he himself would ‘ordeyne for my seure keping sufficeauntly’ (Connolly 1992: 54-55).

​[23]​ Shirley thus related both an oral prophecy and one written in a book. Both were inexorable, though the second had enigmatical elements. Here we need to focus on the first prophecy, given orally by the ‘womman of Irland’. She was probably a Gaelic-speaking Highlander rather than an Irishwoman. Was she a witch? Later in the narrative, she came to Perth to make a second attempt to warn the king; Shirley said then that she ‘clepid herselfe a devinresse’ (Connolly 1992: 57). The Latin terms lying behind Shirley’s translation are unknown, and further vernacular terms may lie behind the Latin, but these terms, like ‘soothsayer’ and ‘divineress’, were probably distinct from the term ‘witch’ (or Latin ‘malefica’) understood as a worker of evil. They seem more likely to have been terms that a woman might plausibly have applied to herself – Shirley was explicit that she did so – or have allowed others to apply to her.

​[24]​ The assassination gave rise to a second story of prophecy, concerning the Earl of Atholl, one of the conspirators, who was among those executed for the deed. Shirley said that Atholl at his execution was ‘corowned with a corowne of iren’ (Connolly 1992: 65). He did not mention a prophecy, but here his account needs to be read alongside that of another contemporary, Walter Bower (1385-1449). At the end of his chronicle written in the 1440s, Bower also told the story of James I’s assassination. He mentioned that Atholl hoped to be king, ‘because (as is commonly said) he believed for a long time previously on the strength of a statement by a certain woman fortune-teller [‘mulieris sortilege’] that he ought to be crowned with the splendid crown of the kingdom’. Bower did not explicitly mention Atholl’s mock coronation, but he compared Atholl’s fate with two other stories (one English, one German) of people being led astray by the Devil’s false promises, the second of which involved a mock coronation, and concluded that ‘this earl had a wholly similar experience’ (Bower 1987-98: VIII:330-331 (book 16, ch. 36)). This was thus an example of an enigmatical prophecy by a ‘woman fortune-teller’.

​[25]​ John Mair (1469-1550) gave another account of Atholl’s prophecy in his History of Greater Britain published in 1521. According to this, ‘a certain witch [‘magice mulieris’] is said once to have declared to him that before he died he should wear the crown; and to her prediction he trusted not a little’ (Major 1892: 365; Major 1521: fol. 136v). This, however, was Mair’s only such story; he related the story of Macbeth without mention of witches or prophecy.

​[26]​ Two connected writers in the early sixteenth century provided a group of narrative prophecies. Hector Boece (c.1465-1536) published a History of the Scots in Latin in 1527, which in 1531 was translated into Scots by his younger contemporary John Bellenden (c.1495-1545×8); the freedom which Bellenden exercised in his translation gives both versions independent interest here (Royan 1998). Boece’s work included detailed accounts, probably invented by him, of Scotland’s legendary early kings. One of these, Natholocus, was the victim of an unusual witch’s prophecy. The king ‘turnit him to wicchis, divinouris and spa men [‘divinantium, auruspicium, præstigiatorumque opera’]’ to learn his fate. He sent a courtier to Iona, ‘quhair ane crafty wiche [‘anum quandam necromantica arte insigne’] was duelland for the tyme’. The witch told the courtier that the king’s fate would be to be slain by one of his own followers, namely himself. This horrified the courtier, but he soon realised that the king might suspect him if he heard the story, and so felt compelled to kill the king out of self-protection (Boece 1938-41: I:222; Boece 1527: fols. 92r-93r).

​[27] ​Bellenden’s phrase ‘wicchis, divinouris and spa men’ may include an element of pleonasm, but the ‘wicchis’ were presumably female, like the one on Iona, while the ‘divinouris’ may have been male, like the ‘spa’ (spae, i.e. prophetic) men. Boece’s Latin original began slightly differently, with three largely interchangeable masculine terms, all meaning ‘diviners’, before introducing a female figure, for whom a more literal translation would be an ‘old woman noted for the art of necromancy’. Her residence on Iona made her a Highlander, like Shirley’s soothsayer – an exotic figure for most of Boece’s readers. Her prophecy was unusual in containing within itself so much of the dramatic energy needed to bring it to pass; it was both more than a prediction and, in some ways, less than a prediction.

​[28]​ Boece and Bellenden told a detailed version of the Macbeth story. In the opening prophecy, Macbeth and Banquo encountered ‘thre weird sisteris or witches, quhilk come to thame with elrege clothing [‘tres apparvere muliebri specie, insolita vestitus’]’, telling Macbeth that he would be king and Banquo that he would be a progenitor of kings. Neither believed at first. ‘Nochttheles, becaus all thingis come as thir wiches divinit, the pepill traistit thame to be werd sisteris [‘Verum ex eventu postea parcas aut nymphas aliquas fatidicas diabolico astu preditas suisse interpretatum est vulgo, quum vera ea que dixerant evenisse cernerent’]’ (Boece 1938-41: II:150; Boece 1527: fols. 255-258). In translating Boece’s ‘parcas aut nymphas aliquas fatidicas diabolico astu preditas’ (which might more literally be translated ‘Fates or nymphs with some diabolical prophetic gift’), Bellenden may well have taken the phrase ‘weird sisters’ from Wyntoun. Bellenden’s phrase ‘elrege clothing’ emphasised magic more than Boece did; the word ‘eldritch’ meant something like ‘otherworldly’ (Hall 2007). Bellenden’s word ‘witches’ was an even freer translation, since the adjective ‘diabolico’ was the closest that Boece approached to the concept of witchcraft, and he had made it fairly clear that the apparitions ‘in the shape of women’ (‘muliebri specie’) were not human. As for the later Macbeth prophecies, concerning the king’s fate, Boece and Bellenden respectively attributed them to ‘muliercula futurorum prescia’ (literally ‘a little woman with foreknowledge of futures’) and to ‘ane wyche’ (Boece 1938-41: II:157; Boece 1527: fol. ccxlxi [sic; follows fol. cclx]). Again Bellenden was more confident than Boece that he was dealing with human witchcraft.

​[29]​ Boece closed his chronicle with the execution in 1437 of the Earl of Atholl. Here, Boece and Bellenden were closer together in their terminology. As part of the Earl’s ritual humiliation, ‘thai crounitt him with ane croun of haitt irne, becaus ane wyche [‘Saga’] sayid to him, he suld be crounit afoir his detth, throw quhilk he levitt all his life in vane hoipe, traisting ay be vane illusionis to conques the croun’ (Boece 1938-41: II:401; Boece 1527: fol. 368). Thus Atholl’s prophecy had not only become clearer than before, it had also been attributed more clearly to a witch.

​[30]​ A second translator of Boece, William Stewart (fl. 1499-1541), completed a metrical version of his chronicle in the 1530s. Like Bellenden, he adopted the newer vocabulary of witchcraft, though less comprehensively. The witch in the story of Natholocus, though in league with the Devil, was still not a conventional lower-class woman:

Baith Erss and Latyne scho culd reid and wryte,  [Gaelic
And in that craft wes cunning and perfyte;
Thingis to cum perfitlie scho culd tell,
So hamelie wes with the angellis of the hell.         [intimate
(Stewart 1858: I:518-519)

Stewart did not call Macbeth’s initial apparitions witches; they were three women with clothes ‘of elritche hew, / And quhat tha war wes nane of thame that knew’. They vanished and went to heaven or hell, and were thus not human. The Birnam Wood prophecy, however, came from ‘witchis’. The Earl of Atholl’s prophecy came from ‘ane fals propheit’ whose identity was unspecified (Stewart 1858: II:636-637; II:656; III:561).

​[31]​ John Knox (c.1514-72) wrote his History of the Reformation in Scotland mainly in the 1560s. His most detailed account of witchcraft and prophecy arose from the rebellion against Queen Mary by the Catholic Earl of Huntly in 1562. The royal forces, based at Aberdeen, fought Huntly’s at Corrichie. Defeated and captured, Huntly fell from his horse and died in his captors’ presence, perhaps from heart failure or apoplexy. So much is part of the historical record. Knox’s account continued:

The Earl, immediately after his taking, departed this life without any wound, or yet appearance of any stroke whereof death might have ensued; and so, because it was late, he was casten over-thorte [i.e. across] a pair of creels, and so was carried to Aberdeen, and was laid in the Tolbooth thereof, that the response that his wife’s witches had given might be fulfilled, who all affirmed (as the most part say) that the same night should he be in the Tolbooth of Aberdeen without any wound upon his body. When his Lady got knowledge thereof, she blamed her principal witch, called Janet; but she stoutly defended herself (as the devil can ever do), and affirmed that she gave a true answer, albeit she spoke not all the truth; for she knew that he should be there dead: but that could not profit my Lady. She was angry and sorry for a season, but the Devil, the Mass, and witches have as great credit of her this day [in margin: ‘12 June 1566’] as they had seven years ago (Knox 1949: II:61).

This was a remarkably circumstantial narrative of enigmatical prophecy. Since Knox had expertise in theology, it is appropriate to glance at its theological implications. The ‘principal witch’, Janet, was explicitly in league with the Devil. However, she was clearly presented as having had correct foreknowledge. Her prophecy was not a curse: she had not caused Huntly’s defeat and death, only known of them in advance. It could be argued that Janet had caused Huntly’s fate indirectly, luring him on with maliciously deceitful words. But a more straightforward reading would be that she was courteously attempting to avoid bearing bad tidings. Lady Huntly seems to have forgiven her, accepting her good intentions. There was even a suggestion of inexorable fate in the statement that Huntly was placed in the tolbooth ‘that the response that his wife’s witches had given might be fulfilled’. But in other writings Knox explicitly denied the existence of ‘fortune’, ‘adventure’ or ‘destinie’, which he regarded as pagan concepts (Knox 1848-64: V:32, V:119; cf. Kyle 1986: 409). So where did Janet obtain her information? Evidently from the Devil.

​[32]​ Yet it was a theological commonplace to deny that the Devil could foretell the future – or, more precisely, to point out (as Calvin did) that any foreknowledge he had could come only from God (Calvin 1583: 533-534; cf. Clark 1997: 189). God, of course, also shared His foreknowledge with His prophets, who very much included Knox himself. Knox had in 1548 implied that his own foreknowledge was superior to the Devil’s: ‘The head of Sathan shall be troaden down, when he beleeveth surely to triumphe’ (Knox 1848-64: III:10). Knox’s keen sense of his own prophetic vocation should perhaps have sensitised him to the falsity of the Devil’s claims in this department (Dawson 2015: 34-35, 47, 52, 288-291; Goodare 2005). He condemned the ‘Mervaillis of Merlin’ and the ‘dark sentences of prophane prophesies’ (Knox 1848-64: III:168). However, he seems to have accepted this particular prophetic narrative without question.

​[33]​ Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie (c.1532-c.1586), in the 1570s, wrote a continuation of Boece’s history of Scotland. This brought him into the reign of James III (r. 1460-88), concerning which he related a narrative prophecy. James’s courtier ‘Cochrane’, seeking to poison the king’s mind against his brothers,

caussit ane witche to come and pronunce to the king that he sould be suddenlie slaine witht ane of the neirest of his kin of the quhilk the king was werie effeirit and desyreit of the witche how scho had that experience of him or gif ony man had caussit hir to speik the samin, and scho denyit that ony man caussit hir bot that scho had the rewelatioun thairof be ane familiear spreit (Lindesay 1899-1911: I:166).

As a result James had his brothers arrested. However, he later faced a rebellion in which his son took part:

he rememberit the wordis of the witche that said to him befoir that he sould be distroyit and put doune be the neirest of his kin, quhilk he saw appeirandlie for to come to pase at that tyme; and be the wordis of the forsaid witch elustrine [i.e. illusion] and intisment of the dewill he tuik sic ane waine suspitioun in his mynd that he desyrit and haistalie tuik purpois to flie (Lindesay 1899-1911: I:207).

Pitscottie seems to have thought that the witch had real powers, although she had been suborned by Cochrane, and despite the phrase ‘waine suspitioun’; these powers came from a ‘familiear spreit’ (a personal demon), and James also experienced ‘intisment of the dewill’. He later moralised that the episode provided a lesson to kings not ‘by inchantment of sorcerie or witchcraft to seik knawledge or support of the devill as this febill king did’ (Lindesay 1899-1911: I:210).

​[34]​ John Leslie (1527-96), Bishop of Ross, made less use of prophecies in his History of Scotland, written in the 1560s and 1570s. He did relate the story of Natholocus, attributing the prophecy to ‘anum quandam nigromanticae artis peritam’ (an old woman skilled in the arts of necromancy), which his contemporary translator James Dalrymple rendered as ‘a certane alde witche’ (Leslie 1675: 111 (book III, ch. 30); Leslie 1888-95: I:181). However, Leslie omitted the prophecies concerning Macbeth and James III. He told the story of the Earl of Atholl’s mock coronation, briefly attributing the prophecy to ‘Sagæ’, which Dalrymple rendered as ‘the witches’; the definite article may be significant, as we shall see (Leslie 1675: 267 (book VII, ch. 101); Leslie 1888-95: II:46).

​[35]​ George Buchanan (1506-82), in his History of Scotland published in 1582, relied principally on Boece but added his own line of political analysis, particularly concerning tyrants and their relationship with the political community. According to him, the courtier who killed Natholocus wished to rid the land of a tyrant. However, Buchanan related the prophecy, attributing it to an ‘old woman’ (‘anum’), and adding that the story ‘bears a greater resemblance to fable than truth’ (Buchanan 1829-32: I:197; Buchanan 1582: fol. 35r).

​[36]​ Buchanan was also partially sceptical about Macbeth’s prophecies. The initial prophecy he related thus: ‘Macbeth, who had always despised the inactivity of his cousin [King Duncan], cherished secretly the hope of seizing the throne, in which he is said to have been confirmed by a dream’. In this, ‘three women appeared to him of more than human stature [‘tres foeminas forma augustiore quam humana’], of whom one hailed him Thane of Angus, another, Thane of Moray, and the third saluted him king’ (Buchanan 1829-32: I:338; Buchanan 1582: fol. 73r). Macbeth evinced no disbelief, and the prophecy merely encouraged him to put into effect a deed that mundane motives had already led him to contemplate. Buchanan rejected the later Macbeth prophecies altogether: ‘Here some of our writers relate a number of fables, more adapted for theatrical representation or Milesian romance than history, I therefore omit them’ (Buchanan 1829-32: I:343; by ‘Milesian romance’, he meant the stories of the sons of Míl, the legendary founders of the Irish nation).

​[37]​ Buchanan repeated Boece’s story about the execution of the Earl of Atholl, concluding: ‘Thus the prediction was either fulfilled or eluded [‘vel impletum, vel elusum est’]; and truly such predictions have often similar accomplishments’ (Buchanan 1829-32: II:52; Buchanan 1582: fol. 115v). By ‘elusum’ Buchanan meant ‘baffled’ or ‘foiled’ – the earlier sense of the English word ‘eluded’. This was an intriguing interpretation of the enigmatical prophecy: it could be said to have been fulfilled, or not to have been. Buchanan may have been drawing attention to the prophecy’s double meaning, or perhaps expressing scepticism about such prophecies more generally – though the logical clarity of his phrasing fell short of its rhetorical elegance. It is not entirely obvious that he wished to give his readers a single clear explanation of this prophecy.

​[38]​ Buchanan’s story of James III mentioned witches, but subordinated them to ‘One Andrews, a physician, who was reported to have great skill in astrological predictions’, who came to the Scottish court.

By this astrologer, it is said, the king was told, that he was in imminent danger of death from his own relations; and the oracle agreeing with a response of some witches [‘maleficarum mulierum’], – to whose arts he was immoderately addicted, – who had prophesied, that the lion should be killed by his whelps, he degenerated … into a most insatiable tyrant (Buchanan 1829-32: II:140-141; Buchanan 1582: fol. 138r).

However, neither astrologer nor witches appeared again, and the king’s downfall occurred without reference to prophecy. James’s tyranny was important to Buchanan, but he saw it as essentially political; James was wicked and dangerous, not weak and foolish.

​[39]​ Buchanan presented James III’s tyranny as leading up to the alleged contemporary tyranny of Mary Queen of Scots. He attributed few or no magical or prophetic motives to her. However, he related one curious episode of narrative prophecy, when Scottish and English witches commented on her proposed marriage to Lord Darnley, which would take place on 29 July 1565:

In order to accelerate the marriage, the predictions of some witches in both kingdoms [‘maleficarum ex utroque regno’] were likewise urged, who prophesied, if the nuptials were consummated before the end of the month of July, great advantage would arise to the kingdoms; but if delayed beyond that time, great loss and disgrace would be the consequence. Rumours were at the same time spread everywhere, respecting the death of queen Elizabeth, and the day even mentioned, on which she would die – a prediction apparently more portentous of a domestic conspiracy than of the art of divination [‘divinationem’] (Buchanan 1829-32: II:414-415; Buchanan 1582: fol. 208r).

Possibly Buchanan intended this as an enigmatical prophecy, but, if so, it was an unusual example of the genre. The story seems to have originated in a report circulated at the English court before the marriage (Parry 2012: 41). Buchanan may have failed, or been unwilling, to shape it into a fully retrospective narrative, in which the prophecy moved towards fulfilment. The prophecy was not obviously fulfilled – unless Mary’s overthrow in 1567, the climactic event towards which Buchanan’s whole History moved, could be interpreted as the ‘great advantage … to the kingdoms’. Ultimately, Buchanan seems to have kept his readers guessing.

​[40]​ In 1594, the Earl of Argyll received a royal commission to lead his Highland army against the rebellious Earl of Huntly (grandson of the rebel of 1562) in north-eastern Scotland, in which Argyll was defeated at the battle of Glenlivet. Alexander McQuhirrie, a member of Huntly’s army, wrote an account of the campaign that described a ‘witch’ (‘venefica’) or ‘enchantress’ (‘incantatrix’) employed by Argyll. She

delivered oracles to Argyle, worthy a Pythian spirit: One of her prophecies was, that, on the following Friday, which was the day after the battle, Argyle’s harp should be played in Buchan; and the bagpipe, which is the principal military instrument of the Scotish mountaineers, should sound in Strathbogie, Huntly’s seat. Nor were her vaticinations entirely vain; for both the harp and bagpipe sounded in Strathbogie and Turef; but the General was not there to enjoy their most agreeable music (Dalyell 1801: I:150-51; for the original Latin, see NLS, Adv. MS 33.2.36, fol. 51r).

This was a characteristic enigmatical prophecy, recorded by a writer who seems to have met the witch in person.

​[41] ​John Spottiswoode (1565-1639), Archbishop of St Andrews, in his history written mainly in the 1620s, gave a new and remarkable narrative prophecy. This came in his account of the killing of Captain James Stewart in 1596. Stewart’s enemy James Douglas of Torthorwald heard that Stewart was travelling nearby, having boasted that he would not leave his way for any of the name of Douglas.

He made after him with three of his servants, and overtaking him in a valley called Catslack, after he had stricken him from his horse, did kill him without any resistance. It is said that when Captain James saw the horsemen following, he did ask how they called the piece of ground on which they were, and when he heard the name of it, he commanded the company to ride more quickly, as having gotten a response to beware of such a part (Spottiswoode 1847-51: III:40).

This was a strikingly clear example of an inexorable prophecy. No prophet was named, but Stewart was clearly supposed to have consulted someone about his destiny, and to have received a ‘response’ from that person.

​[42]​ In the early seventeenth century, the poet and scholar William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) revised the story of James III. When James’s followers deceived the king, they, ‘knowing him naturally superstitious, an admirer and believer of Divinations, suborn an aged woman one morning as he went a hunting to approach him, and tell, she had by Divination, that he should beware of his nearest kinsmen’. There was also ‘a Professor of Physick, for his skill in Divination brought from Germany’, who ‘told the King, that in Scotland a Lyon should be devoured by his Whelps’; the Archbishop of St Andrews, too, gave the king warnings through his knowledge of geomancy (Drummond 1681: 135). However, as with Buchanan, the story did not culminate in the prophecies’ fulfilment; instead the warnings petered out, and, when James was eventually overthrown, prophecy played no part.

​[43]​ What was new was that Drummond intended his readers to understand that the prophecy of the ‘aged woman’ was false, and that all such prophecies were ‘superstitious’. His concluding analysis of James’s character included a telling statement: ‘He was of a credulous Disposition, and therefore easie to be abused, which hath moved some to Record he was given to Divination and to inquire of future accidents: which if it be credible was the fault of those times’ (Drummond 1681: 179). This last phrase was crucial; he was in fact historicising the whole topic of prophecy.

​[44]​ Sir John Scott of Scotstarvit (1585-1670) was Drummond’s brother-in-law and occasional scholarly colleague. He compiled his book, The Staggering State of Scottish Statesmen, towards the end of a long public career. By turns racy and moralistic, it was a meditation on the mutability of fortune as illustrated in the careers of Scotstarvit’s contemporaries and recent predecessors in public office. In it he included two narrative prophecies. The first concerned the Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland in the 1570s. Morton

got a response to beware of the Earl of Arran, which he conceived to be the Hamiltons, and therefore was their perpetual enemy; but in this he was mistaken, seeing, by the furiosity [i.e. insanity] of the Earl of Arran, Captain James Stewart was made his guardian, and afterwards became Earl of Arran, and by his moyen Morton was condemned, and his head taken off at the market-cross of Edinburgh (Scot 1872: 37).

What Morton had failed to realise was that James Hamilton, 3rd Earl of Arran, was insane, and in October 1581 (shortly after Morton’s execution) Captain James Stewart would be made Earl of Arran in his place. Captain James briefly dominated Scottish politics in the mid-1580s. His countess, Elizabeth Stewart, was a flamboyant and much-resented figure in her own right, and several contemporaries accused her of involvement with witchcraft (Grant 1999: 98-99; Baer-Tsarfati 2019: 47-48). Scotstarvit told the following story of the pair:

His lady got a response from the witches, that she should be the greatest woman in Scotland, and that her husband should have the highest head in the kingdom; both which fell out; for she died, being all swelled in an extraordinary manner; and he, riding to the south, was pursued by the Lord Torthorald … and was killed, and his head carried on the point of a spear (Scot 1872: 43).

A clearer example of enigmatical prophecy could scarcely have been devised. Yet Captain James’s killing was the same event about which, as we have seen, Spottiswoode had related an equally clear tale involving an inexorable prophecy.

​[45]​ The last prophecy relevant to this survey comes from the natural philosopher George Sinclair (d. c.1696). In 1685, he published his Satans Invisible World Discovered, a collection of tales of witchcraft and demonism. He included an account of Major Thomas Weir, the notorious former covenanter executed for incest in 1670. Being told of a ‘Mr. Burn’, Weir ‘started back’ and ‘repeated the word Burn four or five times’. He was also said to have avoided the Liberton Burn. ‘Some have conjectured, that he had advise to be ware of a Burn, or some other thing, which the equivocal word might signify, as burn in a fire. If so, he has foreseen his day approaching’ (Sinclair 1685: appendix, unpaginated; emphasis in original). This narrative circulated in several versions, and James Fraser, minister of Wardlaw, was more definite in his: ‘men have conjectured and not a miss [sic] that he had been advised to beware of a Burn’ (Larner, Lee & McLachlan 1977: 262).

​[46]​ The idea of witches’ prophecies faded among the elites of later seventeenth-century Scotland. Reasons for this will be discussed later, but just now it can be noted that Sinclair’s interest was narrowly focused on the need for mutual reinforcement of science and religious orthodoxy; he was concerned to prove the existence of the Devil, not so much of witches. The period also saw a flurry of new, more recognisably scientific interest in the related phenomenon of second sight. Second sight was not normally attributed to witches (Hunter 2001a). In the early eighteenth century, Robert Wodrow amassed anecdotal material on ‘remarkable providences’; this ranged widely but included no recognisable witches’ prophecies of the kind that had been told and retold for the previous three centuries (Wodrow 1842-43; for providence more generally see McGill & Raffe 2020).

Structural Analysis

​[47]​ These narratives of witches’ prophecies form a rewarding group for structural analysis. This can be carried out in several ways: by character, by plot and chronology, by mode of narration, and by the function of the prophecy itself.

​[48] ​Claude Bremond has offered a classification of characters in narratives: the Hero, the Ally and the Adversary (Bremond 1980: 394-396). Anyone in a narrative can be treated as their own ‘hero’, but here it is most useful to consider the recipient of the prophecy – the central protagonist – in this way. The prophet thus becomes the ‘ally’. The ally may be motivated by benevolence towards the hero, or by reward, past or future. This is relevant because some of the witches’ prophecies, usually the inexorable ones, were unsolicited warnings, while others were commissioned by the recipient as patron of the witch. The ‘adversary’ is either a direct enemy of the hero, or else an alternative beneficiary if the hero’s preferred outcome does not materialise.

​[49] ​It is worth asking whether there is a further ‘ally’ in the form of the agent who brings about the prophecy: implacable Fate, or fickle Fortune? God, or the Devil? Then, if (for instance) it is Fate, does Fate merely know the future, or also cause it? The question of agency adds dramatic interest, although an agent is rarely specified in narratives of prophecy. Boece attributes Natholocus’s declining prospects to ‘unstable Fortune’ (‘instabilis fortuna’), but does not link this specifically with the prophecy (Boece 1527: fol. 92v). A clearer exception is William Stewart, whose witch in the Natholocus story says that her prediction is the ‘will of God’ (Stewart 1858: I:520). She is then called a liar, but at least the question is raised. In folktales, certainly, events do not occur by chance. Given the unfavourable outcomes of many of these prophecies, it might even be suggested that an agent who brings them about is actually an ‘adversary’. A similar suggestion might be made about the prophet herself, at least in the case of the enigmatical prophecies – though there is little evidence of moral condemnation of the witches who give such prophecies. Nevertheless, among the morals to be derived from prophetic narratives, the theme of women’s untrustworthiness should not be overlooked.

​[50]​ Bremond has also offered a classification of plot structure. His initial states for a narrative are ‘Amelioration to obtain’ or ‘Degradation expected’. This is then subdivided; the first may progress to either ‘Amelioration obtained’ or ‘Amelioration not obtained’. Progress may also be interrupted by an ‘enclave’ – a phase of reverse movement, such as a temporary setback suffered by the hero – which can then be analysed as a separate component of the plot (Bremond 1980: 390-394).

​[51]​ Most of the inexorable prophecies (which are usually unsolicited) are unfavourable, thus establishing for the recipient an initial state of ‘Degradation expected’. The enigmatical ones sometimes start that way too, when the prophecy is merely about avoidance of death, so that the hoped-for outcome is ‘Degradation avoided’. Sometimes, however, there is a more direct promise of success (such as victory in battle), and these can be categorised as beginning with ‘Amelioration to obtain’. There is then usually an amelioration of the protagonist’s position, followed by an ultimate phase of degradation.

​[52]​ Although the narratives are mostly very short, some of them employ what Gérard Genette calls ‘anachronies’, narrating events out of chronological order (1983: 35-48). Typically these occur when the chronicler begins, not with the prophecy itself, but in medias res, explaining towards the end that the protagonist had received an earlier ‘response’ – a warning against such a person or place. Anachronies are uncommon in folktales, but often encouraged in literature. This may help us to see these narratives as products of a literary culture.

​[53]​ The narratives can also be analysed for the level of knowledge or interiority that they display about the protagonists (Genette 1983: 161-211). Do the narrators tell us what the protagonists are thinking? Wyntoun displays a high level of interiority. He knows Macbeth’s thoughts, and so do Macbeth’s enemies. Boece and other narrators of the story of Natholocus rehearse the courtier’s conflicting thoughts and motives in detail, just as a modern novelist might do. Indeed, most of the narrators assume the same omniscient stance towards their characters.

​[54]​ A few narrators take a different position. Barbour does not profess to know Edward I’s thoughts – the main reason that he brings in the story of Earl Ferrand is to explain Edward by analogy; but he does take the conventional position of knowing Ferrand’s thoughts. More distinctively, Shirley merely describes what James I does and says, and attributes no motives beyond those that James expresses. The fact that Shirley (or, strictly, the author whom he is translating) stops short of giving the whole story of the Earl of Atholl’s prophecy may also indicate his stance as an observer. McQuhirrie, similarly, positions himself as an observer of the Earl of Argyll’s witch. Sinclair’s account of Major Weir explicitly uses external observation of Weir’s behaviour to infer the prior existence of a prophecy. If Sinclair’s account indicates that the traditional omniscient position had become harder for narrators to maintain, this may go far to explain why the tradition died out at this point.

​[55]​ Several of the narrators include a framing phrase like ‘It is said that’. This does not prevent them from knowing the characters’ thoughts, but it may indicate a reluctance to commit themselves to the story. Wyntoun makes this explicit in his discussion of Macbeth’s parentage, though this appears to be unusual. Knox’s ‘as the most part say’ may also be unusual in suggesting a popular origin for the story. For most of these writers, ‘It is said that’ seems to do little more than to indicate that this is the story as they have it – which is, indeed, the normal epistemological status of their texts, none of which are burdened with much in the way of source citation or analysis. The growth of record scholarship in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries would eclipse this kind of narration of the past, as we shall see.

​[56]​ Some narrators, notably Spottiswoode, position their account of the prophecy at the end of the story to which it relates, making it a kind of optional extra. This practice, too, became unsustainable with Sinclair; he professed to document his sources, such that ‘It is said that’ was no longer a credible source. Overall, then, ‘It is said that’ is not a seriously sceptical phrase. The question of scepticism will be discussed further below.

​[57]​ The question of the characters’ point of view, related to the question of interiority, may shed light on the nature of the plot. Anne Wilson has argued that the pursuit of a ‘single point of view’ is characteristic of a ‘magical plot’ – a plot driven by a magical structure, as opposed to one that just uses magical devices (2001: 4-5, 9-10, 17-22 and passim; quotations at 17). There is no need to pursue the question of a ‘magical plot’ far here, but magical characters with no ‘point of view’ of their own are certainly noticeable in some of our narratives. The weird sisters appear before Macbeth for no obvious reason, and have no motive to deliver their prophecy to him. Macbeth has a point of view, but the weird sisters do not. Shirley’s soothsayer may wish to prevent a tragedy when she arrives to warn James I, but that hardly explains her function in the story. The witch on Iona may conceivably wish to supply accurate information about Natholocus’s future for the sake of her professional reputation, but the story certainly does not give her that or any other motive, and only the courtier really has a point of view. Not all the narratives have such a clearly magical structure; some of the witches seem to have distinct motives as they try to please their patrons. There is thus a gradation in the extent to which magical structures enter into these narratives.

​[58]​ How did prophecies actually work? A structuralist approach to this question might begin by considering whether the prophecies are ‘functional’, connoting action, or ‘indicial’, connoting mood and character (Barthes 1975: 247-250). Do they drive the plot, or explain it? This links back to the question of agency – whether, for instance, implacable Fate has decreed what will happen to the protagonist. On the whole the prophecies are ‘indicial’. The very fact that the outcome has been foretold means that interest must fall more intensely on the protagonist’s attitudes as the plot unfolds – their hubris, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

​[59]​ One of the prophecies does drive the plot. Natholocus’s courtier has had no thought of killing the king until he hears the prophecy that he will do so. This prophecy is unusual in that it can be interpreted as psychological trickery – though the trick only works if Natholocus, at least, believes in prophecy. Comparable prophecies are hard to find; there may be material in Greek or Roman legend, but a detailed study of this topic is beyond the scope of the present article. There is at least one comparable Scottish story, related by Robert Kirk in 1692 in his treatise on second sight. A man in Killin, Perthshire, entered an alehouse in which a seer was sitting. The seer rose hurriedly and was about to leave, when he was asked the reason for his haste. He ‘told, that the intrant man should die within two dayes, at which news the named intrant stabb’d the seer and was himselfe executed two dayes after for the fact’ (Hunter 2001b: 89). This is not a psychological trick – which suggests that trickery is not essential to the Natholocus story; but the prophecy does drive the recipient’s subsequent behaviour in the same way.

​[60]​ The Natholocus story bears comparison with the weird sisters’ prophecy to Macbeth. These two narratives have been linked as instances of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Royan 2000: 80-81). To some extent they are, but the weird sisters’ prophecy is unusual in being a positive prophecy. And Macbeth, unlike Natholocus’s courtier, is not placed in an inescapable dilemma. Here it should be mentioned that the weird sisters really know that Macbeth will be king; they are not just putting a policy proposition to him. Buchanan, unusually, presents the story in the latter way, but even this still gives the prophecy an illustrative role in the development of Macbeth’s character.

​[61]​ One narrative adds an additional detail about causation and contingency, and in doing so illustrates the seemingly inescapable logical contradictions implicit in narrative prophecies. Shirley says of James I that ‘fortune was to hym aduerse’ when he finds himself without a weapon when the assassins burst in (Connolly 1992: 61). But to infer that this is a personified ‘Fortune’ who has impelled the soothsayer to warn him, and has impelled his knight to counsel him to disregard her warning, would be erroneous. The king’s predicament is simply, as we would say, ‘unfortunate’. Shirley means his readers to understand that James might well have happened to have a weapon with which he could have fended off his attackers. Yet this would have nullified the prophecy, which is illogical; it is not a valid prophecy if it can be nullified. Although it is couched in conditional language (‘If you cross this water …’), it is still not a practical warning (‘Make sure you have a weapon …’). Indeed, to be a prophecy, it cannot be a practical warning. Whether inexorable or enigmatical, it has to be fulfilled. The logical contradictions are obscured only because when we reflect on the story we already know that James’s adverse fortune did, in fact, leave him without a weapon. This exercise in partial deconstruction of Shirley’s narrative illustrates the extent to which prophecy narratives, like narratives of time travel, are hard to articulate in a consistently logical fashion from the point of view of causation.


​[62]​ A simple model of how the prophecy stories changed over time might be that their hearers moved from belief to disbelief. At the beginning of our period, the stories were thought to be true, while, at the end, they were thought to be untrue, or were moved to a realm of fiction. This model is acceptable as a broad outline, but it requires qualification and development. Throughout the period, there were sceptical currents of thought (Stephens 2013; Bailey 2013).

​[63]​ The earliest line of scepticism was theological – which we find articulated in the fifteenth century by a poet, Robert Henryson (c.1420-c.1490). His ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ included a passage against foretelling events ‘quhilk [i.e. which] nane in erd [i.e. earth] may knaw bot god allane’, and attacking ‘wichcraft, spaying and sorsery / and superstitioun of astrology’ (Henryson 1906-14: III:85-86 (‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, lines 576, 588-589)). Beside this, Wyntoun’s doubts about Macbeth’s parentage look positively credulous; he had no doubts about prophecies as such, merely an objection to a particularly unlikely one.

​[64]​ Renaissance Scots were well aware of the idea of the enigmatical prophecy, and sometimes used this to criticise prophecies in general. The Complaynt of Scotland, an anti-English political tract of c.1550 probably written by Robert Wedderburn (c.1510-1555×60), attacked the English for giving ‘ferme credit to diuerse prophane propheseis of merlyne and til vthir ald corruppit vaticinaris’, and said that ‘al propheseis hes doutsum and duobil expositionis’. Wedderburn cited four examples: Caiaphas (from John 11:49-52); Croesus, King of Lydia; Pyrrhus, King of Epirus (this and the last from the Delphic oracle); and Ferrand, Earl of Flanders (whom we have already encountered from Barbour). However, any actual scepticism was subordinate to Wedderburn’s political purpose. He argued that the English prophecies of Anglo-Scottish union would take effect, ‘bot nocht to their intent’; rather the Scots would conquer the English (Wedderburn 1979: 64-67).

​[65] ​In the later sixteenth century, Buchanan tried to present himself as a more sustained sceptic. He reduced the role of prophecy as a motor in his narrative. He was, among other things, a dramatist, so it is interesting that he rejected part of the Macbeth story because it was like a drama. His contemporary, Leslie, was less open in his scepticism, but his omission of so many prophecy stories is surely significant. Also noteworthy is his translator Dalrymple’s attribution of the Atholl prophecy to ‘the witches’ – an abstract phrase rather like ‘the weather’ or ‘the midges’. Whoever Atholl’s witches were, Dalrymple did not think that they were identifiable individuals. Scotstarvit, too, wrote of ‘the witches’ in an abstract way.

​[66]​ King James VI, in his book Daemonologie (1597), displayed firmer theological scepticism. He wrote that the Devil’s predictions were ‘parte true, parte false: For if all were false, he would tyne [i.e. lose] credite at all handes; but alwaies doubtsome, as his Oracles were’ (James VI 1982: 15 (book I, ch. 6)). This echoed the Complaynt of Scotland in its statement that all prophecies were ‘doutsum’, though it perhaps lacked the philosophical sophistication of a scholar like Martin Delrio who discussed in detail how demons could use their natural skills and experience to make predictions with a ‘degree of probability’ that partly made up for their lack of true foreknowledge (Del Rio 2000: 153-154 (book IV, ch. 2, q. 2)).

​[67]​ James’s main discussion of prophecy came when he wrote of witches and fairies. Witches, he thought, experienced visits to fairy hills (which were, in his view, demonic illusions); from the fairies they gained knowledge, ‘fore-telling the death of sundrie persones’. James, knowing from theology that the Devil lacked true foreknowledge, was uneasy, but did his best to explain:

I thinke that either they haue not bene sharply inough examined, that gaue so blunt a reason for their Prophesie, or otherwaies, I thinke it likewise as possible that the Deuill may prophesie to them when he deceiues their imaginationes in that sorte, as well as when he plainely speakes vnto them at other times[,] for their prophesying, is but by a kinde of vision, as it were, wherein he commonly counterfeits God among the Ethnicks (James VI 1982: 52 (book III, ch. 5)).

James thus thought that witches could prophesy, that they believed that they received the power to do so from fairies, and that their main purpose in doing so was to foretell people’s deaths.

​[68]​ With Drummond, in the early seventeenth century, we enter a new and more fundamental phase of scepticism. He historicised prophecies: people believed in them in those days, but we don’t believe in them now. Ironically, Drummond’s contemporary and brother-in-law Scotstarvit did believe in them – but Scotstarvit was among the last to use narrative prophecies as clear motors for his stories. Euan Cameron has argued that the discourse of ‘superstition’ shifted in this period from being false and demonic to being false and ignorant (2010: 247-269). This is the fundamental difference between James VI and Drummond: it was only Drummond who portrayed witches’ prophecies as false and ignorant.

​[69]​ The classical manner of historical writing, as a continuous narrative without citation of sources, declined during the seventeenth century. Newer styles of history engaged with disciplines like law and philology (Grafton 2007: 189-254; Hicks 1988: 120-131, 150-165). The value and methods of history were debated, with increasing concern to establish veracity. To distinguish history from fiction and to avoid charges of bias, historians increasingly cited documentary evidence and displayed a critical attitude towards their predecessors (Burke 2012). A Scottish contribution to this debate came from the theologically-minded mathematician John Craig, who in 1699 formulated mathematical equations and axioms to measure the amount of ‘suspicion’ attaching to various ‘witnesses’ to history (Craig 1964; see in general Allan 2012).

​[70]​ Drummond, writing in the 1640s, was the last Scottish representative of the older tradition of historical narration. He invented speeches, cited no sources, and derived his material from previous narratives rather than documents (Rae 1975: 26-27, 36-37). Narratives of witches’ prophecies had flourished in this genre. After its decline, there was no natural home for the prophecy narratives. News reporting, which increased in the later seventeenth century and might have included prophecy narratives, did not in practice do so. In Restoration England there was increased elite scepticism about prodigies, portents and prophecies (Walsham 1999: 218-224). Scottish witches’ prophecies were not argued out of existence, but it seems to have been similar scepticism that caused their decline.


​[71]​ This discussion of contemporary scepticism can be followed by a question that may seem paradoxical in the extreme. Could some of these narratives of witchcraft and prophecy, after all, be true? Or at least partly true?

​[72]​ Most of the stories, of course, are not remotely credible today. Their very use of standard narrative patterns is an indication that they have been fictionalised. The two different foretellings of the killing of Captain James Stewart – an inexorable prophecy according to Spottiswoode, an enigmatical one according to Scotstarvit – cannot both be right; but they indicate how this process of fictionalisation occurred. People saw the hand of Providence (or Fate or Fortune) in Stewart’s precipitate rise and fall, and sought to construct a prophetic narrative that would express their feelings about it and give meaning to it. Unusually, they failed to reach a consensus as to what the precise meaning was, so we have two alternative narratives. We know a good deal about how narratives could be shaped and reshaped by people with an interest in a particular version of a story, so it is not surprising to find such a process occurring in these prophecy narratives – and to find the results being treated as credible (Davis 1987; Rosenthal 2003).

​[73]​ Yet this last point is a reminder that these narratives of witches’ prophecies were told as true, or as probably true, and evidently carried some credibility at the time. No doubt they had moralistic or entertainment value, like media reports about today’s ‘celebrities’, and were not necessarily read primarily for their veracity. But, again like media reports, they may well have had some connection with reality; reports that were completely incredible would not have been valued. Narratives of the defeat or downfall of a prominent political figure – Atholl in 1437, Huntly in 1562, Argyll in 1594 – were definitely news (Pettegree 2014: 4). Thus, individual stories may have been just stories, but behind them may lie a general pattern. With this in mind, it may be argued that a few of the narratives stand out: they were written by contemporaries, and have at least some possibility of connection with reality.

​[74]​ The first contemporary narrative is Shirley’s account of James I’s assassination. This is full of circumstantial detail that is usually corroborated by other sources. Some details are missing from his account of the Highland soothsayer – the names of the two knights involved, the title of the old book – and these parts of the narrative may well be retrospective inventions. But his story of Atholl’s prophecy is much more credible. Both Shirley and Bower gave lengthy accounts of the conspirators’ elaborately-staged and gruesome public executions, and Atholl’s mock coronation surely did occur as they described it. We also know from other sources that the assassination had been planned with care and in detail (Brown 1992). From this, it is not a large step to infer that the planning, like that of some other conspiracies, could really have included the enlisting of prophetic aid, and that the authorities could have learned of the prophecy of Atholl’s coronation either from his own confession or from the confessions of the other conspirators.

​[75]​ Knox’s narrative of Lady Huntly’s witches is also contemporary. Knox did not participate in the Corrichie campaign, but he was in touch by letter with the English ambassador, who did, while the royal army was led by several of his Protestant confidants who might well have provided him with information (Thomas Randolph to Sir William Cecil, 24 Sept. 1562, Bain 1898-1969: I:653-4; Knox 1949: II:60). Tellingly, there is further, independent evidence of Lady Huntly’s reliance on prophecy. Shortly before Mary’s return to Scotland, in August 1561, the Countess circulated a prophecy that the queen would never set foot in Scotland (Randolph to Cecil, 24 Sept. 1561, Bain 1898-1969: I:555). The final point in Knox’s account of Lady Huntly was that ‘the Devil, the Mass, and witches have as great credit of her this day [in margin: ‘12 June 1566’] as they had seven years ago’. This indicates that Knox had further, more recent information about her. Knox seems also to have had earlier episodes of prophecy in mind, since Corrichie had been less than four years ago. Probably, therefore, Lady Huntly did consult women, whom others called ‘witches’, for prophetic purposes.

​[76]​ Another credible contemporary narrative is McQuhirrie’s account of Glenlivet. The fact that he was on the spot gives it high credibility. He evidently did not hear Argyll’s witch deliver her prophecy, but she was presumably interrogated after her capture, with enough information being obtained from her to establish that she should be considered to be a witch. She is stated to have died, and there is no suggestion of a trial, so she may well have been killed out of hand; Lowlanders did not always recognise Highlanders as deserving legal protection. Her anonymity, similarly, fits with Lowlanders’ known reluctance to record Highlanders’ barbarous and unfamiliar names (Goodare 2004: 233-236). Overall there is nothing particularly incredible about this story.

​[77]​ Several other members of the elite are known to have consulted witches, or people likely to have been known as witches, though a desire for foreknowledge is not specified in the sources. Archbishop Patrick Adamson in the 1580s repeatedly consulted Alison Pearson, a reputed witch, for purposes of healing (Parkinson 2003; Maxwell-Stuart 2001: 98-107). Katherine Ross, Lady Foulis, in about the same period, consulted magical practitioners in order to make away with her stepson; these practitioners were described as ‘witches’ at their trial, and may have been identified as such even before then (Sutherland 2009: 29-58).

​[78]​ If people known as ‘witches’ were really making prophecies, how does this relate to our perception of witchcraft as an imaginary crime? Scholars studying witch-hunting have generally argued that people did not call themselves witches; ‘witch’ was what their aggrieved neighbours called them. ‘Witch-hunting always began with the pointing finger extending away from the self’, as Christina Larner wrote (1981: 135). Scholars have also assumed that, when someone was called a witch, this was likely to lead to that person being arrested, tried and eventually executed for witchcraft. But the narratives in this study focus on the comeuppance received by the recipient of the prophecy; they rarely involve the prosecution of the witch. The witches executed in early modern Scotland form a largely separate group from the prophetic witches in these narratives.

​[79]​ There were, however, prophecies made by magical practitioners, usually called ‘charmers’ in Scotland. Charmers’ work in folk healing often involved the giving of prognoses. Prophecy also entered into love-magic when people wanted to know the identity of a future spouse (Miller 2002; Davies 2008). Many cases that the authorities treated as ‘witchcraft’ involved magical practitioners who had ‘foreknowledge’ and gave ‘responses’. John Stewart, in Irvine in 1618, was interrogated ‘upon quhat foreknowledge he had forespokin’ a person’s death (Trial c.1855: 4). The presbytery of Deer in 1624 ratified an act against charmers, diviners and ‘seekares of responses’ (Cramond 1930: 11). Various accused witches claimed foreknowledge that came from fairies (Henderson and Cowan 2001: 182). John Fraser, minister of Tiree, recorded in about 1700 that an old woman in his parish ‘was accustomed to give Responses … which were found very often true, even in future contingent events’ (Hunter 2001b: 196).

​[80]​ It seems likely, therefore, that some members of the elite really consulted magical practitioners about their future, and that the prophecy narratives studied in this article provided a cultural framework within which these consultations were recognised and discussed by others. Some of these practitioners were recognised as ‘witches’, or allowed themselves to be thought of as ‘witches’. And some of the practitioners’ advice was recognised as ‘prophecy’, or looked like ‘prophecy’ (a term that was used in some, but not all, of the narratives surveyed above). The use of the evocative but perilous appellation ‘witch’ may well have been a fluid issue, subject to negotiation – and, perhaps, to evasion and circumlocution. The modern magical practitioners and their clients studied by Jeanne Favret-Saada rarely used direct words like ‘witch’, and habitually spoke of the subject with circumlocutions (1980: 98-99). Overall, then, these narratives of prophecies by witches display connections to real magical practices.


​[81] ​In most of the narratives analysed in this article, the main protagonist was a male political figure like King Macbeth who sought a ‘response’ from a witch or witches or other prophetic figures. The narrative told of his downfall, and of how this had been ominously foretold. A structural analysis shows that the prophecies embedded in these narratives were of two contrasting types: ‘inexorable’ – which the recipient disbelieved in – and ‘enigmatical’ – which the recipient believed in, but misunderstood.

​[82]​ As for the ‘witches’ themselves: the older stories told of female figures with magical powers, but these figures were not unequivocally called witches, and sometimes they were not human. Over time the prophecy narratives show a rise of the ‘witch’, so called. Yet these ‘witches’ were rarely presented simply as evil. This article extends the cultural range within which late medieval and early modern witchcraft can be understood.

​[83]​ The cultural dynamic of these prophecy narratives lies in their interaction between elite and popular culture. As Peter Burke has argued, the upper classes also participated in popular culture, at least until the later seventeenth century. They attended popular festivals and listened to folksongs. Elite men, those with most education, were connected to much popular culture by their womenfolk – mothers, wives and female servants (2009: 49-56). This interaction between cultures is built into the narratives themselves, in two related ways.

​[84] ​The first point of interaction concerns the social class of the protagonists. In narrative after narrative, an elite man obtains a prophecy from a lower-class woman. He could have sought foreknowledge in some more erudite way (astrology and geomancy are occasionally mentioned), but he chooses to consult an uneducated woman with witch-like special powers. The woman speaks her prophecies, with their oral delivery prominent in the narrative. This contrasts with the textual nature of prophecies like those of Merlin.

​[85]​ The second point of interaction between elite and popular concerns the narratives themselves. Juliette Wood has argued that ‘folkloric patterns are an integral part of the chronicle form’. She finds a variety of ‘traditional’ material in Scottish chronicles, including ‘anecdote, legend, personal-experience narrative and accounts of portents’. She distinguishes portents from written prophecies, which are uncommon in folklore – but narrative prophecies also require to be distinguished from these written ones (1998: 130, 131; cf. Hancock 1999/2000). Such prophecies overlap with portents in some traditional tales (Bruford 1979: 163). Prophecy narratives exemplify the diachronic interconnectedness also found in popular proverbs predicting future weather. In these narratives, past and future are interconnected (Fox 2000: 154-158; Wood 1989: 60-62).

​[86]​ People at all social levels told stories of prophetic witches. The surviving written narratives are from the elite, but the common folk often told stories of downfalls of prominent men – stories that might well incorporate narrative prophecies. Popular ballads were interested in downfalls of prominent figures (e.g. Child 1884: nos. 178, 181, 195, 196, 203). Most of these stories were forgotten once the downfalls faded from the headlines, but a few survived to attract wider attention. And the tradition could generate new prophecy stories. Buchanan repeated stories from previous authors, but Spottiswoode’s and Scotstarvit’s stories were new.

​[87]​ The written prophecy narratives are also likely to have influenced popular culture directly. This is hard to demonstrate from the Scottish evidence, but a case-study from northern England illustrates the likely processes. The prophecies of Mother Shipton, which seem to have originated in print in the 1640s, were being spoken among the common people of Westmorland in the 1680s (Fox 2012: 337). Mother Shipton is also notable as being a prophetic woman, often described as a witch, who was not considered straightforwardly evil (Oldridge 2010: 220-222).

​[88]​ This leads to a crucial point about the idea of the ‘witch’. In these narratives, the witch is rarely an evil figure. The great man who listens to her prophecy, and whose downfall ensues, usually gets his just deserts. Macbeth, the Earl of Atholl, the Earl and Countess of Arran, Major Weir and numerous others: they are the bad guys. The witch occasionally attracts a mildly disapproving adjective like ‘crafty’, but she is rarely condemned outright. Nor is she ever brought to trial. Readers of these downfall stories regarded the fulfilment of her prophecy with satisfaction.

​[89]​ On the other hand, the witch in the narratives is not a good figure. She is still a witch, or (in the earlier stories) a woman employing magical means that are probably unacceptable in orthodox religion. The very fact that she consorts with bad characters like Lady Huntly connotes moral dubiety. She may have told her patron the truth (directly or indirectly), but that hardly makes her a mouthpiece for divine providence.

​[90]​ There were two kinds of uncertainty or perhaps ambiguity in these prophecy narratives. Firstly, there could be uncertainty as to whether a given prediction came from God or not. Secondly, even if the prediction was certainly not from God, there could be uncertainty as to where it did come from. Theologians recognised that the Devil had some predictive ability, even if this derived merely from his superlative natural skills and experience. Thinkers influenced by folklore, or more versed in the classics than in theology, might be willing to admit a wider range of predictive abilities, with ideas such as oracles, Fate or Fortune being hard to ignore. It could in theory have been argued that all predictions other than divinely-inspired prophecy were simply ‘vain’ and empty, but in practice almost all writers in this period recognised a range of genuine predictive powers – and were often prepared to leave open the question of how these powers operated. But one thing was clear: the predictions in the narratives mostly came from women. How should those women be understood?

​[91]​ Over time the prophecy narratives show a clear rise of the ‘witch’, mainly occurring in the early to middle years of the sixteenth century. The older stories told of female figures with magical powers, but these figures were not unequivocally called witches, and sometimes they were not human. Boece, who did not usually write about witches, exemplifies the older tradition; his younger translator, Bellenden, who did, exemplifies the newer one. Before Bellenden, there were hardly any explicit witches in the prophecy narratives; after him, most of the narratives were explicitly about witches, or were about ‘responses’ that seem to have come from witches. This is what we might expect, given that this period was one of increasing witch-hunting. But this was not just about witch-hunting, and Lyndal Roper has called for witchcraft to be studied within a broader cultural range. Roper’s own study shows how demonologists used humour and fantasy to create ideas that were both horrifying and entertaining (2006). Here we see that witchcraft ideas were taken up by writers in further genres – chronicle and history writers.

​[92]​ To recognise a prophetic woman as a ‘witch’ was one thing, but the narratives that do so do not take one further step that was theoretically available to them at that point. They do not comment in a generic or analytical way on what a ‘witch’ is, or on witchcraft generally. Pitscottie’s ‘familiear spreit’ and McQuhirrie’s ‘Pythian spirit’ may allude to the best-known woman diviner in the Bible, the so-called witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25; for discussion see Zika 2005). The witch of Endor was well known to demonological writers in Scotland, who used her to comment on witchcraft generally, but Pitscottie and McQuhirrie are the only narrative writers who even allude to her. This vagueness about the theory of witchcraft is linked to the vague way in which the prophetic women in the narratives are characterised as individuals; hardly any of them have names, for instance. In this the ‘witches’ of the later narratives may well retain some of the otherworldly attributes of the earlier prophetic females who are not called witches.

​[93]​ Narratives of witches’ prophecies, therefore, arose in Scotland out of an earlier tradition of narrative prophecies ascribed mainly to non-human beings – either the Devil or magical females. How far back that tradition goes is unclear. The models of inexorable and enigmatical prophecy seem already familiar to Scotland’s earliest narrative chroniclers in the fourteenth century. However, this tradition may be less likely to have been accompanied by the seeking of ‘responses’; the earlier stories, by identifying non-human figures as the normal source of foreknowledge, offered fewer opportunities for their characters to seek out a human magical practitioner for this purpose. The prophetic women in these stories have affinities with the late medieval ‘lady’ who makes prophecies for Thomas of Erceldoune in the romance of that title: she is a composite figure, part fairy queen and part classical Sibyl (Malay 2010; these are not narrative prophecies, however). There were at least some real prophetic women at this time, since the Earl of Atholl seems to have consulted one in 1437. But late medieval conspiracies more often employed male necromancers or learned magicians (Harris 1996; Kittredge 1929: 79-84). During the sixteenth century, narratives about human witches making prophecies became normal, and stories of downfalls shifted to incorporate human female witches as prophets.

​[94]​ Were there patterns in the vocabulary used for prophecy itself, as opposed to the vocabulary used for prophetic women? Not all the writers denominated individual prophecies by a definite noun, and the choice of a specific noun does not seem to have been important. Buchanan and McQuhirrie used the terms ‘prophecy’ and ‘oracle’ interchangeably, with Buchanan also using ‘prediction’. Shirley too wrote of ‘prophecy’. The single most common term was ‘response’, used by Knox, Spottiswoode and Scotstarvit (Barbour’s ‘answer’ and Sinclair’s ‘advice’ may also be taken as equivalent to ‘response’). Other terms included ‘revelation’ (Pitscottie). Some writers used generic terms like ‘divination’ (Drummond). Overall, the fluidity of vocabulary for prophecy in the narratives displays fewer patterns than the transition towards ‘witchcraft’ in the vocabulary for prophetic women.

​[95]​ Some points may be made about the role of witches’ prophecies specifically in elite culture. Renaissance themes emerged in some of the narratives; Wedderburn and McQuhirrie mentioned the Delphic oracle. There is a contrast in register between Boece’s elaborate Latin vocabulary – ‘auruspices’, ‘præstigiatores’, and so on – and the demotic terms preferred by his translator Bellenden – ‘spae men’, ‘weird sisters’. But Boece also used the non-classical term ‘necromantica’. There may be more to be discovered about these narratives’ use of classical sources.

​[96]​ Philosophical considerations also present themselves, since some of the narratives’ authors were distinguished thinkers. Mair, Boece and Buchanan had European reputations, and several others had high intellectual attainments. If they had been asked how witches’ prophecies worked, how would they have replied? Knox’s and Buchanan’s narratives tried hardest to address this question, but it can hardly be said that their answers were entirely clear or consistent. Knox hinted at an abstract force shaping events, but it looked less like divine providence than it should have done; while Buchanan hedged his bets. Overall, the question of how prophecies worked was conspicuously left open. Which perhaps it had to be, given the magical nature of prophecy and the strong intellectual tradition of hostility to magic.

​[97]​ By about 1700, prophecy narratives had disappeared from educated discourse, and elite men no longer consulted magical practitioners about their future. Popular stories about prophetic witches may well have continued, but the cultural link across the classes traced by this article had been severed. The link seems to have been strongest in the sixteenth century. The earlier narrative prophecies had concerned magical women who were not necessarily human, and thus did not offer such a plausible model for action. If the growing interest in witchcraft led to more narrative prophecies being ascribed to witches, perhaps this could be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

​University of Edinburgh



National Library of Scotland (NLS), Adv. MS 33.2.36


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Todd, Margo. 2002. The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

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A Spiritual Community on the Margins: James Melville and William Murray singing of Holy Dying in the East Neuk of Fife

A Spiritual Community on the Margins: James Melville and William Murray singing of Holy Dying in the East Neuk of Fife

​Jamie Reid Baxter


In the 1590s and 1600s, the East Neuk of Fife, a long way both geographically and ideologically from the seat of royal power in Edinburgh, was home to a strikingly creative spiritual community of clerical and lay Presbyterians. At its centre was the Francophile poet-pastor James Melville (1556-1614), minister of Kilrenny. Melville would be torn from his beloved parish by the Crown for reasons of state in 1606, like several other clerics associated with the East Neuk community. One who survived was Melville’s colleague and neighbour William Murray (fl.1596-1633), minister of Crail. But in 1624, he was deprived of his charge on moral grounds, and fell into near-fatal melancholy. This essay looks at how these two pastors made use of poetry and song in their respective (and related) writings on how to die a Christian death.


​[1]​ This article draws attention to two short early modern devotional works that make considerable use of verse, and were produced by pastors working in neighbouring coastal parishes in the East Neuk of Fife. Ane Fruitful and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death was published in 1597 by James Melville (1556-1614), and in 1631, William Murray (fl.1596-1633), brought out his Short Treatise of Death in Sixe Chapters.​[1]​ Melville was at Kilrenny from 1585 to 1606, and Murray at Crail from 1596 to 1624. At the start of the seventeenth century, both men were active members of a Fife-based, resolutely Presbyterian spiritual community in which poetry was actively cultivated: an initial exploration of this community was published in 2017 (Reid Baxter: 2017b). Melville and Murray’s little books on good dying were born of highly specific personal circumstances, as will be shown, but each exemplifies the way these ministers employed verse and song as integral elements in instructional texts.

​[2]​ The East Neuk was a long way from the seat of royal government in Edinburgh, but St Andrews University was a thriving, international Calvinist metropolis of the intellect and the spirit (Reid 2011; Mason and Reid 2014). Between 1580 and 1606, when James Melville’s uncle, the poet and Presbyterian ideologue Andrew Melville, was principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews was far from being marginal to Scottish royal thinking and policy (Mason and Reid 2014: Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5). During that quarter-century, the crown twice sought to establish royal supremacy over a Kirk possessed of energetic and articulate defenders of an autonomous Presbyterian ecclesiastical polity – a polity in which James VI was ‘nocht a king, nor a lord, nor a heid, but a member’, as Andrew Melville famously told him in Falkland Palace in September 1590, while tugging the royal sleeve (Pitcairn 1842: 370).

​[3]​ Intellectual and spiritual life in Fife (and elsewhere) in this period was not limited to academics in university colleges, thanks to the regular ‘exercise’ held week by week in a different parish kirk by each presbytery. Two ministers, ‘according to the order of the roll, delivered each a discourse at the weekly meeting of presbytery. The one explained a passage of Scripture, and the other stated and briefly explained the doctrines which it contained; after which the presbytery gave their opinion of the performances’ (McCrie 1819: I, 339). The listeners at the exercise included interested laity; instruction was thus ‘given to laymen and clergy, and a check was maintained on the abilities and theological direction of presbytery members’ (Smith 1985: xii).

​[4]​ It was in the spirit of the ‘exercise’ that James Melville circulated the manuscript of his catechetical work, A Spirituall Propine of a Pastour to his People (Edinburgh, 1598), amongst his clerical colleagues before putting it to the press. Melville tells us as much in the first lines of his own sonnet ‘to the Reader anent the Commendatorie sonnets’ in the printed volume:

​I pat my papers in sum Pastors hand
To be perus’de and censur’d sikkerlie.
When they returnd, I luike on them and fande
Them weill be-deckt with Sonnets, as you sie.

The seven commendatory poems in question, and Melville’s response to them, are key to the case recently made for the existence of a literary-minded spiritual community of committed Presbyterians in Fife, centred not on the scholarly Andrew Melville at St Mary’s College, but on his exemplarily pastoral nephew James of Kilrenny (Reid Baxter 2017b). Further evidence, not noted in 2017, is to be found in the epistle dedicatory of Melville’s Fruitful and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death, published in 1597, a year before the Propine.​[2]​ The dedicatee was the terminally ill James Lumsden, laird of the large estate of Airdrie near Crail. On his death in 1598, Airdrie passed to his merchant brother Robert and his wife Isobell Cor.​[3]​ After July 1605, Isobell Cor found herself in real and deepening spiritual and material distress.​[4]​ Her sufferings are central to another major argument made in 2017 for the existence of this spiritual community: the fact that in order to provide Cor with suitable comfort and support, the distinguished spiritual poet Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross, put together a large manuscript collection of her own verse, which she dedicated to Cor (Reid Baxter 2017a: 66-77).

​[5]​ Elizabeth Melville’s gesture in assembling a long sequence of spiritual poems and dedicating it to a suffering coreligionist by prefacing it with two specially composed lyrics, which embody Cor’s name, is touching evidence of human solidarity. So too is James Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death, dedicated to a dying coreligionist, and embodying both the creativity and the warmly personal, humane religious practice of the Presbyterian spiritual community around the minister of Kilrenny. Melville’s own concise Scots-language contribution to the Europe-wide ars moriendi (‘craft of dying’) genre is formulated in easy, almost conversational prose, and is full of accessible, attractive and singable verse. This use of verse to highlight and meditate on specific points within a prose discourse is also found, thirty-odd years later, in William Murray’s Short Treatise. Melville and Murray’s kirks of Kilrenny and Crail respectively are barely four miles distant from each other, and the two men worked together: their names sometimes appear in direct conjunction in the St Andrews Presbytery Minutes and elsewhere.​[5]​

​[6]​ That one tiny rural area should produce not one but two tracts on the subject of good dying is remarkable, for Scotland has a very small indigenously-printed repertory of such writings.​[6]​ It includes two works by English authors. A Fruitfull treatise, full of heauenly consolation, against the feare of death, written by the Tudor Marian martyr John Bradford (?1510-1555) as he awaited burning at the stake for his beliefs, was printed by Andro Hart in 1616 and James Bryson in 1641.​[7]​ There were also three Scottish printings, by Vautrollier (1584), Waldegrave (1600) and Andro Hart (1613), of the English best-seller The Sicke Mannes Salve (1560), by the militantly Protestant cleric and prolific polemicist Thomas Becon (c.1511-1567). This last, written (but not published) in the reign of Edward VI, had by 1631 achieved twenty extant editions in England.[8] In 1970, Nancy Lee Beaty devoted the whole third chapter of her compendious work The Craft of Dying to Becon’s huge volume, and in 2007, Mary Hampson Patterson subjected the Sick Mannes Salve to further lengthy scrutiny (Patterson 2007: 101). In 1980, David Atkinson noted that ‘[w]orks focusing on preparation for death are among the most numerous instructional books produced in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, and in 1992, he illustrated this by publishing a volume of extracts from fourteen selected English publications (Atkinson 1980: 3; Atkinson 1992).[9] Fifty years earlier, Sister Mary Catharine O’Connor’s seminal and eminently comprehensive book, The Art of Dying Well: the Development of the Ars Moriendi (1942) did not name either Melville or Murray.[10] The two little books on good dying produced a few miles apart in the East Neuk have not fared much better since.[11]

​[7]​ John McCallum (2010) discussed the pastoral practice of both Melville and Murray in illuminating detail, but  virtually ignored the Exhortatioun anent Death and the Short Treatise of Death. McCallum warmly acknowledged Melville as ‘an unusually creative and prolific minister’, describing his Spirituall Propine as ‘one of the most fascinating “catechisms” of the period’ and the author as ‘the minister who applied the most creativity to the task of educating the laity’ (2010: 96, 101). McCallum devoted several pages to setting out the first-ever detailed survey and assessment of the contents of the Propine‘s second part, A Poeme for the practise of pietie, in deuotion, faith and Repentance, intituled A Morning Vision, wherein the Lords prayer, Beleefe and Commands, and sa the whole Catechisme, and right vse thereof, is largely exponed. [12] Nearly all the verse in A Morning Vision is explicitly designed for singing, and McCallum has interesting things to say about the rôle of non-liturgical sung texts in the lives of the faithful. [13] Yet Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death, which also makes considerable use of verse and indeed music, receives only two sentences (2010: 97). In the first of the two footnotes in which Murray’s Short Treatise of Death makes its only appearances, McCallum adds that the ‘teachings of Fife ministers on death’ are ‘traditional and unsurprising’ (2010: 103, n.34; 110, n.71).

​[8]​ McCallum’s discussion of William Murray is focussed on his other publication of 1631, the compendiously-titled Nyne Songs collected out of Holy Scripture of Old and New Testament: drawne foorth of the pure fountaines of Hebreuu and Greeke. Translated, Paraphrased in prose, Summed, Analysed, notted vpon, grounds for vse and doctrine observed in every one of them, and finally paraphrased in English meeter. McCallum notes that a psalm tune is specified for each of the metrical paraphrases, indicating that Murray, like James Melville, ‘thought there was a chance that people might wish to sing these texts in informal situations’.[14] Murray’s intention in Nyne Songs, McCallum writes, was ‘to introduce some familiar and not-so-familiar biblical texts in a very detailed and logical way, providing paraphrases, summaries and even textual annotations. The paraphrases performed a valuable interpretative function’ (2010: 98; 96-97). McCallum sets out Murray’s systematic approach to explicating Biblical texts by applying logical subdivision, and comments that ‘though no diagram of this is given in Murray’s book, the division and subdivision of material in this way calls to mind Ramism’, adding that ‘reading becomes an almost mathematical exercise’ (2010: 107). Murray’s penchant for logic, numbering and subdivision is evinced in the very title of A Short Treatise of Death in Sixe Chapters, and within those chapters, he punctiliously numbers his points. James Melville’s writing, on the other hand, is never reminiscent of mathematical exercises; his Exhortatioun anent Death features only one enumeration.[15]

​[9]​ The remainder of this essay falls into two halves. The first concerns Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death, rather than its comparatively well-known author, whose highly readable 800 page autobiography has been in print for nearly two hundred years.[16] For that reason, biographical detail is eschewed as far as possible, as is reiteration of political and literary material already set out in the present writer’s ‘New Light from Fife’ (2017) and ‘Montgomerie’s Solsequium and The Mindes Melodie‘ (2013). The latter part of this article focuses on William Murray’s closely-related but rather different Short Treatise of Death in Sixe Chapters (1631). Since Murray, like his Treatise, has been all but ignored by posterity, the presentation of the Treatise necessarily involves a certain amount of fully referenced biographical material.

1. James Melville: Ane Fruitfull and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death

​[10]​ In its short span, Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death features no fewer than sixteen pieces of poetry, five in Latin and eleven in the vernacular. All of the latter, bar one, are by Melville himself, and several are explicitly designed to be sung. Poetry and music associated with it seem to have come easily to Melville — his Autobiography is full of poems, which arise quite naturally out of the flow of the prose, distilling and intensifying the focus, exactly as they do the Exhortatioun anent Death. For example, speaking of King David ‘in the difficulties of this prison’ of earthly life, and his longing to be with God, Melville writes on page 30:

​But againe, Psal. 17. he sweitlie comforts him selfe in the ende of ane vther Psalme, with an assurance of the jnjoying of the blessed light, as our Poet [George Buchanan] hes expressed the sam in these verses.

Puritas vitae mihi te tueri […]

The quhilks, for their pleasand comfort, are maire largelie paraphrased in this Dixiane [sic] following.

Cleanes of life sal mak me to behold,
Thy schyning face, when lousd ar bodies bands […]

Melville’s book, which runs to 112 pages of large print totalling some 21,000 words, begins and ends with verse. On the title-page we read:

Gif thou wald lead a godly life,
Think daylie thou man die:
Gif thou wald die a blessed dead,
Liue weill I counsell thee.

This will be echoed by the conclusion of the book’s final postliminary poem, ‘Let this precept be thy preacher plaine, / Liue heir to die, and die to liue againe’. The title-page quatrain is a paraphrase of this couplet:

Pour mourir bien-heureux, à viure faut apprendre
Pour viure bien-heureux, à mourir faut entendre.[18]

Melville had found this printed on the title-page of Excellent discours de la vie et de la mort, a best-seller first published in 1576 by the Huguenot nobleman and lay theologian Philippe de Mornay, seigneur du Plessis-Marly (1549-1623), a close friend of Henri de Navarre, later Henri-Quatre (1553-1610). Mornay’s markedly neo-Stoical Discours was not only frequently reprinted in France, but thrice translated into English, in 1576, 1592 and 1593. The 1592 translation, made by Mary (Sidney) Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), was repeatedly reissued. Melville, however, read the Discours in French: the English translations all lack the title-page couplet.

​[11]​ It was Melville’s standard practice to incorporate blocks of borrowed text: his troped verse paraphrase of the Song of Songs incorporates his prose translation of great swathes of Immanuel Tremellius’ Latin edition (Reid Baxter 2015: 216-17). Likewise (though never yet noted in print), considerable stretches of his late manuscript narrative poem The Wandering sheepe, or, Davids tragique fall are direct translations from a Latin sylva (1548; revised text 1569) on the origins of Psalm 51 by Théodore de Bèze, and from the poem that Rémy Belleau based on it, Les Amours de David et Bersabée (1572).[19] Melville read widely in French, though he never lived in (or even visited) France or Geneva, unlike his uncle Andrew and so many other Scottish intellectuals.[20] If no wholesale block-appropriation of material from Mornay’s Discours can be detected in the Exhortatioun anent Death, there are plenty of hints at a diffuse influence. Two examples will suffice. Mornay’s very opening, ‘C’est un cas estrange, & dont ie ne me puis assez esmerueiller’ and what follows, is echoed by Melville on page eight, but far from exactly, in the passage beginning ‘Anent death, there is twa things even amongst Christians to be marueyled at’. Secondly, Mornay’s four pages on the successive ages of man, beginning ‘A peine est-il sorty des mains des nourrices, que le voila entre les mains de quelque maistre d’escole’, find a parallel in Melville’s passage on pages 24-26, beginning ‘[h]owe soone the Infant comes into the world…’.[21]

​[12]​ The Exhortatioun anent Death, its entire tenor explicated by its title-page quatrain, falls into four parts. First, a brief but important and informative epistle dedicatory; second, the ‘exhortatioun’ itself, incorporating several poems; third, a prose account of the death of the Queen of Navarre in 1572; and fourth, a short collection of appropriately ‘comfortable’ postliminary verse, both strengthening and consoling. The epistle dedicatory, a total of 664 words, is dated ‘at Anstruther, 17 December 1596’, and directed ‘TO THE RIGHT HONORABLE AND HIS DEARE Brother in the death of the Lord Iesus, IAMES LVMMISDEN of Airdrie’. By 1596, Lumsden was incurably ill; the title A Fruitful and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death was surely intended as a reminder of John Bradford’s Fruitfull treatise, full of heauenly consolation, against the feare of death, written on the eve of his martyrdom. Melville’s initial spur to reflect on mortality was not Lumsden’s illness, however, but the apparently imminent death of his own beloved wife. Melville wished both to strengthen himself against his impending loss, and to provide the sick woman with consolatory teaching.[22] He had found inspiration in some ‘minutes’ of an earlier sermon, preached ‘in the hearing of ane honourable and frequent Auditorie’ which included both Lumsden and another local Presbyterian landowner, Sir George Douglas (1544-1625) of Helenhill, a property a few miles to the south-east of St Andrews.[23] Lumsden and Douglas had subsequently assured Melville that the preaching of this sermon ‘was the first motion of our coniunction and affection in Christ’.

​[13]​ Melville’s wife recovered, but Melville decided to write up the material he had gathered and shared with her. He tells his dedicatee that:

​because of the estate of your disease, I daylie langed and purposed quhiles ye wer heir at home, to come and spend some peece of time with you, and to bestowe as it suld please the Lord to giue, some spirituall gift by conference, for your strengthning sic in the truth, and that ready resolution to dye in Christ, quhilk I haue often reioyced in sa gude a measure to be graunted vnto you. (sig.2v, 3)​

But since the sick man has now removed to Edinburgh, Melville has created the Exhortatioun anent Death, to make good ‘some part of the inlack of my Christian dewty, in visiting of you’ (ibid). The ‘saide Sermon’ is being presented to Lumsden ‘for a plaine and comfortable example and practise thairof, and all for furthering of that gude wark, where about I wot ye are maist occupied; that is, after a reformed and sanctified life, to make a gude and godlie end’.[24] Melville immediately adds ‘[h]ow farre thir litle things may serue for so great a wark, I remit that to the cheife Master of the warke, the haly Ghaist …It is aneuch for mee, that I haue testified in some sort my affectionat remembrance of you in the tender bowels of his loue, quha hes dyed once for vs, to make vs liue with him for ever’ (sig.3 and 3v).[25]

​[14]​ Melville’s commendation of the dedicatee’s ‘ready resolution to dye in Christ’ indicates that Lumsden was consciously preparing for his death with considerable self-possession, though he would survive for another eighteen months. He died on 23 August 1598, at home in the East Neuk, where he signed some legal documents as late as 15 August (Reid Baxter 2017a: 63). His wall-tomb in Crail kirkyard was decorated with a large amount of inscribed verse in both Scots and Latin, including a pair of Scots sonnets, each with its own panel (Reid Baxter 2017a: 64; Erskine 1893: 134). The striking place occupied by poetry in the design of Lumsden’s tomb and in Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death is typical of the practice of the spiritual community around James Melville.

​[15]​ Verse also features in the second and principal part of Melville’s book, ‘the saide Sermon’ itself, which runs to c.13000 words. The first thirty-six of its seventy-two pages include four passages of Latin poetry, accompanied by Melville’s own Scots paraphrases. Eight lines from George Buchanan’s version of Psalm 144 appear on page nine, a couplet by a so far absolutely unidentifiable ‘learned man’ on page twenty-four, and eight lines taken from the end of Buchanan’s Psalm 17 on page thirty.[26] This last is immediately followed on page thirty-one by the first half of the final stanza of John Hopkins’ metrical paraphrase of Psalm 39, as printed in the Kirk’s psalm-book. The metrical psalter of 1564 was central to the lives of devout Scots, such as James Lumsden, and Melville would have expected his readers to read the half-stanza with its noble tune sounding ‘in their mind’s ear’ at the very least.[27] Finally, between pages thirty-three and thirty-six, the reader reaches no fewer than twenty-six lines from Buchanan’s Psalm 36, paraphrased as fourteen quatrains ‘translated… to the tune of the CX Psalme’, a stirring French melody, as the reader can hear in this stanza describing the music-filled heavenly afterlife:

All want and dolour there ar far exyld,
No man sal mis mair then his hart can wis,
In everie place ar pleasures vndefyld,
Sweet melodie in heavenly ioye and blis.

The ‘sermon’ also contains numerous and occasionally rather substantial prose quotations, mostly taken from Scripture. Melville’s message is that earthly life is a toilsome pilgrimage through a vale of tears, temptations and suffering, towards man’s true, heavenly destination, as he had stated on page twenty-four:

This life to me is death, but death to mee is life but blame: [without]
This life to me is bannishment, but death returns me hame.

As John McCallum wrote, the message is ‘traditional and unsurprising’ – but the epistle dedicatory states that it is based on a sermon, and the book therefore lets us hear how Melville spoke from the pulpit.[28] Blessed indeed were his hearers – this is no mathematically constructed pulpit homily, full of numbered heads and subdivisions.[29] Though a sermon text is ‘given out’ at the outset (Revelation 14:13, ‘Blessed ar [sic] they that die in the Lord, yea sayis the Spirit, for they rest from their labours’), it will be reiterated in full only once, on page twenty-three. Melville had already used the phrase ‘die in the Lord’ in the epistle dedicatory, while the ‘sermon’ proper is permeated by Rev.14:13. Parts of its wording can be found early and late: ‘die in the Lord’ is used twice on page twenty-nine, and on page fifty-six, we encounter the phrase ‘our text, They that dyes in the Lord, are pronounced blessed’. Yet Melville closes his sermon not with his ‘text’, but ‘Come Lord Jesus’, i.e. the final words of Revelation 20:22, immediately followed by an emphatic repetition, ‘Even cum Lord Jesus, hasten Lord and tarrie not’, followed by Numbers 23:10, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my latter end be like his’.[30] Below the word FINIS, the words ‘Come Lord Iesus’ reappear, as the title of six rime couée stanzas beginning

Come Christ our king, come we thee pray,
Withoutin any mair delay
We lang to see thee on that daie
appeir in maiesty.[31]

​[16]​ The whole poem is shot through with allusions to Revelation, and celebrates the bliss that will be enjoyed by the faithful on that day ‘when all deid, sall thee sie’: the preceding sermon had mentioned the resurrection of the dead no fewer than twenty times, while specific reference had also been made to the Second Coming, the Last Trumpet and the Last Judgement.[32] All these links to the ‘sermon’ notwithstanding, the postliminary ‘Come Lord Jesus’ breaks new ground. The first three stanzas strike a public, polemical note absent from what has gone before, where we had nowhere read of ‘allarums’ to alert Scotland to the threat posed by ‘thy haters hearts’ and the fact that ‘That man of sinne is manifest / That nowe thy Kirk hath long opprest’.[33] The ‘man of sinne’ is the Pope, and this paratextual lyric can in fact be read as rather topical:

in the monethe of August [1596] the King was movit … to decerne the recaveing [sic] haim the excommunicated and forfalted traitoures, apostat Earles, then to make choise of eight persones … quhairof the chieffe were much suspected of Papistrie, called OCTAVIANS, quho schould have the chieffe matters and effaires of the Kingdome haillie concredited to thaim ; and thairwithall the Countesse of Huntly, ane professed obstinat Papist, to be resident at the Court, and haiff the government of the Queine’s persoune … These things effectuat in the moneth of October (Pitcairn 1842: 508).

However, for the East Neuk, there was an additional, more local source of disquiet, namely the king’s desire to punish the St Andrews minister, David Black, for reportedly voicing treasonable sentiments in a sermon. Black and his fellow Presbyterians, not least James and Andrew Melville, denied that the secular arm had any right to censure preachers of the Word, and saw the king’s attitude as essentially caesaro-papal.[34] Melville’s opening stanza pointedly calls Christ ‘our king’, asking Him to ‘appeir in maiestie’, and his third stanza asks ‘Sall aye the proude blaspheme thy name, / And put thy Gospell unto shame’. The doctrine of the ‘twa kingdomes’ adhered to by Andrew Melville and his nephew James distinguished between the earthly civic realm of James VI, and the kingdome of Christ, i.e. the Kirk, whose governors were the clergy, ‘the quhilk na Christian King nor Prince sould controll and discharge, but fortifie and assist’ (Pitcairn 1842: 370).[35]

​[17]​ Melville’s stanzas are ominously prophetic of persecution to come.[36] A few years later, references to persecuted saints and raging tyrants would feature in Lady Culross’s mini-epic of 1603, Ane Godlie Dreame, ‘compylit in Scottis metre at the requeist of her freindes’ – who may well have mostly lived in the East Neuk.[37] Melville dated his epistle dedicatory to James Lumsden ‘the 17. of December. 1596’, and by the time the Exhortatioun anent Death appeared in 1597, the book’s readers would have been keenly aware that the 17 December Edinburgh ‘riot’ against the Octavians had resulted in the flight of four of the capital’s ministers, whom the king blamed for the uproar.[38] Two of them in fact found refuge with James Melville in the East Neuk (Calderwood, v, 521; Pitcairn 1842: 374). From that date onward, the Presbyterian party was on the back foot, and the king and his royal supremacy were in the ascendant.

​[18]​ The remaining stanzas of Melville’s apocalyptic poem also break new ground, insofar as much of the imagery is furnished by the hitherto uninstanced parable of the Five Wise Virgins, always vigilant and ready to greet the divine Bridegroom at the unknown hour of His arrival.[39] Nonetheless, Melville’s artistic instinct is such that the poem, for all its fresh material, is not entirely unlinked to the ‘sermon’. There are, first, its two references to the heavenly bridegroom of the Song of Songs, who had been cited on page fifty-nine. Secondly, Christ’s ‘shining face’ and ‘countenance that shines sa bright’, echo the statement on page forty-nine that the godly dead will enjoy ‘the fruition of the face and light of the countenance of the God of immortalitie’. The final lines describe heaven filled with music, as in Revelation:[40]

Where thy Redeemd makes melodie,
Thy Martyrs ane sweit harmonie,
Where angels sings continuallie

Thus, the poem’s conclusion chimes with the earlier references to angelic and heavenly music on pages twenty-three and forty-one.

​[19]​ The third part of the Exhortatioun anent Death is entirely in sober prose. It had been announced in the epistle dedicatory; Melville told Lumsden that besides ‘a copy of the saide sermon’ on good dying, he is sending ‘a little historie of the departure of Iean d’Albret, vmquhile mother of this present king of France, for a plaine and comfortable example and practise thairof’ (sig.3). ‘Translated out of French in Scottes’, the 7000 words of the ‘little historie’ of the death of the Queen of Navarre in 1572 occupy pages seventy-three to 109. Melville’s exact source-text is now untraceable, but it was evidently largely identical with the narrative found in the pages of the well-known Genevan pastor, historian and poet Simon Goulart.[41] The fourth and final section of Melville’s book is a little collection of five short postliminary poems, running to seven hundred lines in total. The first, ‘Christianus ego’, one of Andrew Melville’s few purely devotional lyrics, is followed by a translation to which James has appended his initials, as he does to the other three poems. The third and fourth poems are paraphrases of Psalms 23 and 121, designed to send the reader, singing joyfully, out across the book’s threshold back into the world. We saw earlier that Melville had specified the tune of Psalm 110 for the Psalm paraphrase on pages thirty-four to thirty-six. Here, he stipulates that his psalm paraphrases are written ‘to the tune of Solsequium’ — a long, complex, irresistibly joyful and dancing melody.[42]

The Lord most high, I know will be, ane hird to me
I can not long haue stresse, nor stand in neede:
He makes my leare in fields sa feare, that I but ceare
Repose and at my pleasure safely feede.
He sweetely me convoyes, to pleasant springs,
Where na thing me annoyes, but pleasure brings:
He giues my minde, peace in sik kinde
That feare of foes, nor force, cannot me reaue,
By him I am lead, in perfite tread,
And for his name, he will me never leaue.

Melville’s psalm paraphrases are an intertextualist’s paradise.[43] They draw on the Geneva Bible, on the texts in the Scottish and English metrical psalters, and on one of Melville’s favourite resources, Immanuel Tremellius’ lavishly glossed Biblia Sacra, first published between 1575 and 1579. Used by King James when making his version of Psalm 104 and by John Donne when creating his Lamentations of Jeremiah, Tremellius was the ‘New International Version’ of the Protestant Churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

​[20]​ Melville’s choice of Psalm 23 is self-explanatory; the psalm remains a regular feature of funeral services to this day. Anent Psalm 121, however, more needs to be said. Melville’s entire first stanza is not Scriptural paraphrase, but a free invention which takes what at first glance seems an extraordinary slant on the Geneva Bible’s words ‘I will lift my eyes unto the mountaines’ or, in the metrical paraphrase, William Whittinghame’s ‘I lift mine eyes to Sion hill’ — whence, according to the Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version, ‘mine helpe shall come’:

When I behold, These montaines cold,
Can I be bold To take my journey through this wildnernes,
Wherein dois stand, On eyther hand, A bloudie band,
To cut me off with cruell craftines:
Here, subtill Sathans slight, Dois me assaill:
There, his proud warldly might, Thinks to prevaill.
In every place, with pleasant face,
The snares of sinne besets me round about;
With poysone sweete, to slay the spreit,
Conspyrit all to take my life but doubt.

Melville has gone back to the Hebrew, and to what he found in Tremellius:

Attollerem oculos meos ad istos montes?
unde veniret auxilium meum?

‘Should I lift my eyes to these mountains? Whence might my help come?’ Not from the mountains: Tremellius had already stated in his prefatory rubric that in the psalm, King David sets out conflictum animi sui in periculis [the conflict of his spirit amid dangers] and that ad Deum conversa oratione se committit ei et confirmat in fide promissionum ejus [by his prayer directed to God, he commits himself to Him and strengthens himself in his trust in His promises]. Melville, like Tremellius, sees the mountains as dangers — whence no help will come. In the first edition text of 1580, Tremellius’s ‘Annotatio’ glosses the first verse as follows: frustra huc illuc circumspectarem ad consequendam opem: nam rationem habet Cenahanaeae, quae montosa est, [in vain do I look hither and thither all around me, to find succour; for he knows his Canaan, which is mountainous]. Melville has taken over huc illuc with his ‘Here subtill Sathans slight … There his proud wardly might’. Furthermore, in the 1590 and later editions revised by Tremellius’s collaborator Franciscus Junius, we find an inserted comment explaining the interrogatory nature of the two sentences that make up the first verse: quodcunque me convertero, nulla ex parte nisi a Deo salutem consequuturus sum [whithersoever I turn, from nowhere but God shall I obtain safety].[44] The scale of Melville’s poetic extrapolation of the ‘dangers’ represented by the mountains is entirely in keeping with his purpose here: to remind the dying that their faith cannot be shaken by the spiritual enemies, visible and invisible, that are ‘conspyrit all to take my life’, in a reinforcement of his statement in Psalm 23 that ‘feare of foes, nor force, cannot me reave’.

​[21]​ Melville’s book concludes with one of his forty surviving sonnets, this one ‘sounding a warning to die well’.[45] The words of the title recall references to warning sounds mentioned early on in the ‘sermon’ proper, viz. ‘the sound of the Archangels trumpet’ on page twelve and St Jerome’s constantly imagining ‘the hearing of the sound of that Trumpet’ on page fifteen, but in sonic terms, the mind’s ear of the reader will be filled with the sound of the dancing ‘Solsequium’ melody, something which affects the mood in which we read the sonnet. Its lines are shot through with echoes of the closing pages of Mornay’s Excellent discours de la vie et de la mort, where we read of earthly life that ‘Nous ne la deuons point aimer pour ses plaisirs: car c’est sotise & vanité. Mais nous nous en deuons seruir, pour en seruir Dieu‘ (69-70).

Set not thy heart on warldlie vanitie
Whose pleasures are with paine sa dearly bought,
Yet presse to play thy part with honestie
And use this warld as gif thou usde it nought.

The sonnet’s last words, ‘Liue heir to die, and die to liue againe’, clearly allude to the final words of Mornay’s Discours – ‘Mourir pour vivre, & vivre pour mourir‘. In other words, both the Scot and the Frenchman end by echoing the epigram found on their title-pages.

2. William Murray: A Short Treatise of Death in Sixe Chapters. Together with the aenigmatic description of old age and death, writen Ecclesiastes 12 chap. exponed and paraphrased in English meeter

​[22]​ The motto ‘I live to die, that I may die to live’, reminiscent of Mornay and Melville, appears on the title-page of a publication which looms in vast bulk between Melville’s concise and poetic Exhortatioun anent Death and William Murray’s Short Treatise of Death.[46] The book in question, which we shall see William Murray implicitly criticising, is Scotland’s most tremendous and least concise Reformed ars moriendi, the 1270 pages of The Last Battell of the Soul in Death (1628, repr. 1629) by the Glasgow minister Zachary Boyd (1585–1653). It is the only Scottish ars moriendi work to have merited any sort of monograph.[47] The Last Battell has only a tenuous connection with easternmost Fife: Boyd’s ‘To the Reader’ pays grateful tribute to two East Neuk landowners whom he met in Edinburgh, Dr George Sibbald of Giblistoun and Sir William Scot of Elie, both linked to the Melville circle.[48] Nonetheless, The Last Battell, born of Boyd’s experience of protracted, near-fatal illness in 1626, needs to be mentioned here, for whether or not Boyd ever read Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death, the sheer scale of his own Last Battell is not unconnected with the brevity of William Murray’s Short Treatise. Boyd states in his preface that after moving from Edinburgh to Glasgow in 1626, he fell ill and ‘was like Epaphroditus, sicke unto deathe’. The result of his recovery, The Last Battell, is modelled on Thomas Becon’s oft-reprinted Sicke Mannes Salve, in which Epaphroditus, ‘sicke nigh unto death’, is visited by his friends for a series of six ‘conferences’ on successive days. In 1970 Nancy Lee Beaty described Becon’s book as ‘a curious blend of Job, the classical dialogue, and perhaps genuine drama as well’: the dying man’s friends ‘quote the Bible, the Fathers, and the Stoics with awesome ease and in overwhelming abundance; and when they do not quote, they paraphrase’.[49]

​[23]​ In the Last Battell, Boyd out-Becons his model, and does so in not six but eight days’ conferences. Interestingly, while Becon’s rabidly anti-Catholic Salve merited little commendation from Sister Mary Catharine O’Connor in 1942, the staunchly Calvinist Last Battell received two pages of wellnigh undiluted praise, inter alia for Boyd’s ‘combination of learning and eloquence and vivid figure’, and the fact that, unlike Becon, ‘never is he the bigot or zealot or pious dreamer or anything other than the good pastor standing by his flock in their last battle with death’.[50] Both impressive and moving, Boyd’s thousand pages deserve better than David Mullan’s 1990 comment that ‘one suspects that if sickness had not finished him [i.e. the dying man], discourse like this must surely have done so’.[51]

​[24]​ William Murray, however, would have loudly applauded Mullan’s condemnation of The Last Battell. Boyd’s and Becon’s vast books were in Murray’s sights, when he tells his dedicateee that his own ‘naturall gift … of vtterance’ was ‘more Laconick than Atticke’, adding that he has striven for ‘shortnesse not only of sentences, but of purpose’, labouring ‘to bee plaine’:

for I think that if either information, or consolation concerning death
might be well contryved in as few short aphorismes, as there be
letters in an A, B, C: it were the better both for the mynd and
memory of the patient in that agonie.[52]

​[25]​ Murray’s entire Short Treatise occupies only forty-seven pages of large print, and amounts to fewer than 8500 words. Murray’s dedicatee was Dame Agnes Murray, ‘Mistresse of Stormonth’. Firstly, he says, because he is her kinsman, secondly because ‘for honour, vertue; viz.Pietie, charitie, sobrietie, I esteem more of your L. than any one of my kinsfolk and surname’, and thirdly because

your L. is not ashamed to professe, I was the man who first taught
you the rudiments of religion, to make you thinke of the way how to
liue well. Now I pray GOD that the reading, and meditation of this
treatise may be a meane to helpe your L. to die well. … I thinke it
needlesse to put a longer Epistle before so little a Booke, least the
head should bee bigger than the bodie, and so the birth monstrous.
So I rest, Your H. Cousine to serue you in the LORD.

Neither Murray nor his Treatise has hitherto garnered interest or comment; in 1925, the twice-published Treatise was so obscure it was not even noted in William Murray’s entry in Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, unlike his Nyne Songs.[53] He was almost entirely overlooked by Scottish historians until 2000.[54] In the great 19th century Wodrow Society editions of no fewer than four major contemporary histories of the period, Murray is actually indexed as his namesake and polar opposite, the royalist-conformist minister of Dysart (whose son William would be created Earl of Dysart by Charles I in 1643).[55]

​[26]​ The minister of Crail came of landowning stock, and by January 1604 was ‘portioner of Ardet’ (modern Airdit), near Balmullo in west Fife.[56] His father, David, originally a ‘pensioner of Brechin’, had bought Ardet in 1584 from his nephew Sir Andrew Murray (d.1590) of Balvaird, head of an important landed family in lowland Perthshire.[57] Murray of Balvaird also owned land at Crail, inter alia.[58] Dame Agnes Murray, Mistresse of Stormonth, was Sir Andrew’s daughter, and William’s words about instructing her in the rudiments of religion suggest that he had some rôle in the Balvaird household after graduation. He began his clerical career in Crail on 12 August 1596, where he assisted the new minister Andrew Duncan, married the widow of the previous incumbent, and was confirmed in the ‘second charge’ in 1600 (Smith 1985: 205).

​[27]​ In 1607, his cousin Sir Andrew Murray (d.1624) of Balvaird, Dame Agnes’s brother, presented him to the first charge, Andrew Duncan having been deported into exile in mainland Europe.[59] Duncan was a perfervid Presbyterian and disciple of Andrew Melville, and from July 1605 until November 1606, he and five other clerics had been imprisoned in Blackness Castle on a charge of high treason, for defending the legitimacy of the abortive General Assembly at Aberdeen on 2 July 1605. Spared the gallows, all six were banished abroad. In 1604, William Murray himself, like James Melville, had been a member of the St Andrews Presbytery delegation sent to Aberdeen to attend a General Assembly scheduled for 31 July, which did not take place (Pitcairn 1842: 561-64).

​[28]​ Murray was likewise amongst the forty-odd ministers who attended the show-trial of Andrew Duncan of Crail and his five fellow-prisoners at Linlithgow in January 1606 (Calderwood vi, 457, 476). Murray’s presence on the eve of the trial was specifically recorded by one of the imprisoned ministers: ‘Mr James Melville came to Blaknes, with Mr John Dikes [his brother-in-law and assistant] and Mr William Murray’ (Forbes 1846: 455). There is a hint that Murray remained a Presbyterian at heart: in February 1620, he was one of several Fife ministers cited before the Court of High Commission ‘to heir and sie themsels deprived for not observing holie dayes, and not ministering the Communion according to the order prescrived at Perth’ (i.e. in keeping with the Five Articles of Perth, and therefore, giving it to kneeling communicants); the ministers refused to conform, but Murray may have done so in due course, since he does not appear to have been deprived.[60]

​[29]​ In 1607, when he took on Duncan’s mantle at Crail, Murray initially had difficulties in obtaining his stipend from those responsible for paying it.[61] But he became an appreciated and diligent pastor of Crail, at least according to liminary verses by an unidentifiable ‘Rob.Crafordus, alias Lunnaeus’ prefixed to Murray’s two publications of 1631. The first of the liminary poems begins:

Bis denos cum laude gregem, & sex insuper annos
Pavisti, illustris praeco, liquore sacro.

[With distinction for twice ten years and another six you nourished
your flock, illustrious preacher, with holy liquor].[62]

​[30]​ The poet addresses Murray as ‘preacher of the Word God amongst the people of Crail’ (verbi divini apud Caralienses praeconem).[63] ‘Minister of Gods Word in Crail’ is how Murray describes himself as on the title page of his second publication of 1631, Nyne Songs, collected out of the Holy Scripture.[64] However, the fact is that on 7 April 1624, after those twenty-six years of illustrious service, the Synod of Fife suspended Murray from his ministry,

pairtlie be his scandalous conversing with Helen Wood, in his awin
wyffis lyftym, [sic] and pairtlie be his precipitating his intendit mariage
with her soon efter the death of his said wyff, quhairby that suspition
hes bien michtelie increased (Kinloch 1824: 100).

The Archbishop and the ‘brethren assemblit’ at the Synod declared that if Murray ‘sal happen at any tym hierefter, to mary sic the said Helen Wood, he sal no wayes be permitted to continow minister at Craill, but salbe depryved theirof’ (ibid 101). Murray appealed against his suspension, and in October 1624, the Synod lifted it, restoring him to the ministry ‘quhairever it sal pleis God to open vnto him a door, excepting only in the kirk and paroche of Craill’ (ibid 204). Other than his publications of 1631, the sole traces of him after this date are found in documents concerning his daughter Margaret, and a mention of him as ‘parson and vicar’ at Eassie and Nevay (in Angus) on 10 December 1633.[65] Since he had been recorded as ‘rector et vicarius’ of Eassie as early as 20 March 1606, it is not clear what, if any, his pastoral connection with the Angus parish actually was.[66]

​[31]​ The epistle dedicatory of Murray’s Short Treatise may end laconically, but it begins in deadly seriousness, and reveals just how personal were the origins of the Treatise:

After that I had receaved some woundes in the house of my friends, I
contracted much melancholy, which brought vpon me so great
sicknesse and weaknesse, that I receaved in my selfe the sentence of
: In the which estate your L. may easily consider, that such a
man as I, both should and would haue deepe meditation of death, and
so indeede I had, being resolved to die at that tyme: yet it was the goodwill
of GOD to continue my life, which hath continued since that tyme, some
sixe yeares or more: therefore I thought it was good for me to make
better preparation against the next assault of that enemie.[67]

Murray explains in a marginal note that ‘some woundes in the house of my friends’ is a quotation from Zechariah 13:6. The wounding and ‘melancholy’ (depression) had happened ‘some sixe yeares or more’ earlier, that is, in 1624, the year of his marital misfortunes and loss of his parish. The richness of what Murray is saying by means of the Biblical quotation cannot be better illuminated than by quoting what Calvin wrote about this verse:[68]

Zechariah … says generally, that false teachers … were worthy of death; and that if they were treated more gently they should yet suffer such a punishment, that they would through life be mutilated and ever bear scars as proofs of their shame. We may at the same time gather from the answer what proves true repentance … ‘What mean these wounds in thine hand? Then he will say, I have been stricken by my friends.’ The Prophet shows that those who had previously deceived the people would become new men, so as patiently to bear correction; though it might seem hard when the hands are wounded and pierced, yet he says that the punishment, which was in itself severe, would bee counted mild, for they would be endued with such meekness as willingly to bear to be corrected.[69]

The import of the Zechariah quotation is that Murray now confesses he had been a false teacher, who had betrayed his calling and ‘deceived the people’ by his affair with the woman who became his second wife. The quotation from Corinthians II, 1:9 underlines the suicidal nature of Murray’s depression. Calvin expounded ‘I receaved in my selfe the sentence of death’ thus:

This is as much as to saye, as ‘I determined, and decreed wyth my selfe to dye.’ But he borroweth a similitude of those which being condemned to dye, looke for nothing but for the houre of death. Notwythstanding he sayth, that he receyued the sentence in himselfe, that is, he pronounced the sentence of death against hymselfe, and in his owne conceyt iudged hymselfe to die: lest he myghte seem to have had the same by Revelation from God.[70]

In the light of this, we can hardly be unmoved by what Murray writes at the end of his fifth chapter, entitled ‘Remedies and comforts against the feare of death, which proceedeth from ignorance, infidelitie, or despaire’:

If Sathan or thy owne conscience trouble thee with these doubts and objections following, answere thus.

Object. 1.

My sinne is so great, that it can not bee pardoned.


No sinne in it selfe is so great but it is pardonable, to everie one that can repent: No cryme so great, but GODS mercie is greater: yea, the sinne against the holy Ghost can not bee forgiven, only because these that fall therein, can not repent. Hebr. 6.

​[32]​ Modern readers of the Treatise, comparing it with Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death, will be struck by just how frequently the former quotes non-Christian Graeco-Roman sources. But it is Melville, rather than Murray, who is unusual for the time: Early Modern Scottish schooling left its products so steeped in Classical (pagan) literature, that it came to the lips of the clergy as naturally as did the Scriptures.[71] Murray begins the first of his opening chapter’s four tiny sections with the words ‘The oft meditation of death is both necessare, and profitable to make vs liue well, and die well’, whereupon he successively quotes and translates three Romans: Seneca (Thyestes, lines 619-20), Horace, and Martial. Next comes a reference to the famous story (also cited early on in Melville’s Exhortatioun anent Death) about Philip of Macedon’s page-boy with his constant reminder ‘Thou art mortall’. Only then do we reach the Treatise‘s first Christian reference, to ‘that holy man Hieronimus’ keeping a skull and hourglass in his study. Murray’s title-page features the skull and hour-glass, yet typically, the words ‘Vive memor lethi, fugit hora’ printed below them come not from St Jerome, but the Roman poet Persius.[72]

​[33]​ The quotations in the second of the chapter’s four sections are all Judaeo-Christian, while those in the third are a mixture, and include, immediately after Ecclesiastes 11:9, the opening lines of an immensely popular anonymous song, devoid of overt religious content, but dismissing all earthly achievement and joy because of their inherent transience.

What if a day, or a month, or a yeare,
Crowne thy delights with a thousand wisht contentings?
Can not the chaunce of a night, or an houre
Crosse thy delights with as many sad tormentings?[73]

Given Murray’s active interest in music, he presumably expected his readers to ‘sing’ these words to their memorable tune (compare James Melville’s quoting of John Hopkins’ Psalm 39). In the final, fourth section of this chapter, Murray cites both the Song of Simeon and the words, ‘into Thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Psalm 31:5), quoted by Christ on the Cross. Good preacher that he was, Murray will reiterate this sentence in his fourth, fifth and sixth chapters.

​[34]​ The second chapter’s opening statement of the three senses in which Death is taken ‘in holy Scripture’ is followed by their systematic exposition. This chapter contains no verse, and the only non-Scriptural quotation is from one of Seneca’s epistles, a favourite resource for the entire Reformed ars moriendi tradition. In the third chapter, ‘Of the feare of death’, Murray not only quotes the Old and New Testaments, but also recites and then paraphrases the Emperor Hadrian’s well-known little poem to his soul, ‘Animula, vagula…’.[74] The chapter had begun by stating that ‘there is a twofold feare of death, wherevnto wee are subject’, and having dealt with the lawful ‘naturall’ feare, he says there is

another kynd of feare of death, which is vnlawfull and sinfull, and therefore to be corrected, striven against, and resisted: this feare of death proceedeth of ignorance, infidelitie, or of despaire. […]

He then, characteristically, proceeds to expound this threefold division.

​[35]​ The start of the fourth chapter on fear of ‘naturall death’ is bracingly direct:

there is no sort of feare of death without paine and trouble to the
patient, as witnesseth the Apostle Iohn, (I.Joh.4.18) saying indefinitly or generally of feare, feare hath torment: Therefore consolations and remedies are to bee sought against all sorts of feare of death.

Murray numbers six remedies, illustrated with the help of quotations overwhemingly Scriptural in origin. But he does also cite Menander (‘hee dyeth young whom God loueth’), Cicero, Seneca and Horace’s famous ‘Pallida mors…’, elegantly translated thus:

With equall foote, death knocks at doors
Of poore mens shoppes, and Princes towres.[75]

​[36]​ The fifth chapter, on fear of ‘unnatural death’, is twice as long as any other; after all, Murray was not unacquainted with the reality of that fear. He begins by referring back to Hadrian’s uncertainty as to his soul’s fate. In defence of the immortality of the soul, two couplets from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a barrage of Scriptural sources are quoted, before Murray returns to the ‘verie Ethnicks’ – Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Plato (on the death of Socrates) — and points out that ‘Christians should be ashamed to feare death through ignorance … seing death is inevitable: the feare of it argues want of fortitude’. He then sets out ‘remedies and comforts’ against the fear of death caused by ‘infidelitie or despaire’, stressing that the sufferer must ‘aboue all things studie to know CHRIST, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings’; Christ, Murray writes, calls death ‘a sleepe, to teach vs that the nature of death is changed to those that beleeue in him’, and ‘in the true knowledge of CHRIST is our comfort, both in life and death’. Another barrage of recommended Scripture reading precedes the closing passage, already quoted, listing six ‘doubts and objections’ and giving lapidary answers to them. In his sixth and final chapter, on ‘the desire of death’, Murray deals directly and succinctly with suicidal desires:

GOD hath put vs in a warrefare, and hath appointed everie one of vs a station, which wee should keepe as obedient Souldiers … those Ethnicks who commonly are accounted magnanimus, that for miscontentment slew themselues … are truely to bee accounted verie cowards, that left their station, not keeping their place, vntill hee that had placed them there had called them from it.

A final prose quotation from Seneca, and then one in verse from that schoolroom standard staple, Disticha Catonis, lead into the final paragraphs, packed with Scripture. The very last of Murray’s quotations, on the subject of how the dying should cope with ‘great paine’, reiterates advice from chapter two: ‘say with the Prophet DAVID, I will hold my tongue O LORD, because thou hast done it: This was Mr. Calvins practise, when hee was dying’.[76] Murray concludes with a simple prayer:

GOD grant we may so liue
that in the houre of death
we may rejoice through

The final consideration of how to deal with ‘great paine’ encapsulates Murray’s ultimately victorious struggle to outface the life-threatening pain of his expulsion — however justified – from the living parish community that had been in his care for two and a half decades. His concentrated, unsentimental and eminently practical Treatise was printed at least twice, which indicates that it found readers at the time.[77]

​[37]​ But, as the latter part of his book’s full title tells us, Murray ends his Treatise with a paratext, namely a brief exposition of ‘the aenigmatick description of old age and death written Ecclesiastes 12’ – a chapter he had thrice quoted in the Treatise proper.[78] The ‘aenigmatick description’ is the famous series of metaphors for old age and death that occupies Ecclesiastes 12: 2 to 7 – a strangely gloomy choice of postliminary material, since while ‘the spirit shall return to God, who gave it’ (verse 7), there is no celebratory promise of the joys of heaven, as there is in Psalm 23, for example. As with the Nyne Songs, Murray provides first a Scriptural text from the Authorised Version (albeit already lightly paraphrased), and then sets out a verse-by-verse prose interpretation of the metaphors, and then forces them into a metrical paraphrase, using the complex ‘solsequium’ song-stanza we encountered earlier in Melville’s psalm-paraphrases of 1597. The choice of this melody in 1631 cannot be a coincidence.

​[38]​ As we have seen, Murray, like James Melville and Lady Culross, appreciated the power of the sung word, even if some of the verses in his psalm-tune equipped Nyne Songs are marred by horrendously contorted syntax (and none of them are outstanding). The tiny verses in the body of the Treatise, however, are competent and sometimes rather appealing. Most of them translate lines from Roman poets, e.g. Horace:

Inter spem, curamque, timores inter & iras,
Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum.

That is to say.

Amidst thy hope, thy care, thy feare, thy wrath,
Thinke everie day thy last, looke for thy death.[79]

​[39]​ But whether read or sung, Murray’s metrical paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 12’s beautiful poetic metaphors is much less agreeable, and indeed rather grotesque. Murray was an intelligent, educated and music-loving man, and paragraphs 44 and 45 below will offer a suggestion as to why he chose to end his Treatise with this distinctly unpoetic song-text. For example, verse 3’s words ‘The grinders cease, because they are few’ become

Our teeth which were, as Milstones faire, gin then to spaire
As broken, loose, and in part lost their store.[80]

The same verse’s words ‘They that looke out at the window are darkned. | The doores are shut in the streets’ become

Also our Opticke vaines,
—–That looked throw
Our eyes broken with paines,
—–Leaue their window.
Then faile[s] our speach, whereby wee teach,
Our hearers for to vnderstand our minde,
That doore is close where throw came voice,
And wee of dumbe men made another kynd.

The last four lines quoted above cannot but remind us that the full Scriptural title of Ecclesiastes is actually ‘Ecclesiastes or the Preacher’. Preaching was central to a minister’s calling. The ageing and now silenced preacher of Crail may well have been implicitly lamenting the loss of his pulpit, not as part of the inexorable decay inherent in this sublunary mortal existence, but as the result of his own folly and the intransigence of his archbishop. And at the same time, by publishing his Treatise and his Nyne Songs, he was showing that he had not abandoned his vocation to ‘teach our hearers’.


​[40]​ The East Neuk’s two artes moriendi were composed on opposite sides of a great watershed in Scottish history. Whether or not Melville’s paratextual poem ‘Come Christ our king’ in the Exhortatioun anent Death voices his awareness of the coming persecution, his abundant late poetry, written in English exile between September 1606 and his death, has much to say about the persecution of the church by tyrants. As does his Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ libellus supplex of 1610.[81] These late writings are very different in tone from the Exhortatioun and the Spirituall Propine; and yet, the pastoral motivation behind them remained unchanged. Melville, now prevented from preaching in Kilrenny, was still writing for ‘the Church of Scotland in generall, the people of the paroch of Kilrennie in speciall, and everie faithfull member of the bodie of Jesus Chryst there, or else where in particular’.[82]

​[41]​ Even as the shades of persecution fell in the second half of 1605, the ‘Solsequium’ psalms, which Melville had applied to such comfortingly pastoral and joyous effect in 1596, reappeared in print, now incorporated into a spectacular sequence of fifteen psalms, plus the Song of Simeon and the Doxology, printed anonymously as The Mindes Melodie. Contayning certayne Psalmes of the Kinglie Prophet David, applied to a new pleasant tune, verie comfortable to everie one that is rightlie acquainted therewith. The booklet was a ‘comfortable’ (i.e. strengthening and uplifting) gesture of support for Andrew Duncan of Crail and the five other Presbyterian ministers imprisoned in Blackness Castle under threat of execution, and it was reprinted in 1606.[83] In November 1606, the Blackness prisoners sailed into exile, after Melville and seven leading Presbyterian clerics had already been summoned to London and placed under house-arrest. James Melville never saw Scotland again.

​[42]​ William Murray was a friend and colleague of the sufferers of 1605-1608. In 1631, the year of Murray’s Short Treatise, Charles I tried to impose the new metrical ‘Psalms of King James’ on the Kirk – a foretaste of other liturgical changes and a new Book of Canons to come from London later in the 1630s.[84] Murray’s choice of the ‘Solsequium’ tune and stanza surely alludes to the passing of all the youthful hopes of the 1590s and the combative energy of the 1600s, which he and others had known in the distant days of the flourishing spiritual community of the East Neuk. Murray will not only have known Melville’s Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death, but been personally acquainted with its dedicatee James Lumsden, who died two years after Murray is first recorded as working in Crail. Furthermore, as an active supporter of the six ministers imprisoned in Blackness Castle, Murray must have been familiar with the ‘comfortable’ Scriptural paraphrases of The Mindes Melodie, using the Solsequium stanza and melody. Some at least of Murray’s readers will also have known The Mindes Melodie and its associations with the doomed struggle against King James’s onslaught on the Kirk’s autonomy. The original metaphors that comprise Ecclesiastes 12 are of great beauty, unlike Murray’s prose exposition. His verse paraphrase is positively ugly, so that the poem’s beautiful melody and all its various existing associations are rendered incongruous. (Mutatis mutandis, the jarring effect that Murray has created is not unlike that of the incongruous and often distorted popular melodies and waltz rhythms found in the music of Mahler and Shostakovich.) At the very least, we can suggest that the strange, limping, grotesque song that ends Murray’s Treatise was actually intended as the laconic minister’s idiosyncratic elegy for, and oblique homage to James Melville and the East Neuk’s spiritual community.[85]

​[43]​ Murray’s final stanza may even contain a coded warning to followers of the royal establishment which had persecuted Melville and Murray’s other colleagues:

And that round Wheele, which once did reele, as we now feel
—-Is broken downe, even right aboue the Well:
I meane the head, when wee are dead, stands in no stead,
—-To draw vp foode from livers stell.
——-Earth doth then to earth returne,
———Even man to dust;
——-His Spirit to GOD is borne,
———Who is most iust.

Murray begins by paraphrasing verse seven’s ‘wheel broken at the cistern’, and then the whole of verse 8 is covered in just three lines; whereupon Murray himself adds that, at death, the God to whom the spirit is borne ‘is most just’, the adjective making a deft allusion to the Last Judgement. The poem ends by paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 12:1:

Remember man, thy Maker then,
When thou art young and strong, before these dayes:
For thou wilt wearie, and cannot tarry,
To serue thy God, and sorrow for thy sinnes alwayes.

That last line, however, is Murray’s own contribution: ‘Serve thy God’ — rather than thy king, perhaps?

​[44]​ In 1631, Murray could not know whither the policies of King Charles and Archbishop Laud would lead.[86] Nor could he even dream that as early as 1634, his long-dead friend Melville’s voice would be heard again, with the publication (in Holland) of an abbreviated text of the devastating poetic attack on royal tyranny, The Black Bastell, written by the banished pastor of Kilrenny in 1611.[87] Yet even in 1631, William Murray seems still to have retained something of his own early radicalism, writing in Nyne Songs that ‘Kings, Princes and potentates have neede to be exhorted to make the judgements of God upon their Peeres, for pride so blinds their mindes, that they mis-ken both God & man’.[88] Nyne Songs was not reissued, but the Short Treatise was. The original ‘Solsequium’, its subject the perennial impermanence of both night and day, was ‘perhaps the most ubiquitous Montgomerie song’ and ‘also the most ubiquitous of his poems’.[89] Murray’s Ecclesiastes paraphrase, therefore, must have reminded at least some of its readers of the fact that since all things under the sun pass, so too would the episcopal and political order imposed by James VI and reinforced by his son. For, as the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes 8:9-12:

There is a time when one man ruleth over another to his own hurt. And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had done so […] Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.


School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow

Acknowledgements: I would like to voice my thanks to Laura Doak and Rebecca Mason for their extreme patience, to the anonymous readers for their comments, and to the editors of the JNR.


​[1]: English Short Title Catalogue (hereafter ESTC) (2nd ed)/18167 and 18168. I have followed modern practice in using the form ‘Murray’, but his printers spelled his name ‘Morray’, ‘Morrey’ and ‘Moray’, and only under ‘Morray’ can he be found in EEBO (Early English Books Online). In the copy of STC 18167 used for EEBO, a contemporary hand (the author’s own?) has made a dozen small manuscript emendations. These concern marginal references, four tiny textual corrections, and a single rhyme-word in the closing poem (see note 80 below). However, with the exception of ‘in’ for ‘into’ in the second line of the epistle dedicatory, no corrections were made in 1633 for STC 18168, even though the text had been re-set, as both the last page and the orthographical variants show. ​[back to text]​

​[2]: ESTC (2nd ed.)/17815.5.​[back to text]​

[3]: The process of putting Robert in possession of the estate began well before 1598; see Erskine Beveridge. 1893. The Churchyard Memorials of Crail (privately printed: Edinburgh), 132-55, at 149.​[back to text]​

[4]: J Reid Baxter. 2017. ‘New Light from Fife’, The Innes Review, 68:1:38-77, at 65-66 and 73-74. An important, hitherto unnoticed contributory factor to the spiritual malaise afflicting Isobell Cor has subsequently come to light. In The Historical Works of Sir James Balfour of Denmylne, 4 vols. (Edinburgh, 1824), i, 398, we read that in 1596, Isobell’s husband Robert Lumsden, in partnership with his wealthy merchant father-in-law Clement Cor, charged exorbitant prices for a great stock of ‘wictuall of all sortes’ that they had bought up cheap, whereupon ‘the ministers throughe all the shyre pronuncid the cursse of God aganist them, as the grinders of the faces of the poore; wich cursse [sic] too manifestly lighted on them befor ther deathes’ — in the shape of their being utterly bankrupted by their heavy investment in the failed Second Plantation of Lewis, 1605-07.​[back to text]​

[5]: Smith, ‘Presbytery of St Andrews’, passim. See also no’d paragraphs 29 and 30 for their joint-activities in 1604 and 1606.​[back to text]​

[6]: Gordon Raeburn, ‘Rewriting Death and Burial in Early-Modern Scotland’, Reformation & Renaissance Review, 18:3, 254-272, provides a useful list, to which can be added

(a) the earliest Scottish post-Reformation publication concerning good dying, a Scots verse paraphrase of Clément Marot included by Robert Norvell at Edinburgh in 1561 in his book The Meroure of ane Chrstiane [sic], STC 18688: ‘How death doeth answer maike and send: to them that do him vilipend, Translated forth of frainshe’, i.e. a Scots translation of the twenty-one rhyme-royal stanzas headed ‘Comment la mort sur le propos de republicque parle à tous humains’, which constitute the penultimate of the four sections of Marot’s long poem, ‘La déploration de Florimond Robertet’;

(b) William Cowper’s treatise A Defiance to Death. Wherein, besides sundry heauenly instructions for a godly life, we haue strong and notable comforts to vphold vs in death (London, 1610, republished in 1616), STC (2nd ed.) 5917, c.32 500 words written for and dedicated ‘to Sir Thomas Stewart of Gairntilie [i.e. Grandtully] and his vertuous Ladie, Grizzell Mercer’, in the wake of Stewart’s near-fatal illness. Cowper’s treatise expounds 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (which is quoted complete on page 32 of Melville’s Exhortatioun);

(c) William Struthers’ treatise (so called at the head of its list of contents),  A RESOLVTION FOR DEATH, written vnder the sentence of Death, in the time of a painfull Disease. And now published for their comfort who studie to approue themselues to God: And to assure all that liue the life of the Righteous, that they shall die the death of the Righteous. This is the second, separately paginated part of Struthers’ Christian observations and resolutions, or, The daylie practise of the renewed man, turning all occurrents to spirituall uses, and these uses to his vnion with God I. centurie. First published at Edinburgh in 1628, it was reissued  in 1629 both at Edinburgh and London. Struthers (c.1579-1633), minister of Edinburgh,  had fallen ill in December 1627. His treatise runs to some 14 400 words, and although laid out as sixty-six generally very short numbered sections, is in fact a single impassioned prayer, packed with purely Scriptural allusions and quotations. Its literary quality can be judged from these two paragraphs, in which Struthers is addressing his soul:

[27] Will thou know what is this noyse about thee, it is the hand of thy Lord softlie loosing the pinnes, and slakening the coards of thy Tabernacle, it is the noyse of his Chariots that hee hath sent from Heauen to bring thee to him: Olde Iakob reuiued when he saw Iosephs Chariots to bring him to Egypt, though his posteritie were thereafter in thrall, shall thou not bee glad to goe vp in these Coaches to Heauen, where thou shalt euer bee with Ioseph, and vnder a good King, who knoweth Ioseph, and will neuer die.

[28] This noyse is nothing but the sound of Christs key opening thy prison and fetters: Lift vp thine head and rejoyce, for thy Redemption is at hand, hee that is to come, will come and not delay: Behold hee commeth, and his reward is with him. Thou shall heare in due time the voyce of thy beloued crying, Arise my spouse, my beloued, arise, and come away, for the winter of thy calamitous life is gone, the raines of thine affliction are passed. Cant 2.

​[back to text]​

[7]: STC 3482 and Wing B4104. See under those years in the online National Library of Scotland site Scottish Books 1505-1700 (Aldis Updated). <https://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-books-1505-1640>.​[back to text]​

[8]: The publication of so furiously anti-Roman a tract in these specific years may reflect Scottish historical circumstances and the Presbyterian belief in the threat of a return to Rome underpinning the establishment of any form of church hierarchy. In 1584, the Huguenot Vautrollier could have been motivated by the Black Acts and the episcopalising Crown’s persecution of Presbyterians, cf. his 1584 publication of Henrie Balnaves’ Confession of Faith. In 1600, the puritan Waldegrave may have been responding to rapidly growing suspicion of James VI’s hierarchising reorganisation of the Kirk. Finally, the Kirk’s problems with Catholics in 1613 may have motivated the Presbyterian stalwart Andro Hart – see Alan R. MacDonald. 1998. The Jacobean Kirk 1567-1625 (London: Routledge), 153.​[back to text]​

[9]: I would like to thank Prof. Atkinson for his kindness in supplying me with the texts of various inaccessible articles.​[back to text]​

[10]: In fact, O’Connor, discussing ‘the England of Elizabeth and the Stuarts’ on page 191, ignores both Melville and the kingdom of James VI, describing the unattributed Exhortatioun as a book of ‘the Elizabethan age’.​[back to text]​

[11]: Margo Todd’s The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (Yale: Yale University Press, 2002) is not a literary study, and makes no reference to Melville’s or Murray’s treatises.​[back to text]​

[12]: Work on James Melville has been hampered for decades by the fact that A Morning Vision was not photographed for the microfilms underpinning EEBO.​[back to text]​

[13]: McCallum. 2010. Reforming the Scottish Parish, 108-13. For the tunes, see Timothy Duguid. 2014. Metrical Psalmody in Print and Practice: English ‘Singing Psalms’ and Scottish ‘Psalm Buiks’, c.1547-1640 (Farnham: Ashgate), 213-14.​[back to text]​

[14]: McCallum, Reforming the Scottish Parish, 119. With Murray’s book, compare e.g. Dudley Fenner, The Song of Songs, that is, the most excellent song which was Solomons, translated out of the Hebrue into English meeter with as little libertie in departing from the wordes, as any plaine translation in prose can vse: and interpreted by a short commentarie (Middelburg, 1587, reprinted 1594), where each metrical chapter is assigned a psalm-tune. As early as 1543, Clément Marot had published a singing version of the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29–32) that was immediately incorporated into the French Protestant psalter, while the long-lived English metrical paraphrases of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were first printed as early as 1556 (see Beth Quitslund. 2008. The Reformation in Rhyme: Sternhold, Hopkins and the English Metrical Psalter, 1547-1603 (Aldershot: Ashgate), 279). Theodore Beza assigned psalm tunes to the singing versions of no fewer than seventeen Scriptural cantiques he published in 1595, seven of them paraphrasing texts later found in Murray’s Nyne Songs. By 1631, Scottish metrical psalters included a certain number of canticles and hymns taken from the English Whole Booke of Psalmes, including the 1556 Magnificat and Nunc dimittis texts. Whether these ‘canticles’ were ever sung in kirk is as yet unascertained. From 1615, some Scottish psalters also featured James Melville’s ‘Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32’, to the tune of Psalm 3. Nonetheless, Murray made his own metrical versions of all three of these texts.​[back to text]​

[15]: See pages 17-19, where successive paragraphs begin ‘next’,’thirdly’, ‘fourthlie’, and ‘And last’.​[back to text]​

[16]: See also John McCallum. 2014. ‘”Sone and Servant”: Andrew Melville and his Nephew, James (1556-1614)’, in R. A. Mason and S. J. Reid, eds. Andrew Melville (1545-1622), Writings, Reception and Reputation (Farnham: Ashgate), 201-14. A full bibliography of the exiguous writing on James Melville’s poetry (up to 2016) is given in note 1 to J. Reid Baxter, ‘James Melville and the Releife of the Longing Soule: a Scottish presbyterian Song of Songs?’ in Medievalia et Humanistica no.41 (December, 2015), 209-28.​[back to text]​

[17]: These lines are also found at the end of an eye-witness account of Melville’s death on 19 January 1614, which survives in a copy made in 1649; see National Library of Scotland Adv.MS.34.7.10, pp. 195-207. A transcript was printed in Pitcairn 1842: lvi-lxiv.​[back to text]​

[18]: A translation of the epigram Ut tibi mors felix contingat, vivere disce, / ut felix possis vivere, disce mori by the Ferrarese humanist Celio Calcagnini (1479-1541). Paschal de l’Estocart’s polyphonic settings of the Latin and the French texts, published in Sacrae Cantiones (1582), are tracks 10 and 24 of the CD Deux coeurs aimants RAM0703 (2007).​[back to text]​

[19]: NLS, Adv. MS. 19.2.7, ff.42-58v. The present writer first addressed this discovery in his unpublished paper ‘King David, Charles IX and James VI as tyrants: Beza, Belleau, Melville and the Miserere’ at the University of Kent conference ‘New Perspectives on the Auld Alliance’, 21-22 June 2016, and revisited it in four unpublished presentations on James Melville given at the universities of Glasgow (2016), Aberdeen (2018), Edinburgh (April 2019) and Durham (May 2019).​[back to text]​

[20]: See Sally Mapstone. 2013. ‘James Melville’s Revisions to A Spirituall Propine and A Morning Vision’ in David J. Parkinson, ed. 2013. James VI and I, Literature and Scotland: Tides of Change (Leuven: Peeters), 173-92, at 183-88; see also Melville’s dixain recommending to James VI that he translate Dubartas’ La Sepmaine, in J. Reid Baxter, ‘The Nyne Muses, an unknown Renaissance Sonnet-Sequence John Dykes and the Gowrie Conspiracy’, in K. Dekker and A. A. MacDonald (eds.) 2005. Royalty, Rhetoric and Reality (Leuven: Peeters), 197-218, at 202 and n.17.​[back to text]​

[21]: 1576 edition, 20-24; Mornay reprises the ages of man more concisely on 53-54.​[back to text]​

[22]: Exhortatioun, sig.2v (unnumbered). The page-numbering, however, begins with the title-page itself, since the main text’s second page is numbered 8.​[back to text]​

[23]: Exhortatioun, sig.2v. For Douglas’s active commitment to the ‘Melvillian’ cause in the town in 1593, see Pitcairn 1842: 314.​[back to text]​

[24]: It is worth noting the parallels with William Cowper’s A Defiance to Death. Cowper tells Sir William Stewart that he has offered ‘the Treatis following … partly to testifie my vnfeined affection toward you in the Lord ; for that unfeined and incorrupt loue … ye haue alway carried toward the truth of the Gospell … and partly that ye may be remembered of these instructions concerning life and death : which ye receiued from vs by hearing … and vnto the practise whereo shortly ye must be called, for albeit it is not long, since it pleased the Lord beyond all expectation of man to deliuer you out of the handes of the Sergeants & officers of death [i.e. sickness and disease], which had violently seased vpon you, and threatned to slay you both, your selfe by sickenesse, your Ladie by the sorrow of desolation, more heauie then death vnto her: yet are yea to knowe (and I doubt not, are preparing you for it) that the same battell will shortly be renued against you, wherin both of you must bee diuorced from other, and diuided from your owne bodies’ (sig.A5 rv). As minister of the second charge at Perth since 1595, and until 1608 a militant presbyterian, Cowper may well have known Melville’s Exhortatioun; his senior colleague John Malcolm, minister of the first charge, was a lifelong presbyterian and friend of Andrew Melville. See the liminary verses to Malcolm by Melville and John Johnston in his Commentarius in Apostolorum Acta (Middelburg, 1615).​[back to text]​

[25]: Again, there are parallels at the end of Cowper’s epistle: ‘if these little fruites of my Ministery may serue any way to confirme you in the end, as some way they haue comforted in the iourney: and if for your sake they may bee profitable to others, who constantly keeps with you the same course toward the face of Iesus Christ, it shall be no small comfort vnto me, knowing thereby that I haue not runne, nor laboured in vaine’.​[back to text]​

[26]: Buchanan is never named, but simply described as ‘the prince of Christian poets’ on 9 and ‘our poet’ on 30.​[back to text]​

[27]: That is, the Anglo-Genevan ‘proper tune’ for Psalm 29, appointed for Psalm 39 in 1564, rather than the proper tune for Psalm 15, as suggested in Charteris’ CL Psalmes of 1596. See Timothy Duguid. 2014. Metrical Psalmody, 145. For private as well as public psalm-singing, see ibid., 205-206​[back to text]​

[28]: Exhortatioun, sig.2 and 2v:  ‘I fell upon the minutes of a certaine Sermon… I recognosced the heads of the samin, and fostered a peece of meditatioun upon the pointes thairof’.​[back to text]​

[29]: Melville’s warmly intimate, conversationally flowing pastoral discourse can usefully be contrasted with Ninian Campbell’s stilted, rigidly structured Treatise upon Death first publickly delivered in a funerall sermon, anno Dom. 1630 And since enlarged By N.C. Preacher of Gods word in Scotland at Kilmacolme in the baronie of Renfrew of 1635 (ESTC 2nd ed.) / 4533), on Hebrews 9:27, with a hyperabundance of quotations in Greek and Latin, both Christian and pagan; and indeed with the unstilted and virtually pagan-free, but eminently well signposted, systematic, phrase-by-phrase exposition of 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 that constitutes William Cowper’s A Defiance to Death.​[back to text]​

[30]: William Cowper’s A Defiance to Death of 1610 concludes with the same verse, slightly recast: ‘If our life be the life of the righteous, out of doubte wee shall dye the death of the righteous’ (381); the coincidence, if such it be, is rather striking.​[back to text]​

[31]: Melville’s poem appears to indicate his familiarity with an earlier poem (first printed c.1582) which uses this verse-form to discuss the Last Days at colossally greater length: see J. Reid Baxter ‘James Anderson and His Poem The Winter Night‘ in Luuk Houwen (ed.). 2012. Literature and Religion in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scotland: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald (Leuven: Peeters), 145-165.​[back to text]​

[32]: See Exhortatioun, 12,15, 16, 60 and 61.​[back to text]​

[33]: Melville had earlier used the phrase ‘man of sinne’ in the quite different Pauline sense (Ephesians 4 :22): ‘we sall finde na losse at all, vnlesse thou wald esteeme the losse of thine enemie to be losse: for indeed, that olde man of sinne by death is destroyed, and alluterlie mortified and vndone.’ (48).​[back to text]​

[34]: For Melville’s account and interpretation of ‘the 17 December’, as it became known, see Pitcairn 1842: 516-22.​[back to text]​

[35]: Robert Rollock, friend and former St Andrews colleague of both Andrew and James Melville, had voiced this doctrine in ‘Patria alloquitur Regem suum’, his third liminary epigram to George Buchanan’s Rerum Scotorum Historia (1582). Rollock writes of two sceptres: that of King James rules Scotland, but Christ’s sceptre rules both Scotland and King James.​[back to text]​

[36]: See Thomas Thomson, ed. 1842-49. History of the Kirk of Scotland by David Calderwood, 8 vols (Edinburgh), v, 174, and Reid Baxter, ‘New Light from Fife’, 63-64.​[back to text]​

[37]: Poems of Elizabeth Melville, ed. J. Reid Baxter (Edinburgh, 2010), 72-91, lines 28-48, 386, 425-26. For Lady Culross’s East Neuk friends, see ‘New Light from Fife’, passim.​[back to text]​

[38]: See Julian Goodare. 2008. ‘The Attempted Scottish Coup of December 1596’, in J. Goodare and A. A. MacDonald (eds.) Sixteenth Century Scotland: Essays in Honour of Michael Lynch (Brill: Leiden), 311-36.​[back to text]​

[39]: Melville loved this parable. On his deathbed in 1614, ‘Quhen the fyve wyse virgines wer rememberit … he putt his hand to his heart, and chaped thryse on it’ (Pitcairn 1842: lxii).​[back to text]​

[40]: Revelation 4 :8-10, 5 :9-13, 7 :11-12, 14 :2-3, 19 :1-3, 6-7.​[back to text]​

[41]: See Simon Goulart, Mémoires de l’estat sous Charles IX, 3 vols,  Seconde édition […]. Meidelbourg [i.e. Geneva] H. Wolf [i.e. E. Vignon], i, 221-32.  Goulart’s text, identical in all editions of his Mémoires de l’estat,  draws heavily on the anonymous Brief discours sur  la mort de la Royne de Navarre advenue à Paris le IX jour de juin 1572, (np),  but the latter is not Melville’s source either. In the short sample below, the differences from the French are highlighted in bold in the Scots:

Goulart f.225v

Et adiousta ceste similitude, que tout ainsi qu’vn Roy voulant grandement honorer quelq’vn, luy monstroit sa Cour, ses princes, ses estats, ses maisons, & ses ioyaux plus precieux: ainsi, que Dieu vn iour desployeroit sa gloire, & sa Maiesté, voire tous ses thresors à ses fideles & esleus, lors qu’il les auroit attirez à soy, & qu’il les embelliroit, & enrichiroit de lumiere, incorruption & immortalité. Au moyen de quoy, puis qu’ell ne se deuoit beaucoup soucier de quitter ce monde, veu que pour vn Royaume terrien qu’elle delaissoit, elle heritoit le Royaume des cieux, & pour les biens qui ne faisoyent que passer, & s’escrouler, elle iouyroit à tousiours de ceux qui estoyent eternels.  Et ce d’autant qu’elle auoit ferme fiance en nostre Seigneur Iesus Christ, & qu’elle s’asseuroit de son salut par luy. Et sur ce mot, il s’addressa particulierment à elle, luy demandant si elle ne croyoit pas que Iesus Christ fust son sauueur, & que par son sang il eust fait la purgation de tous nos pechez. 

Melville, p.88

There he added therevnto this similitude, that even as a potent and magnifick rich King, willing to honor gretly some stranger, he shewes him his Court, his Princes, his Estates, his store-houses, and his most precious Iewels, he intertaines him delicately, he feedes his eies with pleasant spectacles, his eares with sweet musick, his taste and smelling with fragrant odours, &c. Even so, God wald some day display and laye open his Glory and Majestie; yea, even all his treasures vnto his Elect and Faithfull: even then, when he sall retyre them from this miserie vnto himself, in his heuenlie Kingdome of glory; where he sall highlie honour them, and decore them with Light, incorruption, and immortalitie. Wherefore, seeing that sik was the felicitie of the happie and glorified, shee suld not greatly care to quyte the warld, in sa far, as for ane earthly Realm, quhilk she left, she suld inherit the Kingdome of Heaven: and for goods and ritches corruptible, shee suld enjoye for ever sik, as culd not wither nor passe away: omission  & thereafter he addressed himselfe particularlie to her, demaunding of her, gif she beleeued that Iesus Christ was her Saviour, quha had by his bluid made a purgation for all her sinnes.

​[back to text]​

[42]: See J. Reid Baxter, ‘Montgomerie’s Solsequium and The Mindes Melodie‘ in J D McLure and J Hadley Williams (eds.). 2013. Fresche Fontanis: Proceedings of the 13th Triennial Conference on Mediaeval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 363-73. Melville’s example of how to send the readers of a very serious book away singing cheerfully may well have been Lady Culross’s inspiration to append an equally tuneful postliminary song to the apocalyptic conclusion of Ane Godlie Dreame. See Poems of Elizabeth Melville, 94-95. James Melville’s Psalm 23 is track 16 of the CD Thus spake Apollo myne, GAU 249 (2002).​[back to text]​

[43]: For Melville and intertextuality, see ‘The Releife of the longing soule’, 216-22.​[back to text]​

[44]: See the 1593 London print of the 2nd edition, f.48v of Pars tertia (STC (2nd ed.) / 2061.5; EEBO image 257).​[back to text]​

[45]: See Roderick Lyall. 2005. Alexander Montgomerie: Poetry, Politics and Cultural Change in Jacobean Scotland (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Tempe), 296-98. Most of Melville’s sonnets await scholarly consideration, but see Lyall, ibid., 303-306, and Sarah C. Ross, in ‘Elizabeth Melville and the Religious Sonnet Sequence in England and Scotland’, in Susan J. Wiseman (ed.). 2014. Early Modern Women and the Poem (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 42-59, at 52-55.​[back to text]​

[46]: William Cowper had likewise written near the start of A Defiance of Death: ‘It is therefore a special point of wisdom, so to liue, that by liuing wee may learne to die, that a godly life may prepare the way to a happy death’.​[back to text]​

[47]: David W. Atkinson. 1977. ‘Zachary Boyd and the Ars Moriendi tradition’, Scottish Literary Journal, 4, 5-16.​[back to text]​

[48]: See McCrie, Life of Andrew Melville, ii, 277-78 and 422-23 respectively.​[back to text]​

[49]: Beaty, Craft of Dying, 113, 114.​[back to text]​

[50]: O’Connor, The Art of Dying Well, 205.​[back to text]​

[51]: David George Mullan. 2000. Scottish Puritanism 1590-1638 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 122. Melville’s Exhortatioun is briefly quoted on the same page and elsewhere, e.g. 41.​[back to text]​

[52]: Short Treatise, second and third pages (unnumbered).​[back to text]​

[53]: Volume V, 192.​[back to text]​

[54]: See the index entries for Murray in Mullan, Scottish Puritanism, and in McCallum, Reforming the Scottish Parish. The earlier lack of serious scholarly interest in Murray is amply demonstrated in the English Short Title Catalogue’s suggested date of ‘1634’ for the Nyne Songs, the only extant title-page having had its date trimmed off. In fact, the book’s dedication and liminary poem conclusively prove that the real date is 1631. The dedicatee of Nyne Songs is the ‘Right Honorable the Vicount [sic] of Stormont, Lord of Scone and of Balwhidder, Stewart of Fife, &c’, who, as Murray says, had been ‘Captaine of the guard’ and was now in ‘old age’. This is David Murray of Gospertie, who would die on 27 August 1631, when he was succeeded by Mungo Murray, hitherto Master of Stormont. Robert Crawford’s liminary poem tells us the author has ‘not long since’ (non ita pridem) published his ‘other’ little book (libellus) ‘de morte’, i.e. A Short Treatise – in which Agnes is addressed not as ‘Lady’ of Stormont, but as ‘Mistresse’ thereof, i.e. her husband was still only the Master (Scots Peerage, Sir James Balfour Paul, Scots Peerage, 9 vols. (Edinburgh, 1904-1914), viii, 191-97). 1631 had been suggested in the standard Scottish bibliographical tool, Harry G. Aldis’ List of Books printed in Scotland before 1700 (1904), twenty years before the creation of the Short Title Catalogue in 1926. But the latter’s attitude to Scottish facts is insouciantly high-handed: James VI, for example, can be found only as ‘James I, King of England, 1566-1625’, while Elizabeth Melville is called ‘Colville’ after her husband, in unscholarly, flat denial of Scottish reality.​[back to text]​

[55]: Calderwood’s History, edited by Thomas Thomson, JMAD, edited by Robert Pitcairn, and An Apologetical Narration … by William Scot, and Certaine Records … by John Forbes (Edinburgh, 1846), edited by David Laing. Laing did distinguish between the two men in his later Original Letters, relating to the ecclesiastical affairs of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1851). See ‘New Light from Fife’, 72, fn.121. For William Murray of Dysart, see Scots Peerage, iii, 398-99.​[back to text]​

[56]: Register of the Great Seal of Scotland [hereinafter RMS], 11 vols. (Edinburgh: General register house, 1882-1914), vi, item 1500.​[back to text]​

[57]: Scots Peerage, viii, 186-97.​[back to text]​

[58]: RMS, v, items nos.661 and 1776.​[back to text]​

[59]: Fasti, v, 192. Duncan was permitted to return to Crail after eight years’ exile (Calderwood, History, vii, 181), only to fall foul of the Court of High Commission in 1619 due to his defiance of the Five Articles of Perth (ibid. 377, 443, 470, 511).​[back to text]​

[60]: Calderwood, History, vii, 413. Contrast the fate of his associate, Andrew Duncan.​[back to text]​

[61]: See the actions raised by Murray and his wife Janet Moncreiff between February and May 1609, NRS, CS 7/242, fol. 29; CS 7/241/165r-167v, 186r-187v, 187v-189r. My thanks to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich for supplying me with this information.​[back to text]​

[62]: Short Treatise, first page (unnumbered); Crawford’s liminary poem to Nyne Songs affirms that Olim voce gregem pascebas sedulus (Of old you would zealously feed your flock by the spoken word). Translations mine.​[back to text]​

[63]: The second poem, headed ‘to the same, and to the reader’ praises the practical usefulness of the book in the highest terms. The author was one David Maxwell, presumably the Crail notary (and ‘reader’ in the kirk) – see National Archives (London), SP 46/129/fo142, obligation by Andrew Wood, maltman, bgs of Crail, 4 February 1624: ‘David Maxwell notary and writer hereof’. John Durkan. 2013. Scottish Schools and Schoolmasters 1560-1633, (Edinburgh: Scottish History Society), 258, notes that a David Maxwell, notary and ‘reader’, is recorded as schoolmaster in Crail between January 1585 and May 1605.​[back to text]​

[64]: STC (2nd ed.) 18166.​[back to text]​

[65]: Inquisitionum Ad Capellam Domini Regis Retornatarum … Abbrevatio, 4 vols (Edinburgh, 1811- 1816), I, no. 343; RMS, viii, item 1179; Fasti, v, 259.​[back to text]​

[66]: RMS, vi, item no.1726.​[back to text]​

[67]: Short Treatise, first page (unnumbered).​[back to text]​

[68]: We cannot know whether Murray knew this particular commentary, but A Short Treatise, on pages 12 and 41, reveals his familiarity with Calvin’s writings.​[back to text]​

[69]: Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, tr. John Owen, vol.5 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 392-93.​[back to text]​

[70]: A commentarie vpon S. Paules epistles to the Corinthians. Written by M. Iohn Caluin: and translated out of Latine into Englishe by Thomas Timme minister (London, 1577), fol.207 rv.
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[71]: See J. Reid Baxter. ‘Mr Andrew Boyd (1567-1636), Bishop of Argyll: a Neo-Stoic Bishop of Argyll and his Writings’ in Julian Goodare and Alasdair A. MacDonald, (eds.) Sixteenth Century Scotland: Essays in Honour of Michael Lynch, 395-426, passim, for the bishop’s love of quoting from Lucian of Samosata and Seneca, amongst others, even in his funeral sermons. Ninian Campbell also lavishly quotes pagan writers in his Treatise upon Death of 1635. However, William Cowper’s A Defiance of Death, packed with quotations from the Church Fathers including St Bernard, rarely mentions Graeco-Roman pagan writers, and this is even truer of Zachary Boyd’s Last Battell, for all its length. William Struthers’ Resolution for Death  eschews non-Scriptural quotations entirely.​[back to text]​

[72]: ‘Live mindful of death: time is flying’, Satire 5, 153.​[back to text]​

[73]: For an attempted Scottish contrafactum sacrum of this song, often wrongly attributed to Campion, see (and hear) paragraphs [12] and [13] here:
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[74]: William Cowper had quoted this poem in his Defiance to Death, 12, as an instance of how pagan philosophy has no answer to death.​[back to text]​

[75]: Odes, 1.4.13-14; on the fifth (unnumbered) page of the Treatise, lines 9-10 of David Maxwell’s liminary poem had quoted Horace’s original Latin. ‘Doors’ in Scots was pronounced with a long ‘u’ sound, and therefore rhymes perfectly with Scots ‘towres’ (pr. ‘toors’).​[back to text]​

[76]: Psalm 36:9: Treatise, 12, 41​[back to text]​

[77]: ESTC (2nd ed.) / 18168.​[back to text]​

[78]: Melville and Cowper had discussed this passage early on in their respective treatises: Exhortatioun, 15, A Defiance to Death, 38-42. Murray may very well have known Cowper’s Defiance, just as William Struthers may well have known both Murray’s and Cowper’s treatises, but reasons of space preclude any proper investigation of the many parallels and possible influence.​[back to text]​

[79]: Epistularum Liber Primus, IV, 12-13; the Scots rhyme ‘wraith / daith’ is one of several instances of Murray’s use of Scots pronunciation (cf. ‘doores’ and ‘towres’). His usage is inconsistent: the Ecclesiastes 12 paraphrase includes both ‘that doore is close where throw came voice‘ (i.e. ‘voce’), and ‘And then our voice, which made sweete noyse’.​[back to text]​

[80]: The printed rhyme word in both 1631 and 1633 is ‘skaire’, i.e. ‘share’, in the sense of ‘allotted part or rôle’ (see Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue). However, in the 1631 print copy used for EEBO, a contemporary hand has forcefully blacked out ‘skaire’ and added the correct rhyme-word for line 2’s ‘though strong before’, namely ‘store’, in the sense of ‘abundance’ (See Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, acceptation 3). ​[back to text]​

[81]: Published at London in 1645; the far from identical manuscript text of 1610 is in Edinburgh University Library, Melvini Epistolae, MS. Dc6.4, where it is entitled Oratio apologetica vel libellus supplex ad Regem.​[back to text]​

[82]: National Library of Scotland, Adv.Ms.19.2.7, f. 16 For a discussion of the late poetry, see J. Reid Baxter, ‘James Melville and the Releife of the Longing Soule.’​[back to text]​

[83]: ESTC (2nd ed.) / 18051, 18051.3. See ‘Montgomerie’s Solsequium and The Mindes Melodie‘, 365-74.​[back to text]​

[84]: For the new psalter of 1631, see Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (OUP, 1949) 80-88.​[back to text]​

[85]: Murray’s Treatise and Nyne Songs are not the only posthumous tribute to James Melville’s inspiring example. Five years after the former minister of Kilrenny’s death in January 1614, his ghost had been the protagonist of a polemical ‘dialogue’ set in Edinburgh in January 1619: see J. Reid Baxter. 2017. ‘Posthumous Preaching: James Melville’s ghostly advice in Ane Dialogue (1619), with an edition from manuscript’ Studies in Scottish Literature, 43: 1, 41-71, https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/ssl/vol43/iss1/9/.​[back to text]​

[86]: The 1631 first edition actually ends with a visual image that could in fact indicate that Murray hoped things would change, namely, the wheel of fortune, inscribed ‘OMNIA SVBIACENT VICISSITUDINI’ and ‘SOLA VIRTUS CADERE NON POTEST’. Falconer Madan’s The Early Oxford Press (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1895), 289, notes this as a printer’s device known from Oxford prints of 1592-93, 1620 and 1629. The device, however, takes on quite particular significance when juxtaposed with the conclusion of Murray’s Ecclesiastes 12 paraphrase. The 1633 reprint of Murray’s book omits the device, though the page offered the same amount of blank space; perhaps it was felt that this juxtaposition of words and image would be inappropriate in the year of Charles I’s coronation visit, accompanied by Archbishop Laud. The latter’s major rôle in arousing the active opposition of the hitherto passive majority within the Kirk is charted in Leonie James’s ‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland, 1617-1645, reviewed in JNR in April 2019.[back to text]​